Mothers Shaping Human Souls
Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail. This experience makes you become God’s own smile upon the newborn child, the one who guides your child’s first steps, who helps it to grow, and who is the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life.
― Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Women
One of the strangest notions that has taken hold in the modern world is the idea that somehow motherhood is an unimportant, even shameful occupation. (Whereas, we hold motherhood to be a most noble vocation.)
That might sound like an over-exaggeration, but I think the evidence supports it. I have spoken with so many young women who feel an immense amount of pressure to prioritize their career accomplishments over marriage and motherhood. Meanwhile, many young women who do marry and become mothers find themselves grappling with a pervasive sense of guilt that they are somehow “wasting” their talents.
The result is that many women are torn between home and work, trying to maintain the same level of professional success that they enjoyed prior to marriage and becoming a mother, while attempting to be a “super-mom.” The result, often, is that women feel like they are failing at both, which leads to a pervasive sense of anxiety and guilt.
Meanwhile, those women who ultimately decide that their desire for married life and love of motherhood are strong enough that they have no real interest in pursuing a career, but would rather stay at home, are bombarded with messages suggesting that they are somehow choosing an illegitimate option. In a world in which “what do you do for work?” is one of the first questions we ask strangers, many women find that their particular work, being a wife, mother, and homemaker, is not acknowledged as being “real” work.
One consequence is that relatively few women are stay-at-home moms. The percentage of moms who do stay at home falls somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. However, for many, this is simply a temporary arrangement in the early years of their child’s life, and as soon as their child is old enough to go to school, they return to their “real work”: not necessarily because this is what they would like to have chosen, but rather because it was “expected” of them.
Motherhood and Our Utilitarian Error
This widespread denigration of motherhood is, to me, one of the most sinister reminders of how just upside down the priorities of our society are. Our society is fundamentally “utilitarian,” in that it gauges the value of human lives not by their intrinsic worth, but by how much “value” they produce, i.e., economic value in the marketplace.
This is completely repugnant to the Christian worldview, which from the very beginning has recognized the innate “goodness” of human beings and human existence. God created human beings, says Genesis, and “saw that they were good.” This fundamental goodness is not something that has to be earned, but is enjoyed by the very fact of being a person made in the image and likeness of God.
This view of the value of the human person frees individual humans from any need to prove their worth through economic output and creates a space to recognize and value higher ideals and aims. Humans are not made to “produce,” but rather achieve their highest ends in activities such as giving love, and in contemplation of the good.
Perhaps this sounds overly abstract and highfalutin for a column leading up to Mother’s Day. But I believe that this is absolutely fundamental to what motherhood is, and how any healthy society views motherhood. Motherhood finds its value not so much in how it produces something of value (although it does do that), as in how it demonstrates to the world that there are some things that are far more valuable than economic “value.”
A Mother’s Contemplation and Love
If you have ever seen a new mother gazing at her newborn child, then you will have some idea what I mean by “contemplation” and “love.”
In those moments when a mother holds her child, gazing lovingly at him or her, she needs no further justification for her action. She does not contemplate and love her child because doing so is somehow economically productive, or even because loving her child in this way is more likely to produce a healthier, stronger, more independent child who can then contribute something “meaningful” to the world.
She contemplates and loves her child simply because this act of contemplation and love of another person is the highest, most meaningful, most important thing that any human being can do! In a profoundly moving section of his great encyclical on the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope St. John Paul II meditates deeply on the unique gift of motherhood. “Motherhood,” he wrote there,
…involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and “understands” with unique intuition what is happening inside her. In the light of the “beginning”, the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more (no. 18).
In other words, the whole nature of motherhood is such as to orient the mother towards the preborn child growing in her womb, and then to the newborn child who needs her body for nourishment, as a person who is intrinsically worthy of attention and love, i.e., as a gift which she has received. And this radical attitude is something that, in turn, women bring to the world in the manner of their relationships with others.
Even if the child cannot give the mother anything in return, the mother can give herself to her child: totally, unreservedly, without qualification. And in so doing, the mother becomes an icon of love itself: love, which is the greatest, most powerful force in the universe. Love, which is a participation in the being of God Himself.
