Mothers and others..

Sunday will be Mother’s Day. People are already talking about how this year will be “different” because of COVID-19. They say it will be more difficult because of the social distancing measures in place. And it will be for many families. There will be few family gatherings, few long and happy discussions around a dinner table, fewer flowers, fewer hugs…Many will still have the opportunity to see their mothers/children via skype or zoom or through a window. Many can still hear a familiar and much-loved voice over the phone, and send messages via text, email or even a letter or card. But it’s not the same. There is something about a mother’s presence– her touch, her voice, her smile, the subtle scent that belongs to no one else– that we cherish and celebrate.

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But for many people, this Mother’s Day will be no different. Sadly, there are many who will spend Mother’s Day alone. There is a visceral, painful place– a gaping wound– where there is no “Mother” on Mother’s Day. Maybe it’s caused by death–either the death of our mother, or the death of our child/children. Maybe it’s some other wrenching separation– Alzheimer’s, a ruptured relationship, addiction, mental illness, abandonment, deployment, rejection… We miss what once was, or we miss what we never had. COVID-19 may bring this horror to some this year, and it may leave some with that horror for years to come, but the pain and loss is no different for being caused by a virus. The pain of losing (or not having) a Mother runs deep. It may be felt more keenly on this day, but it aches and gnaws every day. Mothers give life. They nurture. They are the safe arms in which babies find peaceful rest (..eventually). They are the kissers of boo-boos; the proud recipients of our first attempts at writing, and drawing; our first audience for concerts and dances; our first teachers and nurses, police officers, drill sergeants, and life coaches; often our first playmates, too.

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For many years, I have lived on “the other side” of motherhood. I am a daughter– blessed with an amazing, kind, strong, wise and Godly mother. I cherish the relationship we have, and look forward to the time when I can visit with her in person, instead of over the phone. She spent long nights rocking me to sleep; hours praying and crying by my hospital bed when I almost died as a toddler; listened patiently while I ranted and railed in teenage rebellion; encouraged me when I was exhausted from work and frustrated about living alone; and taught me the joy of spending time with God and loving others. And I want to honor her every day for the Godly example she has been to me and to others.

But I have spent most of my adult life outside the experience of motherhood, watching others with tiny arms wrapped around their necks, others kissing boo-boos and receiving artwork, others taking pictures of their graduating seniors and swapping stories with other moms. And, I have been reminded– sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes with contempt–that I do not “belong.” “You don’t know what I go through.” “You don’t understand.” “Who do you think you are to tell me about my daughter? You’re just her teacher. I’m her MOTHER!” “You can’t tell my children what to do.” None of these statements are wrong– but they hurt. And most of them come from someone else’s pain– their fear of failure, their frustration, their guilt, even a lack of sleep or a migraine…

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Because of my experience, however, I have learned two things– a greater appreciation for my own excellent mother; and a new appreciation for the role I have been allowed to play as an “Other.”

Mothers are vital, but they are not perfect, and, especially where they are missing or rejected or removed, the world needs Others. Women (and men) who will stand as surrogates, substitutes, and valued helpers. Sometimes it is a thankless job; often it is temporary, even momentary, and unexpected. Throughout our lives, there are Others who inspire us, who have our backs, who cheer for us through track meets, or at dance recitals, or spelling bees. Others who may not kiss boo-boos, but patch them up in the moment. There are Others who are the first to spot our hidden potential, or warn us of dangers that no one else has spotted. Others who pray for us, cry with us, and share our smiles. Others who buy Girl Scout cookies, or magazine subscriptions, lemonade, or raffle tickets.

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It was not God’s will for me to be a Mother. I have been blessed in recent years to be a step-mother and -grandmother, and I adore my kids and grandkids. I am so grateful for the mothers and others who shaped their lives, and the honor of being part of their families. But God has also given me a lifetime of being an Other. I may not have the “normal” experience of Motherhood, but I’ve had my share of doubts, failures, “bad” days, and sleepless nights. And I’ve been blessed to get to know hundreds of children– through school, Bible School, Sunday School, mission trips, Story Hours, school visits, Summer Reading, camps, baby sitting, extended family, and more.

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If you are a mother– celebrate Mother’s Day this year. There are millions who have been denied the honor. And many who have lost the privilege.

