I am not a mother

I’ve heard the “all women are mothers” line at church so many times that they mostly blur together in a haze of Ideas I Wish Would Go Away, but there is one time that stands out in my memory: once, in a ward conference, a stake Relief Society leader was teaching a lesson about the special roles and gifts of women, and, focusing on the nurturing powers of women, started listing examples of how mothers nurture their children: they feed theme, bathe them, clothe them, clean up after them, heal them, love them. She then asserted, as usual, that even women without children are really mothers who can nurture the children in their lives. “For example,” she said, with an entirely straight face,   “you can lift a child who needs it up to a water fountain so they can get a drink.”

I am not a mother. Unlike many women in my position, I don’t have particularly complicated feelings about that: I’m not infertile, as far as I know, and I haven’t chosen to forego children, I just haven’t chosen to have them yet, and I’m at peace with that. I have a happy marriage, solid family relationships, good friends, hobbies I enjoy, and work that I enjoy and that brings me opportunities to serve, and even nurture, others. I look forward to having children someday, but that day isn’t today, and that’s fine with me.

What I do have complicated feelings about is people telling me that I am a mother. First of all, the insistence that, above all, I’m a mother, or even a potential mother, dismisses my actual life, skills, and service.  Mother’s Day, at church, is like that old Mitch Hedberg joke about how when you’re a comedian in Hollywood, everyone wants you to do other things, like write scripts: “That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, “OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?” I’ve made real choices in my life, guided by personal revelation, and worked hard to be the person that I am, and instead they reduce me only to my biology as they say, “OK, you’re a wife and a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a friend and a manager. Can you mother?”

What’s worse, though, is how this rhetoric trivializes the actual work of actual mothers. A few weeks ago, I went on a hike with some friends and their 2 year old son, and at the end of the hike I lifted him to the water fountain to get a drink. (Yes! Fulfilling my gender role at last!) During that same hike, his mother carried snacks in a backpack, pulling them out every 20 or 30 minutes as he got tired; she turned the hike into a fun chasing game to keep him entertained; she stepped in at the perfect moment several times to prevent him from splashing into a stream; she even carried him for a mile or two. Prior to the hike, too, she woke with him and fed him breakfast and bathed him and dressed him, and none of this is even mentioning how she carried him and gave birth to him and kept him alive for the two years preceding that hike. To insist that my small act of service is in any way equivalent to my friend’s all-consuming care, and to give me the same Mother’s Day attention as her, is simply absurd.

We can stop the absurdity. We could honor mothers and motherhood—even celebrating Mother’s Day as a high holy day of the LDS liturgical calendar, if we want—while also making space for the women who don’t act in that role. We could tell the scripture stories of Mary and Elizabeth and Rachel and Rebecca and Sarah and Hannah and the sacred importance of motherhood for them if we also told the scripture stories of Abish and Priscilla and Mary Magdalene and Lydia and Mary and Martha and Anna, who contributed to the building of the kingdom of God in roles as women, not mothers. Let’s talk more about who women actually are and what they actually do, in all stages and phases of their lives. Let’s empower men and women alike to embrace personal revelation as they choose diverse and divergent life paths as guided by God. And on Mother’s Day, let’s honor mothers who work for and on behalf of their children, and abandon the false equivalence of motherhood, and the justification of a childless woman’s life, being any random act of service towards any child.

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Yup.

    I once had to teach a lesson that was based on this “every woman is a mother” nonsense. I dutifully went through the expected exercise of all-the-ways-I-can-interact-with-children-that-supposedly-make-me-a-mother.

    Then I said in so many words, “Okay. If your relationship with your children goes no deeper than all these things you say make me a mother, then YOU DON’T DESERVE TO BE A MOTHER. Stop it.”

    Then we went on to something else.

  2. I know that I became I much better YW leader when my mother told me to stop trying to be my Beehives’ mother.

  3. Ardis, I love it! I wish I could have been there for that.

    Melissa, that’s a great point too–acting like any interaction with a child is “mothering” and should be treated as such is also denigrating the unique value of adults acting in other roles in a child’s life. I grew up with a lot of aunts, for example, who I adored precisely for their ability to be my aunt and not my mother. (Lynette’s great post on aunting is a nice reflection on this.)

