Mothering absence: a reflection

This coming Sunday is Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate the role of mothers and women at this time of year which is not exactly a new thing. Indeed, Wikipedia tells us that such events date back to the time of the ancient Greeks who would celebrate Rhea, the Mother of the Gods and Goddesses, every spring with festivals of worship. The Romans also celebrated a mother Goddess, Cybele, every March as far back as 250BC.

It was under the Christian churches especially since the 16th century that Mothering Sunday began to be held on the fourth Sunday in Lent, exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday and was originally a day to honour and give thanks to the Virgin Mary. With it across the UK the practice of returning to the Mother Church to visit the mother church of your area and to see your mother began to be celebrated. The coming together of families and uniting children who had moved a distance away or who had been in service and work elsewhere was one that was much appreciated. It was in the time of few ‘holy-days’ an opportunity to have a day off and to spend it with your mother.

Yet it was not until the last century with an influence from the United States and Anna Jarvis that Mother’s Day began to be celebrated annually so much so that Constance Penswick-Smith created the Mothering Sunday Movement in the UK, and in 1921 she wrote a book asking for the revival of the festival.

It has grown and grown and there are few places you could go in a shopping street today in Scotland without seeing reference to Mother’s Day. For some that might induce feelings of guilt that they have not got a card or flowers or a gift, but for many others as I heard at first hand this week, it is a very visible reminder of absence.

In my work on bereavement, I have become increasingly aware of just how hard public anniversaries and celebrations are for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Mother’s Day has a special poignancy because of its presence in our communities and in the media at this time of year. For some it is a fantastic opportunity to remind themselves of the care and nurturing they have received from their mother. And after all that isn’t easy. There are no ‘How to’ books in terms of being a mother or indeed a parent. It is a journey made in the steps of love with all the trips and obstacles that a growing child experiences and a maturing mother knows. But for the vast majority who in adulthood have a healthy and positive relationship with their mother, it is a nurturing and bond which will remain with us forever. And that is what for so many makes this a hard weekend.

I have met Gary on quite a few occasions, and we communicate on social media. He is a widow with two children under the age of ten. He absolutely dreads Mother’s Day because it is such a visible reminder of absence and emptiness. But this year he has decided to face it head on and to use the day as a moment to mark memory, to celebrate the mum who is no longer around; through the tears of recollection to talk with his girls about their feelings and the aching soreness they feel that mum is not there to watch their dancing display, to read to them at bedtime, to go to the shops and chose clothes or jewellery with them and so so so much more. So this week he has helped his children to make mother’s day cards not to give on a breakfast in bed tray but to place at her gravestone.

This is a hard day for those who have lost their mothers and for mothers who have lost their children and for partners who have lost their lover and for grandparents who have lost their grandchildren. I hope we give one another space to capture a sense of the original Mothering Sunday which had to do with reconnecting to what and who were important in our life; less to do with cards and cakes. More to do with company and togethernes.

And today I cannot but think of all the folks I know, one of whom I spent some time with this week, for whom mum is still present but absent in a way that break’s their heart, taken into a space where dementia holds court and where memory sits apart. For them I think of Bob Hicock’s poem, Alzheimer’s.

Wherever our mothers are, be they beside us or inside our hearts, I hope tomorrow is a day of memory that makes life worth celebrating and love worth holding even closer.

“Chairs move by themselves, and books.

Grandchildren visit, stand

new and nameless, their faces’ puzzles

missing pieces. She’s like a fish

in deep ocean, its body made of light.

She floats through rooms, through

my eyes, an old woman bereft

of chronicle, the parable of her life.

And though she’s almost a child

there’s still blood between us:

I passed through her to arrive.

So I protect her from knives,

stairs, from the street that calls

as rivers do, a summons to walk away,

to follow. And dress her,

demonstrate how buttons work,

when she sometimes looks up

and says my name, the sound arriving

like the trill of a bird so rare

it’s rumored no longer to exist.”

from Plus Shipping, Copyright (c) 1998 by Bob Hicock. Reproduced by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., published at Alzheimer’s by Bob Hicock – Scottish Poetry Library

Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 20th April 2023 by Shanice