This Mother’s Day, Have a Heart for Those Who Suffer

COMMENTARY: I’ll go to Mass praying for all those around me whose hearts are breaking for what they lost or never had. Mary, our mother, who lost her only Son, is close to them in their grief. The Church should be, too.

The Pietà, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, inside St. Peter's Basilica.
The Pietà, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, inside St. Peter's Basilica. (photo: PhotoFires /

Last year, I almost didn’t go to church on Mother’s Day. I have spent almost half my adult life studying the Catholic faith. I make a living writing and speaking about the Catholic faith. Barring serious illness, I have never missed a Sunday Mass since I came back to the Church 19 years ago. But last Mother’s Day, I almost stayed home.

The reason was simple: I just couldn’t face another Mother’s Day where all the other women around me stood for their blessing while I sat. I couldn’t face watching women walk up to get their flowers while I remained in my pew. And I didn’t want to face another greeter, handing out gifts to mothers on their way out of church, but handing nothing to me.

I didn’t begrudge any of the women their breakfasts in bed or brunches out. I hoped their children and husbands were celebrating them that day with flowers and cards and gift certificates to spas. I didn’t begrudge prayers for them in the Mass either. Mothers need all the prayers they can get.

But I’d already spent weeks enduring Mother’s Day-themed Hallmark commercials and Facebook ads. I’d also endured two years of NaPro surgeries, fertility drugs and blood tests. Every single one was a reminder of how broken my body was and how empty my womb was. In my suffering, I wanted to go to Mass to find comfort and strength in the graces of the Eucharist. Unfortunately, too many past Mother’s Day Masses had taught me that the efforts of well-meaning priests and parishioners would instead leave me feeling like more of a failure, less of a woman, less of a Catholic.

I’m not the only one who has felt that way on Mother’s Day. One in eight couples sitting in the pews also struggle with infertility. One in four have had a miscarriage. Other women have lost beloved children, little and grown, or recently lost mothers of their own.

There also are women sitting in the congregation who have placed babies for adoption and grieve those children every Mother’s Day. There are women estranged from their children who are grieving, too. There are single women, like I was for so many years, doubting that their chance at motherhood will ever come. There are women who have aborted their children and regret that decision every single day. And there are adoptive mothers, whose joy in their children is mixed with sorrow for their children’s birthmothers.

Every year, one of those women speaks up — on Facebook, at her parish, in a blog or column like this one — begging people to be sensitive to the complexity of Mother’s Day and the difficulties the day brings for so many.

They don’t want priests to stop blessing mothers; they just want priests to do it differently and at a different time — for example, before the final dismissal, when the congregation is already standing. They also don’t want the congregation to stop praying for mothers; they just also want prayers for the women whose deepest struggles and wounds are bound up with motherhood. They are fine with families celebrating Mother’s Day; but they want the Church, their Mother, to remember her suffering children, too.

Unfortunately, as I’ve witnessed countless times in recent years, those requests for sensitivity, as often as not, are met with anger or indifference: “Get over it.” “This is my day. I’ve waited a long time for it to come. Who are you to question it?” “Stop thinking about yourself.” “I don’t feel that way. You shouldn’t either.” “Maybe you should focus on your own mother.” “Christmas is hard for some people, too. Should we stop celebrating that?”

Come the second Sunday in May, people who would otherwise be compassionate and concerned about others’ suffering suddenly seem to care more about getting a flower at Mass than about the women sobbing in the pews next to them.

But here’s the thing: Mother’s Day isn’t Christmas.

For starters, Mother’s Day is a secular holiday, celebrated in a culture that thinks women should have the right to kill their unborn children. From the culture’s perspective, it’s more about selling greeting cards and packing restaurants for expensive brunches than it is about honoring motherhood.  

More fundamentally, though, Mother’s Day is a holiday that strikes at the core of women’s identity: of who we are and who we’re called to be; of what we desire and what we fear; of what we’ve lost, denied, sacrificed, destroyed and grieved.

Motherhood can be the occasion for a woman’s greatest joys, but also her greatest sorrows and perceived failures. There is nothing simple about a woman’s feelings regarding motherhood, and so a holiday celebrating motherhood is going to stir up complex and powerful emotions for every grown woman present, good and bad.      

The Church is not Hallmark. She’s not selling anything, so taking that complexity into account and being sensitive about it is just plain, old-fashioned pastoral care.

The same instruction applies to each of us.

Every year, on other holidays, we strive to remember those who are suffering, hungry, alone, in need. We buy presents for local children who otherwise wouldn’t have any. We donate food to our parish so that other families can have a special dinner. We also invite people who we know will be alone to join our family’s celebration. In short, we reach out to those in need and try to make a difficult day just a little better.

Each of us can do the same on Mother’s Day. We can send cards to our children’s single godmothers or childless aunts, thanking them for their spiritual motherhood. We can call a friend who is in the process of adoption or who just miscarried a baby and let her know we’re praying for her. We can have Masses said for birthmothers or post-abortive mothers. And we can ask someone who is grieving to join us at brunch on Mother’s Day (or dinner on a different day if she prefers) — our treat.

Above all, we can ask our priests to be more sensitive to the complexities of Mother’s Day and make our churches places where women know they will find comfort in their sorrow, as well as affirmation in their joy.

This Mother’s Day, for the first time, I will hold a baby in my arms at Mass. After so many years of waiting and hoping and trying, I have a child. But I don’t want to stand for a blessing. I don’t want to be singled out and given a rose. I don’t need a rose; I have my son.

So, on Sunday, I will go to Mass thanking God for the gift of my boy, not feeling like I need to be thanked. And I’ll go to Mass praying for all those around me whose hearts are breaking for what they lost or never had.

Mary, our mother, who lost her only Son, is close to them in their grief. The Church should be, too.

Emily Stimpson Chapman, an adoptive mother, and wife,

writes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.