I am pretty well-convinced that it is pretty much impossible to get Mother’s Day right in an LDS ward. Part of the reason why I feel like it is pretty impossible was articulated in the opening prayer in our ward yesterday (given by a man) that on this day we should be “sensitive to the issues facing women.” Um, no. Mother’s Day isn’t the one day of the year that we talk about “women’s issues.” Only wait, it sort of is in my LDS ward and probably in most other LDS wards. The reason for that is because of this sticky problem that continues to exist wherein we equate motherhood with womanhood. This Mother’s Day becomes the catchall day when we celebrate women because, “All women are mothers.” Here is what I would like to say again and again. I am a woman. I am not yet a mother. I may not be a mother. It is okay. It doesn’t mean I am not a woman. Mother’s Day isn’t the one day a year when you think about “women’s issues”. Having characteristics of loving selflessly or nurturing and teaching others doesn’t make one a mother. It means a person is someone who loves selflessly, nurtures others, and teaches others. Mothers may have those characteristics. Mothers may not have those characteristics. Men may have those characteristics too with or without being fathers.
Increasingly though, in wards it isn’t uncommon to hear people paying some lip service to women who are not mothers by saying things like, “I know that those of you who are not mothers in this life, through no fault of your own, will be able to have children in the next life. It makes me so sad that you cannot experience that in this life.” That’s what the first man that spoke in our ward did (all male speakers, all male prayers on Mother’s Day). Yes, it is nice that people now recognize that not all families look the same. However, as someone who doesn’t have children, can I just say I am not someone who needs to be pitied? Seriously, sometimes Mother’s Day in LDS wards comes down to women either being praised (for having gone through a biological process) or pitied (for not having gone through said biological process). And also, as a childless woman, I just want to say to that guy, I appreciate your intentions, but I am so far beyond that. Those sort of speculative statements about the next life are not at all useful to someone who is trying to figure our what she is supposed to do in this life.
So yesterday, as I found myself rolling my eyes nonstop, I decided to start reading during sacrament meeting, and I decided since I am never going to hear the Mother’s Day talk that I would like to hear, I decided I would write one that I would like, even though I will never be asked to speak on Mother’s Day. Just as I used to write unsolicited essays for fun as an undergraduate, I now write unsolicited Sacrament Meeting talks for fun.
Here is my pretend talk:
“It is fair to say that the traditional mother’s day talks have limited appeal to most people. I count myself in that category, because when it comes to Mother’s Day, the takeaway points that I usually recall is that women on Mother’s Day are either someone to praise or pity. You praise them if they have gone through the biological process or the administrative process of becoming a mother. Everyone thinks their mother is the best, and spends the bulk of his or her sacrament meeting talk discussing the various merits of their own mother, wife, etc., hoping to inculcate feelings of inadequacy in the congregation by letting them know that it is almost impossible for others to measure up to that high standard. Everyone’s standard for what is the best mother turns out to be widely different. I know I consider my mother to be the model and the high example of motherhood and she worked my entire childhood and never forced my sisters and I to go to a Young Women’s weekly night activity. So yes, different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes. I am supportive of the concept of praising your mother on Mother’s Day. That is what the day is about on an individual level. What is awkward is taking that individual celebration of mothers and translating into something generally applicable in Sacrament Meeting. That is where the praise falls short, because every person, every mother is unique and you cannot praise one that way without risking offending another.
In contrast to the praise mothers receive in these sacrament meeting talks, women are to be pitied if they are not mothers. They are consoled with speculative promises like, “All worthy women will get to be mothers in the next life, even if they aren’t mothers here,” as if we understand perfectly our Heavenly Parent’s methods of creation and conception and they perfectly mirror the temporal world in which we live. I have no clue what creation will be like in the world to come. We don’t have those keys yet. I also don’t know if I will be worthy of that, but I know plenty of unworthy and unrighteous people by LDS standards have no problems conceiving and bearing children in this life. We are told that we are “all mothers”, as if womanhood is synonymous with motherhood. But again, such language does little to actually help a woman unable or undesirous to bear children understand what her most important purposes here on this earth are.
