“It was the Sunday I hated most of the whole year,” writes Marlo Schalesky in Empty Womb, Aching Heart. “There was a huge vase at the front of the church filled with dozens of beautiful long-stemmed pink roses. . . One rose for each mother in the congregation. Of course, I wouldn’t receive one because I was childless.”
My friend Cate hasn’t been to church on Mother’s Day in years. “It got to the point where I couldn’t handle it,” she told me. She’d spent a decade on some sort of fertility drug. Every month, disappointment replaced hope. “What I needed to hear was that I still had value as a non-mother,” Cate said. “Seeing all the happy women just magnified my unhappiness. I would sit there and sob. I couldn’t put myself through that anymore.”
Twelve percent of women of childbearing age in the United States have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a baby to term, according to the National Infertility Association’s Survey of Family Growth. In a church of 500 people, more than 30 women could be silently struggling with infertility.
But they’re not the only women who hate the second Sunday in May. Their tribe includes women who have lost a child, have a child who’s severely ill, or have miscarried. Women who’ve waited a long time to adopt, had to give their adopted child back, or who struggle with guilt over placing their baby for adoption. Women who need to experience forgiveness for an abortion. Or women who have estranged children.
Both women and men may have lost their mothers, or be disappointed in how they were—or were not—mothered. Some women have remorse over their perceived failures as a mom. Older singles regret never having a chance.
The loss and heartache transcends cultures. It’s a blind spot for many moms and pastors. I hope to bring awareness and offer a few ideas, but I have more questions than answers.
Loss always hurts. God always cares.
Shouldn’t we also care?
Practically from birth, most little girls expect they’ll grow up to be a mommy. When reality doesn’t match up with expectations, disappointment follows. As the years roll on, fear grips and gains momentum. When death descends, whether it’s the unimaginable death of a child or the death of a dream, grief and pain flood over you like a tsunami. Every year, every month, or even every day, the loss can be consuming.
The grief of childless women doesn’t end. It continues into the future. Without children, you lose your natural, and expected, caregiver for the end of your life. Even beyond your lifespan, who gets the burden of sorting through your stuff?
When I become anxious about all this, God comforts me. “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” I don’t need to know who or how or even if someone will come forward. I just need to trust that, somehow, God will do it, as he always has (Isaiah 46:4).
I’m a member of the tribe. Most people consider me a confident person, yet I’ve rarely felt more awkward than I do in church on Mother’s Day when mothers are asked to stand. I sit. A misfit. As though a neon sign labels me “Reject.” Someone who’s less than a woman.
While single, I served with a mission organization that granted married women “wife’s days” off work—simply because they were married (even before children started coming and after they left)—while I kept up with laundry and groceries late at night. Don’t get me wrong; I loved my ministry, but I often felt second-rate compared to my married colleagues.
Following Christ took me to Eastern Europe, where my life was full of friends, purpose, and adventure. But every once in a while, I’d return to my empty apartment after being poured out for others, and the loneliness felt suffocating. At my lowest points, black thoughts attacked me, lies that God knew I’d be a horrible mother so he saved my future children from life with me. When I’d turn my raw emotions over to the lover of my soul, he’d exchange them for the sweet peace only he can give.
As the probability of children and marriage diminished to a dying ember, I began to grieve the death of a vision. Still, I clung to a promise in the Word and expanded my idea of what a family is. “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5-6).
When I returned to the States in my 40s, I surprised myself and everyone else by getting married within my first year back. Understandably, since my older-than-me husband had two grown children, he didn’t want more. I was overwhelmed with reverse-culture stress, so I wasn’t sure what I wanted. My long-ago dream of children of my own died a natural, relatively peaceful, death.
Women are no less valuable because they haven’t given birth.
I began to notice rampant contradictory messages about marriage and motherhood while I waited for God’s best, refusing to settle. It starts when you’re single, bombarded by our oversexed world and marriage-obsessed churches. Well-meaning Christians offer false promises that don’t help. “You’ll get married someday. There’s a lid for every pot.” How can that be when there are more women than men in the world? With marriage held up as the ideal, unmarried people feel deficient, as though they have to do something to fix it. If they manage to achieve the ultimate goal of marriage, they find the trick bar has moved.
“Fooled you! It’s not enough to be married. You need children now,” the voices tell them. They learn the secret code to being admitted to the “Woman” club is the badge of motherhood. Childless women are made to feel less-than, incomplete, as though there’s something wrong with them.
