If you have lost a child—or never had one— Mother’s Day may be difficult for you. It is for me, even though I have a foster daughter who has called me Mommy for nearly 4 years.
You may feel conflicted about calling yourself a mother if you have no child to show for your attempts. Perhaps you have swung back and forth between enjoying life and dipping deep into grief, longing, and disappointment. My first Mother’s Day after losing our son hit me hard in the gut when I thought I had been doing fine. The following Mother’s Day was a bit melancholy but mostly pleasant. This year, grief is hitting me hard, far in anticipation of Mother’s Day.
This is my third Mother’s Day since our son Josiah entered this world and left soon after, but it is the first since we buried our stillborn daughter Portia last fall. It’s also the only Mother’s Day spent after nearly 2 months of isolation from coronavirus lockdowns, exacerbating grief because of all the freedoms and social interactions that have so unexpectedly been ripped from all of us. Feeling especially melancholy over the approaching Mother’s Day, I’ve spent a bit of time reading, reflecting, pondering, and searching. (I shared some of these ponderings in My Gracious Reminder of Motherhood.)
What is Authentic Motherhood?
One blog post I found especially spoke to me in this season, prompting rich reflections. (I hope you’ll read “Seeing Mother’s Day in a different light….) I know so many who have lost pregnancies, lost babies, lost children, or simply never conceived, and others who have never married. I also know many who have fostered, adopted, or poured heart and soul into their students at the schools where they taught. So I loved how Lisa of CreativLei wrote, “Motherhood happens in the heart before anything else… the moment a women [sic] realizes that she can and will care for someone in need of guidance and mentoring and nurturing. Often it will be at the sacrifice of her own comfort.”
YES. Mothering is not a function of biology but of the heart. This reinvigorates me with joy and hope for God to fulfill my longings…in some way, even if not through a living baby from my own womb.
Many girls grow up with the assumption that they will marry, get pregnant, have babies, and raise a family. Some learn the painful reality that it doesn’t always happen this way. Motherhood is a great gift, not a female entitlement.
I recall the prophet Isaiah’s words that spoke to me in the years of my singleness, when, having no family of my own, I poured into my students instead:
Be glad, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.Isaiah 54:1
In this broader—and richer—definition of motherhood, there is so much encouragement and admonition for all of us women who desire this role, whether we’ve lost children or not. Those who mother exhibit nurture, sacrifice, influence, and strength.
Mothering is Nurture
Maybe you, like me, have nurtured a pregnancy that you knew would not end well. Choosing life, taking prenatal vitamins, eating a healthy diet, exercising, reading up on pregnancy and birth, picking a name, enjoying the kicks and rolls of the still-living infant inside, preparing for birth, choosing a blanket and an outfit for when she arrived…to remember her in…. You are a mother.
Maybe you have no children of your own, but you pour into others.
I remember a conversation with my Aunt Evelyn years ago. Aunt Evelyn, the “fun” aunt to all the cousins, never married. She spent the majority of her career as a special education teacher serving communities far from home, in Labrador, Newfoundland, Canada.
When tempted to feel sorry for herself for never marrying, my aunt told me, she remembered that her name, Evelyn, came from Eve, the “mother of all” (Genesis 3:20). Though she never married or gave birth, her role as a special education teacher in needy communities allowed her to be a “mother to all.” So she pursued that calling with purpose and fulfillment. I always admired her for this. She, too, is a mother.
Mothering is Sacrifice
Mothers sacrifice. A LOT. Time, effort, energy—physical, emotional, and otherwise—desires, comforts….
My mother sacrificed the projects she would have enjoyed, the tidy home she would have liked, and respite from noisy children in order to feed, clothe, and educate us at home.
Foster parents sacrifice privacy by having social workers in and out of their homes. They sacrifice their schedules and convenience for the sake of appointments, mandated visits, meetings, or hearings. Whether they have biological children or not, they, too, are parents.
Carrying a child that will not live is an inestimable sacrifice. All of pregnancy—the swollen breasts and bloated stomach, the nausea, the exhaustion, the physical limitations, the nighttime leg cramps, the extra doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds, the pain of childbirth (or C-section recovery)—all of these sacrifices are made without the typical expectation of a joyful reward. Instead, they are endured in hope that either God will heal, or good will come from the pending loss. These women are mothers, too.
Mothering is Influence
Influence is huge. All of us have influence over those in our lives, whether for good or for evil. Mothers are no exception.
In the New Testament, young Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice are named for their influence on his faith (2 Timothy 1:5).
The Old Testament records the history of all the kings of Israel and Judah. Many are listed along with their mother’s names and whether they themselves were exceptionally good or evil. Mothers influenced their sons, and through them, outcomes of a whole kingdom (2 Chronicles 22:2-4, 2 Chronicles 25:1-2, etc.).
One Old Testament mother who had profound impact, whether she intended to or not, is Naomi. Bereaved of her husband and both sons in a foreign land, she turns homeward, sending her widowed daughters-in-law back to their families.
We aren’t told much about Naomi other than that she called herself “bitter.” Yet her influence on Ruth is profound, impacting the course of her nation, leading to a line of kings that ended with Jesus. We know nothing of Naomi’s sons, but her life and example earned Ruth’s loyalty and devotion. Ruth chose to follow her widowed mother-in-law to a new country, where she would likely be an outcast, rather than stay in the familiarity and comfort of her own family, home, and culture. She chose her mother-in-law over her MOTHER. She gave up on the gods of Moab and chose instead to follow Naomi’s God, Jehovah. She must have seen something amazing in Naomi to give up everything to follow her mother-in-law.
Eventually, back in Judah, we see Naomi mother Ruth with companionship, security, and guidance. With the blessing of God, Naomi’s advice gained for Ruth the security of a new marriage, the joy of a son, and a place in the genealogy of King David, King Solomon, and eventually, Jesus himself. Widowed and childless, Naomi continued to be a mother.
Whoever our Ruths are, may our mothering yield such a far-reaching impact for good as Naomi’s did.
Mothering is Strength
Everyone knows that bearing children in hard work. Every stage of raising them is hard, too. It takes strength to pour into people, children or otherwise:
Standing firm on house rules and healthy boundaries when children are badgering for their own way.
Enduring late nights and frequently disrupted sleep to care for screaming, hungry babies, whether you birthed them or not.
Choosing patience and kindness in spite of sleepless nights or tantruming toddlers.
Holding tenaciously to faith when hopes and longings are stripped away.
Choosing joy and pouring love into the rest of the family while grieving the loss of a child.
Loving, guiding, and sharing yourself with the child you have poured into and long to adopt, but who, according to a judge’s decision, will soon be returning to his biological family.
Listening, advising, giving attention, extending grace, providing opportunities for the students you have taken under your wing, the ones who need you because you give them what they don’t receive at home.
Whether pouring into their own or other people’s children, all these demonstrations of strength come from the hearts of mothers.
The Legacy of Authentic Motherhood
A year ago, an aunt wrote this to me:
Happy Mother’s Day, Zori! What a difference your love and patience and sacrifice makes every single day, seeds sown for a lifetime. Lots of love to you today.
These words are just as encouraging to me today as they were then. Even though I’ve lost the baby I was pregnant with last Mother’s Day.
Whether you have, lost, or never had children, may words like these from my aunt be true of you.
Like Lisa suggests on her blog, let’s “celebrate the heart of women who look beyond their own wants to see the needs of others.”
I hope that wherever you find yourself, fulfilled in your desires for motherhood or not, you can know that your life—your nurturing, your sacrifice, your influence, and your strength—DOES make a difference. That is the legacy of a mother.