By Karen Swank
This week I am renewing a promise I had made to myself, and then broken: I am done with church services focused on celebrating roles instead of worshiping God.
Mother’s Day is, for some, one of the most brutal church services of the year.
Oh, it’s sweet for some, and I don’t feel like I need to tell you their stories. They are easily enough imagined.
It’s a mixed bag for some, and that’s not always so bad. As both mother and daughter, I’ve made choices that bring me joy, and some that have left scars. Mother’s Day leaves me with a multitude of reasons to be grateful for both grace and mercy, to reflect on where I’ve grown, and to aim higher where I’ve stumbled. So it either feels good, or it grows me, and in the end I’m glad for either result.
But not everyone in the pews on Mother’s Day morning is filled with joy or working through growth. On behalf of people I’ve sat with, watched, and listened to across my lifetime, I’d like to speak with their voices.
Will you hear?
I am a woman in my late thirties, and I have been struggling with fertility problems for more than ten years now. I study books that tell me the answers lie in diet, exercise, and just believing God more. I’ve tried it all; pregnancy has not followed. I am not sure it ever will. I see the judging eyes of those who think I should have pursued career less and family sooner, and on Mother’s Day, it feels particularly bad not to be a mom yet.
I am the son of a mother whose alcoholism stole her from me. While she was alive, she was an intermittent presence in my life. Sometimes she brought me joy, sometimes pain. There will be no further second chances to get it right. We’ve had our run, and I hide the dull ache in my chest with a “good sport” smile as you ask the congregation to share testimonies about their dear mothers.
I am the mother of a six year old daughter who is in foster care today while I rebuild my life. I am filled with shame for the events that removed her from my arms. I’ve been working a 12-step recovery program and attending church, trying to clean my life up. I feel alone in this world; walking toward recovery means walking away from my family of origin. Usually church is a safe, warm encouragement to me; while you passed out flowers to the moms before the offering on Mother’s Day, I sat frozen in my chair with an enormous lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes. The pain of that moment tempted me to slip out of the service and find a hit of something to make it all go away. But I’m holding on.
I am nearing retirement, and have been single most of my life. I’ve got my reasons for not having kids, and I’m well past any need to explain those reasons to those who wonder, but never ask. I have mostly made peace with this, but every Mother’s Day is…well…awkward. The greeters at the church doors presume that at my age I surely must have children. Those who know better grow uneasy as they come down the church aisle, passing out pens and pins to the moms with oversized smiles and trying to figure out what to do about me. The sermon on the virtues of motherhood has no space inside it for me, and I decided a few years back to spare myself and everyone else the discomfort, and just stay home on Mother’s Day.
I am sixteen. My mom walked out when I was in grade school, and I’ve been “in charge” of the house ever since. I make sure my brother and sister have lunch money. I keep up the laundry. I even pay the bills. My mom and I keep trying to fix our relationship, but every time we just about get it right, life throws another curve ball and I lose her once again. I love her, and I know she loves me. I need her to love me. But she just can’t be there for me, and dad really doesn’t know how to be a mom at all. The preacher spends his Mother’s Day sermon describing the kind of mom I’ve never experienced, and I struggle not to be mad at God. How is this fair to me?
I’m forty-something, with three teenagers at home. My mom…well who could blame her for the way she raised me, with all of her issues? My childhood included sleeping in her car, parked outside the bar, and wild parties at home that kept me up on school nights. All I ever wanted to be when I grew up was Not Like Her, and I’m not. My house is immaculate, my children are well-scrubbed, and you’ll never catch me in the grocery store without my makeup. On Mother’s Day, I work hard to focus on the congratulations I have earned, and I clench my fists carefully in my lap as I try to shut out the things I can’t seem to forget.
I’m in what are called “my golden years,” but I’m not traveling the country in an RV…I’m raising my son’s kids while he and their mother live their lives for the next high. I love my grandkids. But this is not what I had planned for my retirement. I struggle every day against the condemnation I feel – what did I do so wrong, that my son can’t break free of this craziness? All I want to do is get it right this time. My smile is stoic on Mother’s Day morning in church; I just wish I could spare my grandkids the pain of this day.
…And the stories go on and on.
What if we decided to just let Sunday morning services… even on Mother’s Day… be about worshiping God?
What if we saved celebrating our moms for home and for the Mother/Daughter/Sister/Friend Banquet?
What if we stopped pretending in church that every family is functional, well and healthy?
As for me, I won’t do this thing any more. Father’s Day is coming soon enough. I won’t show up to be part of the pain again. I’ll spend that Sunday in a safe place.
I just wish that place could be in church.
Karen is from Aledo, IL. She works in a domestic violence shelter by day, spends her off hours working in youth ministry, and dreams and prays great things while she follows the World Racers’ blogs.