Motherhood’s Greatness

By Erika J. Ahern from the National Catholic Register

Mother’s Day is likely to be a time of reunion and even greater appreciation for moms than before 2020’s pandemic. Thankfully, many families are emerging from pandemic restrictions that brought both imposed and prolonged isolations and, on the opposite extreme, many hours of quality, or not-so-quality, time together in nuclear families or small community pods.

The medley of experiences this past year — adults keeping socially distant from their aging parents, young children separated from their grandmothers, the sickness or loss of a loved one without opportunity to console or mourn, as well as the blessings and burdens of family life stripped of normalcy — begs for greater reflection on the profound gift of motherhood.

Times of turmoil often test the unique bond between mothers and their children that forms from the moment of conception. That moment begins a radical transformation of the woman. Of course, expecting mothers feel physical changes almost immediately, but the biological bond goes even deeper and much longer than pregnancy. Studies in microchimerism (the presence of the cells of one individual within another, genetically distinct individual) reveal that a child’s cells actually live on in their mother’s body. Each and every child leaves a cellular mark on his or her mother.

A mother also experiences a profound and more significant transformation in her soul. Her bond with her child extends beyond rogue cells invading her heart, into the mysterious realm of the deeply personal: Her child inhabits her inner spiritual life forever. She will always in some way judge herself (and suffer the judgment of others) in relation to the welfare of her child. The most intense joy and acute pain in her life seem always to be tied up in some way in the destiny of her child. Motherhood, for all its hiddenness and preoccupation with often less-than-cosmic bodily concerns, brings with it an awareness — however peripheral or unarticulated — of a vital mission in the life of the child. In fact, a mother plays the central role in the drama of salvation history. The entire biblical struggle between good and evil is marked from the beginning by the “woman” whose offspring will crush the head of the serpent in Genesis. It ends with the woman who flees into the desert after giving birth in Revelation.

The Blessed Mother herself is the exemplar of motherhood because she is the consummation of all threads of human motherhood: the physical and spiritual. She is the model for biological mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and spiritual mothers, including religious sisters, godmothers and any woman who extends nurturing care to others. Her sinless motherhood neither grasped after Jesus nor rebelled at the cross, and so she points all mothers to the greatest word they can give their children: “Do whatever He tells you.” No matter a woman’s time in history, place, country or circumstances, whether she raises her children in prosperity or pandemic, she fulfills her vocation when she lives Mary’s fiat.

Parenthood is a shared responsibility, and much should be said on fatherhood. But in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), Pope St. John Paul II writes that “the man … owes a special debt to the woman” because hers is “the most demanding part.” He was not only referring to pregnancy and childbirth: Every mother, in order to complete her gift of herself to God, must continually echo in her heart the words of Mary, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

God asks women to make this immolation even when that profound physical and spiritual bond makes the surrender more heart-rending. Precisely because motherhood is central to the story of our salvation — both on a biblical and intensely personal scale — mothers depend on the support of husbands, fathers, extended family, friends and spiritual companions to fulfill their mission.

The pandemic’s forced isolation frustrated many of the normal expressions of affection and support for mothers. Many women went months without seeing their grown children and grandchildren. The ordinary pain of a mother separated from her grown children was exacerbated by lockdowns and quarantines, and video chat showed itself a poor substitute for in-person visits.

First-time mothers who gave birth during the pandemic (see related story on page one) welcomed their babies without the customary baby showers, visits from family or support of moms’ groups. In a society already atomized and struggling with loneliness, new mothers suffered a special isolation even as they bonded with their new children. However, the pandemic also brought mothers and their children back together in their households, giving families enormous quantities of time together that few had ever experienced.

Current social norms often convince mothers that the best they can do for their children is to delegate their needs to experts while they work to pay those experts. The lockdowns, however, forced many parents back into the role of primary caregivers and educators. The “gift of self” takes on all new meaning when ordinary supports fail, and many women took the opportunity to reconsider the primacy of motherhood over other commitments.

The struggles of pandemic motherhood were real — and not all as epic as a woman laboring to give birth while a dragon writhes at her feet. Parents were balancing diapers with long-division lessons and professional obligations with online schooling. Even with the partnership of a committed father, mothers often found that the mundane tasks of childrearing fell largely to them.

That profound maternal bond was tested. But within the day-to-day challenges of family life under the peculiar stresses of the pandemic, mothers had countless opportunities to discover in new ways their vocation: the free gift of themselves to the demands of love in every moment. Indeed, this Mother’s Day presents a moment to emerge from isolation in order to honor and reaffirm the primacy of motherhood. Catholics can do more than offer flower delivery or a dinner out for moms. They can unite their expressions of filial affection with intentional and spiritual encouragement for all mothers.

With the vocation to motherhood comes great struggle, often most acute in the lowly routines of life and more grueling precisely because it is hidden. In honoring mothers, most especially the Mother of God, the Church helps them to give more fully of themselves and thus find themselves. The veneration of Mary strengthens all women to be who they were made to be: the first home of new life, the mother who brings us forth from our confinement.