Beyond Pink Carnations: Why I Don’t Do Mother’s Day at Church

Beyond Pink Carnations: Why I Don’t Do Mother’s Day at Church May 5, 2015

Most Sunday mornings, I take a few prayerful moments before worship. I stand at the window, and I watch people come.

They come with hope and thanksgiving. They come with expectation, and hella heavy baggage. They come with joy and they come bearing gifts. Often, they come with heartbreak. And while I don’t always know what that is for each person, I often do. I spot the one with the recent diagnosis; the newly or nearly divorced; the struggling to make ends meet; the care-worn who just moved in with an aging parent; the one who is doubting the very existence of God, but still shows up to be the Church, and to be with their people… I watch them approach, and I pray for them. I pray for the wisdom of my words. I take all this in, and sometimes by the time I get to the sanctuary, my heart is so full I can hardly breathe.

Smabs Sputzer / via flickr
*Smabs Sputzer / via flickr

On Mother’s day, my parking lot watch will show me happy, brightly-dressed families who have brunchy plans after church. I am joyful with these families. I am grateful for these families.

But here’s who else I see. I see the woman who had a miscarriage. The man whose mother just died. The one whose mother was abusive, or absent. I see the couple who has spent tens of thousands of dollars at the fertility clinic, without hopeful results. The ones who wait, and wait, and wait for the gift of adoption. The ones who have chosen other life-giving paths over parenthood, but feel ever-so slightly judged when it is time to “celebrate mothers.”

I remember from childhood, those days of pinning a pink carnation on all the moms, and having them stand in worship for a round of applause. I know many churches still do something like this. The Baptists down the street will put an out-of-context verse about women—usually from Proverbs—on their changeable letter sign. The lectionary blogs share special litanies of motherhood. But I suspect that the joy these practices bring to a few, are far outweighed by the pain they bring to many.

I also wonder if the whole Mother’s Day thing has run its course.

Because what I also remember from my childhood church days is that, once a year, we had “Women’s Sunday.” Not related to Mother’s Day, this was a day when women served communion, preached, led music, and said the prayers.

Otherwise known as “Every Other Sunday” in most of our places, these days.

Days designated to specifically celebrate and venerate women are…complicated. Not just for the motherless child, or the childless woman… but I’m talking deep-seated, societal implications about what being a woman means. What women should look like. How they should act and dress, and what roles may be appropriate for them. The Ladies Lead Worship thing—even though my church had women deacons and, for awhile, a female associate pastor—subtly said that women leading worship is a special occasion. And aren’t we all good sports for hearing what they have to say today?

Much of the cultural stuff around Mother’s Day feels like that to me. The department stores are full of brightly colored, floral sheath dresses, and big banners that say “Mother’s Day is May 10!” Meanwhile, T.V. commercials show men with perfect teeth giving jewelry to tearful women. And those Baptists down the street… their sign reminds me about the merits of a virtuous woman. I can’t exactly tell you what those merits are, but I know I should have them to go with my new Pandora bracelet. And my pink dress.

Because I need to look like an Easter egg to receive my breakfast in bed and pink carnation? No, it’s more that I should want to look “pretty” and feminine to receive the honor that I’ve got coming to me.

Call me crazy. Say I’m overly sensitive to cultural norms that are mostly harmless; I’m ruining a perfectly lovely day by wanting political correctness; I’m just angry that I’m not a man. (Am I close? Just trying to save some of you the trouble in the comments section…) But at least a few of you will appreciate being validated in your hunch: that something about this day reeks of placating the little woman so she won’t mind the other 364 days when she does the drudge work/keeps her silence/doesn’t get the raise…

I didn’t mean to go off the rails here, but questions around “ideal womanhood” are closely related to how we approach motherhood in church. If we aren’t careful, we can easily fall into what Hallmark—or Macy’s, or the fundamentalists down the street—say a woman ‘should’ be (and what she should look like) and miss the gospel wholeness inherent in all God’s people.

All that said—celebrate your own mama however you want. Receive gifts from your children joyfully, of course. Especially if they are of the hand-made variety.