I also dislike how Mother’s Day is the one Sunday when it is permissible to talk about “those women folk” at church. It seems like every other Sunday, we are taught and spoken to about what it means to be a disciple of Christ through the stories and examples of men. Then, on Mother’s Day, we talk about how great our mothers are, and that’s it. There is little of substance to counter those stories of male protagonists, because it is just love and respect for our mothers and no substance. With all my heart I pray for the day when women’s spiritual achievements and gifts are celebrated weekly, on par with those of men’s, and that they are offered up as tangible examples of spiritual substance that we should follow. The only way I can contribute towards that is by trying to speak about women whenever I have the chance, even on Mother’s Day.
So how am I going to frame this Mother’s Day talk? I am going to frame it by hopefully offering up something that will be of actual use to the lives of all women, as well as men. Although the examples I draw from today are all women, I expect men can learn from those experiences as well, the same way women are expected to learn from the lives of Nephi, Alma, Paul, and all the others. The fact is we all can learn the skills of becoming better nurturers and teachers. We all can learn how to be more selfless, loving and kind. These are not exclusively the traits of mothers, these are the traits of disciples of Christ.
What I have been interested in for the past several years as someone dealing with infertility, is learning more about all of the good that women can do here in this life based on the diversity of circumstances in which women find themselves. On this day, some of us are mothers, some of us are not, but all of us are entitled to receive spiritual gifts from our Heavenly Father that endow us with an ability to do Their will while here on Earth. Those spiritual gifts can be exercised as a mother or not as a mother, but their end is the same, they are given to bless all of humanity and God’s children. Let me offer these examples as a way to illustrate this.
To some women, the spiritual gift of prophecy is given. Sometimes, we get confused and think the gift of prophesy is synonymous with a priesthood key, but it isn’t. The Bible has numerous examples of people who received the gift of prophecy apart from holding official priesthood offices. Even in the latter days, we see an example of this in accounts of the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. Church history accounts that many in the congregation prophesied and spoke with the gifts of tongues that day. The gift of prophecy is a spiritual gift that can be given to anyone in appropriate circumstances.
Two examples of women who were given this gift and exercised it in ways specific to their circumstances are Rebekah and Deborah in the Old Testament. Rebekah was the wife of Isaac. After a lengthy period of infertility, Rebekah was blessed to carry twin sons. Feeling the two sons struggling in her womb, she asked the Lord, “If it be so, why am I thus?” (Genesis 25:22) “And the Lord said unto her, aTwo nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the belder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) This revelation from God given to Rebekah informed all of her subsequent actions involving her children. She was revealed the will of God with regard to her children. Noteably, Esau made his own choices that solidified what Rebekah had been revealed when he made the choice to sell his birthright to Jacob and to marry the Hittite woman, against the wishes of his parents. Also interestingly, Isaac preferred Esau, perhaps because he fit the description of what a strong man of the ancient world was supposed to be like – a strong, physical hunter. Jacob was described in Genesis as a “plain man.” (Genesis 25:27). In Isaac’s old age, when he knew his days were short, he had one additional patriarchal blessing to offer his elder son. However, Rebekah, recalling the prophecy she had received many years ago, realized that Isaac was planning to deliver that blessing to the wrong son and that the Lord had made clear that Jacob was the intended recipient of those blessings. (See Genesis 26) And so, she took steps to insure Jacob was given the promised blessing. In turn, we know the outcome and the correctness of Rebekah’s guiding hand as Jacob, later known as Israel, became the father of the many nations comprising Israel. Rebekah, as a mother, was given a revelation regarding her children, and that revelation in turn guided her actions, which in turn led to the blessings bestowed upon the nation of Israel.
