In the Christian South, Mother’s Day has come to occupy a semi-sacred status. In fact, many churches will use their worship services this Sunday not only to honor mothers, but also celebrate and promote a vision of the ideal family. This idyllic image of family features Dad at work, Mom at home and children playing happily around the hearth.
In spite of numerous examples to the contrary, this family type is presented as the biblical norm, and therefore carries with it the weight of divine expectation. Consequently, many people in our culture view the traditional family type as the standard by which they measure the validity of all families.
As is often the case with ideals, reality is a bit different. Family life in this country is a patchwork of relationships striving to accomplish the goals of family life with less than perfect family structures.
The landscape is complex. For instance, over 23 percent of family households with children under 18 are cared for by single parents. Over 2 million of these are single fathers. According to one source, one out of every two children will live in a single-parent family at some point during childhood.
Additionally, more than half of all Americans have been, will be or are currently living in some sort of step-family arrangement. One in 24 children lives with neither parent. Of these, an estimated 547,000 children under the age of 18 were in foster care in 1995. About 6 percent of all children (4.1 million) are living in households with one or both grandparents.
People of faith are confronted with a struggle between the ideal and the real. On the one hand is the so-called biblical norm. If the ideal family is what God expects, then anything less than that is sin. On the other hand, these non-traditional families who work hard and try to raise their kids could use a little encouragement and support. Being told by the faithful that their families do not quite measure up is not very helpful.
It seems unwise and unfair to diminish families who actually report a good bit of success doing what families need to do. In fact, our failure to affirm the legitimacy of non-traditional family structures actually hinders them by creating unnecessary and often destructive social stigmas that add to their burdens.
Besides, do we really diminish the ideal family if we acknowledge that single-parent families, divorced families and step-families are all capable of functioning as legitimate families?
Jesus had an interesting take on all this. During one of his many home Bible studies, Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived wanting to talk to him. Learning that his family was outside waiting for him, Jesus said, “Who is my mother, or my brothers or sisters? They that do the will of my Father are my mother, and my brothers and my sisters.”
Whatever else Jesus meant by this, he certainly affirmed the possibility that family may happen in instances other than the ideal. Let’s remember that this Mother’s Day, and find ways to affirm those families that work hard every day to be faithful and effective, if not ideal.
James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.