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The Other Mother’s Day

Sure, I’m a sucker for Mother’s Day. What’s not to like—the pampering, the unaccustomed leisure, the meals I don’t prepare, the kids trying to cook, gift, charm and repair the brain damage caused the previous year? The media sing mom’s praises and the advertisers woo us with perfume, jewelry and lingerie. It’s a lovely custom, well timed in spring as lilacs bud, grass greens and warmth returns.

But lately I’ve been thinking about the other side of Mother’s Day: the heartbreak. For too many people, this day doesn’t mean corsages, brunches and presents. Within my immediate circle are seven teenagers whose moms have died and two moms whose sons have died, tragically young. Broaden this to all whose mothers or children have died recently. That’s a lot of people whose throats tighten when they see the impossibly attractive models in the newspaper or TV ads.

Imagine those whose mothers or children are serving in the military, or are incarcerated, institutionalized or alienated. Many women yearn to be mothers, but even the expensive ordeal of fertility treatments hasn’t filled their empty arms. Then there are moms who’ve given up a child for adoption, whose hearts harbor questions and whose hands long to tousle a toddler’s hair, even to know what color it is. Women who’ve had a recent miscarriage or a stillbirth—how must they feel?

Some might argue that the sorrow of some shouldn’t overshadow the joy of many. True enough. Let the celebration of moms continue full force—with a heightened sensitivity. If we are truly members of one mystical body in Christ, then for us, “when one cries, the other tastes the salt.” If one person delights in health, it doesn’t diminish compassion for another who is ill. So too for Mother’s Day. Emphasis on the “perfect” relationship (which no one has) worsens the heartache for those who feel distant from it.

We’re not out to reform the media here, a task like teaching a pig to sing—an annoying waste of time for both parties. Once again, we take a countercultural stance. Within the Catholic community, we should discover ways to make this holiday less painful for those who don’t fit the prefabricated mold.

Mary Off the Pedestal

The mother figure most central to the Catholic tradition is Mary. We do her a great disservice by pretending that her life was idyllic. Some statues suggest that she did nothing but gaze piously at the sky or look vapidly at the lilies. Instead, she suffered the same push-pull all mothers do, delighting in her child’s growth yet knowing that every day brought her closer to his departure.

Mary’s tension was magnified by knowing that her son’s integrity would surely set him in conflict with both political and religious authorities. All moms have dreams for their offspring; surely, she never imagined that her kind, sensitive boy would die hanging naked, a criminal crucified between two thieves.

Because Mary lost her child, the Mothers of the Disappeared feel close to her. So did an Italian mother whose sorrow for her dead son was so intense, she could only rock, whispering, “Madonna capisce” (“the Mother understands”).

Because Mary was fully human, she endured bewilderment, confusion, disappointment and pain. No stranger to excruciating loss, she embraces those to whom Mother’s Day brings only nightmares. We can turn to her when we’re waiting tensely in the principal’s office, the ER or the jail.

Even after Jesus’ death, she played a decisive role in the squabbles of the early Church. Because she tried to keep the first Christians faithful to Jesus’ vision, she’s the patron for moms who bring peace to warring families.

Talk Around the Table

The first, best teaching occurs at home. Children who are already making or buying gifts for their mom should be encouraged to think beyond their immediate family. The elderly neighbor would surely appreciate a bouquet, too.

Telling stories or talking at meals about those who may not have a mom to celebrate sows the seeds of understanding. Could a childless aunt or lonely friend be included in a dinner invitation?

Too often, people don’t know what to say to the recently bereaved, so they abandon them to a solitary grief. At home, we model that even a bumbling attempt is welcome: a call or e-mail simply to say, “I was thinking about you today.”

Broadly Inclusive Homilies

Broader concern could start in the pulpit. The impossibly idealistic view of motherhood makes most people squirm because it’s sentimental. A skilled homilist can lead us beyond our pressing reality to a larger view.

The predicaments of teenagers or small children can become all-absorbing to a parent. Sometimes, we need a gentle reminder of how lucky we are to have those struggles. A daughter may be expensive and bratty, but she’s alive. A mom may be argumentative and overprotective, but she’s a treasure to cherish long after she’s gone. Who else cares if your socks match and your teeth are brushed?

The Fun Stuff

Noel Cunningham, owner of the posh Strings restaurant in Denver, Colorado, holds an annual brunch called “I Remember Mama” for 175 elderly women who have no family in town. In addition to a gourmet meal, the moms receive chocolates, flowers and handmade cards. A local taxi company provides free transportation. The guests vest in their Sunday best, and participate in a contest for most glamorous hat. On one of the busiest business days of the year, this generous restaurateur pampers and delights guests who pay nothing.

Parishes could easily model and adapt his idea. Meals on Wheels, subsidized housing or other local programs for seniors could help identify the women. Then various groups join the act—children in religious education make cards, Confirmation candidates cook a meal, catechumens provide rides, the choir sings for entertainment, the Bible study group gives a blessing. In one way or another, the whole parish contributes creatively.

Of course it doesn’t resolve the whole problem. Sadly, many still hope the day ends quickly. But it broadens our awareness that there’s more to this holiday than media glitz and bling.

Mothers have always modeled sensitivity and compassion to their children. They’d be the first to encourage it on their special day.

Ritual Beyond Words

Our rituals have always expressed—with more power than language—our core beliefs. If Catholics value life, we should ritualize it. We believe the fetus is fully human: then why so few rituals for a miscarriage? Why do we never pray publicly for the mom who’s placed her baby for adoption? Many people think she’s done the right thing, but support for her seems thin and silent.

We are learning more about grief; surely, naming it and holding it in prayer long after the funeral is a necessary step toward healing. Many parishes give mothers a flower or say a blessing over them. Those efforts could be expanded by inviting those who mourn mothers or children to participate, too.


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