The world is starving for lack of love. Not for a lack of office workers, or lawyers, or doctors. But for love. And yet, for some reason, we have dismissed the fundamental role that mothers play, and have always played, in bringing more love into the world: loving a person from the very first moments of his or her existence. If she feels called to, and if circumstances allow for it, a mother should feel zero guilt in seceding from the marketplace in order to devote her full attention to her children. She is, after all, doing the most important work in the world: shaping human souls.
And even if a particular mother does not feel called to be a stay-at-home mom, or if her financial circumstances do not allow for it, she should not be pressured into feeling that her motherhood is merely some “peripheral” part of her identity or calling. Every human being has a mother, and every mother plays a crucial role in shaping the mind and soul of her children. In those first few years, a mother has the capacity to teach her child that he or she is intrinsically worthy of love as a person made in the image of God. What, one wonders, would our world look life if every human being understood the magnitude of their worth in the eyes of God?
The Social Value of Maternal Love
My argument up to this point has largely been that Church teaching has always recognized that motherhood as a state and vocation needs no further justification. There is no human act greater than bringing a new, immortal human being into the world, and then immersing that child in an environment of total, self-giving love. In so doing, a woman is doing something that is intrinsically worthwhile, and which fulfills her being and nature in ways that no career could ever possibly do.
For a mother to simply be with her child, in a state of loving contemplation, may appear “useless” in the eyes of the world. But what else were human beings created for, other than to live in a state of loving contemplation? Lovers who spend an evening gazing into one another’s eyes, do not feel a responsibility to explain why their behavior produces economic value for the world. They know that, in some mysterious way, this love of theirs has a value, in and of itself, that exceeds any increase in the GDP.
Ultimately, the end for which humans were created was to enter into the eternal, loving gaze of the Beatific Vision, in which the human person sees God, face-to-face. However, every human love is in some very real sense an imitation of and participation in the Divine Love – a mother’s love reflects this Divine Love in a special way.
However, as I have begun to hint above, even if motherhood needs no further justification other than motherhood embraced and lived well, it is also true that motherhood does have profound practical implications, for the health of our society and (yes) our economy. It simply is the case that a great deal of the suffering in this world, much of which produces societal ills and negative impacts, arises from the violence and egotism of those who have never really experienced the greater good of love: who believe that they simply must take whatever they can, when they can, in order to find their place in the world.
Without denigrating the role of fathers (which is also crucial to the spiritual and mental health of every child), it is also true that mothers clearly play a key role in helping their children understand that they do not need to “prove” their worth by accruing wealth or power at any costs. Rather, if they are loved, and love in return, then they already have everything that they most need. Furthermore, greater happiness is found in transmitting the love that they have received from their mothers on to others.
A Warm and Secure Family Setting
As Pope St. John Paul II said in a homily at a Mass in Central Park in 1995, “In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the Culture of Life. And in the family, the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life are guarded; human life is cherished, from the moment of conception to its natural end, in the warm and secure setting of the family.”
Mothers play a key, irreplaceable role in creating the “warm and secure” setting of the family. When children grow up in such a secure environment, they go out into the world not with fear and anger and insecurity in their hearts, but rather equipped with kindness and love. A world more filled with maternal love, is a warmer, kinder, more unified world.
Women who freely desire to devote the totality of their time to being wives, mothers, and homemakers ought not to be stigmatized by society, made to feel that their vocation is unimpressive, which leads them not to see anything meaningful in it. We must reject this view that gives the impression that marriage and motherhood are a path for those women who are not ambitious or talented enough to pursue professional careers. At the same time, those wives and mothers who wish also to engage in work, to utilize their skills and talents in a career outside the home, ought not have to choose between relinquishing their family life with negative consequences.
Mothers, this Mothers’ Day, celebrate your calling! Motherhood is a noble vocation! Rejoice that you are living the same vocation as the Blessed Mother, who raised motherhood to even greater stature when she became the Mother of God.
As a mother, Mary played a key role in the redemption of the human race and gives us a most inspiring picture of what the ideal mother ought to look like – one who stands with her child throughout life, giving witness to the power of unconditional love. Every Christian mother would be wise to take her cues from Mary, who excelled at the vocation of motherhood.
To all mothers: Happy Mother’s Day!
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.