Prior to my conversion to Catholicism, motherhood was something I both loved and hated.
To the pre-Christian Christine, motherhood was a choice best made when all the right conditions aligned: financial security, worldly success, a stable home, and other various achievements that could be pulled out and examined wistfully when the enslavement of motherhood threatened to overwhelm. Look! This is what I can do without children! You’ve still got it, and one day you’ll get to prove it again!
I struggled mightily with the self-giving and sacrifice that motherhood requires. Often, in the earliest moments of my role as mother, I counted down the years until I got my freedom back—first, when toddlers were out of diapers; then the long school days; and finally their own adulthood, when I could get back to the more important things in life, like quiet mornings with coffee that never went cold and with books that actually got read. I could devote myself to my work and get promotions. I could travel. I could enjoy a return to the radical independence I once had.
But as pre-Christian Christine, I also experienced, for the first time in my life, a love that transcended any I had previously known—for those same children I struggled to tend alongside my selfish desires. I feared my mortality, worried that these years would pass too quickly, longed to give everything to these small creatures whom I had miraculously grown within and now held close in my arms.
Intuitively, I understood the primordial and undeniable bond between mother and child, but my commitments at the time had me siding with the naturalists—that this bond was merely an evolutionary device to keep the species going. And yet . . . I couldn’t shake that something else that made my role as a mother feel more than that. There was something sacred about motherhood that I just couldn’t identify.
As it turns out, the Catholic faith had already figured out the challenges of motherhood. The biological aspects of motherhood are one part of a vastly more intricate picture. The love mothers feel for our children points to an infinitely greater love. We are called to give of ourselves and grow in holiness. Our role isn’t contractual—to be entered into or exited at will—but a lifelong vocation that uniquely orients our existence, by way of these children, these little sanctifiers, to God.
In our secular age, there is a danger of thinking that mothers (as well as fathers) are meant to see to only the physical needs of their children, in order that the human species and society may thrive. This is a mostly temporary relationship, where mothers work hard to provide for a family that may not think much of what they do, outside the obligatory greeting cards and brunches on Mothers’ Day.
Not so! As physical-spiritual composites, we are to tend also to our children’s spiritual needs, too, setting a foundation of morality and knowledge and love of God that will lead them to heaven. This is a lifelong endeavor, where families work alongside one another in a community of faith, hope, and charity.
Mothers, then, are not just the sustainers of physical life, the maidservants of an ungrateful house. We’re the stewards of souls, bringing up our children in a home environment that we create and sustain for the shoring up of holiness.
As every mother knows, this is not a simple, easy, or quick task. It lasts a lifetime, and it requires near-constant attention and reflection. In fact, motherhood, and the creation of “a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule,” is an ongoing exercise in heroic virtue, which, as the Catechism notes, requires “self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery” (2223).
Self-denial. Sound judgment. Self-mastery. These are not virtues that our broadly secular society values.
Neither is motherhood.
For whereas the protective, nurturing aspects of motherhood are intuitive and have been for much of human history—Merriam-Webster offers a definition of the verb “to mother” as “to care for or protect as a mother,” and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote, “The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold”—our current culture aims to unravel and redefine motherhood, espousing values that motherhood most certainly is not: self-absorption, narcissism, radical independence, and base emotion, to the point where women are encouraged not only to cut short their motherly role and the lives of their children via abortion, but also to #shoutyourabortion afterward.
What becoming a mother actually is—the awesome and humbling cooperation with God in the creation of new life—has been shoved aside as antiquated, patriarchal, and privileged. Only when a woman (or “birthing person”) is ready, able, and willing ought she (or he? or it?) enter into this most sacred vocation, with that timing being based solely on individual desires and feelings of personal security and readiness. It seems there’s an attempt to strip God from the whole business.
In all, it sounds similar to the beliefs held by pre-Christian Christine.
It is this side of the life debate that produces such a din, encouraging women not to uphold their motherhood, but to toss it aside—in small, selfish ways, or in the irreversible, tragic way of abortion. And all this for a worldly victory: an education, a promotion, some financial or future security, a Golden Globe.
For mothers, Catholic or otherwise, who are in the thick of daily responsibilities, it can be difficult not to listen to the lies that motherhood ought to be convenience-based, that we are worth something better than a biological part of species extension (which is true, except not in the way the secularists claim). Even as I converted to Catholicism, which taught me of the sacred purpose, beauty, and dignity gifted to me by God in my vocation as a mother, I still felt the push and pull of the secular age. Standing in the laundry room or beside a sick child’s bed . . . was this—am I—enough? Or could I, should I be doing something more?
But then I read St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:23) are the fruits of the Holy Spirit, received by a life belonging to Our Lord and crucified of its own selfish passions and desires. And that, I realized, describes motherhood at its core and its best—for when we think of a woman blooming in her vocation as a mother, are these not the words we would use to describe her? But these fruits come only to those willing to give deeply of themselves, to deny their own fleshy desires, and to focus on their vocation as God designed it rather than as the secular culture defines it.
It is in these few lines of Galatians that we see what motherhood, as the beautiful and sacred bedrock of human existence, is about: a woman who deliberately and daily puts on Christ, no matter the interior mood or the external climate, and, in turn, both receives and cultivates the fruits of the Holy Spirit in her soul and in her home, leading the souls entrusted to her to do the same. In short, it is much like the commitments that Catholic Christine has taken on, and it is here that my motherhood, as God intends it, has found joyful fulfillment.