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.

Mother’s Peace Day

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” by Julia Ward Howe:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

The second reading was from “Gitanjali 35” by Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom… let my country awake.

Sermon: “Mother’s Peace Day”

It appears that the very first mention of Mother’s Day dates back to 1870. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian and author of the popular Civil War song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had grown horrified at the actual results of war. She was horrified by how many young men were killed or disabled by war, but she was also horrified by what war did to the moral character of those who fought. A mother herself, she wrote in her proclamation for Mother’s Peace Day: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.” Thus she issued her historic call for all mothers everywhere to come together in an international congress of women in order to promote world peace.

After that initial proclamation of Mothers Peace Day in 1870, the idea of a day for mothers to take action together was forgotten until 1907. In that year, an Episcopalian laywoman named Anna Jarvis organized a worship service for mothers at her church in West Virginia. She did so in part to honor her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who had been a peace activist who had worked with Julia Ward Howe, and had supported Howe’s original idea for a Mother’s Peace Day. So our modern Mother’s Day began with a worship service in 1907, which had been inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s original vision of Mother’s Peace Day.

Since 1907, Mother’s Day has continued to evolve. By the mid-twentieth century, Mother’s Day was not centered on a church service. It had become a holiday that upheld a view of women then permeating American society: a woman was supposed to get married young, have lots of children, and subsume her identity in motherhood. This mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood ignored all the women who chose not to marry, or who were unable to have children, or didn’t become mothers for whatever reason. Unfortunately, when Mother’s Day became a day to uphold that old mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood, the original purpose of the day was forgotten. No longer were mothers actively taking control of the destiny of the world. Instead of mothers coming together as peace activists, mothers were supposed to be passive recipients of cards and flowers from their children and husbands. If they were lucky, mothers got taken out to lunch; at least then there was one less meal they had to cook and clean up after.

During the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, some feminists began to criticize Mother’s Day: why should women be reduced to being mothers? Why couldn’t we value women for all their contributions to society? These were needed criticisms, helping society to understand that women could be more than stereotypical mothers. At the same time, it turned out that many feminists happened to like Mother’s Day. We liked the thought that there might be a special connection between a mother and the children to whom she had given birth. We liked giving cards or flowers to our mothers. We liked the thought of taking our mothers out to lunch — although in my family, my mother, being a thrifty New England Yankee, was resistant to buying lunch in a restaurant.

In the twenty-first century, Mother’s Day continued to evolve and change. We began to re-evaluate the American myth of motherhood. We began to expand our understanding of what it meant to be a mother. We had already heard from women who had adopted their children, who had pointed out that their connection with their children was just as special as that of biological mothers. At the start of the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of same sex couples began having children, and male couples began to point out that they provided the mothering that their children wanted and needed. In the past decade, increasing numbers of transgender and non-binary people began having children, and they too have pointed out that mothering is not limited to just one gender.

And in the past half century, we have also learned to adopt the the perspective of children when we think about motherhood. For some children, their fathers provide more mothering than their mothers. Some children have cold or distant parents, and get their mothering from people who are not their parents. There are of course a great many children who do get mothering from their biological or adoptive mothers, but we began to understand that those children can get mothering not just from their mothers, but from other people in their lives — fathers and aunts and older siblings and teachers and so on.

We have expanded our understanding of motherhood, and this has come about in part because we have expanded our understanding of gender. It used to be that our society took it for granted that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role were all the same thing. Indeed, some conservative Christians still believe that if your biological sex is female then you are female, and many states in the South are passing laws that uphold this conservative Christian notion of sex gender. Many of those conservative Christians also believe that all women should be ruled by biological males, and should stay at home to raise children; these conservative Christians want to go back to that mid-twentieth century stereotype that the only appropriate role for a biological female is to be a mother.

