A Mother to Me

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on May 14, 2017

That humorous Mother’s Day story that David just read is one I imagine some of us can identify with – as a mother, a parent, a caregiver or a child.

I can recall all those attempts as a child at making my mother feel special on Mother’s Day . . . such as serving her a slightly burnt pancake breakfast in bed, complete with The Washington Post opened to the crossword puzzle (which was her favorite Sunday morning pastime). Or, the endearing, but not exactly elegant, handcrafted gifts made of molding clay, glued-together popsicle sticks, or looped yarn.

My mom always graciously received her Mother’s Day attention. Except, perhaps, for the crossword puzzle, I imagine she secretly would have preferred a morning cigarette and cup of hot tea.

About the role of mothers in our lives, columnist and actor David Beach – who, as a gay parent, identifies as both a mom and a dad – wrote, “We moms may feel closer to the source of all power that exists in the universe, but we are forced to endure the condescension of a society that acknowledges our role with pink balloons.”

In other words, perhaps there is truly no way to recognize fully the monumental role of motherhood or the monumental impact mothers have on lives, whether that impact be for better or for worse. I imagine that many of us think our moms are or were pretty great. I know that some of us do not.

That’s why motherhood or any other role in life that carries with it the profound responsibility of contributing to contours and character of another cannot be generalized or summarized in a Hallmark greeting card . . . or in a sermon.

So, this morning, I’m not going to try.

Instead, I’m hoping to explore with you what we believe is the best kind of mothering and then ask ourselves whether we know or strive to be people who mother like that. I believe that, if the best of mothering is present in our lives, then we may be the kind of people who know what it’s like to give and receive compassion and how transforming that can be.  

First, I’d like to name this morning those ideal traits of moms that perhaps we may crave deep down inside – and may already receive from our mothers or mother-figures.

What are they? Kindness, nurturing, warmth, understanding, forgiveness and attentiveness, to name a few.

These are all wonderful traits, aren’t they? And, yet, I imagine we recognize that no mother or mother-figure can exhibit them at all times.

In 1953, the British pediatrician and psycho-analyst D.W. Winncott, in fact, argued that to be a good mother, a mother needed only to be “good enough.” The good enough mother, said Winncott, begins her relationship with her child by being completely devoted to her or his needs. Over time, however, the perfect mother gradually backs off and allows the child to become moderately frustrated, thus becoming imperfect or good enough.

Deliberately fostering small amounts of frustration, said Winncott, is the way a mother helps a child form a concept of external reality, something necessary for a baby’s health development.

In other words, if we don’t cut playground time short, dish out the occasion threat (or was that treat?), or risk being the “bad Mommy” to our children in other small ways, Winncott’s theory suggests that our children may grow up lacking the maturity and resiliency they need to cope with life’s inevitable setbacks. 

As an example, my own mother, who I could always run to for words of comfort and a warm hug, also let me walk home in the pouring rain without an umbrella one afternoon after my kindergarten class . . .  an incident that, apparently, I’ve never quite forgotten.

I remember bursting into the house, dripping wet and furious, to find my mother in the kitchen holding my baby sister. She calmly looked down at my drenched little self and, without a trace of guilt, said “Sorry, honey. Would you like a cup of hot chocolate?”

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Author Robert Heinlein wrote, “Being a mother is an attitude, not a biological relation.” If I think of mothering in this way, then it’s clear that my mothers have been many. They are the numerous persons who cared about me and who occasionally allowed me to encounter a healthy dose of reality.

They’ve included loving grandparents, thoughtful teachers, wise bosses, encouraging mentors, and supportive therapists, both male and female. They’ve each offered me experiences of compassion . . . and they’ve also offered a few harsh truths that stung at first, but have served me well years later.

Like the therapist who kindly advised that I stop acting like a victim in my marriage. Or the owner of the small company I worked for in my 20s who made an appointment for me with a department store clothing consultant to teach me how to dress more professionally and then wrote me a check to pay for the clothes.

What about you? Who are some of the people in your life that are or were like a good mother to you? Who are some of the persons that you’ve addressed cards to?

[Discussion]

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I imagine just as we all have mothers and mother-figures in our lives, we also have been a mother to others . . . whether as a parent or as someone who offers compassion and a loving presence.

My former role as a hospital chaplain offered one of these experiences for me. During my residency at Emory Hospital, I was assigned to the maternity center. I remember feeling confused at the time about this placement, since I didn’t have any children of my own. I approached my supervisor, Maureen, about it, who was a mother and an ordained minister.

After listening to my explanation of my inexperience and inadequacies, Maureen gently said to me, “There is a mother in you that will connect with the mothers in them. I trust that you’ll find her.”

During my year at the Emory maternity center, I provided care and support to mothers with at-risk pregnancies, or whose premature babies were in the neo-natal intensive care unit, or who had experienced a stillbirth. I learned during that experience that ministry and mothering are sometimes intertwined . . . and that when someone is going through a profound personal challenge, an attitude of care, kindness and support – those qualities we associate with the best of mothering – is ultimately the best kind of ministry.

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As we go from here, may we experience gratitude for those mothers and mother-figures that were extraordinary in their compassion and wise in their admonishments.

May we embrace their examples and return the kindness, nurturing and warmth we have received to those in our lives who might need to lean on us for a little mothering, too.

What an amazing world it might be if we each took a mothering approach to life and to one another! My hope is that we can all move towards that.

May it be so. Amen.