As one of the early entrants into the “women can have it all” sweepstakes during the 1970s and ’80s, I am shocked both by how much has changed with regard to motherhood over the last 40 years and how little. Mothering in the modern world is still a charged topic. The media stories run the gamut: Motherhood is maligned in principle (e.g., Time magazine: “Having It All Without Having Children,” 8/13), celebrated as charming (e.g., Duchess Kate) and hyped as cool (e.g., the pop-singer Pink, who recently pronounced on motherhood: “[I]t’s like, ‘F—,’ this is so rad. It’s more important than anything we’ve done”).
As for the church, Pope John Paul II advanced Catholic reflection on mothers with his trifecta—the Theology of the Body, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” and the “Letter to Women”—as did then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with his letter to the bishops “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.” These documents resoundingly affirmed the equality of the sexes while acknowledging their differences, including the obvious matter that only women can bear new life; highlighted women’s unique capacities to manifest primordially the very “meaning of life” for both sexes—love for the other; and insisted upon the obligations of men, civil society, the church and the state to support mothers in their various modern situations. This last message was closely related to several of the documents’ groundbreaking recognitions that every social arena and task would benefit from the presence of women but that mothers require and deserve assistance harmonizing their primary vocation (family) with their work outside the home. Also, since John Paul II called on women in 1995 to shape a new feminism, women at both scholarly and grass-roots levels have diligently reflected on motherhood and related questions.
But time does not stand still, and the question remains: what can Catholicism offer today in light of new situations facing mothers around the world? Before turning to this precise question, it is prudent to consider the nature of motherhood itself, lest we forget its essence in the midst of a conversation about change.
The Meaning of Motherhood
From the moment a woman learns that she is pregnant, she begins living in this world within a kind of enclosure containing herself and the child within her. I remember what can only be called a sense of magical realism: “Yesterday, it was just me; today it’s me and the child inside; tomorrow, a new person I don’t even know is coming to live at my house.” Ultrasounds become the most exciting films ever, providing for every woman a Marian “How can this be?” moment. The whole “life is a miracle” cliché becomes a reality, giving rise to new affection for the creator God.
There is also the dark side of visits to the doctor: the ultrasound showing that the child has died in the womb or indicating a sick child. Instantly the doctor is transformed from the host of the party to a kind of enemy, uttering words like “genetic counseling” or “termination.” I will never forget my husband’s whispering in my ear after an intense physician in a dark ultrasound room encouraged me, after a series of bad test results, to consider aborting my third child: “Doesn’t he know who the hell you are? You’re the woman getting ready to write The Type-A Mother’s Guide to Raising a Seriously Ill Child.”
As if this were not enough drama, there is childbirth. Then childrearing! Then there is the wondering whether it is a sin even to consider working outside the home after this helpless infant comes into your life, followed (for most women) by the struggle to figure out a work schedule allowing you to do justice at home first and still pay the bills. There is also the work of caring deeply, to the point where your own happiness is permanently on the line. In other words, you cannot stop yourself from trying to assure the impossible: your child’s goodness and wisdom and freedom from serious pain—forever.
Today more than ever, this entire roller-coaster ride is a choice. Sure, “surprise pregnancies” still occur, but between contraception and legal abortion, virtually any woman can “just say no.” She can also say “yes,” “how many” and “when, ” thanks to the science of fertility, assisted reproductive technologies and even the vanishing stigma against nonmarital births. In this context, Catholic thinking about motherhood appears to me attentive to reality, while also revolutionary and ultimately, like all good revolutions, freeing. It continues full-throatedly to celebrate the miracle of gestation and the role of mothers. Take Pope Francis’ recent words: “The Madonna is more important than the apostles, and the church herself is feminine, the spouse of Christ and a mother.” John Paul II referred often to women’s “prior” understanding of the gift of life and of the meaning of life as loving because she, and not the man, becomes pregnant, gives birth and feeds the child from her own body. Women’s “capacity for the other,” too, is held up by Catholic teaching as a model for the human race.
At the same time, the church in the later 20th century began to affirm women’s right to access to the public square, in roles formerly reserved to men, first in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” then in later documents addressed specifically to women. There, and in the Holy See’s interventions at the United Nations, the church demanded also that laws and social policies take into account the gift of women’s lives—by way of policies that grant social benefits for the care-work women contribute and policies that ensure women’s ability to care for their families as their first priority while they also work outside the home.
Women at Work
At first blush, the church’s recommendations might have seemed to overemphasize the domestic in women’s lives. But history has shown otherwise. After decades during which the “official” women’s movement maligned marriage and motherhood—and worked rather to help women avoid mothering, in favor of the workplace—surveys show again and again that while women are intent upon qualifying for every social role previously available only to men, most mothers still prefer to work part time or stay home full time, at least for some of their children’s growing years. Surveys also show that women working outside the home are happiest when their workplace offers flexible terms so that they can indeed put their family first.
But “working mothers” are not the only ones in the headlines about mothering. The church (leaders, lay experts, mothers) needs to reflect today upon a few more developments. First, for example, there is the “great divorce” of sex from parenting, as women cooperate more and more with an ethic of casual sex leading to abortion or single mothering, both of which reject a child’s right to be conceived and born as human dignity demands—in love, with both a mother and a father.
Second, the powers that be disregard the deep desires (and rights, in my view) of many of the most vulnerable women to marry, stay married and bear marital children. A close look at the wide array of current laws and policies affecting these decisions and states in life bears this out. These policies vigorously promote economically self-sufficient parenting and involved fathers, but only weakly support parenting within marriage. And they discount or dismiss biological parent-child ties in favor of individual adults’ choices about parenting. The most prominent federal and state government policies, in fact, are all about “self-empowerment” and birth control, not about stable marital and parenting communities.
Third, corporate culture has only marginally deferred to women’s (and some men’s) desires for a combination of flexibility and job security. Most new mothers, or parents taking care of aged grandparents, are consigned instead to the tender mercies of limited, unpaid leave.
Fourth, neither federal nor state lawmakers have acknowledged the huge social gift represented by women’s care-work. Were the state to care for children and the elderly, the costs would be unimaginable. But women who do it every day receive extraordinarily small tax breaks and no credit toward future retirement benefits.
The church needs to urge public and private actors to give motherhood its due in all of these arenas. It could call for a church-wide and society-wide reflection on what a half-century of consciousness about women has delivered for mothers and what it has not. It could point out how the prevailing feminisms, to the extent they have delivered advantages, have benefitted privileged mothers disproportionately and vastly more than women in poor circumstances. It could make its teachings about marriage and motherhood more accessible, teachings that, after all, the church holds to have cosmic and anthropological significance, given its insistence that marriage provides a glimpse of God and of the meaning of life as faithful, permanent loving. Of course, there are many important social institutions. The Catholic Church is not alone in possessing wisdom and resources concerning motherhood. There is no doubt, however, that it has unique intellectual and pastoral gifts that women, children, families and society urgently require.