Several years ago (and prior to my becoming Catholic), I began to notice a general uneasiness among women when it came to the subject of motherhood.
It seemed as if a lot of us saw children as somewhat of a hindrance to a meaningful and (quite ironically!) fruitful relationship with God--because kids held us back from things like ministry and humanitarian work, or evangelism. When you’re changing millions (yes, millions) of diapers or nursing an infant around the clock, it’s just not practical to be pounding the pavement or spending long hours at a soup kitchen.
Of course I loved my children and I loved being a mother, but I could also understand and, to a degree, relate to the cognitive dissonance some of my friends were experiencing. We wanted to live radical lives for Jesus, but was it even possible to do so during the childbearing years? And if not, was that an indication that maybe we should be approaching motherhood like we approached other things--namely, in moderation? So we could more quickly move on to the more important things of life?
However, my observations and own personal experiences told me that simply and intentionally limiting the number of children would not automatically fix this problem. On the surface, it seemed like a decent solution (fewer years spent being pregnant and chasing after wayward toddlers meant more years doing big important things), but then it seemed really wrong to approach the task of motherhood from this “I’m just biding my time” perspective. God tells us in sacred scripture that children are a gift. And though we Protestants did not have the benefit of subscribing to the various Marian dogmas, we did recognize the general importance of Mary in Jesus’ life, and also the value of motherhood in general.
So it makes sense, then, that the Catholic notion of vocation was one of the first things that attracted me to our beautiful faith. I went searching for the historic Christian approach to marriage, children, and birth control precisely because it seemed no one else could answer the vexing questions that had been rolling around in my head for years. Why would God create us in such a way that procreation is tied so closely to married love, if we are not supposed to be amenable to procreating? Why would a married woman wanting to love and serve Jesus be expected to take (what are ultimately dangerous) hormones, or have an elective surgery, to change the perfectly healthy body God gave her? How am I supposed to approach my life, my faith, and the possibility of having children?
Through the addresses and writings of Saint Pope John Paul II—whom I’d known very little about up to that point--I was introduced to a very different way of seeing myself and the world around me. Implicit in God’s design for women and men is this idea of vocation, a specific call to either marriage or celibacy. With marriage of course comes an openness—not a guarantee, but an openness--to the procreation of children. As a married woman, my approach to loving God cannot be lived apart from that fact.
What’s interesting to note, though, is that this discomfort surrounding motherhood is perhaps just as present within Catholic circles as my formerly Protestant ones. We Catholic moms also wonder if what we are doing is enough (how does making PB&J actually add any value to the world?), we lament not being able to approach our faith in a more contemplative way (it’s so hard to focus on the Mass/prayer/spiritual life when my baby is fussing), and we console ourselves with the idea that these years are just a phase...they will pass eventually...at some point in the future we’ll really be able to enter into Holy Week/Easter/Advent in the way that God intended.
But the problem is that we are mothers. God has called us precisely to this vocation. When we made the decision all those years ago to marry, we agreed to live out our faith amidst the mess and the crying and the little socks left all over the floor. If we look only to a future day when life is easy, quiet and simple? If we spend our time envying the cloistered or wishing away the present? I fear we will miss out on some of life’s most beautiful, sweet, and important offerings. Most of what we do is small, yes, and much of it certainly does go unnoticed and underappreciated. It’s easy to look at the saints (many of whom were celibate), or even at other Catholics around us, and think how much holier/happier/better off we might be if only we weren’t encumbered with all of these small, wild, and snack-guzzling children.
Yet it is, in my view, a terrible modern temptation to think this way, and one we mothers must fight to combat every.single.day. Our work matters! Our vocation matters! God does not ask of us the impossible, and He does not expect from us the undoable. He gives us the sacraments, the grace, and the love to equip us in raising and nurturing our children--which is plenty hard enough without all the Catholic mommy guilt, and attempts at living up to unreasonable (and self-imposed!) expectations. God does not look down upon us for being distracted during the homily on account of a screaming baby, or for skipping out on the stations of the cross because my little ones with special needs would have been too cold trudging through the two feet of snow on the ground. (Hello springtime in Denver.)
He merely asks us mothers for our friendship, our hearts, and our yes.
So perhaps during this year of mercy, we would do well to extend that mercy first and foremost to ourselves. We can learn to embrace this vocation in both a realistic but hopeful way. Motherhood is indeed occasionally (regularly? always?) a cross, but also a profound opportunity for deep joy and, strangely enough, an expression of a life lived radically for Jesus.