Meanwhile, I—and the church I serve—will be over here supporting all the women, on every ordinary day. The CEO, and the single mom working two jobs. The happily married, and the intentionally single. The couple whose marriage is recognized by the state, and the ones who still fight for that right. The “virtuous,” and the exhibiting-just-regular-levels of virtue (whateverTF those are). The one who rocks that Target Lily P dress like it’s her job, and the one who would not be caught dead in pastel.

And the ones—all the ones—who taught us about Jesus, using only popsicle sticks and a felt board. Those women are love incarnate, and they are mothers to us all.

Coming up the sidewalk there, I will spot the woman who is expecting and hasn’t told anybody yet. And the young couple who wonders if it is all worthwhile, or if the strain of parenthood might tear them apart. I will see the mother whose child is breaking her heart today. And the man whose mother needs round the clock care, and doesn’t always remember his name.

I hold these things in my heart, alongside each other.  Whatever happens in worship has to be for all of them. Because they are all the body of Christ, together, and nobody gets to tell us what that looks like.

You can put THAT in a Hallmark card.

Or on the Baptists’ roving letter sign.  #proverbs31yall


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  • Curtis Martin

    Well – You’re completely right and completely wrong. You’ve just written out a wonderful Mother’s Day sermon. It’s a shame that you’re going to let some PC folks (and those well meaning Baptists down the street) from delivering it on Sunday. We ALL have Mothers – by blood or by example – some of them not even female. All women are either Mothers or Not Mothers. Some are Not Yet Mothers, others are Not Able to be Mothers and still others are Able Not to be Mothers. They all feel Mother’s day and deserve to be honored for their life’s choices and challenges. Some of us have or had Mothers who, try as they might, didn’t really do that great of a job. Some of us have Mothers who didn’t even try to do a good job in the first place. Some of us are missing our Mothers, perhaps through distance either emotional or physical, perhaps through the ultimate distance of time and mortality. We need to be honored as well and reminded of the Feminine Spirit of God who Mothers us. You couldn’t be more right about the constraints of gender roles in our society. You couldn’t be more right about the different ways each of your parishioners carries Mother’s Day with them. You couldn’t be more wrong to keep all of that to yourself. As a Pastor, you are in a unique position to encourage and validate all of those different Mothers that you mentioned as well as the childless Mothers and the Motherless children among your flock. I’d say, give EVERYONE a pink carnation. The Mothers, the Mothered, the Barren and the Orphan. All of whom are indeed part of God’s family and who sometimes do need to be reminded what they look like.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      Good insight, Curtis. I think we do that, to some extent. I just don’t do the traditional recognition kinds of things. But i have, in years past, talked about all the women who have nurtured us in faith, etc. I just really try to do it in a way that is not exclusive. Sometimes it is tricky, but important that we keep trying.

      • Curtis Martin

        Thanks for the response. I really see your heart in this piece, it just struck me that you were planning on hiding that heart from your congregation. As for the exclusivity “Carnations for all the Mom’s” thing, yeah, that’s bound to cause pain and I never liked those things. (Full Disclosure – My Ex, whom I was partnered with for over 20 years, was a Birth Mom who relinquished a son she had before she was ready. I remember her turning down the Carnation and how painful that was. Perhaps that’s why I had such a strong response.) Growing up, Mother’s day in church was always about our Wonderful Mothers and how they are like God and we should be thankful and our Mothers were wonderful (did I mention how Wonderful our Mothers were? it’s like we had Lawrence Welk for a Pastor). Then, a month later, we men (and boys) were scolded for not being as good of a Father as God is. We men just, well, we didn’t measure up and needed to try a bit harder to be like God. Not that I picked up on these messages….. Oh, and I read your Bio – Happy Mother’s Day!

      • J. Eilers

        Your Mother’s Day article was ‘right on’. Thank you.

    • J. Eilers

      Thank you, Your note was great. We need to encourage one another.
      Parenting is difficult. I always felt inadequate on “Parent” day rather than honored. . (Our children grew up fine despite amature parenting.) Thank you for your note..


