Although, as you can tell from her proposed title, she was never exactly proposing a day about motherhood; hers was a progressive call for women to unite for peace.
On the other hand, maybe motherhood in real life has always been this complicated. Maybe it’s always brought up intense, often contradictory feelings in most of us, whether we are mothers, have mothers, are partnered with mothers, or all, or none of the above.
Just for example, in this one room, there are those who are grateful to the mothers who have cared for you, who still care for you. And there are those who come grieving for mothers who have died, or grieving the mother you never had, the relationship you longed for.
Some of you are mothers, in the thick of raising children. You come with your worries –
even if your kids are grown you come with worries – worries if you’ve done enough, and done it well enough, and if you are ever enough? (you are)
Some dread another mention of motherhood – maybe you’ve struggled with infertility, or you’re carrying grief after pregnancy loss, or the loss of a child.
Or maybe you’ve simply chosen not to parent, and wish our culture would stop lifting up parenthood as the ideal.
Almost all of us come with a mixture of all of these.
As a parent in a two-mom family, I struggle with the gendered nature of both Mother’s and Father’s Day. Sometimes I feel like the mom; sometimes the dad – most of the time I don’t even know what I mean by those claims. I just feel like a parent. I wish we could call it Parent’s Day.
Embedded in many of our complicated feelings about motherhood is the cultural myth of the “ideal” mother. Located primarily in white, middle-class female identity, this myth gained traction in the nineteenth century when, as New Yorker writer Elizabeth Weiss observes, “Mothers were expected to form intense emotional bonds with their children and to oversee their physical and moral development.” The Ideal Mother knows just what to do to care for her kids, and she does it perfectly.
By the twentieth century, the Ideal Mother was cautioned not to overdo it however- or risk permanently dependent children.
This tightrope continued through mid-twentieth century until the 70s and 80s, when the Ideal Mother was also an Ideal Career Woman, the ultimate multi-tasker, characterized perfectly by the perfume ad with the memorable lyric “cause I bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.” Today, the Ideal Mother has fully evolved to superhuman status, doing it all, and with the cheery disposition to match.
The Hallmark Card and now television channel business model – are built on us buying into this myth. And a lot of the time – we do. Because on its surface, it feels like praise for the often unseen, unrecognized, and relentless work of motherhood. It feels like a way to acknowledge our gratitude or our longing for someone who loves us no matter what,
who knows just the right thing to say or do, and who says or does just that.
However, regardless of the particulars of your complicated relationship to motherhood –
the “Ideal Mother” myth doesn’t actually serve us. Instead it keeps mothers divided from non-mothers, de-values the parenting role of non-women, de-values the community who circle around the “official” parents. It sets up standards impossible to live up to, and it creates a cycle of shame, and guilt that impacts the whole family system, making it highly unlikely that any of us will seek or get help when we need it.
On the whole it creates an unsustainable, imbalanced system – for individuals, for families, and for our world – The Ideal Mother is anything but.
Which brings me to the actual topic for today’s sermon. (You wondered if I’d get here)
I need to pause first to acknowledge church member John Grant, who purchased this sermon in the auction. John is – let’s say passionate – about environmental concerns, and so he asked me to offer a sermon that explored environmental justice, and especially to consider what our faith asks of us in terms of our relationship and responsibility to the natural world.
As I was looking ahead to Mother’s Day, I was excited to see our environmental justice team starting to revitalize, and signs that there might be an overall readiness for us to make some headway as a congregation in our engagement with some of the questions John posed.
Specifically, I wondered if the combination of exploring Mother’s Day and Mother Earth
might allow us to return to the original progressive ideals at the heart of Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day proclamation, especially in terms of how we engage motherhood,
as well as our relationship to the earth. Or at least, I hoped to get us started on that path.
The idea of Mother Earth can be traced in a few different ways, including through Native American traditions. For example, the words attributed to Chief Seattle in our hymnal,
from a speech he gave in the mid-nineteenth century:
“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother?”
Now it turns out that this speech was more likely written by a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1970s than by Chief Seattle himself, but we can verify that other tribes drew on the Mother Earth metaphor – for example the Algonquin tribe claimed a strong oral tradition of the Earth-Mother or Grandmother.
This indigenous perspective sees all of life as deeply related, called to a responsibility of mutual care. Humans and the earth are in the same family, just as with all of life, and as the Incans hinted at, in the same family as the whole universe.
The Ancient Greeks too spoke of a personification of the Earth in the great goddess Gaia, great mother of all, creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all the universe. Today, we see this myth play out in the Gaia hypothesis – the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating system. While it turns out that this hypothesis doesn’t make great science – it can be a very powerful metaphor to consider the earth as a whole system rather than as a bunch of separate, individual parts.
Perhaps even more influential than these ancient traditions, however, is the impact of the Age of Enlightenment on this idea of Mother Earth, especially for our religious tradition,
which has been so Enlightenment-impacted.
Which is to say, a lot of us have taken to heart that whole “I think therefore I am” that is the foundation of Enlightenment philosophy. I am my brain, You are your brain. My very personhood is like Brain Brain Brain. And our brains constitute entirely separate individuals. Separate from our bodies, separate from each other, separate from the natural world.
