Yesterday was Mothering Sunday, being the fourth Sunday in Lent, and historically a religious holiday. It’s now the day that we in the UK celebrate ‘Mother’s Day’, our version of the secular American holiday honouring mothers. Up-front confession: I’m terrible at socially enforced commemorations and usually forget to do anything about them; my own mum got a text message from me last night – complete with emoji, I might add!
Yesterday I also had the prospect of six hours of rehearsal with the chorus that I sing in, and I thought I might go to the morning service at the church I mentioned in Our Tribe: coming out, since it’s fairly near where we rehearse. But then I remembered that it was Mother’s Day, and so I decided to go to my own church (even though that meant lunch would be slightly more rushed).
My church has a tradition, going back into the mists of time (well, at least a few years, as it was established before I became involved), of celebrating Mother’s Day by honouring not just the mothers in the congregation but all the women. That sounds quite inclusive, doesn’t it, and I certainly used to think it was a really nice touch. Women are featured in the prayers, and children in the church hand small bunches of daffodils to women as they leave the sanctuary. (Father’s Day is celebrated similarly, except that all the men receive a Mars bar for some reason. I was the recipient of a few of these, all of which I passed on to my son.)
Now, I want to say at this point that I really love and appreciate my church and find them tremendously supportive, so I’d hate what I have to say to come across as critical of anyone in particular or as ‘bitchy’ in any way. I’m really just commenting on subtle everyday sexism (and cissexism), which is a product of the culture we live in and not necessarily something all of us are aware of until we have our attention drawn to it.
Last year’s Mother’s Day was hugely frustrating for me. I think I was out as trans to around twenty people in our church, but discussion was ongoing about how and when the rest of the congregation were going to be informed. (The disclosure actually happened in a service eight weeks later.) What I found particularly distressing on that Mother’s Day was having to walk out of the sanctuary knowing that the children handing out flowers obviously wouldn’t think to offer them to me, as they wouldn’t see me as a woman. That was upsetting for me, but it was understandable. So my decision to go to my own church yesterday, when I had at first thought of going elsewhere, was largely based on my need to feel fully accepted as a woman within the congregation. I’d looked forward to this day for some time.
During the service yesterday, tribute was paid to the women of the congregation and to the ‘particular gifts’ that we bring to the church, and here I remember the word ‘nurturing’ standing out. The ability to nurture others – children in particular, perhaps, given that we’re talking about Mother’s Day – is clearly a valuable gift, but it’s by no means unique to women, or indeed a gift possessed by all women. So that struck me as a mildly sexist expectation, founded on traditional gender stereotypes. Perhaps I was on high alert during the service because several other things rankled for me.
One thing that often strikes me in church is the frequent use of ‘boys and girls’ to address the children. Why bring gender into it at all? And what about any non-binary children? Maybe there are none in our church just now, but there inevitably will be one day. And non-binary adults too. When are their ‘particular gifts’ celebrated? Perhaps being inclusive of all women and not just those who have children still isn’t quite inclusive enough.
Anyway, the service came to an end, and despite feeling a little uncomfortable about one or two things that had been said, I made my way to the back of the sanctuary and headed out to get a cup of coffee. Apparently, I’d been a bit slow getting there, though, because the children who’d been at the door had given up by then and gone off in search of biscuits, as children are wont to do. By the time I got there, adults had taken over and were not only handing out daffodils to passing women (or at least people who pass as women – another problem there) but also going off in search of women who were still sitting in the sanctuary.
I walked slowly through the door, but I wasn’t offered flowers. I’d clearly slipped through the net. So I went back into the sanctuary and tried again. I even loitered a bit near someone who was handing out flowers in the sanctuary. No, I was invisible. At best I was just ‘a man in a dress’. (This is also how I felt when someone else in the church recently began misgendering me accidentally, having been very careful previously.)
So I went for my coffee and chatted to my friend who had been leading worship (I’d had the morning off). She asked if I’d got my daffodils. I said no, and she kindly offered me hers. But since they’d been given to her I didn’t want to deprive her of them. A little later on – when I was on my second cup of coffee – the minister came over and asked me the same thing. Then he disappeared off somewhere for a few minutes and came back with some flowers for me.
I left the church yesterday lunchtime clutching my small bunch of daffodils to my chest, painfully aware that (as far as I could see) I’d only received them by special dispensation, as a second-class, not-quite-real woman. That left me feeling pretty low for the rest of the day (despite the distractions of six hours of singing). I probably won’t put Mother’s Day to the test again (and I might just avoid Father’s Day at church too, to be on the safe side).
Oh, and I didn’t get a Mother’s Day card from my son either.