Reshaping Mother’s Day

by Kristin on May 7, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by cesarastudillo

Earlier this week, a friend shared with me that she tends to be filled with anxiety this time of year. No, it isn’t the gorgeous spring weather that gets to her. It’s Mother’s Day. Her son died four years ago, and she says it’s hard for her to grasp any claim on a day for moms, since she can no longer claim to be someone’s mom.

My first thought was, “But you are! You gave birth! You nurtured and loved so much it hurt. You wanted more for your son than you ever did for yourself.” Who am I, though, to tell a grieving woman how she should feel about her status as a mom?

Mother’s Day is complicated, and ripe with an appropriately complex array of emotions. That’s because motherhood isn’t nearly as straightforward as gynecologists say it is.

My best friend from childhood, whose own mother died in a car accident when we were 20, is herself a mom who has never given birth. Both of her children were born in China, and came into the world with complicated special needs. When my friend adopted them, she gave them life in a way that seems to somehow outdo the life I gave my daughters when I birthed them. Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but I guess I’m saying that my job was easy, and I didn’t make any momentous decisions of the heart.

Another friend, who is a pastor, told me that the kids at her church make gifts for all of the women on Mother’s Day. When one of the kids was confused about who would be getting the gifts and how they could tell if someone was a mom, my friend gently and wisely did her best to explain the complexities of this role we call motherhood. “Not all mothers have birthed,” she explained, “which is why we will give every woman a gift.”

You can’t always know who is a mom, who longs to be a mom, who thought she was on her way to becoming a mom, only to have lost that hope. And then there are the many women who have been like mothers to people—often they are more the mom than the biological mom. Some people are nurtured by their biological moms, along with others—I am a stepmom, and my daughters have a stepmom.

This year for Mother’s Day, I get to be with my mom as we celebrate her mom. My Grandma June died on January 19. She was in Michigan, at a nursing home near my parents, but her vibrant life was lived in Iowa, and then California, so my mom and her siblings made plans for us to all gather in Iowa for a memorial service and Mother’s Day.

We will celebrate a mother and grandmother who has gone on to join her mother and grandmother. I am so thankful for all of them, and for all of the complex stories that are helping me reshape  Mother’s Day into something full of depth and beauty.

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  • Roxanne

    Most of me thinks of Mother’s Day as some fraudulent thing invented by Hallmark. I’m inclined to think of everyday as Mother’s Day. And, yes, I agree, not all mothers have birthed, motherhood is far more than 9 mos of pregnancy followed by dilation of the cervix. Wishing you a great weekend.

  • Kirstin

    Thanks for this, KT! Mother’s Day has been hitting me hard this year. It’s really refreshing to see some acknowledgement that “Mom” can mean a lot of different things and that celebrating “Mom” doesn’t necessarily involve trumpeting a false universality of experience.

  • Blond Girl

    Kristen, your post brings to mind two things:
    1. My daughter was born by cesarean section – which is a story best shared over a glass of wine, but I digress. After she was born, my mom walked in and asked, “so what do you call this? Was she born? I mean, you didn’t give birth, did you?” To which I replied, “Mom, she wasn’t hatched. Of course, when you get literal about it, she was. Hatched, I mean.

    2. My dearest friend is Sweet Girl’s godmother. She was one who, in your words, thought she was on the way to motherhood. At least, that was the plan when she married 16 years ago. 16 years later, she is a mother by heart to our daughter – and her mom thinks of our daughter as her god-granddaughter.

    That’s motherhood, isn’t it? Part pain, part humor, all love.

  • Blond Girl

    Whoops. I forgot to close my tag. Only “hatched” was supposed to be italics!

  • Ray Hollenbach

    My wife is mother to three children: two by birth, one by adoption. One of the joys we discovered is the same quality of love we have for all three. When we meet women who cannot/have not given birth, we share the fact that as parents our hearts feel the same toward all our children. Our sister-in-law has given birth to four sons, but lost two babies to miscarriage. Those two babies who died in en-utero are still a part of their family legacy. Finally, I can testify to having been nurtured in my faith a mother of to many young Christians. Her influence established me with Jesus. Motherhood is first and foremost a spiritual condition, and the Lord sees them all.

  • sarah louise

    Mother’s Day was NOT invented by Hallmark. It goes as far back to Greek antiquity, when it was more about the mothers of Gods. Then in the middle ages, it was became a Christian celebration of the church where you were baptized, or “Mother Church.” In the 1600s, the call came for it to celebrate actual mothers and it was a reprieve week during Lent where folks could break Lenten fasts and visit their mothers.

    (see article here: )

    The other thing, Kristin, your picture made me hungry. I have now consumed many chips.

    Yes. Mother’s day is complicated. But I am grateful for my mother, and for the many women who have “mothered” me, including aunts, bosses, and moms of friends.


  • Angela Harms

    Oh, Kristin, you do nail it, don’t you? :)

    My mom is getting a big dose of honesty for Mothers Day this year. And I’m really at peace with it… that’s the new part.

  • Jen Galicinski


    thank you for this, this is beautiful. So true that mother’s day is so complex, i normally dread it myself. Also loved the point that not all mothers have birthed – so true you have no idea who longs to be a mom, who is already more of a mom than other biological mothers, and so on.