However, the rest of our society has come to understand that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role can be quite separate. For example — and this is an example that gets the most press these days — our society is coming to understand that there are transgender people whose biological sex happens to be different from their gender identity. But our society is also coming to accept that people can take on a gender role that is different from their biological sex or their gender identity. We are coming to understand that man can be nurturing and can even take on the role of mothering; we are coming to understand that people who do not have children of their own can take on the role of nurturing and mothering.

We are slowly expanding our understanding motherhood to include a wider range of actual experiences. Of course we still celebrate biological females who give birth to new human beings. But now we can also celebrate those biological females who do not fit comfortably into the gender role of nurturing female, and we can also celebrate the biological males who take on the role of a nurturing mother. We can celebrate people of any gender identity, of any biological sex, who take on the gender role of mothering.

This helps us to expand Julia Ward Howe’s original idea of Mother’s Peace Day. Howe knew that anyone who had been a mother would not want to send their child off to war. Anyone who had been a mother would not want to see their child killed or maimed or traumatized by the horrors of war. That is why she ended the original Mother’s Peace Day Proclamation with these words: “I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” Howe’s idea is quite logical and straightforward: If she could just gather all the mothers of the world together in one great room, surely they could find a way to put an end to war. She was thinking about just those biological females who happened to have given birth, but why not include in that gathering all those who people who have filled some sort of mothering, nurturing role? The more people we can find who have filled a nurturing mothering role, the more people there are who will feel committed to ending war.

This might include people who would never be called mothers. Take me, for example. I’m a biological male, my gender identity is male, I’ve never had children of my own. Yet I spent a couple of decades doing religious education, and in my own way I helped raise two or three generations of young people. And there are quite a few people like me, people who didn’t exactly do any mothering, but who wound up doing a lot of nurturing. When add together all the mothers with the non-mothers who did a lot of nurturing, that adds up to a great many people who have put a lot of effort into helping the next generation grow up. And we would all prefer it if the next generation were not killed or maimed or traumatized by war.

I like to think that Julia Ward Howe would have welcomed no just women but nurturing people of all genders to her “general congress of women without limit of nationality.” I suspect Julia Ward Howe would have given the women and mothers the seats of honor in the front of the congress. But she would have welcomed anyone dedicated to keeping our children safe — people of all genders; teachers and social workers and doctors and anyone who nurtured others; aunts and uncles and cousins and older siblings and anyone who didn’t happen to have children of their own but helped raise and nurture children — anyone who has contributed to raising up the next generations. I think Julia Ward Howe would welcomed us all to her great congress.

And to me, this remains the central meaning of Mother’s Day. Not that any of this should interfere with your traditional celebration of Mother’s Day. Do whatever it is that you usually do on Mother’s Day: call your mom, let your children take you out to lunch, take your spouse out to lunch, ignore the whole thing. I don’t mean any of this to interfere with your celebration of Mother’s Day, but perhaps the thought of Julia Ward howe and Mother’s Peace Day will add to your celebration. If we were all better at mothering, perhaps the world would be a better, more peaceful place. If our world leaders learned some mothering skills, if they allowed themselves to be more nurturing, perhaps we would have fewer wars. Maybe that’s too much to ask — it’s hard for me to imagine that Vladimir Putin knows what it is to nurture others. But what if he could change? What if he could become empathetic? What if he could forget his own egotistical ambitions and learn to how to selflessly nurture those people who are not as strong or powerful as he?

What if all our world leaders learned how to be empathetic and nurturing? That is, what if all world leaders lived up to the late nineteenth century ideal of motherhood? What if Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers had actually gathered, and had actually taken on real power? We can imagine that such a congress would have focused on how to nurture and raise the next generation. And if our governments were formed with the goal of nurturing and raising the next generation, perhaps we would finally put an end to war.

Of course Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers was not able to take control of world affairs in 1870. Given the rampant sexism of the time, it was too much to expect that a congress of mothers could in fact take over the world. Nor are the chances for a great congress of mothers much better in today’s world.

