I am confident that a poll of active Mormons would show that Mother’s Day sacrament meeting is, hands down, the one meeting of the year most fraught with difficulty for the people who attend. I have seen women leave the meeting in tears, and I know others who have learned, through sad experience, that it is best for them to take a break from church on Mother’s Day. I wonder if this phenomenon is uniquely Mormon. Do other Christian women struggle with church-going on this day? If it is unique to us, I wonder why we have a corner on the Mother’s Day anxiety market.
Over the years, I’ve heard some very good Mother’s Day talks, but I have also heard some that were cringe-worthy. I’ve decided to see if I can discern consistent reasons why the good ones are good and the bad ones are terrible. This blog post is the result of my musing. Keep in mind, this is from a male perspective, and my opinions might be worth exactly what you paid for them. Please use the comments to make your own contributions.
The first consideration is that you, the speaker, need to begin with your audience in mind. You wouldn’t give a talk in a single adult ward about the joys of scouting. Your ward contains women at various stages of their lives, including some who don’t have children and never will. Think about your message and how it will sound to the entire spectrum of your sisters in the ward.
President Eyring once said that when he meets somebody for the first time, he assumes that person is struggling mightily with an intractable problem, and cannot see any possible solution. More often than not, his assumption is correct. Bear in mind that most of women in the congregation have lives that haven’t turned out the way they expected. It isn’t uncommon for LDS women to be dealing with some combination of the following factors: a difficult marriage, no marriage, no children, difficult children, health problems, loss of faith. And this is all in addition to the everyday problems like getting the bills paid and the laundry done. I recommend that you take President Eyring’s approach and assume that the women to whom you are speaking are doing their best, but that often their very best means just barely hanging on. Measure your words with that assumption in mind.
The good talks that I have heard tend to address the details of an individual woman’s life, in all its messiness and particularity. The bad ones tend to deal with the big generalities, praising motherhood without even pausing to define whether we are speaking of women who have given birth, or womanhood in general. If you want to deal in rose-colored platitudes, you are probably gunning for the high council, so save it until then.
The best Mother’s Day talk I’ve ever heard was an illustration of this principle. The woman described her family as she was growing up. Just after she became a beehive, her mother had an affair. When her dad found out that there was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on without him, he summarily divorced his adulterous wife and took the children to live with him. A year later he died in a car accident, and the children went back to mom, whose life was now very different. Loverboy was gone, she was outside of the church, and she had no means of support. The speaker described how she saw her mother take stock of the smoking wreckage of her life, humble herself, and begin the heroic and difficult work of transforming her life into something she didn’t need to be ashamed of anymore. She worked during the day and took classes at night, and created a home for her children where they knew love.
Avoid speaking of angel mothers. When we speak of mothers as people who are incapable of gross sin, they know we are lying. And, even worse, we are also cutting them off from the grace and redemption that Jesus offers. If you’re already perfect, who needs it?
What do you think when you see a used car lot with a sign like this: “Honest Abe’s Used Cars! We’ll give you an honest deal! Honest!” Isn’t it reasonable to think that Abe is trying a little too hard, and might be overcompensating for something? In the same way, when we make a dramatic production of Mother’s Day, I fear that we are sometimes trying to compensate for the way we devalue the real and important work they do on the other 364 days of the year. Beware the philosophies of Hallmark, mingled with scripture.
It is good to share personal stories, but be aware that your own family might be a bit stranger than you think. The worst talk I ever heard came from a woman who described how her mother used to sit by her during piano lessons. So far, so good. But her mother held a yardstick, and if her daughter played the wrong key, her mother smacked her across the back of her hands, thus providing sufficient negative reinforcement to motivate her to do it right the next time through. She told us that as a girl, she would sit in her room crying, with big welts on the back of her hands, but now that she was grown up, she understood why her mother did it, and she was grateful, by golly. At least half the ward was so embarrassed for her at this point that they looked as if they wanted to crawl under the benches. Love for mothers is good, but sometimes there is a fine, fine line between love and dysfunction. Make sure you understand where that line is.
A friend once proposed a thought experiment. What would happen, if, at the start of sacrament meeting on Mother’s Day, the bishop announced that there would be two separate meetings. If you want to hear about angel mothers and perfect people, remain in the chapel. If you want to hear from real women who have read scriptures and held FHE and family prayer, but whose son is in jail or whose 16-year-old daughter is pregnant or whose husband has left her, then you should meet in the cultural hall. Which meeting do you think would be more meaningful to the participants? More importantly, which meeting do you think would be more likely to provide meaningful support?
I don’t envy you people who have been called to give talks next week. Speaking for myself, I think Father’s Day is much easier. For sacrament meeting, we can give the men a sternly worded warning about the danger of teh pernogriffiez. After church we can give dear old dad a cookie in a baggie and a kick in the pants, call it good for another year, and send him home. No fuss, no muss.