Deborah, in contrast to Rebekah, used her spiritual gifts to bless the nation of Israel, whose population in this time numbered in the thousands, well beyond her immediate family. In Judges Chapter 4, we read that Deborah was a prophetess that judged Israel at the time (Judges 4:4). Certainly, a female judge in Israel was unusual in ancient times. However, it is very clear that Deborah was widely esteemed among the people for her wisdom and judgment, as it is reported that the children of Israel came to her for judgment. She is described as being a prophetess. In verses 6 and 7 of Chapter 4, we read that she sought out Barak, to deliver unto him a reminder about a commandment of God with an accompanying prophetic promise if Barak followed the commandment, “And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand.” Barak, still reticent to lead Israel’s armies into battle, requested Deborah accompany him, surely a sign of how much he and other Israelites trusted her. Barak and Israel’s armies were successful in their conquest, not least because of the remarkable strength of another woman, Jael. In this instance, Israel was preserved from the armies of the king of Canaan, because of the resoluteness of a woman, Deborah, using her spiritual gifts to bless all the children of Israel.
It is interesting that these two examples show that women can exercise their unique spiritual gifts in their own unique circumstances. However, what is also significant about these examples is that they show that exercise of these spiritual gifts has the same effect – one, through exercising the gift within her nuclear family, has the effect of preserving Israel; and the second, through exercising this gift in her broader community, also preserves and saves Israel. To me, this makes it so clear that God doesn’t expect each of us to have lives that copy or are the same as someone else’s. If we are willing to exercise the gifts he gifts us and prayerfully do his will, then we all have great things to accomplish. Some women will do those great things as mothers, some will do it in other ways. But all service ultimately brings about the same goal. We just have to be prayerful in our lives to understand how, in our own unique circumstances, we can best serve in the Kingdom.
Second, I have done some thinking about why these women were gifted with these abilities, particularly in contrast to the men around them. Why was it revealed to Rebekah that Jacob would rule over Esau and not Isaac? Why did Deborah lead the armies of Israel, and not Barak? The answer that I have found to this is that sometimes, women are ideally situated outside of a power structure and are more open to the will of God when it may go against conventional or popular thinking. For example, Isaac was probably confident in the traditional way of having the older son receive the greater inheritance, as that system was one in which he prospered (excluding Ishmael, who effectively became exclusively the son of Hagar when she was set free from Sarah and Abraham). It made sense to Isaac that Esau, in addition to making his delicious favored, venison, should receive the greater blessing. This isn’t to say he couldn’t have been humbled to question it, but Rebekah, based on the general lack of status that she enjoyed as a woman in that day, probably was more open to God’s idea of exalting the lower (Jacob) and humbling the mighty (Esau). Again, I think the same has held true in the latter days as well. When Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ sought to restore the church on earth, they sought the earthly assistance of a humble, fourteen year old boy, neither worldly nor educated, and definitely not powerful. When God seeks to reveal truth, humility helps. It helps if one is already humble and open to receiving truth and not just expecting to have their own opinions and views of the world reinforced. This is why Jesus Christ promises us in the Doctrine and Covenants, “The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh.” (D&C 1:19)
So what do I want the takeaway be on this Mother’s Day? All of us may feel weak or overwhelmed by our responsibilities, whether they be in the home or out of the home. But that is exactly the point. When we are humble, we are open to a clearer understanding of what our spiritual gifts may be and how we can use them to bless all the children of our beloved Heavenly Parents. I frequently wonder, what our Heavenly Mother thinks about the world that we live in. I frequently wonder how much sorrow she must experience for the ways that we hurt one another on this earth. I wonder what she is like. I am grateful for what President Uchdorf has described as the “continuing” restoration of the gospel, with the promise that someday, we may come to know her better the same way we know and speak of Heavenly Father. I know that if we seek truth with sincerity, and continue to humble ourselves, we keep the possibility of further revelation open. We are all endowed with the gift of being able to seek further light and truth, and as we do so, it puts all of those struggles that we face here on earth in a more heavenly, eternal context.”