    If we could just do away with all the familiar sayings such as church family and brothers and sisters we would be much more successful in being all inclusive with the majority of people that come from dysfunctional family groups. While we are at it let’s all agree to quit referring to the Holy Trinity as the Father,Son and Holy Ghost.

    • Curtis Martin

      My Congregation has sung “Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost” in our Doxology for as long as I can remember.

    • Graham Nicholls

      Oh at last!

      How long have I been saying this:

      “the majority of people that come from dysfunctional family groups”

      Thank you.

      PS I suspect that I disagree with everything else you may have to say, looking at your profile 🙂

    • kirtking

      On what basis is your claim that a majority of people come from dysfunctional family groups?

  • CrazyDogLady

    My church, in the past few years, has always tried to make a point of handing me a carnation (or a magnet, or notepad, or whatever was the chosen trinket that year), usually with a hug and a special look or explanation, like “well, you are a Dog Mom, and that counts”, or “you’re a wonderful auntie.” They try so hard. I appreciate the effort but it makes me much more uncomfortable than if they just didn’t try to include me. I was very happy this year when the worship committee decided not to do the recognition with trinkets this year (mostly because we determined people were not keeping the trinkets anyway and it was not a good use of money). Anyway, thank you for this thoughtful post.

  • Thank you. My heart is too full and aching for more words than that, so…thank you. ~a wife, mother to one with me and three in heaven, daughter of abusive parents, for whom Mother’s Day is complicated.

    • i.a.a.

      I feel for you, Alena.

  • R.T. Flakfizer

    ” Because they are all the body of Christ, together, and nobody gets to tell us what that looks like.” Not even the authors of the Bible?

    “Deep-seeded?” -> “deep-seated”

    • Graham Nicholls

      authors? Author, surely? Out of curiosity, where does it tell us what the body of Christ looks like? Are you trying to suggest that you have some exclusive knowledge of what the body of Christ looks like?

      I suspect that you mean it must be straight, white, married (with a nice set of kids, of course) middle class, and in the case of the leadership, male. Of course I could be wrong – there’s always a first time.

      I may be misunderstanding your post – I hope so – but it reeks of exclusivity to me.

      • kirtking

        Authors. A multitude of individuals who put pens to paper and created the various books of the Bible.

  • Rev Sue

    In our church we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day but Christian Family Sunday-families of all sizes, all makes and models-there are many ways to be family these days and all are valid in God’s shalom.

  • BosqueNorse

    You really do have some hang ups about your Baptist up bring, don’t you. I can understand it, but it does sound rather silly at times to always be mentioning Baptist in a somewhat sinister tone. Why not try to work on it.

  • Jan Randolph

    I love and miss my precious mother and grandmothers, and I appreciate my family expressing their love for me. But, in the Methodist Church, John Wesley’s first rule is
    “Do no harm.” If in the process of lifting some up, we inflict pain on others it seems clear that we must look for a more excellent way. Thank you for inspiring me.

    • Graham Nicholls

      What an intelligent and considerate position. I love the whole “Do no harm” idea.

    • kirtking

      Apparently, the process of lifting ANYONE up, runs the risk of “inflicting” pain on someone else.