    I’m linking this on my facebook!

  • Roberta King

    You write so truthfully. Motherhood is complicated and multilayered. Thanks for acknowledging that this day isn’t flowers, brunch and being surrounded by loving and grateful children for every mother out there.

  • Erin

    Love this post. I’m glad for your wisdom & honesty! I wish I could see my Mom today (but, I live 6 hours away from her), and I do long for the day when I’ll have a multi-racial little brood of my own. Like a mini United Nations. But way cuter.

    I also preached about Julia Ward Howe today, who is supposedly credited for “starting” our Western notion of Mother’s Day. She wrote a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in which she doesn’t call for the celebration of women, but instead calls to all women to stand up, speak out, and create & nurture peace among children–with the hope that as children are mothered in the way of peace, they will cease wanting to be at war with others. It’s a challenge for all women to change the world! Love it.

  • Kristin T.

    Roxanne, I really like the idea of Mother’s Day being every day, too, but I also like the idea of having special days when we are intentional about celebrating certain people. We need to tell them that we appreciate them, and why, and we need to be inspired on that set-aside day to be more appreciative and demonstrative with our love throughout the year. I think the problem comes when we adopt a special day en masse, and we forget how to make it meaningful as individuals. Does that make sense?

    Kirstin, yes! This is what I was trying to say, above, but you’ve said it much better here: “…celebrating ‘Mom’ doesn’t necessarily involve trumpeting a false universality of experience.”

    Blond Girl, three things: 1) I love your phrase “mother by heart;” 2) you’ve summed this up so well: “That’s motherhood, isn’t it? Part pain, part humor, all love.”; and 3) either you and your mom have a very humorous relationship, or you are a very patient person—I would have thrown a fit if my mom said something like that to me after a c-section!

    Ray, your story is such a great witness to love! And what you are saying about miscarriage and family legacy is so true, too. This weekend, at my grandmother’s memorial service, we heard more stories about her first baby, who died when he was 10 hours old. That experience shaped her greatly, which in turn shaped my mom and me…. Yes: “Motherhood is first and foremost a spiritual condition, and the Lord sees them all.”

    sarah louise, thanks for the interesting history lesson! And for getting the complexity of the day, and celebrating the love of all the women who have loved and mothered you.

    Angela, you are so thoughtful and truthful, both. I appreciate the way you seem to tackle life with honesty and heart—I hope this Mother’s Day provided the sort of catharsis or healing you needed. (I’m heading over to your blog next, to look for updates. :)

  • Nicola

    Thanks for this post! I had a super wonderful Mother’s Day with my husband and 6-yr-old daughter. We spent the whole day at an amazing state park hiking, playing, picnicking. It was beautiful and joyous and by the end of the day my child was driving me CRAZY! To me, the day was a micro-picture of how motherhood always is for me, so far. Intense love balanced by some other feeling, not so rosy: irritation, frustration, overwhelmedness, anger. I need to have a conversation with my own mom about this!

  • Kristin T.

    Jen, isn’t it nice that when we admit something is difficult and complicated, it suddenly feels a whole lot less so? (Thanks for the comment and Facebook link!)

    Roberta, ah yes, the flowers and brunch. You know, just most of the Mother’s Day cards at the store made me want to gag on their bright, artificial sweetness. So much of the gratitude shown is false or forced anyway—we might as well be as real as we can about all of it.

    Erin, I love this idea about Mother’s Day being a day to call women into action (“stand up, speak out, and create & nurture peace among children”), not just celebrate them. I can’t wait to one day hear about the wonderful brood you will mother—I know you will continue to do justice to Julia Ward Howe’s vision, just as you already are with kids in your church and neighborhood.

    Nicola, you speak such truth! I remember wishing, back when my kids were younger, for a Mother’s Day ALL BY MYSELF, and then feeling incredibly guilty at that thought. It would help if we could all just accept that very real contrast you describe: “Intense love balanced by some other feeling, not so rosy.”

  • Joe BW Smith

    Thank you for addressing this broader view of Mother’s Day rather than the Hallmark version. I tried to honor the breadth of experience in my sermon Sunday–and I could have referenced some similar experiences to what you cover–but it’s impossible. I hope that each person, each woman found a place for the grace of God yesterday. What amazed me is that I didn’t have to work all that hard at persuading people to listen–they were listening. I think that speaks to a faithful, graceful, sane and encouraging word about motherhood.

  • Sheryl

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate them. Coming to grips with the idea that I will probably never give birth or have my own child makes many days challenging for my tear ducts. Mother’s Day is often one of the most challenging of those days. This year I get to spend a week with my parents and my brother and his family. It has been a wonderful daily celebration of family.

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  • Kristin T.

    Joe, pastors have a particular challenge when it comes to making everyone feel cared for in the right way on Mother’s Day. The key is being open and honest and at least trying to walk that fine line, which is exactly what you did, from the sounds of it. I do think our society is in a better place than we were even 10 years ago, when it comes to listening, respecting and encouraging women (but maybe I just travel in the right circles. :)

    Sheryl, that sounds like a terribly hard thing to come to grips with. It would be so tempting (but maybe not helpful) to keep clinging to that shred of hope. I so glad you were able to spend a full week surrounded by family, giving and receiving love.