The Idea of “Mothers in Zion” Made Me Mad—Until I Learned What It Meant
I truly feel sorry for men on Mother’s Day. This holiday—meant to honor and celebrate—is more often an emotional and spiritual minefield for almost everyone: Women who have no children, or who wanted more children, or maybe different children. Women who feel they are failing, or that someone failed them, or that failure is around the corner. Women who wished they were free to mother, or feel cut off from their mothers, or never had the mother they wanted, or can’t be the mother they want to be. Sometimes it seems like there is no way to win here.
As a middle-aged woman with no kids, I have been by turns annoyed, amused, angry, breathless, and resigned on Mother’s Day. There have been Mother’s Days when I couldn’t bear to have everyone gauging my expression, so I skipped church. There are others when I’ve stood as requested—for “we are all mothers in Zion”—to receive a potted begonia or a chocolate bar. “No,” I would think to myself. “We are not ALL mothers. Pretending we are doesn’t help.”
In the mid 1970s, as the oldest of my parents’ seven children, I was raised to have serious mother skills. As part of that big family I did laundry, put together sprinkler pipe, harvested beans, packed for camping trips, ironed shirts, read chapter books aloud, made apricot leather, and learned the proper way to clean toilets and mop up barf and distract cranky toddlers. I cooked spaghetti, rocked babies, helped paint science projects, made a bed for the cat’s kittens, and quizzed for spelling words. But despite all that instruction and preparation, I did not become a mother.
Jesus seemed to go to a great amount of trouble to reach out to all kinds of women in their varied circumstances and call them to His work. The New Testament includes His dealings with women who would otherwise be on the outside of things—the two single sisters who want to be disciples (Mary and Martha), a Samaritan woman who had been married or paired five times, a woman caught in the act of adultery, a widow grieving the death of her only son (widow of Nain), a woman whose husband was steward to the wicked political king usurping the place that was rightfully Jesus’s (Joanna), an unremarkable, ordinary mother who served food in the background and was rarely noticed (Peter’s mother-in-law). To every one of them Jesus essentially says: “Come, choose the better part and follow me. This gospel is for the likes of you.”
Jesus perceived who those women truly were beyond their immediate and limiting mortal circumstances. Elder Neal A. Maxwell described that “God lives in an eternal now where the past, present, and future are constantly before Him (see D&C 130:7)” (“Care for the Life of the Soul,” Apr. 2003 general conference). So, if at any time in my eternal journey I am going to be a mother (along with those spectacular skills I honed as a teenager), heaven must see me that way all the time. It must be that my Heavenly Parents don’t view who I am at any static moment in time, but instead see the person I am meant to be and the person my accumulated choices will let me be.
In November of 2016, I was in a convoy of Kurdish soldiers delivering supplies to makeshift communities at the top of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. Two years earlier, ISIS had swept through the remote Yezidi villages, creating horrible destruction and intense emotional pain. The Kurdish Peshmerga were providing the security for the projects that November day. Their efforts weren’t decorative. We drove through bombed-out villages with ISIS graffiti and headed up a twisty road where the Yezidi had been protected by the steep mountains. For the soldiers with us, this was much lighter duty than fighting on the front lines in Mosul, but they still took their assignment seriously, scanning the horizon and manning the guns to be ready for any trouble. The captain chatted with me and pointed out interesting things, but he was always looking past me and subtly moving his soldiers into a phalanx surrounding us. We distributed kerosene heaters and bundles of coats and boots that day. We also methodically visited the schools and health clinic LDS Charities had been constructing throughout the summer. The weather had turned cold, and families crowded around the trucks, anxious for help.
It struck me late in the afternoon as the convoy was hustling back down the mountain before the sun set that I had also honed skills for this kind of day. I was there meeting mothers whose daughters had been enslaved, whose husbands had been killed. I was there representing mothers who had coaxed their little children to donate money to a humanitarian fund. I was there acting the way mothers act when there is war and famine. I was there as a Christian, as a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ, as a covenantal mother—standing in for all the others who had given $5 or fasted and prayed after reading the news. It was a convergence of mothers. Charity, or the pure love of Christ, is motherhood in a very practical and real way—sacrificing so that others might thrive and seeing beyond present circumstances to the way things really are. This motherhood is part of my covenantal identity. My mother-work will come directly through the whispers of the Holy Spirit. And it is no less real for being unrelated by blood and bone.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke once about the motherly characteristics of Christ the Messiah:
“No love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child. When Isaiah, speaking messianically, wanted to convey Jehovah’s love, he invoked the image of a mother’s devotion. ‘Can a woman forget her sucking child?’ he asks. …
“This kind of resolute love ‘suffereth long, and is kind, … seeketh not her own, … but … beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.’ Most encouraging of all, such fidelity ‘never faileth.’ ‘For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed,’ Jehovah said, ‘but my kindness shall not depart from thee’” (“Behold Thy Mother,” Oct. 2015 general conference).
On that Iraqi plain, motherhood suddenly became defined for me as those who behave the way good mothers do.
My life has taught me three things that changed my mind about Mother’s Day:
- My skills are never wasted.
- My heart—not my present circumstances—determines my blessings.
- I am a mother because I behave as a mother.
To my younger self who was full of misery holding a potted flower and to all the women who are uncomfortable on Mother’s Day, I would say: “Don’t let sadness obscure the view. Your covenants have already paved your path. Keep going. You are doing better than you know.” What might the Lord say to us? I think He would throw His arms around us and let us know we are worthy enough to keep going and our sacrifices have been acceptable before Him. He would tell us He is reserving for us all that is in our hearts, unspoken things that only He could know. He would say that He sees us and all we do behind the scenes, that we are not invisible to Him. He would ask of us the same thing He asked Peter: “Lovest thou me? … Feed my lambs. … Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).
So take your flower or chocolate or begonia or whatever it is. Stand up with a smile whether or not you have borne children, whether or not your kids are doing fine at this exact moment, whether or not things happened the way you thought they would. It turns out we really are all mothers in Zion. We have a work to do. It stretches into eternity. And like the Master we follow, our love “never faileth” (1 Corinthians 13:8; Moroni 7:46).
Sharon Eubank is the first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency and the director of LDS Charities, the humanitarian organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She loves history, homemade pie, and crossword puzzles. See more thoughts from Sister Eubank on her official Facebook page.