I Have Called You Friends
May 9, 2021 – Mother’s Day
By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
I want you to try to remember the last time you felt a sense of wholeness, of rightness, of peace – a sense of “this is how life ought to be.” Maybe lots of small moments – tiny instances – are coming to your mind. Maybe you’re thinking of moment of real connection to your partner, or a moment when you felt deeply connected to the natural world, or a moment when your intellect sparked with something you just read. I get that “all is right and well” feeling when I have time to read a book out loud with Sebastian, my youngest, who is nine. It’s a feeling that comes to me when I have the chance to walk in the woods, usually in the early mornings on the trails in High Park. It’s a feeling I get when I’m sitting and talking with people I care about. I think of moments I sitting out on the end of my grandparent’s dock in the summer, a moment of rest and relaxation, a mug of coffee in my hands, the chance to reconnect with family. Lately I’ve been wondering: why do these moments have to be fleeting? Is there a reality where we could all feel wholeness, rightness, peace – a sense of “this is how life ought to be,” most of the time? Imagine that!
For a lot of women, and mothers in particular, those moments of rightness, of peace, of wholeness, aren’t just fleeting experiences – they feel impossible to find. It seems that for a lot of women, and women who are mothers in particular, the experience of their day to day is a pervasive sense of disappointment and despair, the thought that life would be different, somehow, than it is, more beautiful, more meaningful; that their day to day is harder than anticipated, more stressful, more draining. And the pandemic has only exacerbated this feeling. According to the website “Mother.ly,” 93% of mothers report feeling burned out. A study in The Lancet showed that women’s rates of depression have doubled since the start of the pandemic. When The New York Times wanted to report on the lives of the more than a million American mothers who left the workforce in order to care for children during this pandemic and the millions more who added extra domestic duties on to fulltime work, what that newspaper ended up creating was a multimedia project called “The Primal Scream” – print reporting mixed with visuals, statistics, and audio unlike anything you’ve ever heard supplied by real working mothers. The New York Times opened up a hotline as part of their reporting in order to capture the “primal screams” of frustration experienced by mothers during this pandemic. “Nothing I had read on mothers and the pandemic really captured how full-to-bursting every single minute was,” wrote The New York Times Parenting editor, Jessica Grose. In one of her group’s meetings to plan for this coverage a reporter mentioned that she knew of a group of women who were going out into a field to scream their feelings. They immediately decided to start the “primal scream” hotline so they could hear from mothers themselves about whatever they needed to vent.
Two of the most wildly successful books published this past year – The Push by Audrey Audrain and Untamed by Glennon Doyle – directly examine women’s angst and sense of their lives being not all they ought to be, which probably accounts for their astronomical success. I picked up The Push from the library on a Saturday afternoon and finished it in a matter of hours. Untamed was the same – it debuted at #1 on the NYT bestseller list – clearly, a lot of women resonated with these stories. The Push is an unsettling story about a woman who begins to have a sense of things not being all they ought to be after the birth of her daughter. Her intuition keeps telling her that something is not quite right, but she’s not sure she can trust herself and her interpretation of events. Complicating matters is the fact that her husband and mother-in-law are convinced that it’s actually she who is “not quite right.” Instead of questioning the gap between her reality and what she feels it ought to be, she ignores it, to tragic consequences.
Untamed is Glennon Doyle’s memoir about her sense that her life was not what it ought to be. For years she had been “building the kind of life a woman is supposed to build,” she writes; “I became a good wife, mother, daughter, Christian, citizen, writer, woman. But while I made school lunches, wrote memoirs, rushed through airports, made small talk with neighbors, carried on with my outer life, I felt an electric restlessness buzzing inside me.” Instead of questioning the gap between her reality and what she felt it ought to be, she kept ignoring her feelings; she kept trying to mold herself into a model of womanhood and motherhood that her body and soul didn’t naturally fit. Breaking the mold meant confronting her conservative religious family, her sense of guilt, her worry. The book charts what she calls her “untaming,” her resurrection of “the very parts of myself I was trained to mistrust, hide, and abandon in order to keep others comfortable,” she writes. “The hot electric thunder I felt buzzing and rolling inside was me,” she writes, “trying to get my attention, begging me to remember, insisting: I’m still here.”
What if women, and mothers in particular, instead of only noticing the gap between our day-to-day reality and what we feel it ought to be, started to question it, to examine it, to wonder why moments of wholeness, rightness, and peace have to be just that, moments, instead of our normal experience? I googled “cards for Mother’s Day,” since it’s not an easy time to go browse in a stationery store, and I noticed that, as a culture, we equate a mother’s love with a mother’s capacity to do everything by herself. “God could not be everywhere,” one card said, “so [God] made mothers.” Another offecred up a definition of the word, “mother,” as “one person who does the work of twenty, for free.” Another offered up this definition of what it means to be a mother: “one who puts your needs before her own,” a “selfless human.” No wonder so many women who are mothers are left with the pervasive feeling that their lives aren’t quite what they ought to be.
