I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s contemporary classic, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in preparation for the miniseries on Hulu.
The story takes place in a dystopian America in which women are sorted into various roles: Wives (elites), Marthas (servants), Econowives (commoners) and Handmaids. The Handmaid’s value – as in Old Testament times – is to procreate in the place of the elite and aged wives.
As a piece of dystopian literature, it is a warning to contemporary society. It is, especially, a powerful work of feminist fiction that cautions how we categorize women today. The roles of Wives, Marthas and Handmaids are a type of hyperbolic extension of contemporary society.
I finished reading this book while I was the houseguest of close friends who – in early March – lost their daughter nearly 24 weeks into the pregnancy. While talking with the bereaved father, I had a sudden thought that needed to be shared. I interrupted his own grieving to almost yell: “Don’t go to church on May 14!”
It suddenly struck me that they would be sitting in church on that day when all the mothers would be asked to stand up and everyone would clap. Later those women would be given flowers, pencils or some other tchotchke. (In fact, ChristianBooks has even compiled a “Mother’s Day Gift Guide.”)
I had a vision of my grieving friends shedding tears once again as this church “celebration” reminded them of all they lost. Knowing how deep into a broken place their daughter’s death had brought them, I hardly wanted to see them there again. Maybe in an intentional service of lament, but not because the church wanted to do something “nice.”
I’m a pastor. I’m not in the habit of encouraging people to skip church. I’m probably even a bit old-timey and stodgy on the matter, believing as I do that our lives as best lived when centered around a weekly worship of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I don’t suffer the soccer-dance-swim traveling team excuse very well. Even still, I had to yell “Don’t go to church.”
This column is nothing new.
Every year, it seems, the church has to have a debate about what to do with Mother’s Day. Resources as diverse as Patheos and The Gospel Coalition have thinkpieces on that topic. Christianity Today has been nice enough to collect a diversity of opinions on the matter.
As a pastor (even before my friends’ tragic loss), I’ve found myself doing the Mother’s Day Shuffle, trying to not peeve off my congregants with my lackluster enthusiasm for the day while never knowing who: hates their mother, was abused by their mother, lost a child, couldn’t have a child, and/or opted not to have a child for any number of reasons. I’ve tried to remind all the women present that through their mutual witness of countless baptisms, they have all been made mothers of the children in the church. (But even that makes me cringe because in baptism we are united as siblings, but… just give me a break already! I’m trying here!).
Oh, and then – naturally – there are those for whom not celebrating mothers is so unimaginable as to create trauma in their lives. This trauma often gets externalized quickly in the form of accusations or speculations about my own relationship with my mother. Oy!
So, this year, I really want to be done with this dance. I won’t be. I’m sure someone will come up to me – probably on May 11 – and ask me what elaborate plans I have to honor mothers. I’ll stare back with fear and sorrow in my eyes and they’ll say, “I’ll get some flowers organized.”
Even still, I would like this to stop. I’d like this to stop for every reason you can read in the above links. I’d like this to stop because of the grief my friends will feel. I’m not interested in mounting a great argument about why it should stop – this has all been done already. Instead, I’d like the church to just come to a conclusion that the hurt feelings of many (who will still be celebrated in their homes and by every chain restaurant) are worth the salvaged trauma of a few.
But, reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” reminded me of a new and unique reason that the church may want to walk away from its idolization of Mother’s Day.
Atwood knows that once some women get defined by their procreative abilities, all other women will be categorized relative to this too. “Marthas” place a great deal of hope in each Handmaid who comes through the house. Their worth and value is found in receiving the hoped-for child. All of society – and especially all of every woman’s life – gets defined by children once motherhood is extolled too greatly.
This is what’s at the root of my advice to my friends. I know that they’re doing their best to have their lives defined by a Savior who was broken and died – and can therefore enter into their brokenness and this death – but will instead find their lives tempted to be defined by that which they lost.
My fear is that the church is slouching toward Handmaid Christianity. I would really like this to stop.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is the pastor at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. There is no Freudian subtext to the views expressed above. Whatever his concerns about celebrating Mother’s Day in worship, he loves his mother and mother-in-law very much. If you need him, he’ll be watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu, but will respond to your email at firstname.lastname@example.org just as soon as he is done.