  • Proletarius

    Sigh… I get it. Your heart is in the right place, and mine goes out to the suffering. However… I am soooo tired of this line of reasoning. Consider two people: 1) my neighbor and 2) the woman who lost a piece of silver. I am not a wealthy person (by US standards). Most months of the year it is a juggling act to pay bills. Christmases and birthdays are fairly humble affairs from a material standpoint. It is what it is… like Tevye, wealth is a curse God has chosen not to burden me with. My neighbor across the road has been abundantly cursed. He is a good man, who is raising a good family. He built his business from nothing – he has worked hard and God has chosen to bless him with success. He spends an inordinate amount of time and money supporting and building the youth in our small community in ways I can only dream of… simply because he has the means. One day, I noticed he was getting ready to head home from a church meeting… in his Corvette. He had just purchased it that week. I. LOVE. CORVETTES. I have always wanted a Corvette. I struggle to pay plumbing bills, orthopedic bills and food bills (I don’t remember eating this much as a teen). A Vette is not in my life plan and I am okay with that. He asked me if I wanted a ride home. Are you KIDDING?!? YES!! We may have broken a few rules of the road on the way home. As I pelted him with questions and observations, he seemed a little surprised by my enthusiasm. Why? I asked. Some members of the congregation had berated him for such a selfish and flamboyant purchase, and what an effrontery it was to those in our congregation who couldn’t afford one. He could better use that money to care for the poor, blah blah blah ad nauseum. (My words, not his.) It occurred to me at that moment I had actually done something right in my life. I had not judged a man based on my reading of the scriptures. I celebrated with him in his blessings… he was in a position to buy a toy that brought him some happiness. I have some personal knowledge of this man’s life challenges and worries… and I don’t want to trade. But even if I didn’t know… why would I ever be so focused on my own pain and suffering that I could not be happy in another’s celebration of God’s gifts?
    Which brings me to person #2. When the woman, after much stress and effort, finally found the missing coin, what did she do first? She brought her friends and family together to celebrate the finding of that which was lost. You know the real meaning of the metaphor. In your model, she should not bring everyone together for celebration, because there are people in her group who are still missing their lost sheep, their lost coin, their lost hope for motherhood. And we don’t want them to feel bad. I’m sorry. This is blunt and insensitive, but I am going to say it anyway.
    I can think of no greater gift, (other than the gift of His Son) which God has given us than the gift of Motherhood. There is no more powerfully, Truthfully Christian act than the act of Motherhood. Motherhood at its depth and core is of such Godliness that it transcends our understanding. So, in the midst of crass commercialism, I am going to celebrate motherhood and mothers. I am going to put them in the middle of the congregation and we are going to surround them with love, and praise, and hope and encouragement. I will be on the outside of the joyous melee with a tender heart… my mother and I never reconciled before her death. We were never able to say “sorry” for terrible things done and said. But my shouts of joy and gladness will be all the louder, my praises and thanks to God all the more sincere because I know there are children in this world who will never know my sorrow. All thanks to the mother-hearts and mother-souls like the women in my congregation. We should never hide our thanks and celebrations of God’s greatest gifts, even if in His wisdom He has chosen not to give them to everyone.

    • Graham Nicholls

      Sorry, simply not comparable. I want to stay at home from Church on Mothers (and Fathers) days. I also hate churches where “the family” is worshipped almost above all. I get rather angry about those smug *******s celebrating how wonderful their childhoods and current situations are. Very nice for them, now have a little consideration. As for your friend and his car – well if he lives in a deprived area, I’d frankly consider driving his new car to church as somewhat insensitive. Likewise Mothers day. A revolting spectacle of smug US materialism which is sadly infecting the UK. You can keep it.

      • Erin Smallwood Wathen

        i agree with you Graham. The worship of family is a tricky thing too… i may get brave enough to write a post about that someday too, but i think we all know how that will go down in the comments section 😉

        • Graham Nicholls

          Yeah, I don’t think that those from “happy families” really have much of a clue how things were for the rest (the majority?) of us. Ah well.

      • Kathy Ruth

        Sounds to me like you need to find a different church! I have no problem with someone who gives and serves having a treat–of whatever kind–on occasion! Jealousy is an ugly thing.

        • Graham Nicholls

          Jealousy – seriously? Where do you get that from?

        • kirtking

          Or a good counselor. God forbid someone celebrate a good childhood or current situation. We should all live hateful and angry because someone experienced a terrible childhood?