  4. Yes. This. I think Mother’s Day would be so much less fraught if we spent more time outside of Mother’s Day not equating motherhood with womanhood.

    I also realized another reason this rhetoric bothers me. It doesn’t actually address the real pain of women who want to be mothers but can’t. Telling someone who is struggling with infertility that she really is a mother (just by being a woman) elides her pain and suffering at not being able to have children.

  5. “For example,” she said, with an entirely straight face, “you can lift a child who needs it up to a water fountain so they can get a drink.”

    So any man who does this can also be a mother? *walks away shaking head*

    I like the idea of celebrating women who contribute to the building of the kingdom of God in any way, whether as a mother or not.

  6. Agreed! The first time I can ever remember feeling uncomfortable on Mother’s Day at church (I am lucky to have a great mother, grandmothers, and aunts who all had children so I never really understood the pain some face on Mother’s Day due to unwanted childlessness or fraught relationships with their mothers until I was an adult) was when I was 16. I remember they asked all the women aged 16 and older to stand up after sacrament meeting so they could hand out Mother’s Day gifts. The thought that I was included with all the women in the ward who had devoted their lives and talents to motherhood because I happened to be physically capable of birthing a child made me a little ill. I was still a child myself and having the young men, some of whom were older than me, handing me a gift and thanking me for my motherhood was extremely disturbing. I’ve never really liked the Mother’s Day sacrament meeting gifts ever since then.

    Also, as a mother, I am endlessly grateful to the men and women who have done their part as the village that is raising my children, most especially my childless sister who devotes so much love and time to my children. They wouldn’t be the same without her. She is not their mother, she fulfills a role with them that I cannot and I love that!

    Celebrating mothers on Mother’s Day would be less of an issue if we didn’t spend the entire year ignoring all contributions by women outside of motherhood. If we could devote as much time celebrating the contributions of women as we celebrate the contributions of men, Mother’s Day wouldn’t be such a painful holiday.

  7. Thank you. I have felt the discomfort as a teenager (so weird to get chocolate or flowers) and now as an adult (who has three children) it feels odd to tell someone they are a mother and can mother when they desperately want children. Like their desire is somehow fulfilled by holding my baby during sacrament meeting. I haven’t been able to put my finger on why I felt so uncomfortable till now.

  8. This though. I tried to share this idea once on Facebook and my cousin (who is a mom to three kids) got all mad at me for not claiming the title of mother. I don’t understand why it offended her so much. I love working with kids and the work I do with them is valuable. But I’m not their mother. Saying I’m a mother to them devalues not only their mothers but also me and the work I do. They don’t need another mother, they need a teacher.

  9. I think you’ve put your finger on it: fewer women would feel hurt on Mother’s Day if it wasn’t one of the only times at church that we acknowledged women’s contributions. Being praised and gifted chocolate for something I have NOT done, and may never do, seems like a failure of the imagination, especially when there are so many ways I’m valuable to the community that don’t get much recognition.

    One thing I’ve noticed about Mother’s Day talks over the past few years is that generally people (men, anyway) share experiences they had with their own mothers caring for them as children, and hold this up as the ideal of motherhood and womanhood. I can’t recall many Mother’s Day stories about people relating to their mothers as adults or caring for aging parents. This seems a little stunted. Of course people enjoy having their every need cared for as a child; but that relationship evolves a lot over time. The expectation that the highly sacrificial relationship that a mother has with her very young child represents the essential nature of ALL of motherhood (or womanhood) seems to paint motherhood very one-dimensionally.

  10. Perhaps the church could shift from celebrating Mother’s Day in May to International Women’s Day on March 8th. Missionaries could still call their moms, all women from the scriptures could be highlighted, we could honor Heavenly Mother, motherhood could be mentioned, but it wouldn’t be the central theme. March is also the month the RS celebrates its founding, so the theme of charity and female PH keys would be paramount. It would be a start.


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