When Mother’s Day is a Day of Mourning

For many women, Mother’s Day brings sadness. The infertile mourn the absence of children, others grieve the children they have lost through miscarriages, abortions, sickness, accidents and wars. Others, who had a difficult relationship with their mothers, or who were perhaps abandoned and abused, also have a hard time thinking of their mothers with gratitude. Or, they might have lost their mothers at a young age and grieve her absence. Women, who never found a spouse and thus missed the joys of motherhood, find this day difficult as well.

Does this mean we should not celebrate Mother’s Day? Of course not! However, there is a way of celebrating this day that pours salt into the wounds of those who are grieving. Unfortunately, I have found this to be very common. It is especially jarring when it happens during Mass. During the many years I was suffering from infertility, I tried to go to an early Mass on that day, hoping there would be no sermon; or I would find myself torn between stoically gritting my teeth through it or discretely leaving the building. Even once I had a child, the kinds of sermons I tended to hear still made me wince. Why? Because for some reason, pastors on that day often speak in highly sentimental ways about motherhood.

flowersSentimentality is always in poor taste, though that is not my reason for taking umbrage with it here. The problem is that it falsifies reality. It makes one look at the world through a soppy lens from which the Cross is excluded. When suffering is mentioned it is only for it to be idealized and make one still feel good about it somehow. The hero in second-rate, mushy literature, for example, might look all the more heroic for it, but his suffering has lost its sting to the reader. Though this may be a nice escape from reality (which explains its high selling-rate in books, music and movies), which one might indulge in now and then, it has no place in a sermon. Not only because the priest is not supposed to conjure up a world without suffering we can no longer find here since the Garden of Eden, but also because it is pastorally poisonous, especially for those who are suffering.  The grieving are confronted with an unrealistic ideal, making them feel all the more lonely in their sorrow, since they are shut out from it.

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But doesn’t this kind of logic mean we cannot talk about anything anymore, given that every topic will in some shape or form be painful for someone out there? Wouldn’t this mean never speaking about the Holy Family since for those who have been raised in abusive and dysfunctional families, this might be a slap in the face? However, this is a completely different case. The Holy Family did not live in a sentimental world, nor did they romanticize their surroundings. We might be tempted to sentimentalize the stable, since we bracket out the rejection preceding it, as well as the poverty and difficulties surrounding Christ’s birth. Mary and Joseph were turned away in Bethlehem, then were persecuted by Herod, who massacred the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem, while they fled to Egypt. Theirs was not an easy life, and its earthly culmination ended on Golgotha. Even the Resurrection does not do away with the Cross – but a sentimental world does. Those who come to church with a heart full of grief can find solace in God’s love, in the examples of the Blessed Mother and all the saints. They too went through this valley of tears and the way their trials brought them closer to God can therefore be a consolation to others. God Himself became flesh to share our sufferings; nobody can therefore be closer to us in our sorrows than Him. Through the examples of Christ and the saints, we can experience a kind of love we missed and discover that we can carry our crosses with peace in our hearts, even if they remain painful. A sentimental lie, however, cannot bring any authentic comfort, and if it gives some relief through escapism, then it will only be of short duration.

Rather than trying to make us feel gratitude towards our mothers and those who have been like mothers to us by a clichéd depiction of motherhood, the sermon on that day should focus on a different kind of maternity. No matter what we have suffered as children and as mothers, as singles and as childless women, Mary is a mother to all of us. She went through the greatest suffering imaginable, seeing her son mocked and despised, and die a horrific death on the Cross. Her suffering can resonate with those suffering as mothers or simply those with broken hearts. Hers is a kind of motherhood which is timeless, for it is not limited by class, background and culture. The Virgin Mary was both spiritually as well as materially poor. Her life can therefore speak to all, since we are all broken and wounded. Of course, one can also sentimentalize her. No topic or model is immune to being romanticized, if one is sufficiently bent on doing so. But by focusing on her or other saints, one is less likely to fall into the trap of sentimentality.

Saints like St. Gianna Beretta Molla or Chiara Corbella speak to those who are suffering as mothers, for their motherhood became their Calvary. They heroically gave their lives for their children, while leaving a beloved husband and child(ren) behind. Their story transcends their time and culture, thus speaking to many people. Through their examples, one can grasp what motherhood is really about and why all women are called to it, whether they are single or married, childless or the mother of many: it is about the gift of self (which men are also called to live through spiritual fatherhood, at least). For most, this does not express itself in such an obviously heroic fashion. But if lived fully, it changes the everyday and turns the daily difficulties and sacrifices into expressions of this gift-of-self, which can be just as radical as that of Gianna or Chiara.

By showing their congregations that a radical gift-of-self is at the heart of motherhood, priests are more likely to arouse in the hearts of their parishioners real gratitude towards their mothers. Sentimentality is a brief, passing feeling; it is easily kindled, and falls to ashes just as easily. There is no real love behind it. Schmaltziness will not make me assist my mother through her declining years and painful sicknesses. But desiring to respond to her self-giving love by the same kind of love will; and if she failed to love me, then God’s love can inspire me to help her nonetheless. Through suffering, our hearts can be purified from their selfishness; real love can arise out of it. However, by denying the necessity of embracing the cross, sentimentality eliminates the very medicine we need to cure us from our hardness of heart. Ultimately, it is opposed to real love, just as it is opposed to authentic art. Let us not cheapen the Church’s rich currents of spirituality by sprinkling sentimentality on them. This syrupy sweetness will undermine their transforming force. It is tempting to deny the Cross by romanticizing it, but that won’t do anybody any good. The suffering need real food to nourish their souls, not marshmallow-spirituality, which will make them sick. Not a Hallmark, feel-good worldview, but Christ’s Cross and Resurrection is the answer. Hence Mother’s Day is the occasion to speak about the sword which pierces women’s hearts, about the Cross which we must all embrace so that it becomes a tree of life. Only radical love, the kind where one gives until it hurts will do, while sentimentality will at best be a Band-Aid covering a festering wound.

