Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sermon: "Spirituality & Motherhood" (Delivered 5-12-13)

Call to Worship
[Inspired by the lyrics to hymn #311 “Let it be a Dance.]

Welcome partners,
welcome dancing partners,
welcome to this dance of life,
this dance of spring,
this dance of the human family

This is the dance of joy and pain,
the dance of gratitude, disappointment, and forgiveness.
This is the dance of learning and growing,
of opening our hearts wider than we could imagine,
of increasing love by magnitudes.

This is the dance of courage and leaping faith,
challenging us to lead in one moment and then
asking us for the trust to allow ourselves to be led in the next.

Welcome dancing partners as in the middle of these dances of life and love, we also turn our attention this day to the dance of motherhood, a dance that cannot be perfectly choreographed but requires improvisation, intuition, and responsiveness.

Hold to your chest.  Hold in your lap.  
Hold on your hips.  Hold by the hand.  
Let go.  Let go again and again and hold always in the heart.

Come dancing partners.  Share the laughter.  Bear the pain.
Round and round we go again.
Let us worship together.

Disclaimer #1:  While for many Mother’s Day is a joyful day, for many others it is a day that brings some measure of pain.  Everything I’m going to say this morning is said with an awareness that in our community there may be mothers who have lost a child, who are estranged from a child, or who feel some other hurt related to motherhood.  There are others for whom Mother’s Day reminds them of having lost their mother or of estrangement or hurt in their relationship with their mother.  And, there are still others who grieve not having been able to have a child, for whom this day is painful too.  This sermon is given with awareness of the emotional complexities that surround Mother’s Day.

Disclaimer #2:  All the obvious disclaimers about consumerism and the commercialization of our emotional lives and the societal pressure to express sentiments such as love, admiration, and appreciation through greeting cards, brunch, flowers, chocolate, et cetera, et cetera.  I’m aware of all of these protestations and that’s just not what this morning is about.  (Now would probably be the right time to mention that Mother’s Day has transcended its status as a holiday driven by the greeting card industry.  A survey done a year ago asked 1,000 Protestant ministers what days of the church year had the largest attendance.  Easter was first.  Christmas Eve was second.  Mother’s Day was third.  In other words, following the resurrection of Jesus and the birth of Jesus, Mother’s Day has become the third most important Christian holy day.)

Disclaimer #3:  It has been said that in a Unitarian Universalist church the minister can expect that, whatever subject he or she chooses, there will be someone in the congregation who is an expert on the subject, whose knowledge far exceeds the minister’s.  Well, this morning I’ve chosen a subject that so many of you in the congregation know infinitely more about than I know.  I’m just being real with you here.

On October first, a few short and exhausting weeks before our last service at our old building, our move, and our first service in our new building, our baby Lydia was born.  I became a dad and Anne became a mom.  Back in the fall I had an awareness that when Father’s Day rolled around in June I would probably want to say something about my new identity as a father.  Then I thought that it wouldn’t be right to make a big deal out of Father’s Day and slight Mother’s Day.  So, I decided that on Mother’s Day we should hear from the newest moms in our church community.  For half a minute I considered writing this group of women and asking them to create a worship service on Mother’s Day but then I realized that this might be a bad idea.  Hey, I know you’re sleeping way fewer hours than is humanly possible, that sometimes showering and brushing your teeth on the same day is a daunting task, that a trip to the store requires the development of a strategic plan, but do you think you could develop a worship service and present that service on Mother’s Day, which is supposed to be your day and all?

What I did was send all the new mothers in our congregation an email asking them if they would share some reflections about how becoming a new parent has changed their identity and what motherhood has meant to them spiritually.  And I plan to do the same thing with the new dads in the church for Father’s Day.  New dads, the pressure is on.

I want to share with you what these new moms in our church community wrote about their feelings and experiences of motherhood, about how their identity has changed, and about motherhood as a spiritual experience.  I invite you to listen as I share from their reflections, to listen for differences and commonalities, and to allow yourself to be touched by the wonder, the worry, the hope, and the courage that accompanies the beginning of all brave new adventures.  These are the words of new parents with a child a little over a year old or less than a month old.  Some of their children are firstborn and others have a brother or sister a little bit older.  Some of these email responses were sent to me during the day, some during the evening, and a few at three o’clock in the morning.

One of the things that I believe is that our identities have a sacred quality to them.  In my correspondence the first question I asked was whether becoming a mom changed your identity, your sense of who you are.  One new mom wrote, “I am amazed that I am even a mother at all. In many ways, where I am now in life is a complete 180 from where I saw myself in high school… Growing-up I just knew in my gut that there would never be time in my ‘conquer the world’ life for anything as time consuming as family… For my high-school graduation gift I asked to have my tubes tied.  My mother thoughtfully requested that I wait a few years and then reconsider.  In the first hours of [our daughter’s] life, as she was becoming more real to me, a part of me was slowly dying. Life was no longer about me, it was about her and becoming the best parent that I could be for her.”

Another mom responded quite differently.  “I don’t know that being a new parent has changed my identity,” she wrote.  “The driving force of my life is a desire to care for others, so being a mom slides right into my identity.”

