We are taught that motherhood, along with a woman’s other key roles as a daughter of God and helpmate to her husband, is a great blessing. Mothers are honored for their invaluable contributions to the development of faith and righteous families.
However, because I have not been blessed with children, I have often felt pained—and have remained seated—when mothers are asked to stand up at church on Mother’s Day to receive flowers or inspirational booklets. Many women remain childless throughout their time on earth. What does motherhood mean to us? If motherhood is the most valuable contribution a woman can make, why do some women not have the opportunity to fulfill that role? I have asked, if we are not to be mothers, what are we doing here?
I’ve heard many answers to such questions. Some people, hoping to offer comfort, have said, “Don’t worry. If you are worthy, you will be a mother in the next life.” I believe that; I have felt sacred assurances that one day I will have the opportunity to raise and teach my own children. Even so, I find myself frustrated by this answer, for I don’t believe Heavenly Father has placed me here just to wait. Surely I can fulfill a vital purpose here and now. But what is this purpose?
For me, the beginnings of understanding such questions came from a very wise fourteen-year-old girl. I had served for several years as Young Women president in our branch and had found great joy in the calling. I’d been bleary-eyed at youth conferences, poison-ivied at girls’ camp, and inspired at youth testimony meetings. Through it all I had loved the girls and the time I was able to spend with them. One year, on Mother’s Day, I received a letter from one of them:
“… Because you’ve treated me as your own child, I felt it only right to honor you as an important and special type of mother. You’ve been a model woman that I’ve always greatly respected, but in the last year my respect [has grown] greater and a special kind of love has developed. Who ever said that a child can have only one mother? I believe a girl can have as many mothers as she needs to help her grow stronger in personality and … character. … You are one of my very special mothers, and I thought this would be a good day to thank you.”
Over the years, I’ve read this letter frequently and pondered its wisdom. Who did ever say a child could have only one mother? The sacred role of motherhood is not defined solely by the physical process of giving birth. In fact, I suspect that some who have borne children would not be honored by our Heavenly Father with the cherished title of mother. I believe that the eternal role of motherhood has more to do with the teaching and nurturing of spirits than with physical birth and early mortal caretaking. I know it’s important to provide Heavenly Father’s children with healthy bodies and safe homes, but that must be only the beginning of being a mother.
I believe that motherhood in the eternal sense is developed through sacrifice, service, and love. For most women the greatest opportunities to develop nurturing talents come with the birth of their own children. However, those of us who do not bear children can develop qualities of eternal motherhood in other ways. I’ve felt the love of motherhood when I’ve counseled with teenage girls about their eternal destiny, their Heavenly Father’s love, and the wonder of the gospel. I have felt that love as I’ve laughed and cried with Relief Society sisters, as I’ve worked in the temple, and as I’ve cherished children I’ve taught in and out of church. Even if we don’t have children of our own, we can serve as mothers to people young and old throughout our adult lives, teaching and loving and helping them find their way back to Heavenly Father.
Do I feel like a mother? Sometimes. I am grateful to those who have let me share in the lives of their children, who don’t take back the baby when she’s fussy, who let me borrow their children for picnics, and who allow me to help when there’s sickness. Sometimes my not having children still hurts and even feels like more than I can bear. Each time I hear a conversation about the miracle of pregnancy, I long to share the experience, and I stand in awe of those mothers who are so blessed.
And yet I know that my time on earth has great purpose. If a woman’s greatest role is to be a mother, I too have part in it. I need not wait until I can have children of my own in order to develop and bless others with the gentler virtues associated with motherhood. As I sacrifice to meet the needs of Heavenly Father’s children, as I serve and love and teach them, I am a mother indeed. Next year, when I listen to the Mother’s Day speakers, I can’t promise not to cry, but I’ll know that when they’re talking about mothers, they mean me too.
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