Often the worst day of the year for an infertile woman is Mother’s Day. On this holiday, going to a house of worship can feel more like going to the house of mourning.
During the decade when my husband and I went through infertility treatment, lost seven pregnancies, and endured three failed adoptions, I found it difficult enough to see all the corsages on M-Day. But then sometimes a well-intentioned leader would ask all the mothers to stand, and I would remain seated. Some years a leader would even call for the youngest mother to stand and then smile awkwardly when a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old unmarried teen rose to her feet. On such occasions I would sit wondering about God’s mysterious ways of supply and demand. Following most such services, each mother would receive a carnation as she headed out the door. But at the exit she first had to answer “yes” to the question, “Are you a mother?”
On a number of occasions, however, I experienced Mothers’ Day as a day of grace. On the one following my first miscarriage, a message in the church bulletin said, “The altar flowers today are given with love and acknowledgment of all the babies of this church who were conceived on earth but born in heaven and for all who have experienced this loss.” The couple who dedicated these flowers had six children, and through their validation of our pain we caught a glimpse of the one who is acquainted with grief. The husband crossed the aisle and stood by my guy during the music. And with tears streaming down our faces, we found new strength to bring our sacrifice of praise.
On several Mother’s Days, a pastoral prayer has included requests that on this special day God would bless the motherless children, those bereft of mothers, mothers who had lost children, mothers estranged from their children, infertile women, and those who wished to become mothers but were still waiting on God’s timing. Apparently, someone figured out that about half the church was mourning. On such occasions I felt that I belonged.
One year during Mothers’ Day, I was with a team in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. A man stood at the door after the church service handing out carnations to all the mothers. Having heard that my husband I had just experienced another pregnancy loss, he looked at me through misty eyes and thrust his entire bouquet in my hands. Only later did I learn that he and his wife had lost a pregnancy at term.
My niece, who is married without children, calls the holiday “mothering day.” In this way she broadens the meaning, making it inclusive enough to affirm all who nurture. And this seems a fitting practice for the church. We are family. As I once told Carlos, my son in the faith, “The son or daughter without a mother finds mothers in Christ. The parent without children finds children in Christ. Families of one and of twenty all find a broader family in Christ.”
My mourning on M-Day was not because I wished in any way to diminish our practice of honoring mothers for the thankless work they do. (I have one of the best moms on the planet, and it is a joy to honor her.) I wished only for the Body of Christ to find ways to acknowledge our mothers’ sacrifices without inflicting unnecessary pain on those who mourn.
A few years ago, I received the best Mother’s Day gift ever from Carlos, who—having no living parents—“adopted” us as his parents when we could not have children. The pastor of a Spanish church in Frisco, Texas, and known to most as the voice of Dr. Charles Swindoll to the Spanish-speaking world, Carlos sent me the text of an announcement he planned to make to his congregation:
“This Sunday . . . I want to honor you, as my ‘mother in Christ,’ as well as many other women who go through a hard time seeing M-Day as a day of grief. Breaking old traditions . . . and culture, we are not going to ask mothers to stand up or come forward in order to pray for them. We are not giving recognition to the oldest or the newest mom. We are not overemphasizing M-Day during our greeting or our message. Before the sermon, I will announce to our congregation that, from this day forward—borrowing from your niece’s words—every second Sunday of May, we will be celebrating ‘El Día del Afecto Maternal’ (Maternal Affection Day). We’ll have a flower arrangement of white rose buds, adorned with pink and blue ribbons, and I’ll say to everyone these words: ‘These rosebuds today, are given with love and acknowledgement of all the babies of this church who were conceived on earth but born in heaven, and for all who have experienced this loss. We want each one of you dear ladies, mothers or not, to feel included in this prayer. We are family. The one without a mother finds mothers in Christ. The parent without children finds children in Christ. Families of one and of twenty all find a broader family in Christ. After our service there will be a lunch specially prepared for you. You are welcome to stay. But if you prefer not to, we understand. We want to acknowledge our mothers’ sacrifices, but we don’t want to inflict unnecessary pain on those who mourn. We want you to know that you belong here in this church, and that we love you with maternal affection.”
This Sunday, we have the opportunity once again to minister grace not only to the one in six couples of childbearing age who experience infertility but to all who experience Mother’s Day as a day of grief.
Yes, the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting (Eccl. 7:2). But it is also better if that house of mourning is full of empathetic family members. As they reach out with the arms and tear ducts of Christ, they remind us of what will always be true of us: We belong, and we are not alone.