The Ministering of Mothers

We learn about mothers and families in The Family: A Proclamation to the World offered by the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles: “THE FAMILY is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan…. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children…. Fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” (The Family)

Our Heavenly Father extended the covenant of motherhood at the time He extended the covenant to men to receive the priesthood — in the pre-earth life. Pres. Benson taught this doctrine, “Before the world was created, in heavenly councils the pattern and role of women were prescribed. [Women] were elected by God to be wives and mothers in Zion” (Ensign, Nov. 1981, p.104). Similarly, Sheri Dew, who is not married and is not a mother, told the women of the Church, “Our motherhood began before we were born. Just as worthy men were foreordained to hold the priesthood in mortality, righteous women were endowed premortally with the privilege of motherhood…. Motherhood is not what was left over after our Father blessed His sons with priesthood ordination. It was the most ennobling endowment He could give His daughters, a sacred trust that gave women an unparalleled role in helping His children keep their second estate” (Ensign, Nov. 2001, p. 96). Motherhood is not an afterthought to Heavenly Father, it was not instated merely to give women something to do; it is essential for the salvation of Heavenly Father’s children, when coupled with the priesthood. When married in holy temples, women and men covenant to work together as equal partners in their complementary roles.

The way things could be is not always the way things are. I recognize Mother’s Day is difficult for many people. What does church doctrine about motherhood mean for women who are not married or women who are not mothers? Sis. Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency offers insight – I will quote her extensively because she provides perspective I do not have: “[Mother’s Day]—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.”

Sis. Eubank continues: “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 distract cranky toddlers. I cooked spaghetti, rocked babies, [and] helped paint science projects…. But despite all that instruction and preparation, I did not become a mother.”

Sis. Eubank went on to discuss experiences she has had in life. She then expressed the perspective about motherhood she learned throughout her life so far: “My life has taught me three things that changed my mind about Mother’s Day:

1. My skills are never wasted.
2. My heart—not my present circumstances—determines my blessings.
3. 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).” (Source)

Whether or not you are a mother, the Savior Jesus Christ provided a perfect example about how to be a faithful mother. Elder Ballard taught, “When God asked [in the premortal world] who would come to earth to prepare a way for all mankind to be saved…, it was Jesus who said, simply, ‘Here am I, send me’ (Abraham 3:27)” (When Thou Art Converted, p. 178). Speaking to women, Elder Ballard continued, “If you are wondering if you make a difference to the Lord, imagine the effect when you make commitments such as the following: ‘Father, if you need a woman to rear children in righteousness, here am I, send me. If you need a woman to make a house, a home filled with love, here am I, send me…. If you need a woman of faithful steadiness, here am I, send me” (p. 179). We need such willingness in today’s world more than ever!

Woman’s role as mother is under attack. Satan wages a war on families, on motherhood; he works tirelessly to tear families apart. He wants women to fail as mothers. He rejoices in sorrow and misery. Satan attacks motherhood by trying to paint it in such dreary colors that women feel drawn elsewhere. There is much that is gaudy and flashy in the great and spacious building, which can appear appealing, even beautiful; however, by lusting after Satan’s showy society, we devalue raising covenantal children and devalue eternal families. This leads to the destruction of the one potentially eternal and exalting component of society – the family. Women need to escape the “tugs and pulls of the world” (Maxwell, Ensign, Nov. 2000, p. 35) by realizing, to paraphrase Pres. Harold B. Lee, that “the greatest of the Lord’s work…[sisters] will ever do as [mothers] will be within the walls of [their] own home[s]” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1973, p. 130). While there are many worthwhile things for women and men to do outside the home, none of those can take the place of being a faithful parent. I study the lives of many great women and men of history. Each are inspiring. Most led amazing lives and did amazing things. I am inspired by great women and men but find those most admirable who are or are also great parents. Putting family first doesn’t mean family is all you do; it means family is the focus and work and activities are chosen to strengthen family, not retreat from family.

Pres. David O. McKay said, “She who can paint a masterpiece or write a book that will influence millions deserves the admiration…of mankind; but she who rears successfully a family…deserves the highest honor that man can give, and the choicest blessings of God” (Improvement Era, 1953, pp. 453-54). On a similar note Elder Maxwell eloquently stated, “Some mothers in today’s world feel ‘cumbered’ by home duties and are thus attracted by other more ‘romantic’ challenges. Such women could make the same error of perspective that Martha made. The woman, for instance, who deserts the cradle in order to help defend civilization against the barbarians may well later meet, among the barbarians, her own neglected child” (The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, p. 219). The titillation of the great and spacious building does not compare with the tranquility of a humble home.