That does not mean that we should lose all hope. We can start small. We can honor and support empathetic nurturing wherever we may find it. We can honor every person in our lives who nurtures others with empathy. There are people of all genders who nurture others with empathy. There are people of all ages who nurture others with empathy. Both parents and non-parents can be nurturing influences in the lives of others. We can honor all these people, and we can support them in their efforts to raise the next generation — to raise up a generation that in its turn will be more nurturing and empathetic than we are today. Perhaps one day, everyone will know the central skills of mothering — nurturing, empathy, and kindness.

Until that time comes, may we continue to honor the mothers among us. Those of us who had empathetic nurturing mothers can honor their roles in our lives, and if our mothers are still alive we can send them a card or maybe even take them out to lunch. Those of us who have a spouse who is a mother can honor our spouse. All of us can remember and honor all those people in our lives who helped to nurture us.

And so may I wish all the mothers among us a happy Mother’s Day. May you be honored for all you do, and all you have done. And in the spirit of the original Mother’s Peace Day, may your example of mothering be an inspiration to the rest of the world — so that together we may, in the words of Julia Ward Howe, “take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”


This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is half of a very 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….

The second reading this morning is from a poem by Lucille Clifton titled “the mother’s story”:

a line of women i don’t know,
she said,
came in and whispered over you
each one fierce word
she said, each word
more powerful than the one before.
and i thought what is this to bring
to one black girl from buffalo
until the last one came and smiled,
she said,
and filled your ear with light
and that, she said, has been the one,
the last one, that last one.

Sermon — “Mothering”

Mother’s Day is a perfect day for us religious liberals to reflect on mothering from our theological viewpoint. We know that motherhood and feminism are perfectly compatible. We know that same-sex couples can serve as both mothers and fathers to their children. We know that gender roles are far more fluid than the religious right admits. We know that love is a central value of our religion. Given all that, I’d like to reflect with you on what mothering means to us religious liberals.


1. Now I don’t know about you, but I find that I have a pretty clear idea of the stereotypical perfect mother. The perfect mother, according to the stereotype that I know best, is warm and welcoming; she is always dressed in an understated but attractive manner; she dispenses freshly-baked cookies at the drop of the proverbial hat; and she also dispenses kind and heartfelt wisdom whenever you need it. I suspect that my stereotype of the perfect mother comes pretty much directly from the television programs I used to watch as a child.

That is the stereotype of the perfect mother that I find lodged in my consciousness, but I know perfectly well that real mothers do not correspond to this stereotype. Take my mother, for example. My mother was a New England Yankee, and by the standards of Yankee culture she was within the norm of warm and welcoming, by any other standards she appeared cool and even a little standoffish; she was more on the prickly end of the mothering spectrum than the cuddly end of the spectrum. My mother was always sensibly dressed, but she did not dress like those mothers on the television, she dressed like the sensible New England Yankee that she was. She did bake cookies; but she was far more likely to dispense high ambitions for her children than to dispense cookies. As for dispensing kind and heartfelt wisdom, this was not something my mother did; her wisdom was thoughtful, stark, true, occasionally painful, and nearly always right.

My mother was not the stereotypical television mother that we are all supposed to dream of. But then, whose mother is? Maybe some of us here this morning had stereotypical television mothers, and if you did I would love to hear about your perfect mom during social hour. Or maybe some of you here were in fact the perfect wise and warm cookie-baking mom, in which case I would also love to hear from you, and maybe even borrow some of your warmth and wisdom — Lord knows, I could use some. But every mother is first and foremost a unique human being. Some mothers might be able to be a stereotypical warm, welcoming, cookie-baking mom. But all mothers are first and foremost their own selves, unique individuals with unique personal and cultural characteristics that may or may not allow them to fit into the stereotype of the perfect mom.

