I gave this talk in sacrament meeting on Mothers' Day 2003.
I've been surprised to learn over the past couple of years how many people hate Mother's Day. For some, it is a painful reminder of their own childlessness, or of an abusive or neglectful mother. For some, hearing the common tribute to someone's seemingly perfect mother only makes their awareness of their own shortcomings as a mother more acute.
Motherhood is an ideal; no one lives up to the ideal fully. Does this mean that we shouldn't speak about the ideal? I don't think so. We speak about the ideal for a few important reasons. First, because it gives us something to strive for, regardless of our own experiences with - or as - mothers. Second, because thinking about it helps us to recognize how various people in our lives exemplify the ideal of motherhood in different ways.
Joseph F. Smith spoke of the primary blessing we receive from a true mother:
“I learned in my childhood, as most children, probably, have learned, more or less at least, that no love in all the world can equal the love of a true mother.
“I did not think in those days and still I am at a loss to know how it would be possible for anyone to love her children more truly than did my mother. I have felt sometimes how could even the Father love his children more than my mother loved her children? It was life to me; it was strength; it was encouragement it was love that begot love or likeness in myself. I knew she loved me with all her heart.
“I have learned to place a high estimate upon the love of mother. I have often said, and will repeat it, that the love of a true mother comes nearer being like the love of God than any other kind of love.”
(Improvement Era, Vol. 13, No. 3 (January 1910), p. 276)
Nephi saw a vision of a beautiful tree with exquisite fruit. When he asked to know the interpretation of the Tree in his vision, he was shown the mother of the Savior, both before and after she gave birth to Jesus. The angel then asked Nephi, “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And [Nephi] answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” (1 Nephi 11:21-22)
We usually understand this scripture to mean that Nephi understood that the tree represented the love of God as manifest in his son, Jesus Christ. I think there may be some additional meaning in his vision of Mary as we consider the relationship of a mother's love to God's love.
Just as God's love is manifest to us in various ways, so is a mother's love. The manifestation of mother's love often depends on the circumstances.
Eve was called “the mother of all living.” This is true in a physical sense, for all of us are descended from her bodily. But it is also true in a spiritual sense. Eve's love for mankind was manifest in her willingness to risk the sorrows and trials of mortality, to experience suffering, in order to help bring about God's purposes. I pray we may all follow her powerful example.
One of the scriptural consequences of Eve's choice is stated this way: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” (Genesis 3:16)
However, in this process of bringing forth children, there is enormous spiritual symbolism. Moses 6:58-59 records the words of the Lord to Adam:
“Therefore I give unto you a commandment, to teach these things freely unto your children, saying: That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory”
The bearing of children is compared directly to the atoning power of the Savior. He taught, “Greater love hath no man that this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) A mother is willing to risk the same to bring forth children, and there is a spiritual power associated with this sacred act.
But “laying down one's life” can be understood as something more than risking death. It can also be understood as the sacrifice of one's own desires for another's benefit. In this sense, a true mother lays down her life when she puts her children's needs and desires above her own, and when she suffers pain and sorrow for their actions. Perhaps, just as motherly love most closely approaches divine love, motherly sorrow most closely approaches divine sorrow.
Indeed, one of the blessings of having a mother is in having someone to sorrow for our mistakes: Proverbs 10:1 says, “A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.” Knowing this may give us pause when we consider the choices laid before us.
The scriptures repeatedly instruct us: “Honor thy father and mother.” (Exodus 20:12) This means not only hearkening to them in righteousness, but it also means forgiving them for their mistakes. This forgiveness can give us great peace and can heal hearts. I would suggest that we can also understand the commandment as instructing us to honor our Father and Mother in Heaven.
People can also be mothers in a spiritual sense, regardless of whether they have given birth to children. The Relief Society sisters are called to be “mothers in Israel.” Sister Patricia Holland wrote in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
“In 1916 the Relief Society Magazine published a series of articles entitled ‘Mothers in Israel.’ One prominent woman honored was Eliza R. Snow. Though childless, she was called a ‘mother of mothers in Israel’ and praised for her leadership among women, for her intelligence, and for her faithful support of the Church and its leaders (Gates, pp. 183-90).”
Naomi was not Ruth's natural mother, but became a mother to her to such an extent that Ruth chose to stay with her rather than return to her own natural mother. I pray that those whose relationship with their own natural mother was not good might find such a mother.
Jesus spoke of another spiritual fulfillment of motherhood:
“While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)
Sometimes a mother's love is manifest in being willing to let go. Moses' mother gave him up in order to save him, and the true mother in King Solomon's court was willing to give up her child in order to spare his life.
In a spiritual sense, motherhood also involves letting go and allowing children to make their own mistakes. I am grateful to my mother for allowing me to make mistakes; I am sure that I learned more than I would have if she had simply prevented me from doing so.
Motherly love is manifest in many other ways:
Lucy Mack Smith established a spiritual, seeking environment for her family that encouraged young Joseph to find out truth for himself.
Rebekah received revelation for her children and did what was necessary to ensure that the promises of the Lord were fulfilled.
Sariah rejoiced at her sons' safe return from Jerusalem, and made no distinction between rejoicing over Nephi and Sam's return and rejoicing over Laman and Lemuel's return.
My mother spoke her mind and encouraged me to think for myself; she laid down rules and enforced them; and she welcomed me as her spiritual brother when I first went through the veil in the temple. I pray that I will live so that my Mother in Heaven will welcome me joyfully when I pass through the veil.
The scriptures describe other important roles in terms of motherhood.
The restoration of Israel in the last days is compared with a mother's comfort: Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
The earth is spoken of as a sustaining mother who is the source of life:
“And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest...? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest...?” (Moses 7:48)
In one of the passages of scripture that speaks most powerfully to me, the closest thing that can be compared to God's love is the love of a mother. Nephi quotes Isaiah:
“For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands” (1 Nephi 21:15-16)
Joseph F. Smith concluded his talk, from which I quoted above: “There are two divine personages that I can scarcely think or talk about without it softens my spirit and brings me down to the similitude of a little child; and those two beings are my mother and my Redeemer!”
I pray that we may all find and exemplify the love of a mother so that we can come closer to the ideal of becoming like the Savior and like our heavenly parents.