Marie Meaney, Ph.D. is the author of the booklet “Embracing the Cross of Infertility” which has also come out in Spanish, Hungarian, Croatian and German.  She is furthermore a specialist on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, and her book Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Ancient Greek Texts appeared with OUP in 2007. She was an Arthur J. Ennis teaching fellow at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia before moving to Italy due to her husband’s work in 2010. Dr. Meaney received her doctorate and an M. Phil. in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She also obtained an M. Phil. in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and a D.E.U.G. from the Sorbonne in Paris.
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  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Excellent insight into the deadliness of sentimentality wherever we encounter it. Marriage and family easily lend themselves to this temptation, especially when Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are secular celebrations to produce business that make many feel guilty for not buying flowers or taking parents out for dinner.

    The realism of the Christian faith is that it never allows us to forget the Cross–the cross of the world’s injustices, the cross of sickness an death, and the struggles of marriage and family life that demand holiness and all the demands of charity.

    Thank you for these honestly realistic and penetrating thoughts. Religion must always be realistic to lead us to the hard truths people would rather avoid.

  • William E Bauer

    Fathers Day is more a day of mourning for me. As you know courts have been attacking fatherhood for years. I have even thought of abortion as the extreme hate of fathers. A court came into my life and took my 3 children. The mother got them. I was told not to come near them. The court believed the mother’s lies. Now 40 years later those children see me as the abusive absent father who is worth nothing. I have no defense against the 40 years worth of lies that the mother told to them. Only God can sort it out and I hope that he has mercy on them because they have believed a lie.
    For me it’s 40 years worth of sadness.

  • Rose

    Beautiful article! I agree with the author that sentimentalism is a terrible lie and fails to accept the reality of the cross, the tree of life. And I agree that the Blessed Mother above all should be revered on Mother’s day by Christians. She is our model of true motherhood, and we her children (!) are indebted to her for her “yes” which brought us the ultimate gift of her Son. True maternity is always a gift of self and suffering born with love. And thank God we have a treasury of maternal saints to emulate in our daily lives.

    But I don’t think that Mother’s day is the occasion to think about myself and my personal sufferings whatever they may be. It is about stepping outside of ourselves in order to recognize how infinitely indebted we are to our mothers. No one can repay their parents for the love freely given to their children and for all of their sacrifices. It is simply impossible, and therefore, it is an act of impiety (an act of injustice, failing to render what is due) to fail to recognize that we come into the world already IN DEBT to our parents and especially to our mothers who nourished us from within their own bodies and suffered daily for us. To fail to acknowledge this truth of our nature violates God’s commandment to “honor your father and mother.”

    So while overall I agree with the author, I don’t necessarily think that mother’s day is about whatever is my personal “sword” that pierces my feminine heart, because it is actually not about me at all! It is about recognizing my indebtedness to the one who gave me life and raised me to love what is good. In other words, If I am single on mother’s day, if I am childless on mothers day, if I am hurting for whatever reason on mother’s day, it is not really the occasion to dwell on these things. It is rather the ONE day out of the secular calendar year not to think about myself and my sufferings and to acknowledge a love for which I am literally eternally indebted– because that is precisely what my mother did for me: she put aside her personal sufferings and thought about me.

    • mariemeaney

      Thanks for your comments, Rose! I agree with you that Mother’s
      Day should ideally inspire us to be grateful to our mothers and/or to all those
      women who have been like mothers to us – not least the blessed Mother and the Church. After all, this is why it was instituted. However, I don’t think
      telling women who are mourning that they should stop doing so and be grateful instead, will do the trick. One needs to meet people where they are rather than telling them where they ought to be. If one is sad, one is sad; being told not to be sad is not comforting, and will, in all likelihood, make the person pretend not to be sad, leaving her all the more alone in her sorrow.

      I’m not advocating that pastors need to make the theme of
      the day “the sorrows of motherhood or lack thereof”. But I am warning about the dangers of sentimentalism which leave those who are mourning even more in the cold (and I know you agreed with that part). By focusing on the timeless examples of the Virgin Mary and of the saints, one is led to understand more deeply what motherhood is about, namely gift of self. This will lead one to be grateful to those who have been our mothers or like mothers to us. If our biological mothers have been bad mothers (I have a friend whose mother wanted to abort him, didn’t succeed, and never made him feel welcome once he was born), then it is hard to be grateful vis-à-vis them. Yes, they have given us life – which is a great gift -, but they may have given it grudgingly or abused us later. Focusing on the Virgin Mary and the Church can be a real consolation in those circumstances,for they are our true mothers, even if our biological mothers have failed us sorely.

      Some feast-days (also Christmas where the rate of suicides
      goes up) bring people’s sorrow to the fore. This is a pastoral opportunity to
      reach out to them rather than telling them to be grateful and not think about
      themselves (thereby equating sorrow with egoism which adds insult to injury);
      they may simply not be capable of being grateful at that point, since they are
      hurting too much. Pope Francis has compared the Church to a field hospital; this seems to me a good instance where it can reach those sorely wounded by sin and tragedy.

  • prolife3

    Excellent article! It is so important to remember those who are suffering lost motherhood in the variety of forms Dr. Meaney so aptly describes. I also appreciate the point that even though so many people suffer loss that does not mean we keep silent. The empashis on the role of the Blessed Mother is beautifully described. Mary truly understands our suffering as well as our joy. By upholding her closeness to us, which leads us to union with Christ, we have the courage to face our crosses and grow in understanding of radical self-giving love. Thank you, Dr. Meaney!