There is something unique about the love of an immigrant mother. Whatever the reason for fleeing their home, immigrant mothers are in search of a better future for their children. They take life-altering chances, without any assurance of what the outcome will be.
I know this to be true because I come from a legacy of immigrant women who took chances for me—who worked tirelessly to make something out of nothing.
My family arrived in America in 1963. We came from Cuba, fleeing during the first several years of the Castro Revolution. A few years after my grandparents got here, my grandfather died—leaving my grandmother to raise three children by herself in a country in which she did not know the language. My grandmother had to be strong. And because she set that example, my mother grew up to be strong, independent, and hardworking—eventually raising me as a single mom herself. Consequently, my mother and grandmother played the role of mother and father in my life. They taught me to take chances, work hard, and love passionately.
After becoming a Christian in my early twenties, I met well-intentioned followers of Jesus who, when they learned I was raised by single women, tried to reassure me that God is the perfect Father—the Father I never had. It sounded nice, but I just couldn’t ever connect with God as my Father. For the first few years of my walk with Christ, I forced myself to call God “Father” when I prayed, but it never came organically—that word just wasn’t in my repertoire. How could I compare God to a father when I had no idea what a father was like?
It was the stories of mothers in the Bible that gripped me. And when it came to the metaphors of God as a parent in Scripture, I naturally related it to my mother and grandmother’s parenting. The passages that struck me were those in which the divine, the creator of motherhood and fatherhood, took on motherly attributes, like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings, or a nursing mother nourishing her child.
One of my favorite metaphors is God as a mother eagle hovering over her young and spreading her wings to catch them. I recently learned that mother eagles are known to teach their young to fly by deliberately pushing them out of the nest and catching them before they plunge to their death. This depiction reminds me of the kind of love my immigrant mothers showed me—a love of survival and strength—similar to that between Ruth and Naomi.
The more I dug into the motherliness of God, the more I recognized this theme was prominent throughout history too. Many early church influencers used elaborate and fluid language about the divine. For example, Clement of Alexandria says, “The Word [Christ] is everything to his little ones, both father and mother.” Likewise, Chrysostom is known to pray, “Thou art my Father, thou art my Mother.” Similarly, Augustine says, “For just as a mother, suckling her infant, transfers from her flesh the very same food which otherwise would be unsuited to a babe . . . so our Lord, in order to convert his wisdom into milk for our benefit, came to us clothed in flesh.” Concerning God as mother, Calvin says, “He did not satisfy himself with proposing the example of a father, but to express his very strong affection, he chose to liken himself to a mother and calls them not to merely ‘children’ but the fruit of the womb.”
Yet within all these statements about God as a mother, no one articulated the kind of love that I saw in my immigrant mothers more beautifully than fourteenth-century English anchoress, Julian of Norwich. She compares Jesus to the perfect mother in her book Divine Revelations, the first published book in the English language to be written by a woman. Julian talks about the difficult love of a mother, who, like Jesus and like Naomi, understands life to be complicated, and that virtue and grace comes from perseverance through hardship. She says, “so Jesus Christ who sets good against evil is our real Mother. We owe our being to him—and this is the essence of motherhood!—and all the delightful, loving protection which ever follows. God is as really our Mother as he is our Father.”
There is something profound and Christ-like about a mother’s love, and in my case, an immigrant mother’s love.
As Allison Woodard puts it,
To be a Mother is to say,
“This is my body, broken for you,”
And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,
“This is my body, take and eat.”
Cover photo by Matt Hoffman.
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