My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, (Gal.4:19), Apostle Paul
What is Mother’s Day? Any answers one might receive from this question will most likely center itself around the biological birthing of children, a task that has been solely used to define womanhood in many cultures.
For example, among my tribe, the Urhobo people, a married woman who does not have biological children can be dubbed with the label “she is a man.” Now, in most other contexts, to call a woman a man is a compliment which means she’s a leader, a defender and protector of her people, a provider, a woman who has a voice and can lead ‘like a man’ (in that only men are seen as natural leaders).
But in my culture, the context of calling a woman who’s not a biological mother a man, is derogatory. It’s a term that’s meant to say she “failed as a woman” and she’s treated with disdain by her in-laws and often by her husband also.
I watched this play out over and over in our culture. I saw my eldest sister’s first marriage break up because of this mockery, so that although she was married to someone she really loved and who apparently loved her in return, her (presumed) barrenness would become a thorn in her flesh, as it would become the sword which divided her marriage. From then on, my sister’s quest in life would be to have children, with or without marriage, and at a time when single parenthood was almost unheard of, she would have an affair just to have a child and so to be able to proudly wear the badge of motherhood.
Our culture was complex in that, informal adoptions were a recognizable way of building immediate nuclear family, in what was already, a very extended family system. According to this, immediate family or extended family members would ‘lend’ their children to childless couples to help create an ‘atmosphere for children,’ which they believed ‘invites’ and draws the ‘spirits’ of children into their homes and helps the couple conceive and have biological children of their own. Many times, this was effective and supports the theory of time and place for everything – giving hope to many childless couples. However, this was not always effective in preventing the abuse and suffering of women without biological children and by the time I was a young adult, my peers would refuse to marry except they could be assured of having children with their intended. This gave birth to the era of many young girls going to the altar one week and giving birth to their children only a few weeks after the wedding ceremony. No young woman wanted to be called ‘a man’ in their marital home. My own stepmother, who had been married once before my dad, but without children, refused to marry my dad except she could have kids with him. Once her firstborn son was born, it became official, they were now a couple.
What is motherhood? Every year for the past three years, I have started asking this question every Mother’s (Mothers’) Day as I began to ‘hear’ the complaints of many women without biological children or women with negative family histories. The complaints came mainly from Christian women who have struggled with the church’s equivalent of being called ‘a man’ by the very nature of the church’s way of celebrating Mother’s Day, i.e., by acknowledging all who bore or were about to bear biological children, as well as adoptive mothers.
The church’s celebration of Mother’s Day seemed to emphasize a lack in women without biological or adoptive children and this seemed to be painful for many women who could do neither for whatever reason.
Two years ago, I wrote an article “What’s Wrong With Mother’s Day?” as pushback to certain rhetoric that in order to honor all women (including those who did not have children for whatever reason, as well as those who’d experienced abusive mothers), the church desist from celebrating Mother’s Day.
Knowing this tension within the church, created tension within me as we approached Mother’s Day in 2018, because I could not completely agree with the rhetoric to scrap Mother’s Day, neither could I completely disagree with the cry of the childless women. So, I continued to pray for clarity from God how to minister to all women. Today is Mother’s Day 2018, and I think I have found one of God’s encouraging message to all women.
What is motherhood and who is a mother? My new understanding of parents is that they are the progenitors of future generations. Oftentimes, there’s a focus on the more common understanding of being a parent, i.e., biological. However, a look in scripture reveals otherwise. Scripture reveals that God has not limited the ability to give life or birth to future generations to biological processes or to even the nuclear family, and as I searched the scriptures, I saw a bigger picture of motherhood than is often talked about either in church or wider society, ways that if talked about, would enhance our understanding and appreciation for women role and leadership in all spheres of life. Let’s take a look at some of these.
Before Deborah, references to motherhood in the Scriptures had been limited to biological mothering, but after the victory of Israel over the Canaanites in Judges 4, Deborah described herself in Judges 5:7 as “a mother in Israel.”
What was Deborah talking about here? Was she saying her ability to bear biological children helped Israel to victory?” If so, why no mention of her children anywhere in the narrative? It is for such one reason that I cannot interpret Deborah’s “a mother in Israel” as a biological qualification for her leadership.
Because Deborah was a prophet, I hesitate to presume such an interpretation of her speech, especially because her rhetoric in Judges 5 is military language. It is the language of a woman who understands war, oppression, injustice and justice. It is the language of a woman who understands motherhood in its truest form.
Motherhood is making and creating space to nurture and bring forth new life. In the spiritual sense of things, we are born again of God the Spirit through the process of the Spirit bringing forth new life in us as Christians. The Holy Spirit’s ability to create space for nurturing and bringing forth new life is one reason many (including myself) take the position that this most powerful force in our lives is feminine.
We look at all the works of the Holy Spirit, constantly nurturing and birthing new things and we conclude that this breath of God, the Holy Spirit, is Woman.
When Deborah called herself ‘a mother in Israel,’ she was referring to this continued activity of the Holy Spirit to birth new things for the people of Israel and she was part of that force, and not necessarily biologically (this is one reason why I can also affirm the calling of God as “Mother”).
Deborah’s song in Judges 5 mentions all the conditions that needed, no, demanded new life for the Israelites. Israel was living under oppression from the enemy. They were not free as the people of God were free to live and they needed deliverance to step out of the current bondage and into a new era of freedom and flourishing. As a prophet, Deborah’s role was to prophesy life or death to Israel. In this particular case, she prophesied the space that was being created through war for the birthing of this new narrative. She also nurtured this growing narrative in Barak, who wisely pleaded that she accompany him to battle.
