On this day that honors Mothers, says the Rev. Victoria Weinstein,

let us honor all mothers

men and women alike

who from somewhere in their being

have freely and wholeheartedly given life, and sustenance, and vision to us.

And with this, we begin our journey of exploring motherhood, but from a distinctively artistic standpoint. The subject is motherhood–the subject is giving life, nurturing life, healing life, preserving life, defending against illness and pain and injustice and death–that is the subject, but we wish to see it through artistic words and images which are unique in their power to provoke insight and emotion. 

Begin here, with this piece by Ana Leovy: 

Though we know that childbirth is tied exclusively to female biology, 

we know, with the Rev. Weinstein, that the larger art of nurture transcends gender orientation and only expands and grows as society allows it to and makes it ok for not just women to be the caregivers…..

So look at these loving fathers. Look at this family, which is as holy and as right an any other family out there: 

Caregivers of children, caregivers through cooking, caregivers of all kinds…..

This is why today, on this Mother’s Day, we do honor mothering of all kinds, from whatever hands we receive it and in whatever kind of family we are graced to live in. 

We also need to honor mothering that transcends the human:

Here is a picture of the original “mama bear.” And then take a look at this painting from 1894, by J. S. Dyson, entitled “The Foster Mother”: 

Mothering in its pure sense is a deep nurturing instinct that can bridge the divide even between dogs and cats! 

To say nothing of the divide between humans and other animals…

Mothering, we might even say, is, in its largest sense, no less than a cosmic force that gives birth to our universe! 

But more on that in a moment….

Right now, it needs to be said: while the pure art of mothering is one thing; the mother role, which human society has tied very strongly to people of a female gender orientation, is another. Mother’s Day has mainly been about this. Biological moms or adoptive moms with children. This is what we grow up learning. This is what the Hallmark Cards are geared to. 

Or cards that aren’t so … Hallmark-y. 

This is how things get really complicated. 

The entirety of motherhood being crammed into a social role. 

All the ways that human mothers succeed, and all the ways they fall short. 

This is why Mother’s Day is one of those tough holidays for a lot of us. 

This is why Vicky’s advice is so powerful and good for us to hear today:

“Instead of putting your mother on a pedestal, draw up a chair and sit down beside her.”

Poet Erin Belieu says it like this: “there are subjects that seem to baffle poets more than others, the subject of our mothers being very high on that list. What glorious, enraging, most essential beings mothers are.” From out of this complicate mass of emotion, she speaks this poem entitled “Another Poem for Mothers”: 

Mother, I’m trying

to write

a poem to you—

which is how most

poems to mothers must

begin—or, What I’ve wanted

to say, Mother...but we

as children of mothers,

even when mothers ourselves,

cannot bear our poems

to them. Poems to

mothers make us feel

little again. How to describe

that world that mothers spin

and consume and trap

and love us in, that spreads

for years and men and miles?

Those particular hands that could

smooth anything: butter on bread,

cool sheets or weather. It’s

the wonder of them, good or bad,

those mother-hands that pet

and shape and slap,

that sew you together

the pieces of a better house

or life in which you’ll try

to live. Mother,

I’ve done no better

than the others, but for now,

here is your clever failure.


And that is the poem. Listen again to these lines: 

How to describe

that world that mothers spin

and consume and trap

and love us in, that spreads

for years and men and miles?

How to describe this influence, that goes on and on and never ends? 

Salvador Dali, for his part, tried: 

This painting is from 1929, entitled “The Enigma of Desire,” or “My Mother, My Mother, My Mother.” In 1929, eight years after his mother died, Dalí joined the Surrealist movement in art, which was a group dedicated to exploring the workings of the mysterious unconscious. That same year Dalí painted this painting.

 Look carefully at the left-bottom corner. 

You can barely make out a face–it’s Dali’s own profile, distorted as things are so often in dreams. His eyes are closed and he is sleeping. And what rises out of him in his sleep is a huge brown structure which dwarfs him. 

He is so small, and it is so large. And what “it” is is a shape covered with the words “ma mere,” which translates to “my mother.” Over and over again, it’s those words:

my mother

my mother

my mother

my mother

my mother

But note that it is only the shape of his personal desire, and in no way does it resemble the historical reality of his mother. 

And then, in the distance, do you see the two shapes? 

One slouches forward, looks like it’s walking away from and beyond the central scene. Is that Dali’s father? And then there is the shape you see through a big hole in the giant brown shape of his unforgettable mother. Is that the house they lived in? Is that the scene of their domestic life? 

All these questions. And I feel provoked to ask some more: 

How large does the influence of your mother loom for you? 

that world that mothers spin

and consume and trap

and love us in, that spreads

for years and men and miles?

If you are not consciously aware of that, is there an unconscious acknowledgement of that fact that your desire for mother has a shape that is huge and somehow otherworldly? Has it happened in some dream that you yourself have had? 

Or when you are feeling sad, and lonely, and completely used up, is there power for you in invoking the memory of your mother? 

