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.