The Meaning of Motherhood

Reprinted with permission from Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum.  

Today, I lost it. I totally and completely lost it. I was trying to clean our house to get ready for my husband’s birthday, and, well, let’s just say that I was a little behind. What can I say? Morning sickness with a toddler is no joke, and it seems to have me at its mercy. Today, I decided enough was enough, and the house needed to be cleaned. If not for my son, then for the sake of my nausea, that is certainly worse for the grossness that surrounds me. I tried picking up toys, vacuuming, doing laundry – truly, a valiant effort was made, but every time I made a little headway, I would turn around and my 21-month-old had made a significantly larger impact in the opposite direction. I finally lost it when the precious little light of my life dumped the entire plate of birthday cupcakes on the floor. I picked him up, put him in his room, and closed the door – just for a minute – not as punishment but for his own protection. I just needed a minute to regroup. I slid my back down the wall until my knees hit the floor and cried. I wasn’t even completely sure why I was crying – most likely a deadly combination of frustration and pregnancy hormones – but I muttered something along the lines of “I can’t even get the house clean!”

It was then that it hit me – what a gift this truly horrible day was. Apparently, that’s how God gets through to me: with little “gifts” that seem more like curses, but He knows what He’s doing, and it does get my attention. I opened the door and picked up my very unhappy little boy, cuddled him tightly in my arms, and told him how much I loved him. Then, I sat and reflected for quite some time, as the boy went immediately back to his path of destruction, on the importance of the lesson I was being taught against my will. Motherhood teaches me this lesson almost daily: we are made for love, not utility.

This, I believe, is at the heart of the feminine genius that Pope John Paul II speaks about in his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem. Women are a sign to the world and a sign to themselves that we are made for love.  According to the late pontiff, “the dignity of woman witnesses to the love which she receives in order to love in return” (no. 30). We are created with a unique dignity, a unique ability to welcome new life and to foster the gifts of others. This dignity is revealed most profoundly in the experience of motherhood, which is why all women are called to be mothers – some biological, some spiritual. According to Pope John Paul II, “… in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman ‘discovers herself through a sincere gift of self (no. 18).’” This gift of motherhood is where the heart of the woman is born. We as mothers are reminded constantly that we are not valuable because we are productive, but that we are valuable because we are loved.

It is, therefore, worrisome to me that as our society distorts the notion of motherhood, so too does it blur the concept of femininity and the very purpose of our lives. The world’s perspective on these ideas is a far cry from, if not directly opposed to, the view that Blessed John Paul II had in mind as he described the beauty and wonder that is womanhood. A woman’s life is changed forever when she becomes a mother – her life is, for all intents and purposes, turned upside down. Her priorities change, her schedule changes, her body changes, all for the sake of loving and raising her children. Society seems to view things a bit differently. A woman today goes to great lengths to prove to her employer that she has not changed and that work is still her priority. She works very hard to rearrange the baby’s life (either the schedule the baby follows, or the schedule she follows when deciding when to have a baby) around her work. Even if she stays home, there is a temptation to give her attention to other things, more useful things, than playing with her baby. Pope Francis encouraged families recently to “waste time playing with their children” because he, like his predecessor, recognizes the unique challenge of families today to put aside their ingrained desire to be efficient, productive, or useful in the hopes of choosing to love.

Morning sickness does not make me more useful – quite the opposite, in fact – but it offers me a unique opportunity to selflessly love this tiny new person. Folding laundry that is only too quickly unfolded and strewn about the living room the moment my back is turned is immensely frustrating and would render me quite a failure if my ultimate goal was only to have clean clothes. Thankfully, our purpose is far greater than that. The labor of love that is raising a child is not quantifiably productive. At the end of the day, a mother has very little to show for her time, but at the end of her life, she can rejoice in the unique immortal souls she helped to form. We need a renewed sense of the meaning of motherhood to remind us of our meaning as human beings. We are for love, we are for sacrifice, we are for selflessness. If the laundry doesn’t get washed today, there is no national emergency, but if we forget to take the time to delight in our children, there will be an incredible impact on our own, as well as our children’s, sense of self and understanding of the true meaning of life.

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