The Two-edged Sword of Motherhood

Sit in on any group of women in the throes of motherhood and you will undoubtedly hear tales of the joys of motherhood mixed with complaints of the trials.  It’s inevitable.  The guts and the glory are inseparable.

Motherhood of Old

A long-time friend of ours once astutely observed:  “Never has motherhood been easier but never have women complained more.”  His words reverberated in my soul because of their profound simplicity and truth.  Here was a man who lived a simple life on a farm with six children — one with cerebral palsy and another with severe mental and physical handicaps.  Yet, he reveled in his children and wanted more.  Lest you think his fatherhood was chauvinistic and lacking in compassion for a wife who gave all to a challenging family, she too desired more children.  His comments were born of a childhood as one of seventeen children raised on a farm in Haymarsh, North Dakota.  He grew up in a home void of modern conveniences like washing machines or disposable diapers to lighten the workload.

I for one cannot help but think:  That poor woman!  Motherhood has always been emotionally demanding, but the maternal work of yesterday was evermore physically challenging.  My husband, Mark, and I once marveled at a family pictured in a North Dakota history book on homesteading.  There was a family that had twenty-one (that number is not a typo) children.  They lived in a sod home.  In case you do not know what that means exactly, it means dirt — lots of it.  The early settlers to the Red River Valley of North Dakota found a sea of grass with nary a tree in sight.  With no mass-transit to haul building supplies, the homesteaders turned to the land-soil with the long grass roots attached to hold everything mostly in place.  It was flexible, easy to cut from the ground, and free.  Sod was everything a homesteader could want — and more, if you count the critters that came with it.  But imagine raising a large brood in a dirt-floored home where things became moist and dank during heavy rains.  There was no electricity or indoor plumbing let alone the other luxuries we take for granted such as refrigeration, microwaves, disposable diapers, washer and dryers, pediatricians, department stores, air-conditioning, bug spray… you get the idea. 

Imagine if we could take one of those homesteading mothers from the past and have her visit the future to experience modern conveniences she could not have even imagined possible.  Limit her awe to just the differences as they relate to the tasks of motherhood.  Then, imagine the reverse: that we were to visit her life and live it for a week.  After such an experience, never again would we complain about the extra work of children.  Instead, we would be apt to think:  What work?  This is nothing!  But alas, the modern world of conveniences has done more than make raising children easier, it has actually warped our perspectives so that we expect everything in life to be effortless.

The Sociology of Motherhood

Whenever I must wait for an appointment, be it dentist or doctor, I like to skim over the women’s magazines.  It is a social reflection of the modern woman.  For decades now, there has been a dual message on the glossy pages.  One is a total love of motherhood.  Articles abound on pregnancy and motherhood, adorable clothing and merchandise, and inspirational stories with motherhood as the driving force behind happy endings.  The other message is that motherhood threatens to ruin your life if you let it.  This message springs forth from articles that tell women to overcome the obstacles of having children.  They are pushed to reclaim their pre-pregnancy bodies, achieve career success without letting children stand in the way, make time for hair and make-up and spend money for the latest fashions.  In other words, do everything in their power not to let children change their lives.  Since the mere existence of children opposes these goals, women end up with a split personality.  Part of them revels in their motherhood while the other part fights against the inconvenience.

051008_lead_today.jpgwith large families who are blessed with the luxury of staying at home are not without their own conflicts.  They certainly delight in their motherhood, but it’s only human to sometimes feel exhausted or isolated in a world that has ignored us at best or disdained us at worst.  If one completes a project at work, writes an article or book, paints a picture or cures a patient, at some point, the task is complete.  But jobs within the home — be they housework or childrearing — are often never-ending.

We eventually get tired and even the saints among our ranks are prone to complain.  But what I have come to understand, between loads of laundry, cleaning toilets and instructing my children, is that the road to heaven is paved with bleach and band aids.  It’s not the glory that will get us in, it’s the behind-the-scenes grunt work; it’s the love and perseverance.

This truth became especially clear to me one day while I was sitting next to a young mother on an airplane.  I was returning from doing an interview at EWTN on the Amazing Grace for Mothers book I co-authored with Matt Pinto and Jeff Cavins.  My seatmate was a nursing student who had two young children being babysat by her in-laws.  She was returning from visiting her husband who was temporarily away doing pilot’s training in another state. 