At the same exact time, and simultaneously, can the memory of your mother–her influence on you–overwhelm you, be like a huge weight that drags you down? 

And how about the father or father figure in your life? How did he fit into the picture? You and your mom used to be fused. Psychologically, you used to be one, and he was the third wheel. How did he fit in? Did he ever? 

I bring up this last set of questions because I am a father myself, and I remember how my relationship with my wife (now ex) changed when our child was born, and I did feel pushed to the side, and there was absolutely no ill intent involved, and yet, it was a hard change, and I was not emotionally mature enough to cope, and I had to learn fast. 

All these questions–from just one instance of the art of motherhood. 

But that’s art for you–art that is good. 

Art that is good is provocative. It stays with you. It can be unsettling. It goes deep. 

And now here’s one more question: the question of domestic life. The challenges of domestic life. These, specifically, as they impact the mother. 

One angle on this is to consider the experience of being pregnant, for here, one’s body is being domesticated or made habitable for another human being. 

So consider this art installation by Senga Nengudi, from 1975, entitled “R.S.V.P.” 

Senga Nengudi filled pantyhose with sand and stretched it across corners or rooms, as a way to evoke the improbable elasticity of the pregnant body. The body that was yours before pregnancy does things, during pregnancy, that you perhaps once thought impossible. Your body, in fact, has been taken over by a process that is at turns disturbing and amazing and you are no longer in control…. 

Nengudi was speaking to a Chicago Tribune reporter about this piece of art when she said, “I’d just had my two children and was fascinated with this issue of pregnancy, how you expand beyond all recognition sometimes. And then your body is so resilient and just bounces back into shape — well, pretty much so. There was also the elasticity of the psyche during pregnancy, this constant resilience that the body enacts.”

But the domestication process we’re talking about here doesn’t end with the biological mother’s body being made habitable for another human being. It’s only the beginning for her, if she continues on to be that baby’s parent. 

Parenthood is the next phase of domestication. 

And that can be challenging in its own way, as suggested by Louise Bourgeois’s piece from 1947 entitled “Femme Maison” (or Wife House):

Look especially at the female figure on the left. In place of her torso and head stands a house with many floors and numerous tiny windows. Thus the title of this piece, the “wife house,” which tongue-in-cheek suggests that the tasks of wifehood and motherhood can overwhelm your individuality and personhood and replace it with chores and duties and one day you wake up and you can hardly recognize yourself anymore. 

This is exactly why we heard Vicky say earlier, about her mother: “The prettiest, smartest, nicest, of course.  She had been a young girl of 19 who married a divorced man twice her age, and then had her only child at age 22.  She was, in the terms of the day, a housewife.  What else would she be?  She made lunch every day when I came home from school, and made dinner every night for the three of us.  I really didn’t know much about her as a person, as I was way too concerned about myself.  I just knew that she was doing everything that a mother should do. But what were these mothers of the 1950’s thinking about?  Did Mrs. Zappala or Mrs. Horwitz dream about a different life?  Not that they wanted to give up motherhood, far from it, but what were their dreams?  Their aspirations?  Did they ever get realized?”

Did they? 

Some of you know the name Betty Friedan, who wrote a book published 1963 entitled The Feminine Mystique, who raised all these same questions. It would be a breath of fresh air for so many women, on a journey of recovery from essentially having become nothing but a “wife house.” 

Overwhelm is the main theme here–the overwhelming responsibilities and duties of wifehood and motherhood. 

So, look at this piece from 1967, by Alice Neel, entitled Nancy and Olivia:

This is the artist’s daughter-in-law, and first thing I want to ask is, what feelings emerge for you when you look at the new mother’s green dress? Is it a shade of green that you think is attractive?

Now look at how the new mother’s legs, intertwined, turn one way, and her shoulder and face turn another way, awkwardly, towards the viewer. 

Now look at the faces in the painting. The mother’s startled look–a combination of fatigue and vigilance. The baby’s look: hyper alert. 

Overwhelm is indeed the main theme here. What it’s like to have a baby and, suddenly, you are the caregiver or one of the caregivers responsible for no less than keeping another person alive.    

And sometimes the result is a crash. Crash and burn. The mother who is supposed to be the nurturer doesn’t nurture. It happens to the best of mothers, the good-enough mothers. 

And then there are the not-good-enough mothers, the bad mothers, the mothers who wound, the mothers who are in a constant state of crash and burn. 

Like the mother portrayed in the movie Mommie Dearest, famous actress Joan Crawford. 

Also like the stepmother portrayed in any number of Disney movies but here is one of the notable ones: Lady Tremaine from Cinderella:

Photographer Marilyn Minter, in a 12-photograph series now known as “Coral Ridge Towers,” captured her mother, a reclusive person who struggled with addiction, fixing her makeup, trying on wigs, smoking a cigarette, and dyeing her eyebrows, all while wearing her nightgown.

She looks weary, doesn’t she. Immediately I think of my mother and of her mental illnesses and addictions and I know she wanted to be so much better as a mom, so much more present, so much more nurturing. She just wasn’t able. But I know she wanted to be.