I was listening to CBC’s Metro Morning program on Friday and for the last few minutes of the show people were calling in to talk about their mothers. These kids called in and they were talking about how their mom was a superhero. Why? Because, like a superhero, she is constantly doing the impossible, working fulltime, for example, while simultaneously supervising six hours of online school. “Our dad goes to the office,” one of the kids said. On the CBC radio show, The Sunday Magazine, host Piya Chattopadhyay did a segment on the pandemic’s heavy toll on mothers’ mental health. “Right now some families do have two partners working at home,” Piya said to her expert guest, but “I’m wondering,” she said, “has there been any redistribution of the emotional labour [of parenting] as a result?” “No,” said the expert, “there hasn’t been. Early on in the pandemic there was a study that came out and both men and women were asked about who was picking up the slack and men definitely overestimated their contribution to what was happening,” this expert said. She continued, “as mothers I think we’re prone to taking on a lot of different things, you throw that load of laundry in, you know, turn on the dishwasher, you make sure you’re thinking ahead to make sure your child gets some kind of physical activity because they’ve been inside; the way that we really want to show up for our kids and show up in our jobs – that superhero complex,” she said.
I haven’t read anything that adequately explains why in so many heterosexual, cis-gender partnerships women continue to carry most of the emotional and physical load of parenting and so the best explanation that I can come up with is that most households choose to prioritize the paid work of whichever partner earns more – which makes logical sense – but in most cis-gender and heterosexual partnerships that still tends to be the male partner. Women, then, end up as the master multitaskers, “superheroes” navigating the impossible – the double shift of their work plus the bulk of the domestic load. Of course, these are the issues of the privileged minority of mothers who actually have partners, who can work from home, who have the luxury of flexible working hours – we know that single mothers, mothers who can’t work from home, and racialized mothers have it even harder. What if, instead of applauding the superhuman strength of mothers, we started to ask why we expect of mothers things we don’t even apparently expect of God?
What if we called out superheroes as the mythic creations that they are? What if, instead of applauding mothers for constantly navigating the impossible, we asked about the gap between the reality of a working mother’s life – especially during a pandemic – and what her life ought to be like? Maybe then we wouldn’t have so many women wondering along with Glennon Doyle: “wasn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this?” What would happen if we separated a mother’s love from this notion of superhuman servitude?
“I no longer call you servants,” Jesus said. “Instead I have called you friends.” The reading Anne read this morning was from a part of the gospel of John that biblical scholars call the Farewell Discourse. It is a long speech Jesus gives to his disciples while they’re having what will be his last supper. He begins his speech to them with a surprising gesture. Near where they are seated is a basin, a towel, and some water – none of the disciples had even noticed these items sitting there – but before the meal begins Jesus stands up, picks up the towel and the basin and the water, and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. I think that Jesus knew what was ahead for him; he knew the authorities were plotting to arrest him and that this was likely his last opportunity to express the essence of his teaching – a teaching that had come to him from God. And so he chose on that night to demonstrate how he thought life and love ought to be. He challenged the notion that some people are just here to serve while others get to spend their lives being served. The nitty gritty of daily and domestic life, the tasks we don’t even see – the washing of feet, so to speak – isn’t the purview of one, Jesus showed, but is the purview of all. The expression of caring, of love in the dailiness of life, ought to be mutual, Jesus said, that’s how life ought to be. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am,” Jesus said. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example,” he said. Love is not one person doing the work of twenty for free, the hallmarks of love are mutuality, solidarity, compassion.
The woman who inspired Mother’s Day was named Ann Jarvis. She was born in West Virginia in 1832. She was a deeply committed Christian, someone Jesus would call a friend. Everything that he had learned from God he made known to her. She gave birth to more than ten children, but only four of them survived into adulthood. And because she knew God’s mind – because Jesus had made it known to her – when she saw the enormous gap between the reality of her life and the wholeness and flourishing and wellbeing that God intended for her, she didn’t ignore this sensation inside of herself, she got angry. She didn’t see the gap and leap it in a single bound, she questioned the why the gap was there in the first place. She formed what she called Mother’s Day work clubs to improve public health and sanitation and to combat the spread of childhood diseases. She refused to be a servant to reality, to what is, and lived as a friend to what ought to be.
“Love each other as I have loved you,” Jesus said – that is, with a sense of mutuality and solidarity. “I no longer call you servants,” Jesus said. “Instead I have called you friends.” And “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That is Jesus giving us permission to stop what we’re doing, to lay down our lives, and to commune with God’s Spirit for a moment. I want you to remember the last time you felt a sense of wholeness, of rightness, of peace, Jesus says to you. When was that? Where were you? What were you doing? What had you said “no” to? What had you said “yes” to? I want you to bask in the moment that has come to you. This is God’s Shalom, Jesus says, this is the way life ought to be. You see, your flourishing is not just for sometimes but what God intends for you all of the time; your wholeness is not meant to be just what you feel sometimes, but how you are meant to feel all of the time. Peace and rightness are not meant to be yours just some of the time, but your birthright all of the time.
To the partners and allies of mothers, Jesus says, keep following my example. How is your expression of love based in mutuality and solidarity? How are you laying down your life to make other peoples’ lives more of what they ought to be? I am inviting you to notice the basin, the towel, and the water, Jesus says, to share in the nitty gritty of daily and domestic life; to see it as your purview too. And to the mothers out there remember, Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants. Instead I call you friends.”