I’m someone who, unfortunately, did not always see eye-to-eye with my mother growing up. Yet lately we’ve enjoyed a deeper level of affection and understanding birthed from the kind of deep trials of life that make you realise afresh who has really got your back when others desert; who shares your history when short-termism defines the majority of your relationships; and who commits no matter how awkward or unlikely I might imagine myself to be as a friend or daughter.
Mothering Sunday this year has followed hot on the heels of International Women’s Day, where we have been inspired by, and encouraged to celebrate, the achievements of women who have gone before us and broken economic, social and cultural ceilings; the entrepreneurs, high-achievers, businesswomen and go-getting CEOs; the bestselling authors, vloggers and digital-savvy gurus; and the solo explorers who have hiked mountain ranges in yak fur boots, kayaked across oceans or completed pan-continental expeditions on a faithful old pushbike.
All wonderful stuff. And thank you.
But I’m left wondering how inspiring something can be if it’s not readily relatable to lived experience?
How our lives play out are in many ways a product of the expectations generated and nurtured in us as we grow. My mum left school at fifteen in the 1960s with a typing qualification and a pretty face. She was a school secretary for most of her working life enduring demeaning bosses and little in the way of career prospects because, as she once told me: “You do what you need to do to keep going.” Quite a contrast to the women that are showcased for our collective, gawking inspiration; no academic accolades, no ground-breaking achievements for public consumption and glory, just plodding along, faithfully doing what’s necessary to keep the family fed, clean and – most importantly – together.
Only last week, mum mused to me, “I wonder what I would have been if I’d been born later?” With her talent for textiles, her flair for makeup and her artistic eye for colour if she had been nurtured in a time when expectations for women were different, she could well have pursued a more creative career in theatre or costume.
Well, I guess we are where we are.
This morning’s Mothering Sunday service at church was a simple reminder of the character of a mother through the example of Mary, mother of Jesus; not a celebration of her achievements, her productivity or her accolades but of her character:
And as the words of that acrostic were formed on the display board at the front of the church, tears flowed down my cheeks as I recognised my own mother described in those words.
I recognised her obedience to the call of being a mother, of doing ‘what you need to do’ to keep the family together and laying aside any alternative aspirations she may have dared to nurture. I recognised her tender-heartedness that ever strives for peace and harmony in the home, her sweet sunshine that brightens any dark corner of life, her making the best out of everything and appreciating what is had, rather than hankering after what is not. And I recognised her enduringly resolute toughness that arbitrates between sparring siblings, absorbs the impact of family dynamite and disagreements, and stands in the gap between any perceived threat and her children, long after we had stopped being children. No more did we ever see this character come to bear than when my elder brother, her firstborn, was facing death.
And as the image of Mary holding Jesus’ crucified, broken body was projected onto the screen at the front of the church, tears flowed down my cheeks in thankfulness for my own mother reflected in that image.
Thankful that she held my brother – and us – emotionally, physically and practically through the bleak routines of daily care and the traumas of medical treatments. Thankful that she so humbly and tirelessly bore us through such deep, cruel pain and sadness.
She was rent as she witnessed her first child’s last breath. And she still, years later, occasionally weeps with us in waves that would overwhelm.
My mum might not inspire by being a high-flier, an explorer or internet sensation. She may not have gained endless accolades or achieved global recognition. OK so she has done a few things that put her firmly in the ‘cool mum’ category, but it’s her character – her tender, sweet, optimistic, faithful, humble and enduring character – that defines her and profoundly inspires us.
Her character wins. Hands down.