It breaks my heart. 

She wanted to be more like this: 

Available, resilient, present, kind, patient, fierce in her child’s defence, generous…..

She wanted to be more like this: 

She wanted to be more like this: 

The reason why I believe she wanted to be a better mother is that she told me so, before she died. And with all mothers everywhere, of whatever type and quality, I am honoring her today. 

She used to say something to me all the time, which takes us to the second-to-last aspect of the art of mothering I want to be sure we explore. This was when she was more in her right mind and not addled by drugs or by her mental illnesses. She used to say, “If I had to throw myself in front of an oncoming car to protect you, I would!” 

Did your mom ever say something like that to you?   

It used to irritate me to hear this, quite honestly, but now, I think I truly believe her. I think she would have. And if I were to point to a piece of art that evokes that kind of fierce energy of motherhood, it’s this, a classic of Western art: 

Madonna and Child, from the late 1480s, by Giovanni Bellini. Look at the mother. Look at the Madonna. She holds her precious child. But she is looking at you the viewer, almost as if to ask, How will you treat this child? Will you care for my child? 

It’s a momma bear look, for sure. She will throw herself in front of you, if she must, to protect her own. 

The Madonna and Child theme is ancient. As ancient as ancient Egypt. Look: 

As ancient as ancient Africa. Look: 

It is ancient, and it is also contemporary too. It is today, Right now. The pain of all the -isms that are a part of social conditioning–racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and on and on–that a mother will see a child fall prey too, no matter how hard they try to steer them to avoid that fate.  

This is a lithograph from 1982, entitled Madonna, by Elizabeth Catlett.

And here is that mother’s voice, from the poem by Carla Christopher: 

I can’t breathe 

I can’t breathe 

I can’t breathe 

Trayvon Martins wrapped 

in hoodies, black boys carry shrouds on their backs 

Eternally ready, fashion has become destiny, 

fabric woven into self-fulfilling prophesy…

Should I wrap my newborn son in his death sheet 

and save myself the trouble of in between? 

The fabric of birth and death looks the same, 

red stains 

against an eternally white foundation 

Your head 

grows too big for my hands 

Your heart 

grows too big for my hands 

and since I cannot keep you small 

I battle teaching you to slouch, slink and crawl 

rather than stand 

Our attempts at self-protection are too often futile 

and I dig 6 foot deep holes….


Oh. The fierceness of motherhood. The defiance. And the despair. 

Look at this: 

This is by Kathe Kollwitz, from 1903. Look at the mother in her grief, rendered in scratchy, expressionistic lines, her eyes almost like gouges. Motherhood is also about this. The pain of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, infant mortality. The pain of social violence. 

There’s something about this art piece you should know. Kollwitz used her seven-year-old son Peter to model for the child. Eleven years later, Peter was killed in World War I. It is a sober reminder to us that the maternal instinct of fierceness and defense of children was why we have Mother’s Day to begin with. The original idea for Mother’s Day was born out of the fierce heart of a Unitarian named Julia Ward Howe, who had spent enough time as a part of the newly created American Red Cross in the treatment of all the young men wounded in the Civil War that, in 1870, she had something to say. She called it her Proclamation, which was, in essence, a call for an international Mother’s Day of Peace. It was a call to end war. It was a call to end the slaughter of all soldiers everywhere. 

Because each and every soldier was but some mother’s son. 

Here is Julia Ward Howe: 

She is the mother of mother’s day. 

Bless her for her fierceness, and for the fierceness of all mothers everywhere, on behalf of their children.

And now our exploration of the art of motherhood is near an end. We have seen art portraying the powerful role of mothers, their influence, the realities of pregnancy and domestic life, how such realities can be overwhelming, and how mothers can crash and burn. But even with mothers who fall short, there can be a fierce desire for the wellbeing of their child, as my mom felt for me. In the best of mothering, that fierce desire gets translated into a call for social justice and an end to every and all form of violence that destroy young life, if not permanently disfiguring it…. 

But I will leave you with this. I return to the earliest pieces of art I showed, evoking how motherhood ultimately transcends gender orientation and the social role that women are tied to. Here, mothering is purely about nurturing aliveness, however that might look. 

In the largest sense, we are talking about how all things came to be. We are talking about God.

When God is conceived of as male, how all things came to be is imagined as a process somewhat like that of a craftsman creating an object. As this piece from 1220 illustrates: 

But now, here is the thought I wish to leave you with. What if the way all things came to be originally wasn’t so much like this as it was like this

This is by Judy Chicago–her attempt to capture the complexity of the birth experience. 

The God here who gives birth to the universe is in no way like a craftsperson who stands apart from the thing being created. Here, the creation is born. 

The flesh of creation is the flesh of God. 

The creation has Her eyes and Her smile. 

What difference would it make for you, to know that God was really like this? That God was a mother? A mother to you and to all. Fierce in Her love. Fierce in a desire for your wellness and flourishment? 

What difference would that make? 

Happy Mother’s Day.