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      i don’t really follow your logic here, but trust me when i say that i won’t be celebrating your neighbor’s corvette in worship either…

      • Kathy Ruth

        I follow it perfectly! i, too, am tired of this line of reasoning. we are all different and we all have different disappointments, needs and wants. We cannot, and more importantly SHOULD not, live our lives in such a way that we don’t cause any unintentional hurt to others! INTENTIONAL hurts–yes, those we should avoid, but not celebrating something because it MIGHT hurt someone? That makes life dull, colorless and depressing!
        If you haven’t read or seen The Giver, I suggest you do so. That society tried to maintain an equilibrium for everyone. (Hint–it doesn’t work!)

  • Grady Walton

    “If we aren’t careful, we can easily fall into what
    Hallmark—or Macy’s, or the fundamentalists down the street—say a woman
    ‘should’ be (and what she should look like) and miss the gospel wholeness
    inherent in all God’s people.” Please
    describe this gospel wholeness inherent in all God’s people.

    “Meanwhile, I—and the church I serve—will be over here
    supporting all the
    women, on every ordinary day.” Do I detect a tone of moral superiority?

    I don’t think I’ve read a more lugubrious post for many years.
    As someone who suffers clinical depression, this article made me feel … even bleaker;
    thank you, I really needed that (sarcasm alert). Listen, I’m no fan of
    fundamentalist forms of Christianity, but WHAT IF those fundamentalists down
    the street actually have God’s design for a virtuous woman dialed in correctly?
    Granted, God is a God of variety and He likely does not expect all women to be
    and live the same way, but I think Rev. Wathen errs by focusing overly on human
    constructs (with all its flaws and maladies) of feminism. The tone of her post
    implies that they are somehow better than women who rock the pastel dress and
    are prefect manifestations of Proverbs 31:10-31. It sounds like Rev. Wathen has
    a secular politically correct view of leading a church, in which I wonder if
    there is room for the divine. One last thing: I am almost 60-years-old and I’ve
    learned that when you have a group of people gathered together, someone could
    be hurt or offended by nearly anything a leader says or does or doesn’t do. If
    you try to appease everyone, you will likely offended even more people.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      i’m not talking about the worry of being ‘offensive.’ i have concern about being insensitive. and when you are a pastor, you have to weight these things beyond the surface, social context, and hold them at a more deeply human level. If that makes me err on the side of caution in many cases, so be it.

  • Susan Jane

    I sat in my own church with my kids the Mother’s Day after my divorce and watched while all the married mothers were given flowers. Only after the pastor spoke up was I recognized. I got humiliation and pity. No flower, though.

    • Lynne Childress

      I am so sorry that this happened to you.

  • Katrina Soto

    Mother’s Day is not church observance. End of discussion.

  • DeWarrior

    “Meanwhile, I—and the church I serve—will be over here supporting all the women, on every ordinary day. The CEO, and the single mom working two jobs. The happily married, and the intentionally single. The couple whose marriage is recognized by the state, and the ones who still fight for that right. The “virtuous,” and the exhibiting-just-regular-levels of virtue (whateverTF those are). The one who rocks that Target Lily P dress like it’s her job, and the one who would not be caught dead in pastel.”

    But by the logic in this post, didn’t you just celebrate the CEO first and leave the single mom working two jobs to second? Why relegate the intentionally single and the non-pastels to be second-class citizens to the happily married and Lily P wearers? And didn’t you follow this whole paragraph up to say that whatever happens in worship has to be for all of them, even though each instance of singling out a class (which you said you’d be doing) is specifically not for all of them? I think we as Christians have to give up the idea that celebrating some of us for unique attributes (eg. being a mother) means putting down the rest of us who don’t have those unique attributes …

  • C. Vera S.

