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, writes Helen Alvare.
Mothering in the modern world is still a charged topic. The media stories run the gamut: Motherhood is maligned in principle, celebrated as charming and hyped as cool. Can the church help women achieve a better work-life balance?.
As for the church, Pope John Paul II advanced Catholic reflectin 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.”
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