What Does Mother’s Day Mean in a Patriarchal and Matricidal Culture? by Carol P. Christ

Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2When we seek immortality or spiritual “rebirth,” are we not saying that there is something wrong with the “birth” that was given to us through the body of our mothers? In She Who Changes and in “Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as Matricide and Theacide,” I asserted that our culture is “matricidal” because it is based on the assumption that life in the body in this world “just isn’t good enough.”

What is so wrong with the life that our mothers gave us that we must reject it in the name of a “higher” spiritual life? The answer of course death.

Can we love life without accepting death?

Can we love our mothers if we do not accept a life that ends in death?

Jesus was said to have encouraged his disciples to leave their wives and families in order to follow him.  When he was told that his mother and brothers were outside and waiting to speak to him, he is said to have said:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Matt. 12:48-50)

Buddha left his wife and new-born son in order to pursue enlightenment.

Some feminists, including Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rita Gross, view these incidents positively, stating that their meaning is that no person should be trapped in the conventional biological roles.

I have always experienced these stories as dismissive of women’s bodies, of women’s lives, of women’s work. When I went to college, I learned that all of the knowledge and insight about the meaning of life I had gained through the experience of raising a child with my mother was irrelevant to the university education I had embarked upon.

Among the things I learned was that it was “necessary” for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter in order to fight a war; that it was “wrong” for Clytemnestra to kill Agamemnon after he killed their child; and that it was “right” for Orestes and Ilektra to kill their mother.  I learned through the study of Plato and other philosophers that the life of the mind was to be preferred to the life of the body. It was only in graduate school that it began to dawn on me that as a woman I was identified with the body in ways that men were not.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Mother and Child

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Mother and Child

In her ground-breaking book Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich distinguishes between motherhood as experience and motherhood as institution. She asks us to value the experience of motherhood while criticizing the institution—the ways the experience of motherhood is structured in patriarchal societies. This important distinction can enable us to celebrate the experience of motherhood and the values associated with it, including care, compassion, love, and generosity, without at the same time endorsing the isolation of mothers in nuclear families or the gender divisions and hierarchies that structure the experience of motherhood in patriarchal societies.

In “Dear Mum,” Jassy Watson describes her experience of being mothered:

You have never judged choices I have made in my life, only ever offered your support. We’ve had our ups and downs, but what relationship doesn’t? No matter what, you have always been there for me, sharing in my triumphs and tears. You have always encouraged me to be different and to follow my passions.

I am sure many of us who read Jassy’s words feel a twinge of jealousy. We were not all so lucky. My mother loved me very much, but she did not encourage me to be different and to follow my passions; she was afraid that if I did, I would not marry and have children, and I would be unhappy. Many of my friends speak of mothers who were depressed or angry or alcoholic or addicted to pills. These women did not experience love, care, and compassion from their mothers, or they experienced them intertwined with unhappiness, negativity, criticism, and bitterness.

One of the reasons many of us feel uneasy about celebrating Mother’s Day is our culture’s failure to criticize the institution of motherhood. If we celebrate Mother’s Day, are we endorsing the patriarchal nuclear family? Are we affirming the idea that women belong in the home?

flowers are lovely but I'd prefer a revolution

Art by Veronica Bayetti Flores

In order to celebrate Mother’s Day with whole hearts, we must transform the institution of motherhood. We must affirm the right of every woman to be different and to follow her passions. We must ensure that motherhood is a choice, and that all mothers, including single mothers, receive the support they need. Most importantly, we must recognize this world as our true home. Birth through the bodies of our mothers is good enough: it is the only life we have.

Understanding this, we will feel gratitude to our mothers and to Mother Earth each and every day.

*For a different experience of motherhood, see: “Matriarchy: Daring to Use the “M” Word.”

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for spring tour and save $100. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the GoddessGoddess and God in the World final cover design will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.




Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Feminism, Feminist Theology, General, Goddess Spirituality, Mother Earth, Motherhood

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17 replies

  1. I find the isolation of Mother’s Day to be problematic in that mothers are mothers 24/7, and the suggestion that mothers be loved and honored on only this one specific day is to negate the labors and the love that are not time bound. Those of us who gave birth will know that no matter how old your children are, mothering and the responsible heart of the mother does not retire because our children are adults…


    • Majak, when we celebrated Mother’s Day, my mother would say “every day is mother’s day,” meaning exactly what you expressed, but with the emphasis on the responsbilities she had as our mother. You’re both right, of course, AND when my (male) UU minister delivered a sermon on Mother’s Day that used as its major parenting metaphor the story of a father and his son, I felt let down…even on the one day we can count on a sermon that is about us, it wasn’t.


  2. And yes, I agree, “Birth through the bodies of our mothers is good enough: it is the only life we have.”
    This body and this earth…


  3. “You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. And in that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer.” ~ Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn


  4. I love the title of this essay Carol and I appreciate the reflections … Adrienne Rich’s book was a revolution for me when I read it in 1977-78 (in Berkeley as part of my M.A. reading): my old paperback copy is heavily highlighted. My Master’s thesis at the Graduate Theological Union (1982) was entitled “Motherhood Mythology”, as I strove to make sense of it all. I published it as a small book in 1999 and have now just made it freely available at my website … it was a humble beginning of my Search for Her.


  5. Thank you for this post, Carol. I appreciated the “Mamas Day” movement started by Strong Families which is focused on social justice for all mamas rather than a tokenist day of appreciation. http://strongfamiliesmovement.org/


  6. Thanks, Carol. I have long mistrusted religious leaders who abandoned their families in order to pursue a “spiritual” calling.
    Re what we celebrated yesterday: I just read a description of the history as “the apostrophe was moved” – ie it was started as Mothers’ Day, to highlight the (public) role of women and peace, to Mother’s Day with emphasis on the (private) role of individual women in their families.


  7. Carol, thank you for this thought-provoking post! I intend to share it on Facebook and Twitter and email it to my beloved daughter, also named Carol.

    One reason I’ve always liked the Goddess religion is the embrace of THIS world in all its wonderful aspects. I like how the religion of the Goddess doesn’t excoriate the female human body as “sinful” and regard breasts and menstrual blood as shameful symbols of femaleness. Truthfully, I’d feel more at home in Minoan Crete than I do in the society we inhabit here. I often tell my children, “This life is the only one we can be sure of. That’s why we need to love each other now.”

    Through speaking, teaching, and blogs like this one, we can share the news that women are to be appreciated, even revered, for our life-giving, life-nurturing qualities.


  8. Thanks for writing this thoughtful examination of a supposed holiday. My mother was unhappy nearly all her life. I didn’t realize this until she’d been dead for several years. She was a 1950s stay-at-home mother until my brother and I were both in college, when she learned to drive and got a job selling coats in a department store. All I remember are little hints that she’d liked to have had a career of some sort. Maybe motherhood wasn’t good for her? I have no idea. Motherhood as defined before the feminist revolution probably wasn’t good for any woman.


  9. Thank you Carol. As the child of a musically gifted mother with a mental illness, and mother of a musically gifted child with the same illness, mothers’ day is poignant for me and fraught with conflicting feelings. I do prefer the “mothers’ day” expression, which honors the nuturing we all need and provide for one another, no matter our personal circumstances. This poem by Alice Walker, which begins “We have a beautiful mother,….” was written for Earth Day, but I find it perfect for Mothers’ Day:




  1. Moederdag | de hagezussen
  2. What Does Mother’s Day Mean in a Patriarchal and Matricidal Culture? by Carol P. Christ BY CAROL P. CHRIST | fenceswomenface

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