Motherhood, Culture and Identity


JOHN CLIFFORD delivered this inspiring address at St Mark’s on Mothering Sunday, 26 March. John is a member of our community.  He was for many years our Associate Minister.  From 2015-16 John was the General Assembly President he  is  current Minister Emeritus of Glasgow Unitarian Church.

Today, as we all know by now, is Mothering Sunday.  Over the years I've preached quite a few Mothering Sunday/Mother's Day sermons, some of them quite meticulously explaining the difference and the history of each tradition.  But today, rather than go into the history of Mothering Sunday and how it differs from Mother's Day, the American holiday that has crossed the Atlantic, I'd like to look at Motherhood and its importance to us as persons and as a society.

So let's start with a few questions: Now, it is part of the human condition to have a biological mother.  We all have (or had) mothers so there's no sense asking who had a mother.  But please raise your hand if you are a mother?  Happy Mother's Day to you.  If your own mother is still alive please indicate?  How many of you still live within a taxi ride of your mother, say ten miles?  How many of you have an enduring mother-substitute?

My mother died twenty-four years ago, before we had all these modern electronic communication tools we take for granted.  No email, no  Facebook, no Snapchat, no Twitter. A few personal computers starting to appear, but no file sharing, no tablets, no laptops. The first commercial mobile phones, resembling a brick with a shortwave antenna in everything but colour, were around for Mom's last ten years but she couldn't afford one.

Until a few months before her death, she had a very regular habit on Sunday evenings, sitting down with pen and paper and writing three or four letters to different members of the family. She had a hard life with some bright spots.  Raised during the Great Depression, her father considered it would be a waste of money sending a girl to college, so one of her brothers was sent even though she was just as bright.  After World War Two her husband, my father, returned only to stay for about six years before skipping out without leaving a forwarding address and leaving her to raise two boys.  These boys, my brother and I, did well under her love and guidance, but we both decided when we were in our twenties to see the world and we left the States, one to Britain, the other to Australia.  So she was left with letter writing and occasional long journeys to keep in touch with us and her grandchildren.  She was an intelligent, sensitive, and sensible woman who was not served well by the men in her life, nor by the norms which society in her day had erected as barriers to her finding her full potential.  She fought against these social limitations and managed to train and work herself up to a very responsible position, earning the respect and affection of her colleagues.

But, my mother was not paid as much as a man would have been in her position.  In fact, if she were alive and working today in either the US or the UK that would, shamefully, still be true.

When I use the term ‘Mother’ I don't just mean the biological mother who gave you half your genes, but the person, normally a woman, who mothered you through to adulthood and may even now be fulfilling this function, linking you to community, helping you develop and practise values, nurturing your fragile side, putting plasters on your scrapes.  If she is no longer alive, she will still be in your head providing advice and support and probably a few stern words when you need them.

This is the day we are supposed to put motherhood on a pedestal while we still treat womankind as second class citizens.  Well, I'm not too keen on pedestals and I don't think the success of the flower and card industry justifies this dichotomy.  Five pounds worth of flowers or chocolates and a pretty card are not just poor compensation for what mothers have to put up with from most of us 360 other days a year, and here I mean daughters as well as sons.  Traditional Mother's  Day gifts have become numbing salves, that can make us insensitive to the real struggles and inequality that so many of our mothers have as background to their dedication and love all year round.

Why do they do this?  Well, there are obvious personal reasons, but I also believe that Motherhood is an essential part of nature's cycle of life that brings creativity and freshness to each generation.

