A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
As Unitarian Universalist parents, we celebrate diversity, and while we feel it is important for mothers to be honored for all that they do, we also recognize that in celebrating this holiday, we can possibly marginalize others. That gives us the awesome responsibility of helping the next generation understand that in celebrating motherhood, all who “mother” deserve to be celebrated.
Once again this year the Unitarian Universalist Association is partnering with The Strong Families Initiative offering liturgical resources such as prayers, meditations and readings for Mother’s Day to supplement the images and issues of what constitutes motherhood today—with all of its challenges, triumphs, and conflicts. It also stretches our thinking of motherhood in all of its forms, reminding us that not only are women who have adopted children mothers, so are women of all colors and ethnic backgrounds, women trapped by systemic poverty, and women who are legally separated from their children or incarcerated. Likewise, many of those who identify as transgender, gender-queer, or lesbian are also mothers.
As Jessica Halperin, the Women’s Issues Program Associate and Clara Barton Intern with the UUA explains, this is a natural and helpful framework for Unitarian Universalists to celebrate Mothers’ Day and at the same time bring awareness to the oppression experienced by families in marginalized communities. This is especially the case for children in immigrant families who live in fear of their parents being deported or are suffering under a five year ban on health care access.
Depending upon the age of your child, there are different ways you can do this, but they all involve exploring the true meaning of the holiday and what it means to “mother” someone. Even young children can talk about what mothers do, and what it means to be a mother—and then stretch their idea of what a mother is and looks like through conversation and by seeing some pictures of people who are mothers but don’t fit the stereotypical image of one.
You can read children’s books like Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, which tells the story not only of the hopeful adoptive parents who eagerly await their new baby, but also of the loving mother who is giving away her biological child to give them a better life. Older children and youth over age 13 can learn a lot from the free online game, ICED (I Can End Deportation), which explores the troubles experienced by immigrant children and their families.
And in addition to making hand-drawn and decorated cards for their own mothers, grandmothers, or other mother-figures in their lives, you could arrange (perhaps with some other parents at your congregation) for your children to go to a homeless or domestic violence shelter. Bring along some fancy cardstock, glue, glitter, and some other creative materials and make those cards alongside the children who are in the shelter. Or help your children pick out some of the beautiful online Mamas Day cards through the website mamasday.org/with the diverse images of motherhood to send to family members or friends.
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Our children absorb not only our words but also our behavior as they attempt to understand what it means to live a moral and ethical life. They see and hear what we believe from the answers we give them and they internalize our actions as evidence of our values.
This is already a tall order for most parents, but for Unitarian Universalists—who pride ourselves in being anti-racist/anti-oppression as well as environmental activists who are standing on the side of love and believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all people—it can be difficult if not impossible to always live up to our ideals.
Despite our best intentions, we all make mistakes, act inconsistently, and generally fall short of our overall goals of parenting. There are days when we are tired, irritable, sick, or just plain cranky, and we may not be respectful, just, honest, or particularly careful about what our behavior is teaching our children. This is only to be expected. We are human, after all. We may carry some spark of the divine and the potential to accomplish great things, but we also have moments when it just doesn’t work.
Children understand this and are more than willing to forgive—particularly if we recognize our transgressions, explain how we wish it hadn’t happened, and perhaps even share what we will do to make it right. In fact, owning up to our mistakes is a great way to teach children that it’s okay to not be perfect and that we all make mistakes—including the people they look up to.
We can use these imperfect parenting moments as an opportunity to teach our children valuable lessons about how at times we all fall short of the ideal. None of us is without fault, nor is the world we inhabit. Every day carries with it the possibility and the opportunity for us to grow, improve ourselves, and come to terms with imperfection. Instead of glossing over our mistakes, we can instead celebrate them as opportunities for learning and growing. This not only teaches our children that it’s okay for them to make mistakes, but it teaches them what they should do to make things right when they do mess up. They also can seek forgiveness, make it up to the person who’s been wronged, or promise to do better next time.
The Jewish faith tradition has the important yearly ritual of examining past deeds and asking forgiveness as part of their High Holy Days, culminating with Yom Kippur. Annually, the slate is wiped clean and they are able to begin again fresh without the burdens of last year’s misdeeds to affect their attempts to do good in the world. What a wonderful gift this ritual gives to them, this chance to start over with the idea of doing better next time.
Unitarian Universalists could also use a cleansing ritual like this, to help us come to acceptance of how we regularly fall short of the high ideals we have established for ourselves. Then we can begin anew and do better.
Maybe that’s what New Years’ resolutions should be about.
St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, and his feast day of October 4 is celebrated worldwide by holding pet blessings and similar events throughout the autumn. While Unitarian Universalist congregations may conduct pet blessings, they are not always associated with the celebration of St. Francis. The time around the autumnal equinox, however, is an excellent season to celebrate the importance of animals in our lives, and you don’t have to count on your congregation to conduct a pet-blessing worship service in order to do it.
The Humane Society of the United States has a terrific resource, a St. Francis Day in a Box kit. It includes information on their Fill the Bowl Project to encourage local donations of pet food, a documentary on factory farming (from a Christian perspective) called Eating Mercifully, and KIND News, the Humane Society’s magazine for school-aged children up to grade 6.
It also includes ways families can celebrate wildlife right outside their door. A great family ritual or one-time project would be to examine your yard and outdoor spaces from the perspective of the creatures that inhabit the world with us. While most of us do not intend to damage ecosystems, we do need to learn how to restore some balance and garden with the idea of complimenting the wildlife that is already there and attracting other native plants, insects, and birds that should be there.
Children of many ages will be excited about the idea of growing caterpillars or watching next season as hummingbirds flit from flower to flower instead of hovering around a feeder of sugar water. Educating ourselves about how we affect the animals around us, and making simple changes, is a great way to express our love of the interdependent web and communicate our responsibility to take care of our Earth and all its creatures.
Working in the yard to create a more creature-friendly habitat during the fall shows our children the reality of the cycle of seasons. Even preparing for the return of the spring is an exercise in theology. So bring the kids outside and enlist their help to not only do a fall cleanup around the place, but encourage them to help you build a place where creatures are welcome and even celebrated.