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“Mothering”



Early on in our relationship Chuck and I recognized the desire for a dog as a pet. Our first, Sadie, was a lab, Akida, Australian shepherd mix – a regal beast who herded her toys in the middle of the living room and would eat most anything you put in her bowl, except for citrus and lettuces. Around about the age of two she began to slow down, and we thought this was too soon for such sedentary behavior, so we decided she needed a playmate. The day we brought Humphrey home – a twelve-pound rat terrier puppy – we placed him on the floor in front of her. He let out an expansive howl ensuring his presence on the scene was noticed. She woke up to this display, sniffed him all over, began cleaning him up and rolling him around on the floor. Some instinctual buzzer had sounded within her and even though the option of being a biological mother had been removed from her, if I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have thought that mothering was in her wheelhouse. But there it was. As time passed, she let him snuggle up with her and she put up with his rambunctiousness for the whole of the ten years they had together.


A friend of mine shared recently that he and his wife were caring for their first grandson, nine weeks old, because his mom, a teacher, had expended her leave and had to go back to teaching for the remainder of the school year. My friend picks him up at 5:45 a.m. each day and sometimes he is content when placed in the car seat and sometimes he’s a bit cranky about it all. And when that happens, my friend sings to him that Meditation on Breathing song we sometimes sing. “When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.” And this tiny child absolutely loves it and settles down into restfulness. A father of three and a grandfather of one with another coming later this year, there is a gentleness about him and in his relationship with his grandchild that calls to mind mothering. And I realize that this concept seems to have less to do with the possession of a womb and more to do with something that wells up from a different place.


I love my words, as you know, and a good dictionary definition which I find goes a long way to clear things up. The primary definitions of mothering and fathering and even parenting are all pretty much the same. “The act of bringing up a child as a mother, a father, a parent.” But when I dig a little deeper, I find some interesting stuff! Mothering offers characteristics like caring and kindness and protection. Fathering places sternness in the example. And it makes note of causing a pregnancy, of being a source or originator of something. Parenting has the least in the way of descriptors but strikes me as rather utilitarian and something that can be learned.


In our culture we tend to associate these ideas with women and men, the former are mothers, the latter are fathers. Parents are a pair; one of each. The very gendered nature of our language and so our understanding of who gets to play what roles limits us in a wider and more inclusive grasp of our humanity. Sadie couldn’t be a biological mother, but she could mother, none-the-less. My good friend, a biological father and grandfather, could behave in ways we think of as mothering. Maybe this isn’t such a stretch in our minds, we might jump in with, “Oh, I don’t think so exclusively about these words and their meanings,” but when we are quick to assert a stance like that, maybe we are being reactive. And if we take a little time to notice and examine, without getting all judgey with ourselves, we may find that we can still fall prey to these gendered ways of knowing people and their capacities.

Mothering includes protection and that can be quite fierce in truth. And why are mothers not considered originators? What does that do to women in our culture? The whole idea of breaking through glass ceilings is rooted in these limited definitions. And is not mothering in the traditional sense also a catalyst for ways of living and being and doing in those we pour that love and care upon? It is as creative a source as fathering is thought to be.


While a broader conception of who gets to mother helps us go beyond the gender binary, I also read about the women who are labeled “birth mothers,” those women who give up their rights to parent because they face the untenable circumstances of poverty, of substance use, of mental illness or other issues. The term birth mothers conjures up memories of enslaved women who were used to birth more workers who would be taken from them before they had the chance to mother. But what of these present-day women who, but for a living wage or health services that bring stability to their lives and homes, could engage the deeply empowering experience of mothering and do so with as much care and kindness and protection as the stranger who takes their children in. I wonder about what we are doing as a culture when we take that path away from them in favor of what we have defined as a proper home rather than doing all we can to ensure that the birth home has all that it needs to thrive.


Our opening words this morning speak of nourishing something deep within the heart and mind, of a commitment, tangible and energetic to other beings in our world. This idea of mothering as a form of care takes us beyond the realm of family and all its complexities, to a stance toward all of life that we feel acutely in these times. I used to say that I learned everything I needed to know, not in kindergarten like the book of that name claims, but through motherhood. It is what I call my “mother’s heart” that is tugged upon – jolted more frequently now – when I hear of the atrocities of war, see the graphic images that are forever emblazoned there; when yet another floating raft of discarded plastics in the middle of the ocean is flashed upon the screen. Something has been nurtured within me and as much as it makes for difficult emotions, I am grateful to have it – this “mothering heart” that calls me to nurture, and to put the fullness of my body-mind-spirit into care and kindness and protection. I am going to guess that many of you feel it too and that even as you all identify differently, you are still possessed of the quality, the characteristics associated with mothering.


So much of our world cries out for this act of mothering. O’Donohue writes for the mother-to-be but it can easily translate to the mothering-to-be in all of us. We could not have prepared for our hearts to be opened in this way. There is this echo reverberating from deep within us that rises up in response to the cries of an infant as much as it does to the anguished shouts of our world. It can’t be ignored, and our courage wells up alongside it. Mothering is available to all of us.


We break through gender barriers when we act on that courage, that strength which is rooted in the heart, showing those entrusted to our care that mothering is not the exclusive possession of those born with a womb. We ensure a more inclusive world when we teach from this place, when we live by example an acceptance of qualities shared across identities. We do so when are willing to accept mothering from sources we hadn’t expected or been taught to receive it from. So many of you have told me stories from time to time of bearing witness to your grandchildren as they exhibit a comfort level with such inclusivity that we in these older generations have struggled with. It fills me with so much hope, as it does you.


We would be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to express our gratitude to our own mothers and those who have mothered us over the course of our lifetimes; if we didn’t take this time in community to honor the mothers among us – mothers of all kinds – biological mothers, step-mothers, foster mothers, adopted mothers, spiritual mothers, surrogate mothers, grandmothers – the list is long and I don’t want to exclude any! Today and every day we say “Thank you” for all the mothering you have imparted. May our grateful hearts find ways to express our love for you each day.


I texted my daughter on Friday to ask about the kittens her partner had found in the barn while she was away for her month of work. He was feeding them, believing them to be abandoned at first. She was excited to see them but hadn’t mentioned them when we talked upon her return. “They are in the barn across the street,” she said, “Momma keeps moving them around.” “Protecting them,” I wrote back. Mothering.


Blessed be and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, May 12, 2024

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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

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