A father's reflection on motherhood

(Andriyko Podilnyk via Unsplash)

You might wonder why someone who has no experience as a mother, nor even as a woman, would have any useful thoughts to share about motherhood. I have been reflecting about the importance and value of motherhood over the past year since the recent passing of my mother and as close friends and relatives enter the years when their family decisions are being made.

Many in our culture have developed a deep hostility toward motherhood and mothers, particularly those most dedicated to caring for and raising their children. As a result, many women (and men) are choosing to have few, if any, children. They have chosen instead to pursue money, power, pleasure or fame, which they have later come to regret. Many will live their elder years alone and lonely and joyless. For the childless, life is a short story, often painful and seemingly pointless, rather than just one chapter in an epic family adventure. Without children, the future seems desolate and empty.

I will be sharing my thoughts about the value of motherhood by drawing on human nature, divine revelation, and our only path to holiness and eternal life.

Transformations

Our lives exist in a world of constant change. Our lives are processes of development, as we learn and seek to improve our circumstances and our lives. As Christians, we are seeking to grow in holiness. The major milestones in our lives include going to school for the first time, leaving your childhood home, graduating from school, getting married, and losing your parents.

However, the largest and most important transformation of our lives arises when we give birth to our first child. For many of us, it is the first time in our lives we are no longer focused primarily on our own interests, our own desires, our own goals. We place someone else ahead of ourselves. We love someone more than we love ourselves. Some reach this stage at marriage, but I suspect many first attain a state of deep, self-sacrificial love when they have children. A seminary professor years ago quoted a colleague or author as saying quite memorably that the purpose of children is to make adults out of their parents. Indeed, the weight of the responsibilities of raising children calls us to an entirely new life.

The new life of parenthood requires great sacrifices. Children take many years to mature. We invest immense amounts of time, energy, and resources into helping them develop the skills they need to flourish. They need food, shelter, clothing, protection, discipline, and education. We help them develop virtues, the habits and behaviors that contribute to healthy and happy lives. We want them to flourish in this life, so we help them to develop the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude. We want them to flourish in the next life, so we also help them develop the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

Love

We are all aware of the Ten Commandments. Jesus said these commandments can be summarized in the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. In the Gospel of Mark (12:30-31), Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus also told us to love one another as he has loved us. He said, “Greater love has no man than … (to) lay down his life for his friends.” In other words, the greatest love one can express is to sacrifice yourself for another (John 15:12-13).

Love or charity describes the primary objective of the Christian life. As a loving unity of three persons, God himself is a family united by love. He aspires the same for us. We are in this life to develop charity for others, both God and our neighbors.

Mothers

Throughout human history, parents have made immense sacrifices for their children, willingly, joyfully and selflessly. At the forefront of these sacrifices has always been our mothers. They sacrifice their bodies cooperating with God to create us. Many sacrifice their personal goals and interests to raise us. They have an extraordinary ability to act selflessly. They are the indispensable centers and the beating hearts of their families, bound in a special and unique way with their children as their co-creator, first home, and first love. They are bound in a special and unique way with their husbands as a partner in the union in which two persons become one and through which life comes into being.

Countless mothers throughout history have answered the call to lay down their lives for their children. They have done so willingly and lovingly. Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty states, “Mother and child seem to fuse into an inner oneness. A mother cannot live and think and be happy except in union with the heartbeat of her child. To be a mother means … to become a servant to the weak and small baby … to comfort and help … to ameliorate suffering and help bear it. She sacrifices her patience, love, health and life. She lives in the world but is not of the world. To her the world is dead, so that she can create a new world, namely, a family … Here she seeks and finds the goal of her life, her only treasure, her complete satisfaction.” Mothers are willing to bear any and all challenges for their children.

Women and especially mothers have a remarkable genius for loving. They know how to love deeply. They are not always appreciated or recognized or rewarded. Their lives are not always glamorous. They are often struggling to balance responsibilities and finances. They have many stresses. They even suffer a distinct kind of martyrdom, softer in intensity but longer in duration. They are unsung heroes, in fact the greatest of heroes.

If we are in this life to love our neighbors, then mothers are playing a home game. They are in friendly territory. Their lives are organized, conducted, and dedicated to the love of their children and more broadly their families and neighbors. In our culture of self-worship, self-actualization, and self-service expressed commonly in the slogan “you be you,” our mothers have a different view centered on sacrifice and service, love and tenderness. Our lonely world needs them more than ever today.

Human dignity

C.S. Lewis in his book "The Weight of Glory" states, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. … it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him Christ … is truly hidden.”

