Mothers’ Day, or more accurately Mothering Sunday, has been celebrated in the UK on the fourth Sunday in Lent since the 16th century. The date is different in the rest of the world where majority of countries celebrate it on the second Sunday of May.
As a male, I’m in awe of the whole process of bringing new life. I’ve been at four births, each emotionally and physically overwhelming – and I was only watching! What a miracle!
It comes as no surprise, then, that the mothering role has been acknowledged in every culture throughout time.
A Muslim friend told me this story. A man asked Prophet Mohammed, ‘Who in my life deserves the most respect?’ The Prophet answered, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked, ‘Who else deserves respect?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ ‘Who else,’ he asked. Same response. The fourth time of asking the Prophet answer, ‘Your father.’
I asked my friend if Mother’s Day was celebrated in Pakistan. ‘Every day is Mother’s Day,’ he said.
The Mother Church
In Europe in the Middle Ages, churchgoers would worship weekly at their nearest parish or ‘daughter church’, but it was considered important for people to return to their home or ‘mother’ church at least once a year. This was either a large local church, or more often the nearest Cathedral. Anyone who did this was commonly said to have gone “a-mothering.”
Around the 16th century, a clerical decree broadened Mothering Sunday to include real mothers. On this day, servants and trade workers were allowed to travel to their home towns to visit their families. Children who were working away returned home (it was quite common for children to work in service from ten years of age.)
This special day has now become a time when people give thanks to their mothers, give cards and presents, and offers an opportunity to express love and thanks for the work they do.
Motherhood in the Hebrew Scriptures
There are umpteen references to motherhood in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Torah (Law) laid down strict rules of conduct towards one’s parents, for instance in the Ten Commandments.
Give honour to your father and to your mother, so that your life may be long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
The Torah also states that ‘Any man who strikes his father or his mother is to be put to death’ (Exodus 21:15) and ‘Any man cursing his father or his mother is to be put to death’ (Exodus 21:17).
The wise King Solomon understood the power of a mother’s love. When two women asked him to solve a maternity dispute – both claimed to be the mother of the same baby boy – he proposed cutting the child in half with a sword and half given to each woman. The genuine mother immediately told him to give the other woman the child so he would not be harmed. The king knew at once that she, the one who was willing to give up the boy, was the real mother. (1 Kings 3: 16-28)
Motherhood in the Christian Scriptures
The Christian image of Mary and the myths that grew up around her are, of course, archetypes for perfect motherhood – courage, endeavour and self-sacrifice.
Later, according to the Fourth Gospel, Yeshua showed his gratitude by turning water into wine at his mother’s behest, and her devotion to him was illustrated by her presence at the crucifixion and later the tomb. But this was not always the case. In the first and original Gospel, Mark’s, early in his ministry she thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21)!
Christianity portrays Mary as an idealised view of womanhood – chaste, modest, obedient, self-sacrificing etc. But was she really? And are these the most desirable qualities in a woman? How many women live up to that?
The mother archetype
The notion of archetypes was popularised by Dr Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961). He believed the Unconscious revealed itself only in symbolic form. An archetype is an unlearned tendency to experience things in a certain way.
The mother archetype is a prime example. We all had a mother or mother-substitute – we would never have survived one during our time as helpless infants. Indeed, we come into this world wanting mother, seeking her, ready to recognize and deal with her.
The mother archetype is symbolized by the primordial mother or ‘earth mother’ of mythology, by Eve and Mary in western traditions, and by less personal symbols such as the church, a ship or the nation.
According to Jung, someone whose own mother failed to satisfy the demands of the archetype may well spend his or her life seeking comfort in the church, or in identification with ‘the motherland,’ or in meditating upon the figure of Mary.
Mothering Sunday can provide us not only with an opportunity to express our gratitude to our mothers, but also encourage us to reflect on the mothering principle on which we all depend for our happiness and survival.
Thoughts on modern motherhood
The role and status of mothers has changed enormously in our lifetimes. I grew up in a fairly traditional environment. My Mum stayed at home to look after us and had to resign her job when she became pregnant. My Dad wouldn’t allow her to get a job – he said it would be a slur on his manhood because it showed he didn’t earn enough to keep us.
Of course, women have always worked outside the home – where did the dinner ladies, shop assistants, teachers, nurses and secretaries come from?
Now things are quite different. There is considerable pressure on young women to go out to work, whether or not they have children. In many households, the woman earns more than the man. And, of course, in many households with children, there isn’t a man at all.
Dad’s are important too. But it is no longer expected that children coming into the world have a mum and dad in a stable relationship, providing not just the financial and physical necessities, but also the emotional and spiritual support children need.
It’s also trendy, even at the heart of government, to argue that the gender of the mother figure is irrelevant.
We don’t need to look very far for examples of young people denied traditional mothering. John Lennon – brought up by an aunt because his mother was unable to take care of him – wrote a couple of his most anguished lines to his absent mother, Julia:
‘Mother, you left me, but I never left you.
I wanted you, you didn’t want me.’
The song ends with an anguished cry,
‘Mama don’t go
Daddy come home.’
So today, let’s not only pay tribute to all Mum’s everywhere, but also acknowledge the importance of the role of mothering. It’s one thing to give birth – and quite another to be a mother!
Similarly, as I know from experience, its one thing to become a father – and quite another to be on!
©David Lawrence Preston 6.3.2016
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