Being tired, I let her do most the talking about her family.  After a time, she asked how many children I had.  I smiled in anticipation for what I knew would be a shocked reaction.  “I have nine children,” I confessed happily.  (Our tenth son from Kenya was not with us yet at that time.)  My seatmate did not disappoint me.  “Nine children?” she practically screamed.  But her shocked reaction was mixed with revulsion.  “How can you do that?  Doesn’t it get to you… all the work I mean?”

I had the advantage since I was just returning from speaking on a collection of stories on motherhood.  Still, I thought for a moment:  Yes, there is plenty of work.  I looked before me at the flight attendant scurrying about cleaning up the remnants of the drinks and snacks she had served only moments earlier.  Inspiration struck.

“People think flight attendants lead glamorous lives don’t they?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered slowly and suspiciously.

“Well, take a look at the work they do,” I motioned to the example before me.  Hurrying down the aisle with a large plastic bag, my example hurried past us.  “When you look at the actual work they do, it’s not very glamorous.  They serve people and clean up.”

Then, I addressed this young mother.  “You told me you are training to be a nurse.  Are you going to be cleaning bed pans and physically taking care of patients?”

“Yes,” my seatmate answered, even slower this time.

“So tell me how that is different from the work of motherhood.” I asked.  “Even if you were to become a doctor — an esteemed and important profession — think of the actual physical work they do in caring for patients.  Tell me how that is different from the physical work of motherhood.”

My seatmate looked surprised as she considered my words.  She sat silently.

“I’ll tell you what the difference is,” I continued.  “The difference is that for a mother, the work that she does is for the people she loves most in the world.  When I clean a house, it’s my home.  When I take care of a child, it’s one of the people who matter to me most in the whole world.  I’m not paid to do it, I do it because it’s the most important thing in my life.”

My gregarious nature took advantage of my seatmate’s continued contemplation.  “Today’s world treats motherhood as if it’s not valuable.  But if you would tune out those messages and see reality for what it is, there is nothing greater on this earth.  You can find meaning in your work and do a good job taking care of people, but you can’t say that taking care of people outside your home is more important than taking care of your own family.”

Now, there was no stopping me, so I added a favorite spiel of mine.  “In the end, the value of your work is not what the world says is important, it’s what God gives you to do.  Changing a diaper is of equal value to anything the president of the United States will do today, if it’s the work God gave you to do.  Being mothers is our God-given job right now, so there’s nothing more important that we can be doing.”

My unsuspecting seatmate had clearly been shaken and admitted as much.  She confessed that earlier, she saw me speaking to the Bishop who was on our same flight and thought I was probably a big “kiss up.”  I told her he had given me an imprimatur on a previous book so we knew each other.  She realized her opinion had been very judgmental.  This woman also admitted that she had always viewed religious people as boring.  Our conversation continued into a number of realms.  “Maybe it was God’s will that you sat next to me,” she said.  I had no doubt.  I can’t remember her name, so when I pray for her, I call her “The Plane Lady.”  I continue to pray that she loves God and her family before all else. 

Welcome to the Monkey’s Cage

The world is full of plane ladies.  I was once one; missing the forest for the trees or in this case, missing the blessings for the work.  One of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Matthews, expresses this thought with humor and poignancy.

In her book, Precious Treasures, Elizabeth shares the challenges of raising her severely autistic son, Patrick.  One night, when he insisted on watching a video he had seen so many times before, Beth cringed at the realization that in spite of her fatigue, she was going to have to stay up with him.  Just then, Beth recalled her childhood determination that if she had ever been faced with going to the lions’ den like the early Christian martyrs, she too would be strong enough to die for her faith.  But looking at the sleepless night before her, she thought: “I’ll go to the lion’s den, but please Lord, don’t make me go to the monkey’s cage.”  It was at that moment when reality hit her.  She suddenly realized that she should not imagine being courageous enough to go to the lion’s den for her faith if she balked at going into the monkey’s cage.  After all, which would be harder to do, enter a den of  killer lions with almost certain death or step into the temporary irritation of a monkey’s cage?

Let’s face it, motherhood is often a monkey’s cage.  Our little and big monkeys interfere with our plans — or what we thought were our plans.  God’s plan is to bring us blessings and increase our holiness.  I think it’s clear that we need those monkeys to do that.  Our children are a two-edged blessing.  On one hand, we love them with all our hearts, and they bring us great joy, while on the other hand they create challenges.  Both are blessings.  The joy of motherhood is the blessing that brings us happiness and the work of motherhood is the blessing that brings us holiness.  But either way, it’s all blessings.

Patti Maguire Armstrong


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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