    I ran across your blog on Face Book, looking for a reference to my situation, among all the well intentioned, “I love and miss my mom so much” entries. I was badly abused by a paranoid schizophrenic mother, who got away with it, because in the early 1960’s mental illness could be well hidden by families because of the stigma. No DSS to come rescue the kids back then. You just took it. My vivid mother’s day memory is at 15, mom punched me once again – and this time I punched back, just as hard. She looked at me in surprise, and never hit me again – and didn’t tell my dad on me either. I really don’t miss her, even though, with the right medication, she eventually improved for a while.
    Fast forward 43 years. I have a loving husband and loving 19 year old son ( who has never been hit in anger). They both know the whole story. Both are empathetic, but a little sad that its hard for me to put my past away, and enjoy the day with them.
    I should mention here that yes, I am a “fundamentalist Christian” (although I don’t go to the church down your street).Its my faith and godly counseling that has kept me sane. Please nobody stereotype me, because I have read every comment here and appreciate the dialog. MY God is Love personified and I do love you all because God loved you first, even if we don’t agree on everything – and everyone of you would be welcome in my church with open arms, because of this.
    Thanks for understanding, and because you do, maybe this Sunday will be a little easier. And by the way, our church gives out Starbucks gift certificates on mother’s day, not flowers, so I will enjoy my little gift. ( :

  • mintap

    Mother’s Day? That is no longer relevant. It is “bigoted.” It will be banned. Now we can only have Parent A Day and Parent B Day (or just Parent Day, or Older Person Day, or just Person Day). Some children simply are placed under a social construct where they no longer have mothers. The biological reality is severed. This is the Progressive way: all others are on wrong side of history, everyone else exhibits inequality, are full of micro-aggressions, etc. We must assume Progress at all costs.

    Celebrating Mother’s Day = propagating psychological damage to the thousands of children without gender specific parents and/or parents not identifying as a “mother.” This stigma increases the likelihood of suicide.

    The same applies to celebrating women (or the social constructs surrounding such a term) at any other time as well. We have to be consistent here, right?

    • kirtking

      How about NO day to honor anyone? Some people have suffered great harm from “parents,” birth or adoptive or foster, and recognizing any good parents inflicts harm on some of those people.

      Sexual attraction, that we are pre-determined by our genetics. Gender and sexual identity, however, is a choice we each make.

      • mintap

        Or even more logically consistent: NO honoring of anyone at anytime. (Something more like Harrison Bergeron)

  • Gregg

    And her parish has a “Women’s Ministries.” Why?

  • i.a.a.

    Rev. Wathen, You’ve almost got it right. I’m not comfortable with the oft-used phrase “gift of adoption”. That only happens when a horrible loss has occurred for the first parents. Those of us who were shamed into surrendering our babies to adoption agencies and given no other options, not informed of any of our full legal rights, or offered supports in the interim between pregnancy and self-support are ALWAYS ignored. We’ve suffered a loss not just at the birth of our children, but for the rest of our lives. Not knowing if your child is dead or alive for many, many years, or if he or she is well-cared for, or instructed in the faith you’d want, is a life-long pain.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      i.a.a., thank you for this perspective. I hope that the rights of birth parents are improving these days, and that it is not always such a painful experience–but you are right, that we need to be aware of the many layers and complexities when we use the ‘gift’ language.

  • I do very little about Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or Lay Sunday… none of which are liturgical by any means. Being raised in the Independent Church (Christian) I remember awards for the mother with the ‘most children’, the most ‘children present’, the ‘oldest mother’ and the ‘youngest mother’. Well that stopped when the youngest mother wasn’t married. Enough… go to church to worship God…. thanks

  • Rick

    Check out the history of Mother’s day and Mother’s Day Work Clubs:

  • eaglegreen

    Hey Erin, I mostly loved what you’ve written till I got to the phrase “Especially if they are of the hand-made variety.” Are you speaking of “natural” born children?? If so, it’s really out of place. Parents who adopt are just as valid! There should not be any “Especially”

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      when I say ‘hand-made’ i’m referring to the gifts kids make for Mother’s Day. Not the kids themselves!

  • WatchingFromOverThere

    There are many women who neither have living mothers nor are mothers themselves. It’s bad enough that every online merchant I have ever bought from bombards me with “Buy this for Mom!” several times a day. But I’m very glad that my church doesn’t make a big deal of it. I would have had to skip church on the Mother’s Day that occurred just two months after my mother died.
    This year, I got together with two other women friends who neither have mothers nor are mothers, and we went out for pizza, because we knew that no one takes Mom out for pizza on Mother’s Day.