How has the experience changed you so far, I asked.  “Being a mom has pretty much obliterated all my inhibitions that once kept me from making a fool of myself,” one respondent wrote.  “There are nearly no limitations for what I will do for a smile, or even more so, a laugh, from my little guy. Who needs beer to dance like a monkey or contort your face into pure ugliness?”

Another wrote, “I feel like the contrast has been turned up on my life. There are definite low moments when you're really exhausted or frustrated (often bedtime, for us) or honestly bored of pretending to be a my little pony for the nth time. Self-doubt when you are trying to decide how to parent. Then there are the lovely warm wonderful feelings you get when your baby smiles at you like the sun shining on your face or your child makes you proud by being a doting, sweet sister or cracks you up with her tricky chicken dance moves.”

Several wrote about feeling more deeply connected with others.  “Becoming a mother made me look at other parents with a new realization, a new feeling of solidarity. They, too, have gone through this crazy/wonderful thing.”  Another wrote, “Motherhood immediately increased my awareness and awe for single mothers. There have been so many days that I would never have showered, slept, or eaten a meal were it not for dad being there.”  She continued, “Becoming a parent has most certainly increased my patience and compassion. It has raised issues regarding my capacity to love and care for children. At this moment, I can't imagine how people have multiple children.”

Interestingly, more than one person wrote about trying not to let motherhood completely swallow her identity.  “I'm occasionally concerned that I am a less interesting person to talk to because my entire world revolves around this little person. I used to talk about world news, food, music, and local politics…  I continue listening to NPR… to try to ensure that I'm armed for non-baby conversation about the rest of the world.”

I also asked about how becoming a mother has changed your view of Mother’s Day.  I received some different responses to this question.  “My pre-motherhood thoughts about Mother's Day [were that it was] an overly-commercialized, superficial holiday. Now having an infant, I look forward to receiving cute little homemade cards and art projects from my son.  I will happily accept any kind of gratitude for the 3 a.m. feedings, sleep deprivation, and other sacrifices of motherhood.”  A different mother responded, “Personally, since I actively chose to bring this child into the world I think being a good mom is the least I can do, and I don’t need to be celebrated for it.” 

UU minister Jane Rzepka, in a piece she wrote called “Humanizing Mom,” identifies with this latter view of Mother’s Day,

In my family, mothers do not suffer any more than other mortals, nor are we particularly unsung. We complain when we trip over shoes on the living room floor, and we expect a little praise for carrying the daily Grand Accumulation at the bottom of the stairs up the aforementioned stairs.

We do not deserve or expect devotion from our children. We wanted to have children. It was our idea. If they come around from time to time when they are grown-ups, we are ever so glad. But if they live their lives as secure and independent souls, we value that.

I also asked many of new moms to share with me how motherhood has affected them spiritually.  The answers I received ranged from being more aware about the impact of choices, to having a larger concern for the world, to cultivating a greater ability to be present in the moment.

One person wrote, “There has not been one decision I have made that hasn’t been focused on how it would affect them.   I recycle like crazy now because it’s good for THEIR world.  I eat better for myself because I’m THEIR mom.”

One wrote, “I’ve found myself more concerned about all the bad things in the world – violence, environmental problems, world economic problems.  Will she be safe and happy?”  Another wrote, “Now that I am a mom, I find horrifying events, such as terrorist attacks or the Newtown mass killing, even more horrifying. My worries have substantially multiplied. Morbid thoughts can easily reign if I am not careful to keep them in check.”

On one hand, motherhood brings a heightened vigilance, a greater sense of urgency, and a feeling of gravity.  On the other hand, several mothers wrote about how interacting with their child makes them feel present and even whimsical.  Motherhood asks them to be in the moment and to regard even simple, everyday objects with awe and fascination.

Taken as a whole, how should we regard these shared experiences and perspectives?  If, as one mom wrote, motherhood means feeling like your heart is walking around outside of your body while at the same time feeling like your heart is expanding three sizes, Grinch like, I wonder if listening to these reflections might cause our own heart to expand.  Does our concern for the world grow, does our compassion increase?  Can we live life with awe and fascination?  Can we be present to our fellow beings?  As you go forth today, I bid you go forth with appreciation and admiration, with the intention to grow a larger heart, and with compassionate care for our always interconnected world.

This is the dance of joy and pain,
the dance of gratitude, disappointment, and forgiveness.
This is the dance of learning and growing,
of opening our hearts wider than we could imagine,
of increasing love by magnitudes.

This is the dance of courage and leaping faith,
challenging us to lead in one moment and then
asking us for the trust to allow ourselves to be led in the next.

It is the dance of mothers and it is the dance of parents of all kinds, and of aunts and uncles, teachers and guides, friends and companions.
May it be so.

Hear this last line written by one of the new mothers in our congregation:
“Baby is laying down now, wish me luck! She's a little wiggly. Preschooler is still running around getting water and fighting for more stories, requesting that tomorrow be Christmas morning. Good luck to you for a good night of sleep.”  Amen.