It seems to me that real-life mothers rarely fit the idealized stereotype. I sometimes find real people who seem to fit most of the characteristics of the idealized stereotypical mom, but not quite all those characteristics. I know someone who has five kids, all adopted from difficult settings, and all the kids are dearly loved and go off to school and come home, and he’s there to fix them a snack and help them with homework. Yes, I said “he’s there to fix them a snack,” because this is a family with two dads. He’s far closer to the ideal of the stereotypical mom than my own mother was. Or let me give you another example: I used to work with a guy named Larry, and his mother died when he was quite small (this was back in the Great Depression). Larry’s father realized that he was “a one-woman man” (those were his terms, according to Larry), and so he raised Larry and Larry’s brothers and sisters all by himself, serving as both mother and father to the children. Mothering and fathering blended together in that family; for Larry, his father was really the only mother he remembered.

Maybe we can begin to come up with a better definition of “mothering.” Maybe we want to say something like this: “Mothering” is a human activity where a caring adult makes sure you’re going to survive until adulthood, and while most mothers are women, there are plenty of men who serve as mothers too. Of course we know that under a strict technical definition, motherhood is a biological fact related to human beings who can bear children, but remember that some biological women are not able to bear children, yet they too can be mothers. Mothering is a human activity that transcends the biological equipment that an individual may happen to have.

So we can say this about mothering as a human activity: Mothering is when a caring adult makes sure a child survives until adulthood. Mothering is most often done by women, but it can be done by men. Mothering and fathering may blend together at times. And there are very few people who are perfect at mothering; even those moms we see on television make mistakes sometimes.


2. In recent years, I have begun to realize that mothering is not limited to adults who have children in their immediate family. I began to realize that every once in a while I got mothered by people to whom I was not related. For example, I was at some political meeting, and I got mothered by someone who is no relation to me. This woman, who is both a mother and a grandmother, greeted me with a big hug, welcomed me, made sure I was comfortable, and then went on to mother someone else.

Human beings are essentially social, tribal animals. Under the leadership of the religious conservatives, contemporary American society tries to tell us that the nuclear family, with a mom and dad and 2.5 children, is the only place where “real” mothering can take place, but of course that’s complete nonsense. There are many other family structures where good mothering takes place: extended families where several generations live together; blended families; families with two dads or two moms; and so on. And indeed, because we are social, tribal animals, mothering can go on in other human institutions, not just in families. I already told you how I got mothered at a political meeting. But what I’d particularly like to talk about is how good mothering can go on in churches.

When I was the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington, the assistant minister there, a woman named Ellen Spero, decided to hold a Sunday evening vespers service, and she got me to help out, and we held these vespers service for the next year and a half, until we both left that church to go on to other churches.

If you attended one of Ellen’s vespers services, the first thing you would notice when you walked in was that all the chairs were in a circle. Once the vespers service started, you would find that it seemed very much like the worship services we have here on Sunday mornings: listening to readings, and singing hymns, and lighting a chalice, and sharing candles of joy and sorrow, and so on. The main difference would be that the sermon might be a sermon, or it might be a short play; or there might be an activity to go along with the sermon, such as drawing with crayons or listening to jazz.

If you were very observant, you might notice some other important things. There was always food at these vespers services. Ellen was a great believer in what she called her “ministry of food,” so she always brought lots of delightful and comforting food. The food was right next to the circle of chairs, and if you arrived early you could have something to eat and drink during the worship service. As a mom and as a feminist, Ellen knew that you have to take care of people’s bodies at the same time you take care of their spirits.

There was always a place for children at these worship services. As the religious educator, I would make sure there was a big rug included in the circle of chairs, with quiet toys and games and crayons and paper. That way, if you wanted to bring your children to the vespers service, they could play quietly on the carpet while you sat next to them. This, too, was an idea that came out of Ellen’s experience as a mom and as a feminist. As a feminist, she knew that many Unitarian Universalist churches have been influenced by the dominant patriarchal culture to think that children are bad, so she fought that by making sure that children were welcomed and seen as good. And as a mom, she wanted to have a worship service that her five-year-old son could attend.