If your Mother is still alive, but you can’t be with her– celebrate Mother’s Day this year. If you can’t be together in person, make an effort to be together in word and spirit. Flowers are nice; a fancy meal is fine, too, but your time– listening, sharing laughter and memories–it priceless. There will come another year when you won’t be able to be with her– and no phone line or video chat will be able to bring her closer. If your mother is alive, but your relationship is strained, you can still celebrate Mother’s Day. Use this day as a starting point to move forward– some relationships can be repaired if you are willing to take a first step. Others need closure. All relationships need forgiveness– for YOUR sake.

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If you are missing your mother or have no mother–celebrate Other’s Day this year. Look for the people who have encouraged or uplifted you– aunts, neighbors, teachers, college roommates–let them know they’ve made a difference.

If you are not a mother– and even if you are– you are someone’s Other. Celebrate the opportunity to be the best Other you can be. Someone needs an Other today!

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Why Being “Nice” Matters

I spent the day with my granddaughter today.  We went to the bakery, the bank, the grocery, and the library.  Some days we visit the post office or a local cafe.  We live downtown, so we walk everywhere, and say hello to people we meet along the way.  At each stop, we thank the people behind the counter or desk.  My granddaughter is learning manners– how to be polite in public.  Her parents do a wonderful job of this, and it’s very easy for me to bask in the proud glow of people remarking on how cute and polite and engaging she is.  (I may be a little biased, but they DO say such things…)

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Years ago, when I worked at a library, there were always families who came in and practiced good manners– “Please” and “Thank You,” “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and “May I?”  Often, the children were prompted, especially when they were young.  Sometimes, they didn’t understand why they were being told to say such things.  A couple of times, I had other parents roll their eyes and comment negatively on such practices.  “They don’t even understand what they’re saying.”  “I’ll bet they don’t say any of those things at home– what hypocrites.  They’re just trying to make people think they’re better than everybody else.”  “You shouldn’t force kids to say such things.  They’ll just resent you for it later.”

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There are actually parenting articles about forcing children to say “I’m sorry.”  They are well-intentioned, and some are helpful about explaining what the issues are (here’s a link to one of the articles) .  Other articles advise parents not to prompt children to say, “Thank You.” (Here’s another link.)  I don’t disagree with these authors.  In fact, I think they make a valid point about teaching our kids “shallow” manners and neglecting the deeper values of gratitude and empathy.  But I think children need both.

Manners (especially as they reflect deeper values) are important.  We live in a society where manners are becoming relics–laughable reminders of a quaint culture we have long outgrown.  There are pockets of the country (and the larger world) where politeness is almost an obsession.  It is not polite or helpful to be facetiously “nice” or sarcastically “nice”.  But what happens when we no longer dare to show gratitude or empathy without inviting ridicule and contempt?  What happens when saying “Please” and “Thank you” make you a target for mockery? When and how did this happen to our culture?

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With all due respect to the recent spate of articles, I think something gets lost in the hyperbolic headlines and fascination with “feelings”–manners should originate, not with feelings, but with the acknowledgement of some basic truths:

  • I am not the center of the universe!
  • Other people– all other people–have value, worth, and dignity.
  • I need other people, and they need me–I am not an island.
  • There is a God who is kind, forgiving, loving, and wise.

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I am polite to others, not because I feel “nice”, but because I recognize that God created all people; He loves us all equally, and I have a duty to treat others with dignity, respect, and kindness– even if I don’t “feel” it; even if they don’t respond in kind.  Do I always remember and acknowledge this, even as an adult?  Sadly, no.  But I practice politeness as a discipline and a reminder that this should be so.  I teach it for the same reason.  And the amazing thing is that it makes a huge difference.  Maybe not in the moment, with all my emotions running wild…but in the quiet aftermath of knowing that I said “Thank you” instead of the hurtful and sarcastic comment.  I said “I’m sorry” instead of holding on to my pride and bitterness.  And I may never know the difference it made to the harried waitress, or lonely shopper, or tired mechanic to hear two or three kind words– “Thank You” (You are noticed– you matter).  “I’m so sorry” (you have dignity–you are worthy of kindness) “Please” (you have value–your time, skill, or service is special)

I’m not a “nice” person– I am often hateful and stubborn and impatient.  But God has been abundantly gracious and merciful to me when I don’t deserve it.  Being polite is such a small thing in light of God’s eternal and boundless love toward us.

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