To help make sense of all these separate entities, the Enlightenment associated masculinity with this big brain (the self), and femininity with the body and with nature (the other). There’s a lot more to say and more nuance in all of this but for today,
let me just summarize that in the Enlightenment “Mother Earth” became a way to do the exact opposite of what the ancient traditions were trying to teach – the Enlightenment’s concept of “Mother Earth” reduced our relatedness, reduced our sense of mutual obligation, and instead asserted a “natural” hierarchy where men were separate and above
the messy, uncivilized, embodied feminine natural world.
We live with the consequences of this Enlightenment-based take on our relationship with the Earth (and with our bodies, but that’s another sermon).
However, I worry less about us colluding with this paradigm than I do with how our contemporary understanding of motherhood influences the ways we understand our relationship to the earth when we think of it as our Mother.
I mean – if we subconsciously buy in to the idealization of mothers as hyper-responsible, supreme-caretakers, always-happy, capable of handling anything we throw at them,
supreme-beings….then maybe we are this Ideal Mother’s children, happily dependent and trusting our Mother to provide….. no matter the waste we throw at her, or the resources we use, or the practices we engage, she, our Ideal Mother, has it handled.
Which means, not only is this myth unsustainable for us in the most intimate sense of our families, but also in the widest possible sense of our interrelatedness as one human family.
We need a new myth, a new story – actually we need multiple stories. We need a new way to talk about motherhood that allows for many things to be true, all at once. We need to be able to talk about the ways that many of us play the part of mother – in ways unrelated to our gender, or our official parenting status. And we need to make space for all the ways that motherhood shows up in us and in our lives: space for the caring mother, the harried mother, the anxious mother, wise mother, responsible mother, lonely mother, mother who doesn’t want to be a mother, the longing of one to be a mother, the mother who shares parenting with many others, the joyous mother, clueless mother, cool mother, the mother who hopes and who dreams, and the aging mother whose children now care for her.
Applying this expansive story to Mother Earth, we might imagine that the earth is both our mother, and we are the Earth’s mother. That we the Earth is both providing for us, just as we are providing for the Earth. We might imagine that we are co-creating one another, co-caring for each other, all the time.
Understanding our relationship to the earth, and to one another in this way, we begin to undo the divisions of the Enlightenment and instead live into our Unitarian Universalist theological proposition that all of life is one – all of it.
Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy calls this reframing, the Work that Reconnects.
In her book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy – Macy encourages us to frame our engagement with the earth as a practice of making and keeping connection – with ourselves, others and the whole world. Again, actively affirming our proposition that all life is one.
Macy offers 4 Steps for this Work that Reconnects. I’m going to describe them and as I do, I encourage you to think about how they could be helpful not just in reframing our relationship to the earth, but also in reframing our ideas about motherhood
and relationships more generally.
Macy’s first step is to come from gratitude. She says, “Gratitude breeds trust, because it helps us acknowledge the times we’ve been able to count on one another;” “the stance of gratitude is a refreshing alternative to guilt or fear as a source of motivation.”
The second step, is to move into compassion, and to honor our pain for our world. Often we compartmentalize our grief- we have to in order to function. Allowing ourselves to feel our longing and despair, however, to be compassionate for the world beyond ourselves, we access our motivation to bring about change, and healing.
As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, our work on this step is to “hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”
Macy’s third step responds to this pain, by asking us to “see ourselves with new eyes.”
First we see ourselves not as separate individuals, but as a part of a great interconnected whole. And second, we see ourselves not as “static beings,” but as a part of a great “becoming.” Both of these concepts – our connectedness and our personal evolution –
are deeply Unitarian Universalist ideas – and they allow us to remember that as we change,
the world changes.
Finally, grounded in the three prior steps of gratitude, compassion, and evolving interconnectedness, we are called to act. From this framework, we are free to act without attachment to the outcome because we are acting from our sense of relationship and mutual care.
As with motherhood, we start to realize how little we can control the end result, and yet how little that influences our need and capacity to act.
Some of you know that my extended family is filled with loggers and millworkers.
Growing up my uncles told me about how the “tree huggers” “don’t get it.” My uncles knew that sustainability was good for them, just as it was for the earth. But the activists who came to town didn’t know to distinguish between loggers like my uncles, and the big logging companies, who came in and wiped out the forests, and most of my uncles’ livelihood in 80s and 90s. They saw them all as enemies.
I often wondered, why those “tree huggers” didn’t come and talk to my uncles, why they didn’t they didn’t build relationship – it seemed like such a lost opportunity to discover common ground.
To answer one of John’s questions directly, I believe our work as a faith community is to use a framework- like Joanna Macy’s – that allows us to discover our common ground, and to discover the right path through a commitment to partnership and working together.
The work of our congregation – for environmental justice, and everything else-
is to learn and practice these skills together, to practice connection, to affirm the ways we are all in this together – playing many different parts, yet none of us entirely separate from another, despite appearances.
Nearly 150 years later, Julia Ward Howe is still calling to us to her great unanswered plea –
“Arise all who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!
Say firmly: we will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: disarm, disarm! Let us take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can finally live in peace.”
May we make it so, and amen.