My longstanding hobby, which I suspended during my Presidential year but then restarted with renewed interest and contacts last May, is family genealogical research.  Sometimes it can be quite exciting, such as when I was sent a batch of old family photos by a cousin, or the discovery of a new set of first cousins I've still never met.  But other times it can be a painstaking comparison of lists of names and dates.  This is also interesting.  Going through lists and comparing names, noting dates of birth, marriage, death, and noting that this person lived through a war, or the Depression, or transited the Atlantic Ocean in a wooden boat; noting that this woman had twelve or fourteen, or in one case twenty children; noting that at a  time when divorce was almost unknown several women had two or three husbands, and several men also had two or three wives.  I discovered this week that one relative was killed by Indians in the Massachusetts Colony in the 1600s.   Genealogy gives one a view over the generations, i.e. a perspective on life itself and its continuous flow down the slopes of time.  At first sight, a person's life seems so compact: born 1632, married 1650, children start a year or so later, perhaps there is something notable like another marriage or emigration, and death aged sixty-five in 1697.  And then you realise that many of these men and women, my ancestors who I still carry around in me in some real sense, were born, raised families, and died in the same town; in France; in the Colonies; in the UK and Ireland; whatever, in a town more often numbering thousands than tens of thousands.

Many years ago I visited a Black House on Mull, a cottage museum to show what life was like 150 years ago in the islands.  If any of you have visited that, or a similar museum, you'll know what I mean when I say ‘Primitive’.  Yesterday Barbara and I visited Summerlea Museum in Coatbridge. This is an industrial museum showing what life was like in the coal and iron industry 150 years ago.  The museum includes a row of cottages, each cottage displayed for a different time period from the 1840s to the 1980s.  In addition there are exhibits showing the working conditions, the gradual changes, and the grim realities for ordinary working people.  This museum is very similar to an industrial museum in South Wales that makes the same points.  However bad it was for the men, it was worse for the women who had to keep things together as best they could with minimal resources and minimal security while having baby after baby.  Their labour made the men's labour possible.  Their sacrifices enabled life, however grim, to go on.

Part of what makes us human is this social context of generational transmission.  I learnt a couple useful life lessons from my father, namely ‘Don't cry until you're hit’ and perhaps most usefully: ‘A job isn't done until you put the tools away’.  But most of my life lessons learnt when I was small were from my mother and grandmother.  It has been shown that for chimps and elephants also, it is the older females who are the most active in preserving and transmitting culture and knowledge.

Now, of course, the spread of culture and knowledge (along with prejudice) has electronic tools instead of the village well or back fence.   It is fashionable, in some circles, to denigrate social media and television soaps.  I view modern day soaps as the equivalent of Greek tragedies.  The Greek audience watching a play could see the heroes make wrong choices and then see how the fates punished them for their tragic flaws.  Manchester and the East End of London exhibit the same link between bad choices and bad results in our modern soap operas.  I have a Facebook account that I look at once or twice a week.  I link with a few close friends and family who put up messages and photos about their lives.  OK, a personal letter would be much better, but in today's busy world sharing news and values this way is often a choice of this way, or not it getting done.  And while I do get tired of hearing what restaurant my cousin visited, the accumulation of small details helps to maintain relationship over long periods when face-to face contact is not possible.

Churches used to be the real centres where values were learnt, practised, and transmitted.  And traditionally while men ran the show, it was the women who got on with the work.  We forget this core function of the church community at our peril (but that is a sermon for another time).

A few years ago a Lutheran pastor in the USA shocked his congregation in the church newsletter by announcing that his sister had been killed by American bombs in Syria and he would be speaking about it the coming Sunday.  It was a rather dramatic way to make a point, but he pointed out to a rather full church that as Christians, we are all God's children and everyone is either our brother or our sister.

The greatest gifts you can give someone are affection and time.   Mothers do this day after day.   Teachers do this day after day.  Foster parents do this day after day.

If you love someone, whether they are your mother, a mother substitute, or just a close friend, TELL  them.  Time is short and we never really know what lies a couple hours into the future. Speaking with grieving people, one of the things that often comes up is sadness that their last conversation with the deceased was not a happy one.  So on Mother's Day don't forget to tell them that they are valued, that they are wonderful, and that you know what they have given you at great cost, otherwise, the card, the chocolates, the flowers, the family meal out are but empty symbols.  And if your Mother or mother substitute is no longer alive, take a few moments today and every day to remembering their role in your development as an individual in the ongoing process of a living community.

Copyright John Clifford used by permission given in St Mark’s on 26 March 2017