Mother’s Day, Teachers, and Mothering

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from “A Practical Mom” by Amy Uyematsu.

The second reading this morning is from a short story by Grace Paley, titled “Mother”:

One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long To See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.

At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?

Then she died.

Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places — in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block… in the living room with my father….

Sermon: Mother’s Day and Teaching and Mothering

Today would have been my mother’s one hundredth birthday. For twelve years before she married, my mother taught grades K through 2 in public schools in New York, Delaware, and Massachusetts. As soon as her own children got old enough, she went back to teaching, and ended her career in a local preschool. Not surprisingly, my personal perception of motherhood was shaped by my experience of my own mother. My mother used the skills she had honed as a teacher with her own children. Thus it is no surprise that I learned to associate mothers with teaching, and that I still associate mothers with teaching. Of course all parents are teachers no matter what their gender. But on this Mothers Day, I’d like to talk about mothers as teachers. I’d also like to talk about how all of us can teach the way mothers teach.

To begin with, let’s consider what it is that mothers teach. From the beginning of a new life, mothers teach what it means to be cared for, what it means to be connected. This may seem too obvious, and too easy. But think about what happens to infants whose mothers neglect them (and before you rush into judgement against mothers who neglect their children, remember that a mother may be battling serious mental or physical illness, or having to deal with any number of other unavoidable problems): infants who are neglected can miss important learning about how to connect with, and how to trust in, other people. So it is that mothers begin teaching the moment they touch and hold a newborn. Those first lessons are lessons in love and human connection.

We tend to think of mothers as the ones who the primary teachers of love and connection, but of course a father or any parent who holds a newborn, who rocks a baby to sleep, who changes diapers and feeds an infant is also teaching important lessons of love and human connection. This is true of anyone who cares for an infant, including grandparents and other caring adults, and even older siblings.

Child psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said that infants in this first stage of life are not only learning about trust, they are also learning about hope. Trust and hope do seem to go together. If we have trust in the people around us, it does seem that we are more likely to have hope. If we trust in the stability of human connections, of human community, that allows us to trust in the future, which in turn brings to us hope.

Nor is this something that we learn only in infancy. Those people who don’t learn all they need to know about trust as infants will still have opportunities to finish learning this key lesson later in life. Indeed, trust may be one of the first lessons we must learn, but pretty much every one of us has to keep re-learning it over and over again. It is one of those lesson that we keep on learning throughout the course of our lives, including long after our biological mothers have died. And this leads to an interesting conclusion. While trust and hope are lessons that we associate with mothers and mothering, but if trust and hope have to be continually relearned over the course of our lives, even after our biological mothers have died, then clearly this is one aspect of mothering that we must all do for one another. In this sense, each of us, all of human society, is responsible for mothering each other.

While this may seem obvious, it’s equally obvious that our contemporary world culture does not center around mothering. To give one obvious example, I’m willing to bet that Vladimir Putin, the dictator of Russia, thinks mothering is something that is only done by young women when they’re out of sight of the big strong men of the world. If I suggested to him that we all need to mother one another, he would scoff at the idea. A big strong man like himself? He doesn’t need any mothering. Besides, Vladimir Putin has no interest in building trust in others. He dominates others through fear; the lesson he teaches is mistrust. And because he generates mistrust through nearly every action he takes, he destroys hope for millions of people. Hope disappears, and all that is left is violent resistance, or acquiescence and resignation to brutal domination. Vladimir Putin is admired by others who want to be like him — not because they trust him, but because they too have lost a sense of trust and so they hope to emulate Putin.

Those who admire Putin seem to me to have given up hope in humankind. They have decided the only way to live in a dog-eat-dog world is to brutally dominate others. They have forgotten the lessons of trust and hope they had once learned from whomever it was who mothered them when they were young. It is easy to forget what our mothers taught us about trust and hope; we all need to learn and relearn those lessons of trust and hope over and over again as we grow older.

And given what’s going on in the world right now, contemporary society does not give us much reason to believe in trust and hope. Wars and violence, sexism and sexual assault, racism and hatred — the news is full of things that erode our trust and hope.

I happened to be making a long drive yesterday, and while I was fiddling with the radio I tuned in to an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, a writer who taught history and government at Harvard for many years. The interviewer asked her if she, as a historian, thought that ours was an especially challenging historical moment. Without minimizing the challenges we face, Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out several moments in American history which she judged to be more challenging — the Great Depression, the early part of the Second World War when it seemed the Nazis were unstoppable, and above all the Civil War and the years leading up to it. I’m not a particular fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, but as I listened to her on the radio, I felt a sense of hope. She did not minimize the dangers facing the United States today, but she offered hope that we can find a way through our current troubles, hope that we can learn to trust one another once again.

In this moment on the radio, Doris Kearns Goodwin was teaching the radio audience the way we hope a mother would teach. It brought back memories of listening to my own mother, even though Doris Kearns Goodwin and my mother were polar opposites in many ways. As a young adult in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was especially worried about the prospect of global nuclear war. Without minimizing the danger of such a war, my mother, in her no-nonsense way, talked me out of fear, and talked me into feeling trust and hope. She was continuing the lessons she had begun teaching me as an infant, although in a different way now that I was an adult.

These lessons that my mother taught me in adulthood were not like some soft-focus heart-warming TV show. The lessons my mother taught me were much closer to what we heard in the second reading this morning, as in this short excerpt from Grace Paley’s story titled “Mother”: “At the door of the kitchen [my mother] said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?” Grace Paley’s mother was saying: take care of yourself. Telling someone to take care of themselves means telling them to have hope in the future. And to have hope in the future means that you have to learn to trust. And the way you teach trust is to show someone you love them — by, for example, telling them to stop running around senselessly so they can take the time to finish their lunch.