When mothers are there for their children, fulfilling their stewardships by nurturing, they have great impact on the lives of their children and consequently on future generations. Who do you think my children turn to when they need something or need comfort? Their mother. They mostly just ignore me.

Mothers have played some of the most important roles in history, even though too many times those roles are not recorded or recognized. Some are. There is Mother Eve, who fearlessly stood by her husband’s side, facing a desolate world, and who was both the mother of the human race and the “mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). It was she who reminded Adam of the necessity of the Fall, of becoming mortal in order to have children and fulfill the Lord’s first commandment to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (JST Gen 1:28). Eve knew her role as a mother.

There is the example of Rebekah, who was blessed to become the “mother of thousands of millions” (Gen. 24:60) as a result of her righteousness. This teaches us that motherhood does not end with death for those of the covenant – those who make covenants in the temple. We also have the great example of Hannah who had much anguish over being childless. She covenanted with the Lord that if He blessed her with a son, she would dedicate her son unto Him. Her son Samuel grew up to be one of the great prophets in Israel and a sign of his mother’s faith. Mary, the mother of the Savior, was a woman of great virtue and faith. She was highly favored and blessed because of her role as the mother of the Prince of Peace (see Luke 1:28). Mary remained near the Savior throughout His life and was even at the foot of the cross, watching her Son finish His mortal ministry. She was there for Him, from the cradle to the cross. King Benjamin gives in simplicity one of the greatest tributes in the scriptures: “and his mother shall be called Mary” (Mosiah 3:8). What more need he say? She was to be the mother of the son of God. Mary was chosen to raise God’s Son Jesus Christ. The scriptures are largely patriarchal and priesthood-focused so the references to great mothers of faith and covenant are sparse. When included, they are significant. We can learn much about the qualities of faithful motherhood from these illustrious women. It is thought-provoking to wonder about what would have happened had Eve, Hannah, or Mary not been good mothers?

A wise man once stated: “What a mother sings to the cradle goes all the way to the coffin” (Henry Ward Beecher, Columbia Book of Quotations, 1996, no. 6395). Or, rephrased according to our belief: “What a mother sings to the cradle goes all the way [through eternity].”

Being a mother is such an important part of who you as women are; motherhood has so many consequences that it can seem overwhelming at times, even impossible, to be the best mother you can be. Perfection is quite a lofty goal; but it is more than just a goal or an end—perfection is a process. As Elder Holland reminded last year – “Be ye therefore perfect, eventually” (2017). When you become a mother and have a child or two or three or ten, you have not reached a static state where you automatically know everything about being a mother. Being a mother does not end when your children leave home at age 18 or 21 or whenever; it is a role that keeps rolling, growing, and expanding. This is what it means, in part, to be an eternal family. The eternally expanding role as mother is a portion of the blessing of eternal lives (see D&C 132:24). So, just as perfection does not come in a day neither does the full realization of motherhood; the process is as important as the goal (or else Satan’s plan of salvation would have been just as good as the Father’s).

Years ago I talked with my mother about some of the best experiences she had in life. She talked mainly about being a mother. During our conversation I learned much about the great joy she had as a mother but also about the great times of struggle. She stated that the most rewarding and satisfying thing in her life was, in her own words: “The safe pregnancy and delivery of our children and then raising them. Having and raising seven lovely children has been wonderful. It was a lot of hard work but they all turned out okay. We did a lot of things together as a family, we worked hard, we survived hard times and ate cracked wheat. We went to church every week and spent the time together as a family. There were occasional problems but we survived them and overcame them.

“One time when we had 3 or 4 small children a friend was extolling the virtues of Sesame Street and said how her child could count to 10 and knew all the colors and all because the child watched Sesame Street on TV. I was appalled and wondered ‘What is a mother for?’ and why would anyone need TV to teach children what I thought was my ‘job description.’ So we read and played and counted everything and numbered everything and named colors and tied shoes and did all sorts of things. We learned to work and had jobs to learn responsibility.”

