Images of Mothers and Other Acts of Faith

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 8 May 2016

If our TV were working this week, I would have shown you two videos. The first is one of those classic, saccharine videos that people often post on Facebook or send out in e-mails to annoyingly interrupt your day — and of course you get hooked and find yourself saying aloud, “Oh how cute!”

This particular video shows a beagle that has recently given birth to her own puppies in an animal shelter. For some unknown reason, this adorable dog has decided to foster a litter of abandoned kittens as well. She lovingly picks the kittens up by the scruffs of their necks to set them beside her own offspring. She is the perfect mother, whose love expands out beyond her own; the great self-sacrificing, nurturing image of holy motherhood.

The second video I would have shown you is from a television series called Les chroniques d’une mère indigne,, which translates as The Chronicles of an Unworthy Mother. These are short vignettes, not much longer than a TV commercial, where actress Marie-Hélène Thibault walks you through her life as a very imperfect, even scandalous mother. The first episode finds her hiding in the basement with a large cocktail in her hand, escaping the cries of her second child as she explains that she has finally given up all pretence of trying to be the perfect mother.

«  Après sept mois de congé maternité je suis devenue petit à petit une mère indigne, » she says, as cartoon devil’s horns and a tail are drawn around her. She explains:

«  Avant d’accepter ce nouveau statut de mère indigne, j’ai psychologiquement beaucoup, beaucoup souffert. En effet, j’ai courageusement tenté, pendant des années, d’être une mère parfaite avec ma fille aînée. Mais la venue de bébé numéro deux m’a obligé à constaté que les parents sont voués à un “burnout”. »

This unworthy mother confides to the viewer that if you don’t respect the “blankety-blank" (insert certain religious swear words) rules of perfect parenting, you are condemned to a culture of secrecy, and then you have to live with the fear that your pediatrician will discover your lies. 

«  Je n’ai que le sentiment de la culpabilité tout à fait débilitante. C’est pourquoi j’ai choisi par solidarité envers mes collègues parents à détailler le côté obscur de la maternité. »

I highly recommend the series. It’s very funny.

Somewhere between that perfect image of the beagle embodying holy motherhood and the unworthy mother who is convinced she has surely sunk to the depths of the devil, there is the reality and the complexity of motherhood.

How do you connect motherhood and faith? This has been the big question for me. The members of the worship planning team suggested that “Motherhood is itself an act of faith.” I would say that’s true, but motherhood also weaves itself through every religious tradition that has ever existed — even ours, and even if it is not explicit.

But what, really, is the archetypal mother? Is she the perfect, holy one who loves beyond measure, or is she the imperfect one who is as human as the humanity she creates? 

So many ancient myths of creation begin with goddesses who create the world. I think of Sky Woman who falls from the heavens onto the back of Turtle to create Turtle Island, home to the Aboriginal peoples of this land. Sky woman is a complex creator. Her misguided curiosity draws her into the realm of humanity.

In the Torah, you have the image of Sarah, mother of the Jewish people, who laughs when she is told she will become a mother at the age of 90.  Her slave, Hagar, becomes the mother of Islam by giving birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.  Sarah and Hagar are anything but perfect mothers.

In Christianity, you have the powerful images of the Virgin Mary, the most impossible of all mothers to emulate.  Having conceived immaculately, she is held up as a model of purity. She is totally self-sacrificing, the image of maternal suffering for whom shrines have been built all over the Christian world.

In Buddhism, there are powerful spirits, the bodhisattvas, who serve humanity. They are the divine images of motherhood within the Buddhist cosmology. Quan Yin, one of the best known bodhisattvas, embodies compassion and nurturing. She is often called She Who Hears the Cries of the World. She, too, is the consummate mother.

Then there are the images of motherhood that are central to neo-paganism. The Mother goddess is part of a trinity . She is the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone; beautiful, productive and wise, reflecting the entire life cycle.

Then consider the images of the ancient goddesses of Hinduism who predate Mary and Quan Yin by thousands of years. Think of Kali, the consort of Shiva, one of the female creators of humanity. She gives birth to humanity, but she also devours her children. She brings both life and destruction.

In some religious traditions, giving life is seen as the main duty of a woman. Procreation is an essential responsibility for continuing humanity of course, but this is also a constricting expectation that has causedpain for many women.

