I resonate with you.
While I will admit that I personally love babies and hope to be married and a mom one day - I, too, get irked by the overwhelming abundance of Catholic wife and mommy blogs and the unspoken yet pervasive sense that “mommy-hood” is what it means to be a fully realized Catholic woman.
I have other passions, abilities, and callings in life too besides pushing out babies. Ultimately, what it means to be a holy Catholic woman today is to follow Christ to the best of my ability, strengthened by the grace of God. I want to live out my apostolate, my call to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, now, today, each day. God has not yet allowed me to become a wife or a mother, and for all I know, that might never happen for me. So in the meantime, what does it mean to live out my vocation in my current state of life?
While you say “I’m not maternal”, I would ask - what does the word "maternal" mean anyway?
What does it mean to be a mother? We often think that being maternal means reacting like the dog from the movie “Up” when he sees a squirrel every time we see a baby, or that it means fantasizing about our future children and “decorating a nursery”, or lamenting the increasingly audible sound of our biological clocks. But is that all it means to be maternal?
I want to suggest that what Pope St. John Paul II expresses in his teachings on the transmission of life - that you and I and all women are called to be mothers, and all men called to be fathers, all people are called to be parents - is true.
“Man and woman carry on in the language of the body that dialogue which, according to Genesis 2:24,25, had its beginning on the day of creation. This language of the body is something more than mere sexual reaction…Man and woman express themselves in the measure of the whole truth of the human person.”
We cannot separate our sexuality from our humanity. It is written in the “language of our bodies”. Parenthood and sexuality also cannot be separated. While we all have sexuality, we don’t all have a desire, or even a call, to bear and raise children. Pope Francis, in a message to formators of consecrated religious men and women said:
"You are not only friends and companions of the consecrated life of those who are entrusted to you, but true fathers, true mothers, capable of asking and of giving them the most: to generate a life... And this is possible only through love, the love of fathers and mothers."
If Pope Francis is calling these celibate men and women to be mothers and fathers, people who will not be married or having sex, we have to reexamine what “mother” even means aside from giving birth to and/or raising babies.
While a basic definition of “mother” is “female parent”, the word “parent” comes from the Latin, “to bring forth”. Another definition of “mother” as a verb, is “to care for or to take care of”. In our lives as Christians, who are following the example of Jesus Christ (who, himself, was never a biological father, and was a celibate man), we are all called to “bring forth”, to “bear fruit”, and to “care for others”, just as he did.
The call to create, to bear, to give, to care, to love is universal. Regardless of age, of marital status, of ability, or sex, we are each brimming with an abundance of energy and creativity that cannot remain within us, but must be poured out. This energy is connected with, but transcends our sexuality or our procreative potency - it’s our generativity, our call to love.
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser explores these ideas in much of his writing. In one of his essays on sexuality he writes:
As a Catholic priest, I am seldom taken seriously when I speak or write about sex. Invariably the reaction is: “What can you know about it, you don’t have sex!” I welcome that comment because it betrays the very attitude towards sex that I want to challenge, namely, it identifies sexuality with having sex. That is dangerously false and few things are as bad for us emotionally as that idea….In brief, it has made us believe that we cannot be whole without sex.... Because of this we suffer emotionally. When sexuality is synonymous with having sex, then, save but for brief moments, we live in much frustration and restless dissatisfaction… Yet our deepest hungers and longings are for heterosexual relations beyond having sex. The ache is for men and women to come together as more than lovers...
Sexuality is a huge thing... Our aches are multifarious. The word sex comes from the Latin secare, a word which literally means to cut off or divide from. We experience ourselves, at all levels, precisely as sexed, as cut off, divided from, as unwhole. We ache for consummation, for a reuniting with some wholeness. For this reason sexuality is always more than simply having sex. It is a dimension of our self-awareness. It is our eros, that irrepressible demand within us that we love and that energy within us that enables us to love... Through it we seek contact, communication, wholeness, community, and creativity. Through sexuality we are driven and drawn beyond ourselves...
So, if each one of us, created in God’s image, experiences our sexuality, this “irrepressible” longing for wholeness, that drives us beyond ourselves, I would suggest that this is what the call to motherhood means for each woman, what the call to fatherhood means for each man, what the call to parenthood means for each person. It is the call to go beyond ourselves. To bring about communion and union, to create. And if that is a new working definition for “maternal”, then I would venture to guess that you are definitely maternal. And it would be good for the Church to recognize more examples of maternity outside the typical images of quintessential, idealized Catholic mommies.
As for how women can be leaders in the Church, I also resonate. The Church has definitely had a tendency to recognize the leadership skills and feats of men more often than women, and typically recognizes clergy and religious above lay people as leaders. While we may have just as many female Saints as there are male Saints, only four of the Doctors of the Church are women. I find this disparity in representation frustrating. But ultimately, when I lift it up to God, since it is bigger than I alone can deal with, I ask God, “How are you calling me to respond? What can I do? How are you calling me - uniquely - to lead?”
Again, I want to examine the language we use. The word “leader” means “to guide”, “to go in the first place”. Our primary example of a leader, as followers of Christ, said “the first shall be last”, and he led by servant leadership, by always responding to the invitation of the Father. Jesus’ mother, Mary, led Jesus, and was his example, and she also serves as an example of leadership for us all, but not just because she gave birth to Jesus physically. What made Mary such a great example and leader, was that she said “yes” to God, no matter what. The best leaders are those who know when to lead and when to follow. Mary led and demonstrated maternity by giving of herself in all things. By decreasing, so that God-in-her could increase.
Mary led and demonstrated maternity by giving of herself in all things. By decreasing, so that God-in-her could increase.
We are all called to follow Mary’s example to be Christ-bearers. Mary, who we revere as Virgin Mother, was probably the most sexual woman who ever lived. She experienced the “irrepressible demand within” to create, to give, to pour out, to seek oneness to such a degree that she brought God-with-us, Emmanuel, into this world. She said “yes” to God and allowed God to guide her sexuality, her generativity so that she would become the greatest female leader the world has ever known.
Ultimately, the end which we all seek in living out our faith, is union with God - true joy, peace, wholeness, satisfaction. If we look to Mary as an example of leadership to this end, the path to wholeness and holiness is one of detachment from our biases and agendas, from our fears and insecurities, and of full willingness to dive into the Divine Will, that God has devised for each of us uniquely, with trust. That means willingness to break out of the boxes society might try to put us in, as much as it means willingness to examine our own attachments and offer them up to God.
Lastly, if you are called one day to be a biological or adoptive mother, to bear and/or raise children, God will a) provide the patience to “deal with little kids day in and day out”, and b) allow that life to fill your heart. And if that’s not your calling, God will lead you in how to best live our your call to true maternal, self-giving, creative, generative love and leadership.
Your sister in Christ, through Mary,
Jessica Gerhardt is a FemCatholic Contributor. She is a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter-ukuleleist and youth minister, with a hobbies in amateur astronomy, sky appreciation, Ignatian spirituality, painting, drawing, blowing bubbles, and making rosaries and paper cranes. She is an alumna of Reed College where she wrote her undergraduate thesis in Psychology on ambivalent sexism and the importance of allies in confronting prejudice. To check out her music, go to www.jessicagerhardtmusic.com and stay tuned for a release in 2018 under her artist name, Feronia.