She also talked about the struggles of being a mother: “What has been difficult? How about seven babies! It was very difficult when we didn’t have any money and Dad was working two jobs and we were trying to make ends meet. We did not have much money at all, especially when the kids were small. We did not have much but we always survived. It just took a lot of hard work and some ingenuity.

“Another hard time was when we had four children under the age of five. This was a terrible emotional stress. The kids were sick all the time and we had no money. I was physically sick some too. Our washer broke during this time and so the children stomped the clothes in the bathtub to wash them – they thought it was fun; they thought they were like the pioneers. At least they had fun with it.
“These years were hard with a lot of difficult physical work. I was changing diapers on three babies. I also mopped the floors at night so they would stay clean at least the eight hours until morning. I also had to deal with potty training all the kids and cleaning up their messes. We also had a garden and had to plant it and keep it growing and harvest the food and can and store some as well. We had to work really hard to survive.”

My mother found church helped her cope with the stress of raising children: “I really loved going to church and relief society – that was my salvation once a week. Enrichment was lovely to put the kids in the nursery and be away for 1.5 hours. We had weekly meetings and so it was nice to have some time away from the kids. I could learn and grow and spend time with other ladies in the ward. Church was always a big boost for me and I looked forward to it each week.” My mother was and is a wonderful mother.

At this past General Conference [April 2018], Pres. Russell M. Nelson introduced a newer, holier way to care for other members of the church. He retired visiting and home teaching, replacing it with ministering. While ministering is not new – it’s always been an important attribute and practice of disciples of Jesus Christ – the new organizational practice of ministering places further emphasis on loving and serving others as Jesus did. We do this because we seek to follow the Savior. We minister because we covenanted with God to bear one another’s burdens.

Elder Gong, one of our apostles, taught the concept of ministering as part of our holy covenants: “There is divine harmony and resonance in covenant belonging, as we are strengthened in his love and as we strengthen each other in the Lord…. By divine covenant, we belong to God and to each other. Covenant belonging is a miracle. It is not possessive. It ‘suffereth long, and is kind.’ It envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. Covenant belonging gives roots and wings. It liberates through commitment. It enlarges through love. In covenant belonging, we strengthen each other in His love, thereby coming more to love God and each other.” (as cited in Deseret News)

My mother was and is a minister to her children. She cared for us not only as a mother but also as a disciple of Christ. I’m grateful for her years of faithful example and sacrifice. I’m also grateful for the wonderful mother my dear wife is to our children. She ministers with kindness and love. A minister is a servant who attends to the needs of others, many times before self-needs are met. While no one is required to run faster than strength allows, the ministering of mothers to their children, families, and neighbors can strain the stoutest of hearts. I offer my simple testimony that God knows your struggles, hears your cries, and blesses you.

When the days seem tough and the nights even worse, mothers can find solace and encouragement in the words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland offered more than 20 years ago in what is one of his classic addresses:

“In speaking of mothers generally, I especially wish to praise and encourage young mothers. The work of a mother is hard, too often unheralded work. The young years are often those when either husband or wife—or both—may still be in school or in those earliest and leanest stages of developing the husband’s breadwinning capacities. Finances fluctuate daily between low and nonexistent. The apartment is usually decorated in one of two smart designs—Deseret Industries provincial or early Mother Hubbard. The car, if there is one, runs on smooth tires and an empty tank. But with night feedings and night teethings, often the greatest challenge of all for a young mother is simply fatigue. Through these years, mothers go longer on less sleep and give more to others with less personal renewal for themselves than any other group I know at any other time in life. It is not surprising when the shadows under their eyes sometimes vaguely resemble the state of Rhode Island.

“Yours is the grand tradition of Eve [and so many other wonderful mothers]…. We thank all of you…and tell you there is nothing more important in this world than participating so directly in the work and glory of God, in bringing to pass the mortality and earthly life of His daughters and sons, so that immortality and eternal life can come in those celestial realms on high” (Ensign, May 1997, p. 35).

In closing, I’d like to paraphrase the words of Elder Ballard: “We need [mothers] who can hear and will respond to the voice of the Lord, [mothers] who at all costs will defend and protect the family[,…but] above all, we need [mothers] who will stand up for truth and righteousness and decry evil at every turn, [mothers] who will simply say, ‘Lord, here am I, send me’” (When Thou Art Converted, p. 179).

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