Some religious traditions see women as the keepers of the faith. Women are the ones who make sure the faith’s teachings are passed from generation to generation. They ensure that the children keep the rituals, even when men are theperformers of those very rituals.

In our tradition, women have always had roles that extended far beyond procreation, but perhaps we have also been the unsung keepers of the faith. Think of Unitarian social activist, Julia Ward Howe, and these words from her Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy or patience.”

In the long history of this church, men were often the leaders in name, while women were the drivers of the community. It was, in fact, the two Elizabeths, Hedge and Cushing, who gave birth to this congregation. Today, a majority of women lead this community, as minister, and as members of our board and council. This is a significant change that has happened in fairly recent years. These days, as is true in a majority of modern religious traditions, there are more women attending religious services here than men.

So, perhaps, women are indeed the mothers and keepers of faith, in a time when even gender is becoming something that is being questioned. For my generation, the distinction between men and women was critical. We grew up reading books that used “he” as the universal pronoun and we fought to change that. We fought for the right for women to enter fields that were once only open to men. We fought for the right to become more than just mothers, and then we tried to become superwomen who could do it all. Today, feminism has taken on a whole new character, as people become increasingly sensitive to the constraints of gender roles and distinctions. The archetypes are changing.

So I asked my 26-year old daughter what she thought. “It’s Mother’s Day,” I told her. “Do you want to help me with my sermon?” We talked about doing this service together, but in the end she decided she preferred giving me permission to report our conversation. I asked her, “What do you think about images of motherhood?” She told me that she thinks about this all the time and feels very conflicted. “Why?” I asked.

She said, “I want to be a mother. I want to put something before myself, something that will always come before me. I want to have something I would die for. We are blessed to have access to that feeling that we can give life. Maybe men can feel that too, and maybe some women walk away from the possibility. But it’s so confusing. My generation deals with so many perspectives and archetypal images. Now you don’t have to have kids. It’s not expected.”

When I asked her what she meant by archetypes, she spoke of the images she has grown up with through media and culture. “It’s all so convoluted,” she said. “There’s this image of mothers as selfless on one hand, and then there are all these negative representations of motherhood, as if pregnancy is something terrible. There’s this constant message that you have to be rich and over 30 to have children, to afford the $500 stroller, the big house, the nanny. That’s what we see in romantic comedies. But it makes no sense when so many people around the world who have nothing have children.”

Of course we talked about our own story as mother and daughter together, of the happy times and the challenging times. Parenting was not easy for me, as I’m sure I’ve said before. I always wanted to have children, but then I felt I wasn’t as good at parenting as I’d hoped. I can definitely identify with la mère indigne. There were many times when I felt I was an unworthy mother. If only I’d been wise enough to give up on trying to be perfect!

My wise daughter looked at me, smiled, knowing that I was struggling to come up with a final connection to motherhood and faith. “Maybe,” she said, “Maybe once you become a mother you’re expected to always be in control. But you really can’t control anything, so you just have to have faith.”

I think of the reflections about faith many of you shared with me last week. Whether the word “faith” worked for you or not, there was deep longing for existential answers. To ask why we exist, to wonder if our lives have any real purpose, to question whether it is possible to have faith in humanity, these are all questions about ultimate meaning.

Motherhood and faith are completely intertwined. Whether we believe in humanity or not, at least for now, we cannot exist without mothers. We all have mothers and many stories to tell of knowing love, of losing love, of longing for love. Some of us have suffered as mothers and some of us have known strained relationships with our mothers, just as some of us have known the great joy of giving life and connection. If there is a universal archetype of motherhood, I would wager that it is something forever transforming, always less than perfect and yet as elemental as the air we breathe.

I really admire that beagle who could nurse five puppies and find herself also drawn into caring for four kittens. She is a rare find. I want to see her as a source of hope, assuring us that everyone of us is capable of reaching out beyond ourselves. I’d like to believe that in those times when we really need mothering, parenting or mentoring, someone will step in for us. At the same time, I have faith that there is always time for forgiveness for unworthy mothers, and that our children can create new archetypes that will better fit their needs, to carry them into the future.

Download Images of Mothers and Other Acts of Faith