Our mothers co-create transcendent eternal beings. When all our nations and civilizations have passed away, when our planet is no more, our children will still be alive. We hope they will be in heaven with us, but they will be alive nonetheless. Why would anyone rather engage in mundane temporal enterprises (that will soon be forgotten) than give birth to transcendent eternal lives (that will never be forgotten)?

Ephesians implications

One of the most difficult passages of Scripture is Ephesians 5:21-25, which states, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …” An important implication of this passage, understood in unity, seems to be that husbands should be prepared to give their lives for their wives and their wives should allow them to do so. Why would such a passage be necessary or important? In our self-centered world today, few would hesitate to allow someone else to make major sacrifices for them. However, many Christian wives and mothers have such strong charitable instincts that they are more accustomed to giving than receiving and would rather do so. Perhaps the Lord wanted to remind women to allow their husbands to make major sacrifices as well.

Pride and its opponent

Lewis, in his book "Mere Christianity," states, “… the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison. It was through pride that the Devil became the Devil: Pride leads to every other vice.” Pride is of course the sin that led Adam and Eve into the Fall. Humility is the main virtue opposing pride.

Other than the Bible, many believe that the most influential Christian spiritual book ever written was "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas A. Kempis (early 1400s). This book focuses on the importance of humility in our relationship with God, which requires us to align our will with God’s will. Kempis states in his writings on humility,

  • “Pride is difficult to overcome except through enduring much suffering, performing menial duties, and facing difficult and desperate situations.” Indeed, parents and especially mothers often engage in menial duties.
  • “… a person, who is intent upon human praise and approval, cannot genuinely love God above all else.” Secular jobs require us to seek human approval, but as Christians we only need to seek God’s approval.
  • “Humility of heart … is the foundation of all virtues and indispensable to the attainment of eternal salvation.”

Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, describes humility as, “the virtue that restrains the unruly desire for personal greatness ... Religious humility recognizes one’s total dependence on God; moral humility recognizes one’s creaturely equality with others.”

St. Thomas Aquinas said humility "consists in keeping oneself within one's own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one's superior." Our ultimate superior is, of course, God, so humility requires us to detach from our own desires to pursue God’s desires, which means charity, the love of God and neighbor.

Why is humility essential to salvation? John Chrysostom once stated, “humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue.”

In summary, pride is the utmost evil. The antidote is humility. Humility helps us detach from our own desires to pursue the will of God. The will of God consists of the love of God and neighbor. As a result, humility directs us to charity, which is essential to our salvation.

Mother’s humility

Parenthood is the most certain path to humility: Changing diapers when they are young. Cleaning up messes for many years. Eye rolls when they are teens. Many years when their children believe their parents know nothing. These years are intensive training programs in humility. In many cases, our mothers are the most deeply engaged and the most consistent sources of care, comfort and protection.

Cardinal Mindszenty ends his book with a reflection on the fifth beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” He states, “The hands of a mother have brought … all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. She fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the poor, housed the stranger, visited and tended the sick. She admonished the sinner, counselled the doubtful, instructed the ignorant, consoled the sorrowful, was patient with the foolish, and was incessant in prayer for the living and the dead.”

Many of the roles and tasks of mothers are humble ones, clear paths to humility. They are vocations of supreme service and sacrifice for the benefit of their children and their families. The primary rewards are internal rather than external and long-term rather than short-term. Our mothers are investing in the future. They are serving transcendent rather than temporal ends, creating eternal creatures in the image and likeness of God.

As we all know, our Christian civilization has been rapidly deteriorating in recent years. The key to restoration runs through our mothers. As Cardinal Mindszenty states, “The resurrection of a nation depends primarily on the establishment of good, saintly, and moral families.” In many cases, mothers are the primary influences on the development and formation of our children. Our mothers will play a primary role in leading, guiding and ultimately determining the direction of our nation and our world.

Journey

Our lives are short journeys through time and space, hardly moments in the backdrop of eternity. There are ups and downs along our paths, successes and failures. However, all our actions and decisions in this life are only means, not ends. Our end is eternity in heaven, and getting there is all that matters. For our mothers, we pray, expect, and hope that they will be in heaven one day, actively praying for those of us still on our journey. If we are so blessed as to make it to heaven one day, I believe we will see it is full of mothers. God bless all the mothers.

Jay Flaherty is a Lay Dominican residing in southeast Michigan. He recently retired from a long career as an investment manager to serve the Church in various ministries and through his Dominican vocation of explaining, supporting, and defending Church teachings. He completed a Certificate in Catholic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in 2018 and made his perpetual profession as a Lay Dominican in November 2023.



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