Mothering Sunday 2023
As you all know today is Mothering Sunday. It isn’t to be confused with ‘Mother’s Day’ which was a grieving daughter’s response to the loss of her mother Anna Jarvis – of Philadelphia in 1910. Americans keep [whether they know it or not] the anniversary of her death in May as their day to celebrate and give thanks for their mothers.
In this country, the feast is set very firmly in the life of the Church. Today marks the halfway point of Lent, and some hold this to be ‘refreshment Sunday’ when you can lay aside with thankfulness your Lenten fast or temporarily take back up that which you gave up. I wouldn’t recommend doing that though, giving up something for the second time, losing the momentum isn’t to be recommended. It was traditionally a day when servants were allowed to take an afternoon off to visit their own mothers, and also many took the opportunity to place flowers on the graves of those mothers and grandmothers they had lost, and importantly at the altars of the lady chapels in churches and cathedrals, as the focus on mothering today comes from the universal mothering of Our Lady, and her influence on the church. In many ways the experience of mothering for Mary as recorded in scripture is challenging. From the events of the nativity, pregnant without a husband, giving birth in a stable, fleeing for her life to Egypt. Then slowly discovering the destiny and purpose, even the identity of her Son – a mixed blessing for a mother, as she must for a long time alone has realized what was in store – like many others she spent much time ‘pondering things quietly in her heart’. There will of course have been the happy moments, the proud moments – after all he was a clever and popular lad. It is the trajectory of all parenthood, joy and fear and more of both, but hers’ would continue to a place mercifully few must go, to the foot of the Cross itself, that most heartbreaking and poignant scene, her utter fidelity and love, memorably made real in marble by Michaelangelo in St Peter’s Rome – the pieta, one of the most breathtaking sculptures I have ever seen.
This past years has been very difficult for parents with especially those with school age children. Home schooling folks have told me it was a very tough challenge in trying to play too many roles, whilst keeping your working life going and running a home. Families and the individuals who make them up have struggled to find the resources they need collectively to do the job they have. It is interesting to me that one of the emphases of our keeping of mothering, rather than Mother’s day, is that there is an acceptance at the heart of it that mothering is something that not only can we be a part of, but that it is essential we try to be a part of. People today argue that the demands of two working parents, the economic pressures and so on, and importantly the importance for both mothers as well as fathers to have a chance to flourish in their chosen working lives, make their experience of parenting exceptional. Sadly I think however demanding it is, and no-one can doubt it, it is not new. Only the privileged have ever been able to have one parent at home focused on that aspect of parenting. For the majority of people alive today, as in the past, it has required both parents, one might argue a whole community, not only to earn, but also to work to raise a family, and we know full well that the burden of raising families has often fallen disproportionately on women, who often have made the biggest sacrifices for the sake of the good of their family as a whole.
These covid times have highlighted much else that needs addressing about the relations between men and women, not just how to share parenting more equitably, but the need for a radical re-education in how the genders view each other, how men especially need to address the violence and bullying which is widespread in society. The need to address what is good parenting and how we can all take on our part in the mothering the world needs begins surely with respect, with understanding, with realizing the needs and vulnerabilities of each other. Modern media has many benefits, but the ease with which women and girls and indeed sexual relations themselves can be trivialized, misrepresented in porn, computer games and generally on social media needs serious consideration. How loving relationships built on love and respect, which eschew all violence, and seek to be places of support and strength for everyone is at the heart of how we must start to rebuild with love things that are not right. Mothering, after the example of Our Lady, and most likely many of the women who have raised and inspired us is a complex and often thankless task – parenting can mean that success is measured in those you love the most growing up and leaving you to marry others and set up their own lives independently – your reward for 20 years of devotion. But it is the way life is, and we need to figure out how we can all support those who raise and form future generations, who are after all the hope and the treasure of times we may never see ourselves.
I have lots of god children and honorary ones,[ I know I bore on about them endlessly] and have delighted in watching them grow, and now some have children of their own. In small ways grand-parents, god parents, aunties, uncles, friends, neighbors, local communities and so on can all join in the work of bringing the mothering that we all need far more of. Perhaps the pandemic has shown us we cannot do this all by ourselves, that for everyone to flourish and importantly to be safe, we need all of us to care and to join in. And that is, at least as I have found it, a potential for enormous joy and privilege, not a burden, but a central part of being alive.
I was listening to the radio and they were asking young people why they valued their mothers? Rather disturbingly over 75% of them gave answers which involved being taken care of practically – clean clothes, food, taxi service, and so on. I am far from young but my mother used to remind me ‘ I wasn’t put on this earth to fetch and carry after you’, and although I didn’t understand it then, I can see now that those things aren’t the heart of what we need in mothering, and quite rightly they need challenging and sharing. And we need to examine what mothers need, and what we as a society could offer. True things have improved, but as a society we need also to share in mothering of the future generations, and that must involve challenging inequality, inadequate incomes for the poorest and the difficulties faced by so many in finding work which pays and fulfils, and childcare which makes that possible. The role of society in mothering and parenting has perhaps been the most neglected, and is surely a nettle we must grasp. The safety of women and girls likewise in this 21stC surely cannot be a matter that can be avoided, it calls for help.
So an old festival it might well be, but forever topical, full of so much to inspire challenge and to reflect upon! Amen