“A woman is capable of more sustained sacrifice than man. Man is more apt to be the hero in one great, passionate outburst of courage. But a woman is heroic through the years, months, even seconds of daily life, the very repetition of her toils giving them the semblance of the commonplace. Not only her days but her nights, not only her mind, but her body, must share in the Calvary of Mothering. She, therefore, has a greater understanding of redemption than man, for she comes closer to death in bringing forth life.”– Ven. Fulton Sheen
I never saw myself as a mother. Growing up, having children seemed like a distant possibility, but not one in which I could envision myself. I wasn’t exposed to babies or toddlers, and even in the rare instance when I was in their presence, I never held them. They frightened me, as if they were small foreign creatures who couldn’t yet talk or reason.
As Ben and I prepared for marriage, I devoured every book I could find on the subject of motherhood, beginning with fertility and Theology of the Body. In my naivete, I subsequently imagined myself with a brood of several kids, all stairstep children. I saw large Catholic families and admired them from afar, hoping to one day carry my own silent testimony of faith to others in a world more hostile to family than supportive.
I am now 40 with five children. Nothing these past ten years happened the way I anticipated. I struggled with infertility with our first three children, all girls, and our second daughter Sarah was born with a rare and complex genetic condition that affects her entire body and development. Our youngest two, both boys, were what some might call “unplanned” or “happy accidents,” but the reality is that Ben and I were entirely overwhelmed with the three we already had and were being good Catholics by avoiding pregnancy using NFP.
In many Christian circles, the sunny spirituality is evident in every discussion of marriage and motherhood – that every pregnancy and every child always bear good things. Of course, every child is willed by God and is, therefore, a blessing. But what we don’t see often is the dark side of motherhood – postpartum depression, the exhaustion from chronic sleep deprivation, the emotional tax upon our marriages, the guilt we carry about not being able to divide our time and attention equally among the children we already have.
And when a child (or more) with a disability is added to this, we wonder why we “can’t do it right.”
Motherhood isn’t necessarily the rosy, happy, easygoing image we’ve been led to believe it is. Maybe we’ve been told it is a woman’s highest calling, but it isn’t her only vocation. And when we live in a culture that either believes children are a right or a burden, we find ourselves lost in the midst of living the hard reality of being open to both life – and death.
At my baby shower, I never once heard a woman talk about the emotional pain of longing for a baby but not getting pregnant, of getting pregnant but then losing a baby, of delivering a stillborn infant, of learning that your child has a serious diagnosis that could result in a lifetime of suffering or death.
And why would any of us hear such things? Baby showers are to celebrate the little life soon to arrive. But what if seasoned moms shared their stories somehow to women whose motherhood is new and yet to be lived? Not to judge, not to proselytize, but to vulnerably and openly offer the truth of struggling to find what motherhood looks like?
The beauty is in the breaking open of oneself, which begins when a woman enters the sometimes long and arduous path of understanding her fertility and longing for a baby. Allowing our bodies to be the threshold through which God may create a new life, or may not. And we surrender the not knowing when or how or even if to Him.
This is the beginning of deepening our faith by way of becoming empty for God to do with us as He will. And this is no easy feat, because from the moment of fertility treatments and conception, we learn of the delicacy and fragility of human life. We realize that nothing, truly, is in our control.
This act of daily surrender, through which we may well wrestle and resist, becomes the gateway for God to reveal Himself as Mystery. And motherhood becomes this vast landscape of mystery into which we find ourselves placed on some odd, precarious path. Regardless of what motherhood looks like, each woman finds herself continually broken open – first her body, then her heart, and it never ends.
Motherhood is the epitome of the Passion Story. Our bodies become the sacrificial altars upon which new life, poured forth from our blood, enters this world. And, once birthed, we quickly learn that our children do not belong to us. They are God’s sons and daughters, and it is impossible for us to shield and shelter them from life’s hardships and broken hearts.
Then motherhood becomes this juxtaposition of constant loss and constant gain. The two, as we mature in our vocation, we find that they are really inseparable phenomena. We watch our children grow, and we mourn the loss of their childhood as they permanently shed that stage of life. Yet we concurrently embrace the hope and possibility of them becoming these unique persons who are gifts to the world.
All the while, motherhood challenges us. In some ways, it annihilates us if we truly allow ourselves to be the means by which our children come to know and love God. Holiness by way of motherhood necessarily destroys the ego and draws us, every day, back to the Source of Mystery, whereby we lean into the unknown and trust in the One who has made us – and our children – who we deeply, truly are meant to be.