Not true! “In him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10). Not in him plus a husband. Not in him plus children. In him. Period.
What’s the point of telling women that their highest calling, the most important thing they’ll ever do, is to be a mother? What are childless women supposed to do about that? And where exactly is that in the Bible anyway?
Absolutely, it’s a holy calling to be a mother. Overworked and underappreciated mothers sacrifice and love and give unconditionally. I’m not anti-mother. But highest? Isn’t your highest calling to walk in a manner worthy of Christ, to follow him and love him, whether you’re a mother or not?
Jesus chose two unmarried sisters, Mary and Martha, to deliver his message about the “one necessary thing.” He commended Mary for simply being with him and listening to him (Luke 10:38-42). Can’t we all do that?
Besides, mothering isn’t limited to biological. Foster moms, adoptive moms, stepmoms, spiritual moms, grandmothers, mentor moms, big sisters, and awesome aunts are all vital. Three women nurtured Moses: his biological mother gave him life, his sister watched over him in his floating basket, and Pharaoh’s daughter raised him.
Tone it down a few notches.
So how are we to make our worship service a place where hurting women feel welcomed and loved? How do we put into practice Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep?”
What place does Mother’s Day have in church anyway? The sugary praise extolling mothers’ hard-to-live-up-to virtues contrasts sharply with the kick-in-the-pants to “Step up!” that fathers get the next month. Besides, doesn’t it mean more if your children make you eggs and toast all by themselves, or treat you to lunch after the worship service?
Mother’s Day wasn’t always over-the-top. Abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe started it in 1870, enlisting mothers in service for peace. Thanks to Anna Jarvis, it became a national holiday in 1908, but by 1920 Jarvis fought, unsuccessfully, to remove it from the calendar. The commercialization disgusted her.
Pastor Martin Jones started a new approach in his church in Brea, California. Every woman in the congregation receives a red rose on Mother’s Day, regardless of marital or reproductive status. “I knew women who would not come to church on Mother’s Day because it was just too painful,” Jones said. “I also struggled with our tradition of recognizing the youngest and oldest mother. The youngest was often an unmarried teenage girl.”
Another church in Colorado decided to do something positive on Mother’s Day. They band together to serve mothers in need in a very practical way. They offer free car repairs for single moms that weekend.
Some pastors briefly acknowledge Mother’s Day but never preach sermons about it.
Is it worth encouraging women who already feel appreciated by their children—most days anyway—at the expense of making others feel a whole lot worse?
If you hate Mother’s Day:
- Be kind to yourself on Mother’s Day. Don’t go to church if it’s hard. I’m taking my mom to the Biltmore House in Asheville. We have to be there early for a free ticket, so I have to skip church.
- Get away to a beautiful spot in nature, or at least a cozy corner, for some extended time alone with the Lord.
- Pour out your heart to him—the pain, the anger, the questions. He knows it all anyway.
- Invite God to enter into your heartache. Allow him to comfort you as only he can. People may not get it, but he gets it. And he cares.
- Plan a girls’ getaway that weekend and invite your friends who aren’t moms.
- The best antidote to loneliness is to reach out to others.
- Write a note or call the women who have modeled to you how to be a woman of God. Thank them for their vital role.
- If you do go to church, look for other women who are struggling. Encourage them with the comfort you’ve received from God.
If you love someone who hates Mother’s Day:
- Don’t say “Happy Mother’s Day” unless you know she’s a mother and you know it’s happy. Simply wish her a good day, made even sweeter accompanied with a hug.
- Say, “I appreciate you and your role in my life.” Then name specific ways.
- Be inclusive. If you must give out flowers, give them to all women.
- Don’t ask mothers to stand. Ever.
- Organize people to serve single moms with their skills: babysitting, handyman help, cleaning, or car repair.
- Invite your friend to lunch, and refuse to mention motherhood.
- Celebrate International Women’s Day instead. Every March 8th you can honor all the women in your life: school teachers, neighbors, friends, aunts, store clerks, and your mother. Any woman counts.
- Appreciate the myriad ways women can love and nurture a child, or disciple a young woman.
- Don’t patronize. When people tell me I’m every bit a mother because I inherited grown stepchildren, I know I’m not. I wasn’t in their lives when they were sick with chicken pox or needed a band-aid on their boo-boo.
The point isn’t to prove mothering credentials. It’s to verify that women have value without them.