Why did Barak insist on Deborah, a woman, accompanying him to battle? Was it simply because she was a prophet? I’d say no, because we don’t see this as typical of Israel’s history to request that a prophet accompany the army to war. Yet, it would appear that Barak believed that Deborah’s presence, despite her gender, was necessary to both fight and win this war that would propagate Israel into a new story (Jud.4:8). Why?
I would posit that it is because he needed her, as a spiritual mother, i.e., nurturer and birther of new things to come with him on this journey which looked hopeless to the natural eyes. He needed her to spiritually nurture and birth the vision within his army. It would appear to me that Barak saw the powerful, life-giving force of woman in Deborah’s prophecy. Just as a woman’s body carries life which is unseen, yet nevertheless developing and is seen by all nine months later, Barak believed in the message Deborah nurtured deep within her and he needed her spiritual labor to nurture AND BIRTH Israel’s redemption and freedom from oppression.
Just as a woman is confident that there’s life inside her, although she cannot yet see it, yet she adjusts all about her to accommodate and create space for the flourishing of that which will only be later seen, Barak needed Deborah in her office spiritual mother (not necessarily a biological one) to do the same for the yet unseen victory of Israel [I find it i interesting that it is Deborah herself who brings the conversation back to gender, not Barak!].
Another example we can look at is that of Esther, Jewish maiden become Queen of Persia.
There is no mention of Esther’s biological children in Scriptures, but (according to my new understanding of motherhood) Esther was a mother. How?
Mordecai sowed in Esther, the seed of a vision of new life which was free from oppression for her people. Esther nurtured the seed with prayer and fasting and through laborious negotiations birthed a new narrative for the Jews in Persia. When Esther was done, the lives of the Jews was never the same again. Esther’s travail with God and with humans (King Ahasaerus and Haman) resulted in a new existence for the Jews in Persia.
Another favorite of mine is Abigail, whose timely intervention sparked a new narrative in Israel’s history – one that continued the righteous mandate of God for hospitality.
Finally, the Scriptures show us a man, the apostle Paul, who saw himself as a mother, i.e., the birther of new Kingdom life among the Galatians: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,” (Gal.4:19). Here’s a man, calling himself a woman in labor, why???
Because to be a mother, is to birth new life and this is something anyone, men and women, can participate in.
Paul’s understanding of women as life-sources transcended biology, so much so that he could see himself as woman in labor! Thus, the church and society must likewise define motherhood beyond biological birthing or nurturing of life, but also the spiritual birthing. If we retain this understanding of Apostle Paul, then we can see the potential of every woman (and even men!), to birth future generations beyond biology.
For example, when women stand to advocate for the well-being of others, they have their eyes on the well-being of society in future generations.
When women open their voices to cry out in labor that new, liberated life be allowed to come forth from places of oppression, women are engaging in motherhood. But too often, society has neglected to affirm and celebrate the life-giving contributions of women to humankind besides biological childbearing and rearing.
Society is full of the many ways women have impacted generations: Rosa Parks, whose resistance started the (laborious) movement of birthing the Civil Rights movement, with the cooperative attendance of skilled midwives such as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Sojourner Truth who demanded a new way for looking at women of color, i.e., the right way – as a full and worthy human just like her White counterparts; and many other women of color in history.
In her article “The Baton of Faith: Should Children Find Their Own Way?”, blogger and author, Farikanayi, depicts the important role of mothers (and not just biological connections) in birthing the destiny of future generations.
I think of all the women struggling as my sister did, not to be seen as a ‘man’ but as a woman. I think of the myriad ways these women, despite not having biological children, are nevertheless birthing a new and better society for all and most importantly for future generations.
When we write the history books, our destinies are seen to be shaped by people (men and women) who acted to influence the birth of a new society and not necessarily the names of those who had biological children.
So in the telling of the human story of motherhood in church or elsewhere, we need to start naming women who are making a change for current and future generations.
Do you know any such women? Then wish them Happy Mothers’ Day! Are you one of such women? Then, I’d like to wish you Happy Mother’s Day!
Happy Mothers’ Day to all the women who labor alongside me, nurturing better life for women/people of color and all the intersectionalities that come with us.
Happy Mothers’ Day to all the women who receive the vision/prophecy for a better life, and who like Deborah, a mother in Israel, go with the men into battle to change history and rescue present and future generations from oppression and injustice.
Happy Mothers’ Day to all the Mothers in Israel who are not afraid to take their place in society and prophesy a new day, a new life according to God’s desire for their societies.
Happy Mothers’ Day to all the Mothers in Israel who rescue the hurting, the abused, the hungry, the homeless because your actions re-writes their narratives for good lives.
Happy Mothers’ Day to all the Mothers in Israel, who sacrifice their careers and reputations and personal well-being to nurture hope, courage, freedom in order to create space in their society for new life to thrive.
We cannot name all of you, but we salute you all with Deborah’s song, knowing that until you rise up and lead the way, others will not enter into their victory. So, keep leading the way, all you Mothers in Israel!
God bless you!
-Rev. Oghene’tega Swann
Rev. Oghene’tega Swann is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Beaver-Butler Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church(USA). She is the founding pastor of Refreshing Springs Ministry, Aliquippa & Ambridge. She has the honor and privilege to be mother to one wonderful, biological child and many, many more non-biological children.