There has been a growing awareness in recent years of how difficult Mothering Sunday can be for a whole range of people, for a whole host of reasons. I’m not going to go into all those reasons here – a little imagination and empathy should enable you to think of at least some of them – but it’s fair to say that, while Mothering Sunday is for some a source of joy, it is for many others an occasion which brings grief and trauma closer to the surface.
There are many ways in which churches can be, and are, attentive to this realisation with sensitivity. I only want to deal briefly here with one particular area: the daffodils. It has been the custom in many churches to hand out little posies of flowers, usually daffodils, in church on Mothering Sunday. “Who’s doing the daffs?” is a common question in the run-up.
I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, but for me, as someone who for several reasons finds Mothering Sunday an extremely difficult day, ‘the daffs’ are always a source of pain. Symbolic action is powerful – that’s why we use it in church in the first place – and therefore symbolic action which is painful is often very painful.
Here are some of the ways I have encountered daffodils in church on Mothering Sunday:
1. We give daffs to the Mums. This is, for me as a childless woman, a fairly straightforward one. The daffs are not for me. (For friends whose relationship to motherhood is more complex – including bereaved mothers, step-mothers and foster mothers – this is more of a minefield.) Where it gets painful is where particular characteristics are linked to ‘mums’. They’re the ones who look after us, who care for us, etc. Leaving aside for a moment the sexist stereotyping, what about those of us who do those things but aren’t mums? Also, unless it’s a church where the people giving out the daffs know me well, there’s going to be an abrupt question along the lines of “are you a mum?” and I’m going to have to say “no”. In front of people (at least the person asking and the people sitting near me). Ouch.
2. We give daffs to all the women. This is my least favourite option. Still the sexist stereotypes, but now they do apply to me! Great. A particularly grim subset of this one is: “we give the daffs to the mums, and then if there are some leftover we give them to all the women”. Do not do this!!! If it’s not obvious to you why that’s an extremely hurtful thing to hear as a childless (not by choice) woman, I don’t know what to tell you, and I think we have a bigger problem than ‘the daffs’. But however it’s phrased, daffs for all the women leaves me feeling like I’ve been given a consolation prize. And – like all the options where I do end up with daffs – leaves me with unwanted daffs to take home. What am I supposed to do with this little, lovingly prepared, unintentional symbol of alienation? If I throw it away I feel guilty and ungrateful. If I put it in a vase I’m likely to burst into tears every time I walk past it.
3. We give daffs to everyone. Much trumpeted in clergy circles and on social media as the ‘inclusive’ option. Daffs for everyone! How could anyone possibly object to that? Let me say this: it is only inclusive of the people who want the daffs. “But of course we wouldn’t foist them on anyone who didn’t want them!” I hear you cry. Have you tried saying “no” to an excited 5 year old who wants to give you something? Or a 95 year old who you know has spent her Saturday making the posies? Or really anyone, when you’re already feeling emotionally fragile, and it feels like people expect you to take them (and be grateful). And see above for the ‘now what do I do with them?’ dilemma. Points for moving away from the sexist stereotyping though, I guess.
4. We give daffs to everyone… for them to give to someone else. Ok, two issues here. Who do I give mine to? Anyone I might think of is either dead or too distant (geographically, emotionally, or both). And while I’m thinking about that (and all the grief that comes with it)… Oh look, here comes someone who wants to give me theirs! And I definitely have to accept, and summon up some enthusiasm, because they have chosen to give them to me. I feel guilty about not wanting them. And, again, now what do I do with them?
5. We give them to everyone… but we are subverting the symbolism to mean something different. Look, I get it: you’ve noticed the problem. You want to do better. So these Mothering Sunday daffs are nothing to do with motherhood or womanhood or caring responsibilities or anything like that. They are a sign that God loves you / that we are all part of Mother Church / [insert preferred symbolism here]. Right. But that’s not how symbols work. They accrue meaning over time, and you can’t just change that by declaring they mean something different now. Whatever you say when you give me the daffs, they are still going to represent (for me) layers of grief and alienation. And I feel bad about that, when people are obviously trying so hard. So add a layer of guilt too.
6. The daffs are available. You can take them if you want, and not if you don’t, and nobody’s going to notice or comment either way. Great. This is the option I can cope with. I can ignore the daffs, and people who want the daffs can be happy with their daffs. We can all have a cup of tea, and maybe a piece of simnel cake if we’re lucky, and go home. Except I’ll probably just slip out of the door quickly before somebody notices I haven’t got any daffs and ‘kindly’ gives me some…
It’s a minefield. I know it is. My personal preference would be for no daffs. Except that I know there are people for whom receiving them is significant and pastorally important, for all sorts of reasons.
And in the end, I think perhaps all we can do is live with the awkwardness, the pain, the grief, the trauma, and admit that those things are part of who we – individually and/or collectively – are. I understand the drive to say “But we’ve found the solution to this! We’ve found the way to make it ok for everyone!” But it’s not really about the daffodil logistics, is it? It’s about people’s layers of grief, pain, trauma, alienation, sorrow. And that’s not something that can be solved or fixed. It’s just not ok, and it’s not going to be.
In the end, perhaps all any of us want is someone to sit with us in our not-ok-ness, and let it be not ok, without trying to fix it or change it or solve it. Pastoral care at its most basic, really. But it requires us to let go of our need to fix, control, find solutions, make things ok for people. That’s the really hard stuff. So maybe it’s easier to focus on the daffs…