Mother's Day 2010: Mothering on My Mind

07/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Emilie Townes Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Yale Divinity School

Roses and more roses -- red and white. This is my earliest memory of Mother's Day. We did not go to the flower shop to get our roses as children. We went outside to the nearest rose bush growing in someone's yard or along the train tracks that ran through our community. Our mothers, aunts, other-mothers, grandmothers, and the neighborhood ladies taught us what to look for in the perfect rose -- red if your mother was living, white if she had passed over to the other side. It could not be in full bloom, but it had to look just about ready to do so -- not too closed, mind you. We sniffed the air surrounding the roses and noted the different fragrances, but we did not know that they represented different varieties of roses; it was only as we grew older that we realized the subtle differences in shapes, thorns (or lack thereof), stems, and forms of the bushes that the roses grew on. Our real task, as we saw it, was to get the best red roses to honor our mothers, and the best white roses to honor the memory of our grandmothers if they were no longer living.

My home church, Asbury Temple United Methodist Church (that little church by the side of the road where everybody is somebody and Christ is the Lord), was a small Black mission church. We had the occasional White visitor and sometimes the occasional White seminarian from Duke Divinity School who would do his field education with us, but mostly we were a typical, small, transclass church where the adults were lawyers, doctors, day laborers, jobless people, professors from North Carolina Central University (my parents), NCCU students, dentists, tobacco factory workers, schoolteachers, women on welfare, etc. -- the list went on depending on how effective the church's evangelism was. (It varied greatly over the years, but that is the stuff of another blog.)

Mother's Day was a high holy day for us when I was growing up. We arrived at church proudly wearing our roses, and the entire service was designed to honor the mothers in the congregation. Although many of the older women in the congregation, not all of whom were married or had children, had white roses pinned to their dresses or suit jackets, the service was a celebration of the living, and there was very little emphasis on the memory of those who had passed on. I can't say that this stuck me as insensitive as a child. It was only as I entered my teen years and some of my friends who were the youngest of very large families lost their mothers that Mother's Day as a celebration of the living became uncomfortable. Some of those friends began to avoid church on Mother's Day because there was not space to celebrate the memories of their mothers, so rather than shift their young mourning to a hopelessly morose pretense of joy, they stayed away. Some were able to make that shift, and their now-white roses were a sign of having experienced something that most of us could not fathom -- the loss of our mothers from the world of the living.

Today, Mother's Day in many African American churches is still a high holy day, but the rituals have often changed a bit. One will still find Black churches filled with roses, corsages, carnations, and plants -- we give them, we wear them, we adorn our sanctuaries with them. In some churches, food has replaced the roses (but do not bring in store-bought food!): we make breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner. Restaurants do a brisk business for lunch and dinner as mothers get a day off from cooking -- perhaps not quite a great relief for those who love to cook or who find that restaurant food can't compare to the food that comes from seasoned pots in familiar kitchens. We honor the oldest mothers of the church, the youngest, the mother with the most children, and other-mothers and sometimes aunts who have raised or are raising the child or children of someone else who is not able to do so. We light candles and say prayers for the dead.

In many ways, any time we stop to say "thank you" to those who have helped and guided us along the way is a good thing in the life of the church. We don't do it often enough. Churches are better known for being zones of contentiousness than welcoming spaces of thanksgiving. As much as I love being in the company of good women and men, the pervading sexism found in many Black churches (and indeed in churches of all racial ethnic groups) makes me shift uncomfortably in the pew, even more so on the day when Black churches lift motherhood to near-divine status. Is this overcompensating for the ways in which many churches refuse to acknowledge the gifts of leadership and ministry planted in some of the women in their congregations? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But it is worth asking why, if this is the case, Father's Day continues to be a lesser celebration in most churches despite the attempts of many to correct this imbalance?

And there are more questions: How do we hold the living and the dead in equal esteem on Mother's Day so that we invite all to the welcome table? How do we reclaim mothering as more than biological? How should we question the trend toward celebrating the nuclear family, which stands in contrast to our history of extended-family kinship bonds that sustained us along a very stony road in our nation? How do we show honor and respect for Black women in a society that often casts us as mammies, Aunt Jemimas, Sapphires, Jezebels, Matriarchs, and Welfare Queens and our girl children as pickaninnies? I believe in celebrating our is-ness, and if Black churches can do that year-round in the fullness of who Black females are and hope to become, then we will do our communities a tremendous service. However, if the rest of the year is a dismal swamp of sexism, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, and misogyny, then one day will not be able to wipe away these gross transgressions against humanity.

Most of all, what I seek on Mother's Day is not hymns to the virtuous woman, narrow views of mothering, or salutes to the nobility of mothers. What I seek, as I do every time I go to church, is the truth found in the Gospel, and discovering how to live that truth. If we can achieve that through receiving a rich service and message about what we can learn from mothering -- the good, the bad, the deadly, the life-giving -- and how we can use this to live more faithful lives, all to the good. When and where we fail to do so, however, there is still much more work to do to.