Now, not everyone has a biological mother who can teach us trust and hope. And even if you have a biological mother like Grace Paley’s mother, who does teach you these things well into your adult years, at some point — just like Grace Paley — you’re going to lose your mother. So it is that we all need other people in our lives who can provide those lessons in trust and hope — we all need what I might call “alternate mothers.” The gender of these people is not especially important, nor is the age of these people, nor do they need to be our biological relatives. They don’t even have to be someone we have met in person. Let me give you an example, from my own life, of how someone you haven’t even met could teach these lessons of trust and hope.

My own mother died twenty-five years ago. As I look back on the years immediately following her death, I now realize that quite a few alternate mothers entered my life in that time. One of those people was Hans Georg Gadamer, the philosopher, whom I never actually met. In 2001, when he was 101 years old, an interviewer asked Gadamer if he had hope for the world. Now, Gadamer lived in Germany throughout the tumultuous twentieth century: through the First World War, through the rise of Hitler and Naziism, through the Second World War, and finally through the Soviet takeover of East Germany (Gadamer left East Germany to go live in West Germany) and the building of the Berlin Wall, through the Cold War and the ongoing threat of nuclear war. The interviewer knew all this, and asked Gadamer this question not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Did he, Gadamer, have hope for the world? Gadamer, being a philosopher, gave a suitably nuanced reply. But I will strip his reply of all nuance, and summarize it like this: In spite of everything, we still have grounds for hope; not much hope, perhaps, maybe about this much hope — hold your finger and thumb about in inch apart — but there is still hope for the world.

This was an adult-level lesson in trust and hope. Gadamer did not minimize the danger the world faced, but he made the case based on his long experience of life that there is still reason to hope; which means there is still reason to trust in humanity. Now, you may not have the same response to Gadamer that I did; philosophy is an acquired taste. But the point is that Gadamer became a sort of literary mother for me — someone I never met, but who gave me a message of hope through what he wrote and said publicly. I was convinced by his message of hope, and from that message I was able to relearn the lesson of trusting in other human beings.

Mothering from public figures like Hans Georg Gadamer is convenient. You pick up a book or listen to a podcast, and there they are. Plus, they never stand in your doorway and say, “You never finish your lunch.” For this, we still need real-life mothers. Which can pose a problem for those us of who don’t have real-life biological mothers in our lives, or whose real-life biological mothers don’t fill this role for whatever reason.

But we can find other people who help us re-learn the lessons of trust and hope throughout our lives. If I think about my own life, I can think of several people who have filled that role for me. These people have generally been older than me, but not all of them; perhaps half of them have been women; and to each of them I felt a strong enough bond of affection that I’d want to call it love. As I say this, maybe you’re making a mental list of the people who might fill this role in your life. This list might include your own biological mother (or it might not). But this list could include a number of people who are family, chosen family, or older friends. This list might include people who aren’t even aware that you feel as though you’ve received some mothering from them. My own mental list includes at least one person who would probably be appalled if I told him that I felt like he mothered me — that he gave me love, and helped me re-learn lessons of trust and hope. (Of course this can also be true of biological mothers who don’t want to engage in mothering once their child is past infancy.)

And as you make your mental list of people who have mothered you, perhaps you’ll become aware of people who might consider you to be giving them some mothering. If you’re an actual biological mother who still has your biological children in your life, obviously you’re mothering them. But I think almost anyone can do some mothering, starting as early as your late teens and continuing for the rest of your life. Again, this need not look like the kind of mothering you find on Hallmark greeting cards, all unicorns and rainbows. It can look like the mothering Grace Paley describes her own mother doing: “Another time [my mother] stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905.” This may not sound like mothering, but along with criticism of her actions, her mother expresses trust in Grace Paley’s abilities. You can hear the deep affection and love. Finally, you can hear concern for Grace Paley’s future (“Go to sleep for godsakes”), a loving concern which engenders hope.

There are billions of ways to be a mother. You can be a cranky critical mom like Grace Paley’s mother (or like my mother). You can be a practical mom, as we heard described in the first reading, the poem by Amy Uyematsu. Personally, I don’t want to think of myself as a mother at all; I’d rather think of myself as a sort of eccentric uncle; but even then, I can still acknowledge that I as an eccentric uncle can sometimes help young people re-learn lessons of trust and hope. There are as many ways to be a good mother — someone who teaches love and hope and trust — as there are people in the world.

On Mother’s Day we do especially honor those who served the more traditional role of mother within a nuclear family. And to all of you who fill that role, we honor you and thank you. But right now, the world needs more mothering than can fit into that traditional role. The world needs as many mothers as we can find. We need mothering to help us re-establish trust and and hope for the future; we need mothering to remind us that love is the most important force in the universe. We need people who can do public mothering — people on the radio, in books, on podcasts. But more than that, we need people who are willing to extend mothering to those in their immediate social circles — people who can help us re-learn what it means to trust one another. There are many of us who are already doing this mothering in our work lives — teachers and doctors and social workers and therapists and anyone in the helping professions. There are many of us who are already teaching trust and hope in our volunteer work, or in our day-to-day living. And if it seems too much to be a mother to people who are not your biological children, you can join me in becoming and eccentric aunt or uncle. The point is that maybe we all can think about the ways in which each one of us might actually be acting as mothers in the sense of helping people we love to re-learn basic lessons of trust and hope; for the world needs us to do this.