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Pacific Ponderings

Mothering Sunday

This Mother’s Day I write in praise not only of my mother, whom I can never praise enough, and of mothers in general, but of mothering itself.

In the UK, what we call “Mother’s Day” is called “Mothering Sunday.” These were originally two distinct holidays. “Mothering Sunday,” which falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent, referred to returning to the “mother church” where one was baptized. Eventually the meaning of Mothering Sunday merged with the American holiday Mother’s Day. It, too, has become a day to honor mum.

I like the name “Mothering Sunday.” It invites a focus on the action of mothering rather than solely on the status of being a mother. “Mothering” reminds us that “mother” is not only a noun. It can also be a verb. And “to mother” is a particularly warm, evocative verb. Unlike “to father,” which refers almost exclusively to begetting, “to mother” suggests as well to nurture, care for, love.

The name “Mothering Sunday” suggests an inclusive way to think about this holiday. While not every woman is privileged to be a mother, every woman can mother. This is a day to honor women everywhere who love with a mother’s heart.

The name also calls men to account. For men can and should “mother” in the sense of nurturing and caring for others. Though it may seem odd to think that mothering can apply to men, to the degree that it signifies self-sacrificial caring, it surely does.

Note that Jesus did not hesitate to compare his love to that of a mother hen in his great lament over Jerusalem: “how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not.” (Luke 13: 34; Matt. 23:37). He reiterates this comparison in the Book of Mormon (3 Ne. 10: 4-6).

Similarly, Paul says to the Thessalonians that he and his companion “were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children” (1 Thess. 2:7).

And, most striking of all, Isaiah prophesies that Gentile kings will become “nursing fathers” (Is. 49:23) to scattered Israel. This prophecy is repeated several times in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 21:23; 2 Ne. 6:7; 10:9) as well as in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 10:65; 29:2; 43:24). The oxymoron “nursing father” provides an especially vivid way to describe men acting in a nurturing, caregiving role.

My point is not to usurp Mother’s Day for men, nor imply that men and women should nurture in the same way. This is not a brief for unisex parenting. But it is to argue that we all must strive to practice, after our own fashion, what are too often mischaracterized as exclusively feminine virtues, such as nurturing, caring, gentleness, kindness, and compassion. These ideals are qualities that all disciples of Christ should seek.

And perhaps men need reminding more than women of the virtues often eulogized on Mother’s Day. Perhaps men need to feel a measure of the inadequacy and even guilt that some women feel on this Sunday

After all, scripture specifically calls out “the nature and disposition of almost all men . . . to exercise unrighteous dominion” and then proffers, as an antidote to the improper exercise of priesthood power, “motherly” virtues such as long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love-unfeigned, and kindness (see D&C 121:39-42). Men cannot dismiss these virtues just because they are traditionally feminine.

Yes, Paul and Mormon characterize charity with a feminine pronoun—charity “seeketh not her own” (1 Cor. 13:5; Moro. 7:45), thus associating it with the selfless love we often ascribe to mothers and women in general. But scripture is very clear that charity belongs to both genders. “ All who are true followers of . . . Jesus Christ,” Mormon declares, must be found “possessed of it [charity] at the last day” if they are to be like Him (Moro. 7:47-48).

So may this Mother’s Day also be a Mothering Sunday—a day when we honor and celebrate not only our mothers, fulfilling the 5th of the Ten Commandments, but mothering itself. Let it be a day not merely for sentimental cards and candy or for impossibly idealistic paeans to mothers, but for all of us to resolve to love more self-sacrificially, more charitably, and more compassionately, as mothers often and the Savior always love us.

President Tanner with his mother Athelia
President Tanner with his mother Athelia