Notes on faith: The mothers we choose and those who choose us
As we celebrate spiritual and biological mother figures of our choosing, Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones encourages us to reflect on the intimate gift of listening to our matriarchs’ life stories.
“Notes on faith” is theGrio’s inspirational, interdenominational series featuring Black thought leaders across faiths.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” — Maya Angelou
“There is so much that I have been trying to tell you,” Mom told me in a phone conversation. We were reflecting on our lives, our milestones, and what mattered most, following a significant life transition in our family. For two hours, my mom, now approaching 80 years old, did one of the bravest things I have ever witnessed. When she saw I was ready, she told me her story — I mean the parts she had been taught and socialized would be too much to share with loved ones.
It was time.
Although I knew my mom’s personality, her values, and her ways — or so I thought — she let me into the story behind her story, a story only she could share with the world. In her willingness to be so vulnerable, I understood her more profoundly, including just how much she overcame to provide the life my sister and I enjoy. In that act of self-giving, she also revealed something about who I am; the knowledge silenced in my DNA — because the body keeps the score of our journey and transmits unuttered information to our offspring.
To think, my mother had a whole life of her own.
Through her story, information was gifted to me that day. I was inspired to be very strategic, to be incredibly intentional in how my then-fiancé and I would be socially aware, reprogram ourselves mentally, and take preventative health measures in preparation for building our own family.
Through my mother’s vulnerability, I was invited to learn about what made the woman I’ve always known, and I chose my mother — the one I had already chosen to come through as a baby — again. By choosing my mother, I am referring to leaning into a new depth of trust and being a loving reflection.
In that conversation, she also taught me the impact of speaking for oneself. I, in turn, tried to give her the gift of having been heard and known.
This is not easy work. Sometimes, these conversations are unhealthy and unproductive when done without professional help. And sometimes, we can be frustrated because the one with whom we would like to have a deep conversation is unavailable.
We may even mourn those mothers who are around, but seemingly incapable of being physically or emotionally present for us.
Unresolved emotions run high
You or some of your peers have undoubtedly experienced similar tough conversations, sharing biographical revelations where our mothers may have blurted out or divulged never-before-shared details. Even after our mothers’ passing, we may be confronted with details of their medical history that were never discussed. Even gifted in death, that knowledge can make sense of the quality of their dynamic, illuminating how they suffered in silence. It may even save their child’s life by prompting preventative care.
Often, a wide range of emotions, particularly unresolved ones, are carried during Mother’s Day and many other major holidays. From abundant love and gratitude for our moms’ continuous life-giving gestures to the overwhelming desire for the day to be over because of the heavy emotional toll of grieving the loss of one’s parents, Mother’s Day can be a symbol of healing generational wounds and investing in how we show up for the mother figures in our life.
And yet, I’m reminded of the text that is the basis of one of my favorite songs from my days in children’s choir, recorded by Pastor Daryl Coley:
“Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will hold me close.”
— Psalm 27:10 (New Living Translation)
So, what if we began to choose our mothers? Intentionally choosing the women who bore us or chose us, who generously share their stories with us. Choosing to, without judgment, accept their personalities and their capacities, loving them right where they are and how they need, as we are willing and able. But also, choosing to identify others who model traits to which we aspire — because it is unreasonable to expect that one person can fulfill all the nurturance we need.
Beyond the old rituals and symbols
Among Christian churchgoers, it is common knowledge that if there is any day to expect people to show up in the pews, Mother’s Day is the day. There are traditions of yesteryear among churchgoers to reflect upon, one of which is the wearing of different flowers. If one wears a white flower, it indicates their mother is deceased. There are congregations where roses would be given to the newest mother, the youngest mother, the oldest mother, and the mother with the most children, emphasizing biological mothership. Not to mention the brunch reservations or catered meals.
However, this Mother’s Day, a critical mass among us is dealing with the heaviness of mourning our mothers. Over the last three years, African Americans have experienced an unprecedented tide of deaths in our families due in part to the coronavirus (and exacerbated by medical apartheid and myriad issues related to systemic lack of access). As a result, legacy building has been hovering over us intensely, collectively. Many of us seek richer meaning in our time together, especially as many have returned to worshiping privately in our homes with our loved ones.
This year, some of us are celebrating the relationships we had. Some of us are accepting the relationships we never achieved, the latter of which can provoke us to imagine what was never said.
And yet, in the spiritual realm, biology is just one aspect of motherhood. The spiritual dynamics of it all are the sharing, the telling, and the listening from generation to generation, especially from mother to daughter and daughters to mothers. Whether biological or chosen, this conversation model of telling and listening is an important virtue of a flourishing life and spirit. And so take the time to meditate on, say the name of, listen to the stories, and bear witness to the mothers in your life. Our chosen mothers’ stories are a roadmap to our salvation.
May all be granted all the information and support they need for their journeys.
Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones is a faith leader helping people to find their groove in a fast-paced world, as a consultant for various arts and faith organizations and professor of music in contemporary societies at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. She is an award-winning author of Flaming? The Peculiar Theopolitics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance (Oxford University Press). For more information, please visit DrAlisha.com.
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