"Happy Mother's Day!" It's a cheerful saying for many. But for others of us, it can feel strange. While I’m a woman, I am not a mother. In the stage of life I find myself right now-- though I have aspirations of one day, Lord-willing, having kids-- right now I don’t. Maybe you are like me. Or maybe you’re not like me but know someone like me, in the position of a non-mother.
A single woman with no kids.
A married woman with no kids.
A woman who can’t have kids.
A woman who has lost a child.
Of course, these places in life all have their own landscape—their real struggles and ups and downs and hopes and dreams and feelings to go with. Some harbor deep pain. But what they do have in common is they can make Mother’s Day feel a bit awkward.
When someone joyfully wishes you a “Happy Mother’s Day,” what do you say?
When you can’t get together with your own mother, what do you do?
When you see your social media explode with pictures of children with their seemingly “happy” families, what do you feel?
Mother’s Day sure can be an interesting annual experience if you’re not a mother. On one hand, sometimes people interpret Mother’s Day as a means of placing mothers on a pedestal above the rest of us. (I remember a church service I attended years ago where women were given gifts according to the number of kids they had!) Other times, people smooth over the whole “mother” thing and honor women in general—which makes those of us non-mothers feel especially weird, like being given a participation trophy for sitting the bench in a sport we did not play.
But if we go back to the roots of Mother’s Day, we see something entirely different than a holiday about gifts and cards and dinners and making childless women feel bad.
The ancient roots of Mother’s Day actually have nothing to do with mothers themselves and everything to do with community. Early Christians celebrated a festival known as “Mothering Sunday,” which fell on the 4thSunday in Lent. This holiday had once been a major celebration in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe. It was originally a time when Christians would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service. “Mothering Sunday” was less about the woman who gave birth to you and more about the call to return to what is known in the Bible as the "Bride of Christ"-- the Church-- a Christian community-- a family not marked by blood.
Hundreds of years later, in the years before the Civil War in America, a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia started what she called “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to care for their children. Following the Civil War, these clubs later became a unifying force, especially when Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day” in 1868, where moms gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote unity and reconciliation. This “Mother’s Day” was about admitting the relational rift between the sides and bringing together what war had separated.
Decades later, the Mother of the “official” Mother’s Day national holiday we celebrate today was actually a woman who was never a mother herself. Her name was Anna Jarvis. In the early 1900’s after her mother’s death, Anna, the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, sought to commemorate the sacrifices mothers made for their children. There were always military parades and celebrations for men who sacrificed—so why not the women who gave up much for their kids? After a marketing opportunity involving her Methodist Church in West Virginia and Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, the holiday took off—even to Anna’s dismay when it later became too commercialized. But Anna herself, the Mother of Mother’s Day, never married and never had children. Yet she honored the sacrifice of mothers because she had a mother (and probably knew what kind of kid she herself had been!).
You need community. I need community. Whether your kids are biological or whether they have been adopted, whether they have passed away or whether you do not have kids of your own., we all need community. If you’re a non-mother, you need community. If you are a mother or part of a family with a mother, you need community outside your family. Ancient “Mothering Sunday” reminded people of this. You need community with people not like you. If you’re a non-mother, don’t cut yourself off from moms and families, even if they talk about their kids a lot and make you feel awkward at times. You need them, and more importantly, they need you. And if you’re a mom or parent or family with children, don’t only associate with people who share your place in life. You can learn and gain a lot from those who do not have kids. When you’re having family gatherings, think of who you can invite to join you. On Mother’s Day, be together, celebrate together, and grieve together.
Ann Reeves Jarvis brought out in the open what others assumed would be smoothed over, and this brought about healing and unity. Mother’s Day may be especially hard for you this year—and that’s ok. We can be honest with ourselves and with others about where we are and what battles we have faced. To non-mothers like me who might desire what someone else has: the moms you see celebrating with seemingly happy families are not the enemy. Yes, sometimes people will make stupid comments about your relationship status or ask when you’re going to get pregnant after you’ve been married a while. Sometimes people who have never had a miscarriage or a child die mistakenly think “you’ve gotten over it” because they see you smiling. And to the people with kids: don’t assume you know everybody’s situation. You can be honest with women whose situation you do not understand or haven't experienced. You can admit your own hardships, imperfections, and brokenness too. And you can seek to walk together in this world.
Mother’s Day is not meant to affirm that motherhood is the absolute ideal to achieve in life, or to make other women somehow “less than.” It’s about acknowledging that all of us had a mother who made a sacrifice for us—admittedly some who shared a more loving relationship than others. Anna Jarvis wanted to point beyond herself to honor women like her mom whose work had been given no attention. And though Anna herself was single and didn’t have children, her impact was immense. Her story shows us that women without kids are definitely not “less than” those with kids. Besides, alll of us have a mother.
Of course, I acknowledge that there will always be awkward moments for us non-moms on Mother’s Day. There will be real pain for some, which should not be dismissed or ignored. But the history of Mother’s Day points us to surprisingly more than expensive cards, flowers, and dinners. It demonstrates our need for genuine community. It shows the power of sharing together. And it reveals how a single childless woman can wind up giving birth to a movement that honors others.