With all the mothering that went on in these vespers services, Ellen was tapping into an old line of Unitarian thought. Back in the 1870s, a group of women Unitarian ministers, mostly based in the Midwest, built vibrant congregations around the idea of the church being like a home. These women, who are often called the Prophetic Sisterhood, felt that when you come into a Unitarian church, it should feel like you’re coming into someone’s house, where you are greeted, and welcomed, where your physical needs are acknowledged, where you can have some cookies. Here in our own church, where we have absolutely no historical connection to the Prophetic Sisterhood, we still live out these ideals. Even here in this room, which is a far more formal architectural space than that used by the Prophetic Sisterhood, we live out these feminist ideals. We acknowledge that people have physical needs: you may notice that lots of people come in late to the worship service, and we don’t mind because we know the reality is that life is complex for many of us, and we get here when we can get here (although I have to say I would prefer to be here early because I would not want to miss Randy’s preludes).

But you can really get a sense of this in our Parish House. When our congregation built the Parish House back in the 1890s, they made it feel like someone’s home. I walk into the Parish House to attend social hour after the worship service, and you see all that warm wood panelling, and the fireplaces, and the kitchen and dining room, and I feel like I’m at home. And because we have been influenced by feminist ideals, we’ve taken that feeling still further. We like to have the children with us during social hour, partly as a feminist manifesto, and partly because it feels more humane, more human, to have children around. And during social hour, we have pretty good food — homemade soup, and sometimes pizza, so if you need to eat, you often can get a pretty good meal here. And the conversations that take place during social hour are sometimes like those conversations you wish you could have had with your mother: touching on the big issues of life, like who we are, and where love comes from, and what we want to do when we grow up.


3. What I think is most important about churches and mothering, though, is that churches can be places that support mothers (and support fathers for that matter). Being a parent is the hardest thing a human being can do. Parents need support. The nuclear family, so beloved of the religious right, does not provide adequate support, and I am not surprised when I hear that the divorce rate among the religious right is higher than among us: they have placed all their eggs in the nuclear family basket, and it’s a pretty fragile basket. Perhaps if you have absolutely the perfect nuclear family with superhumanly talented parents, perhaps then the nuclear family works. But speaking as a pastor, I don’t know of any nuclear families like that; all the nuclear families that I know need far more support than that. We all need lots of other people in our lives.

To me, this is the most important function of our liberal churches today. We exist as religious communities in order to support families — both families with children, and all other families as well. As liberal churches, we do not place restrictions on who is allowed in our religious community — you are welcome no matter what your theology, gender, sexual orientation, family status, gender identity, race or ethnicity, physical or mental ability. We try to live out our highest ideal, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we do this without shoving dogma and creeds down your throat. You can some into a liberal church, bringing your whole self, and feel at home. yes, you may be challenged at times; yes, we have internal fights; yes we make many mistakes. But our ideal is that you can be a part of this community and not have to check part of yourself at the door.

So we welcome all mothers, all those who are engaged in the difficult human activity of mothering. We welcome mothers and their children here. We provide support beyond the over-stressed nuclear family. If you’re a relatively new mother, this is a community where you can be supported by , and learn from, more experienced mothers and grandmothers (some of whom, by the way, might be men). We welcome children, and we provide a safe place for children, hopefully while giving mothers (and fathers) time to take care of their spiritual needs. With ongoing vigilance, we make this congregation an emotionally and physically safe place for children, with many safe and appropriate adult role models.

These represent our bedrock moral values. We value all those involved in mothering. We value all those who mother children; and yes, we also value those people who manage to mother adults too.


In closing, my highest priority for a church is that it should be a place that supports mothering. Freedom of conscience and all that is all very well, but mothering is where it’s at. When I say mothering, I do not mean what the fundamentalists mean. For me, mothering is not restricted by assigned gender, not restricted by sexual orientation, not restricted by traditional gender identity: there are gay men who are good at mothering, and there are men who do not fit into standard gender identity who are good at mothering; similarly, there are women who are better at fathering than at mothering. Nor do I have a stereotyped understanding of mothering: mothering does not need to be cuddly. And given who I am, my sense of mothering is very ambitious for the people being mothered.

But you know, mothering is one of the main reasons I stick with liberal churches.