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Selfishness or Sacrifice? Rethinking the Second Sunday in May

by Kristin Du Mez

It won’t be long until another Mother’s Day is upon us, and I have to admit that I’m a bit ambivalent when it comes to this holiday. It’s not that I don’t cherish the construction-paper cards and hand-crafted presents my kids lovingly bestow upon me each year—I really do. It’s when we get to church Sunday morning that I can’t help but find the whole idea of Mother’s Day more than a little troubling. Mother’s Day, of course, always falls on the second Sunday in May, and for many Christians the holiday has taken on religious significance. In fact, last year a survey of Protestant pastors found that Mother’s Day ranks behind only Christmas and Easter when it comes to church attendance (Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Mother’s Day Packs Church Pews behind Christmas, Easter,” USA Today, May 12, 2012).

Many churches and pastors have taken to commemorating the day with topical sermons and songs, or by asking mothers to stand at some point in the service (either to applause or prayers, or both), or by distributing flowers to all mothers present. I confess that these are the moments that make me cringe. On the most obvious level, of course, acknowledging mothers in such a way can make a difficult day nearly unbearable for women who find themselves excluded from this celebration of motherhood for one reason or another—for women struggling with infertility, women who have lost children, birth mothers who live their lives in the absence of their children, single women who long for a husband and children, or single women who are perfectly happy with their independent status but tire of feeling like second-class members of the body of Christ. Even if churches find more sensitive ways to celebrate motherhood (handing out flowers to all women present, for example), I can’t help but wonder whether the church needs to be celebrating motherhood at all.

I’m not alone in questioning the celebration of Mother’s Day. To start with, there’s the feminist critique. Feminists have, for example, raised the possibility that the once-a-year holiday essentially functions as a way of compensating women for (and distracting them from) the undervaluation of their work the other 364 days of the year. To really demonstrate an appreciation for mothering, why not work to institute more generous maternity leaves to working women? Or provide benefits to moms who choose to stay home with their kids? Or provide better resources for America’s most vulnerable children?

Then there’s the commercial critique. Though initially conceived as a way to honor and empower women to advocate for peace, Mother’s Day very quickly morphed into a commercial bonanza. Florists, in particular, found ways to exploit the holiday for financial gain, much to the dismay of the holiday’s idealistic proponent, Anna Jarvis. After years of petitioning, Jarvis succeeded in 1914 in convincing President Wilson to make the holiday official, but only a few years later she had come to lament the crass commercialization of the day, and would spend her remaining years on a futile quest to redeem the holiday from commercial interests.

I’m sympathetic to both of these critiques, but I want to introduce one more: a biblical critique. I owe this critique to a woman who lived during the time Mother’s Day first came into existence, M. Madeline Southard. A Methodist preacher, social reformer, and women’s rights activist, Southard came of age during the late Victorian era, a period marked by the widespread cultural and religious idealization of motherhood. As a young woman she had chosen quite intentionally to reject the conventional women’s life, opting instead to follow God’s call into the Methodist ministry, and into a career in social reform—including a brief stint swinging an ax with Carrie Nation. (She later went on to found the International Association of Women Ministers and help bring about the ordination of women in the Methodist Church.) Despite her many accomplishments, however, the diary she kept from the time she was a schoolgirl until her death in the 1960s reveals her deeply conflicted relationship to the cultural ideal of motherhood as she struggled to come to terms with the fact that she herself would never experience the “dream of motherhood.”

In 1927 she published The Attitude of Jesus toward Woman, a book in which she wrestled on a theological level with these tensions. Her investigations of the New Testament led her to conclude that the teachings of Christ undercut at nearly every turn the sacralization of motherhood that had long permeated American Christianity, and indeed American culture more generally. Far from exalting the family ideal, she argued, Jesus made clear that he had come to set family members against each other (Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26). And his relationship with his own mother certainly allowed little room for sentimental views on motherhood. Indeed, Southard noted, at every point in the New Testament “where Jesus reproved women, it was for their failure to subordinate their feminine interests to their interests as citizens of the kingdom of God.” The Savior “persistently set Himself against woman’s own belief that she was primarily a female, a creature of domestic relationships,” and instead “demanded of her that she realize herself to be a self-determining person, responsible for the exercise of the highest intellectual and spiritual faculties.”

And Christ had no patience for “misdirected mother-love,” Southard insisted, drawing attention to his rebuke of Salome, “the mother of Zebedee’s children,” for her maternal affection and ambition (Matthew 10:21–22). Though Southard conceded that there might be a “marvelous and beautiful unselfishness of motherhood,” she warned against the “pride of unconsecrated motherhood”: “When the desire for the success of one’s own offspring makes one willing to trample roughshod over the rights of others’ offspring,” the beauty of motherhood became perverted. A mother’s ambition for her children, she claimed, “was only selfishness one degree removed.” Only when parents—mothers and fathers alike—turned the sacrificial selflessness they evidenced toward their own children “to tenderness for all children everywhere, and through them for all humanity,” could parenthood achieve its spiritual dimension.

And this, I think, gets to the heart of my discomfort with the church’s celebrations of motherhood. Yes, motherhood can be a beautiful thing—when it reflects the sacrificial love that Christ modeled for all his followers. But it is no more beautiful—and perhaps less so—than the love each of us is called to exhibit each day to “the least of these.” If by focusing on our own families we neglect the needs of the world, we fall short of the primary call of the gospel of Christ. Such insular motherlove hardly seems worth celebrating.

Does this critique of Mother’s Day devalue women? Not according to Southard. Having worked with prostitutes, with abused and neglected wives, and with other women who suffered under the weight of cultural ideals they failed to meet, Southard was wary of any ideology that celebrated women for their domestic relationships rather than valuing them as individuals in their own right, as citizens of the kingdom of God. “When men think of women as primarily the creatures of their sex relationships and of their blood relationships,” she explained, and yet deny women any sense of equality with men, “they may love their own women, their wives, their mothers, their sisters and their daughters,” but outside such instances “they are rude to women with a rudeness that easily slips into cruelty.” For the sake of women, then, and for the church of Christ, it was important to resist any idealization of motherhood. Perhaps the second Sunday in May would be a good time for the church to take a countercultural stance—to strive for a more authentically biblical understanding of motherhood, sacrificial love, and the call of the gospel.

Kristin Du Mez teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Kristin Du Mez is associate professor and chair of the history department at Calvin College.