An Unholy Martyrdom of Mothers
Thursday, May 30, 2019

When my local grocery store announced their new free grocery pick-up, I secretly gave it a try. Secretly, because it felt indulgent. I wondered if I was lazy for having someone else do what I'm perfectly capable of doing myself.

For a lesson in maternal guilt, pay attention to the moments before and after a woman confesses that she hires a cleaning person, a mother's helper, or a meal planning delivery service to alleviate her workload. Before: she glances around uncomfortably to check who's within earshot. After: she justifies the expense by quickly rambling through a description of current extenuating circumstances (as if family life itself weren't extenuating enough).

Do men feel the need to justify similar actions in this way? Do they duck when driving through a carwash, embarrassed that the family budget subsidizes their decision not to scrub and wax the car themselves? Are there whispered confessions in men's locker rooms about hiring a lawn service? For some reason, work traditionally done by men doesn't have the same social stigma when it’s outsourced.

Why would outsourcing be seen as a staple for men, but a luxury for women?

Perhaps men are better at letting go of unrealistic expectations on their time. Outsourcing helps them focus on the work that's most important. It's the virtue of prudence:

"Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it." (CCC 1806)

Mother's Day is the busiest restaurant day of the year. Are dads being lazy? Maybe. Everyone wants to honor their mom, but no one wants to do for one day the work that a lot of moms do every day: planning, cooking, and cleaning.

Perhaps, though, the busyness of restaurants on Mother's Day is just another example of men exercising prudence: disposing practical reason to recognize their limitations and using the means necessary (money and a restaurant) to accomplish a true good (celebrating mom). Perhaps more moms could use restaurants to exercise prudence for special occasions and for family life in general.

But why does prudence seem more difficult for women than for men? Under pressure from both social and religious norms, motherhood has become synonymous with martyrdom in a way that fatherhood has not.

[M]otherhood has become synonymous with martyrdom in a way that fatherhood has not.

A good message - that true love requires sacrifice - has been internalized incorrectly and twisted into lies that many well-meaning mothers follow in good faith:

Self-care is a form of selfishness.

Holiness means suffering silently.

God intends for mothers to care for their children without help.

Spending money on childcare, housework, or food preparation is a waste of a family's finances (but not money spent on lawn care or cosmetic car maintenance).

Even when working a job outside the home that pays the household bills, time away from your family is stolen (unless you're a father).

Personal hobbies or interests are a distraction from a mother's vocation (but not a father's).

If I'm not sacrificing myself to the point of death, I am not fully living my vocation.

That last message may sound extreme in suggesting that the pinnacle of motherhood is physical death in service to your family. Unfortunately, some retellings of the life of St. Gianna Molla reinforce this false message.

A common version of St. Gianna's story recounts how she was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition while pregnant and refused an abortion. The baby lived, while St. Gianna died: her death to save her child represents the highest calling of motherhood. To tell her story in this way can create an expectation that I doubt St. Gianna would place on mothers: the pressure to relentlessly and unnecessarily push themselves to unhealthy limits, even death, in the name of "holy motherhood."

In reality, the story of St. Gianna is more nuanced and sends a much stronger message for mothers. St. Gianna was a respected pediatrician (a working mom!) with three young children. While pregnant with her fourth child, she was diagnosed with a uterine tumor.

According to Catholic teaching, she could have chosen a hysterectomy to cure her condition. The unborn child would die as a secondary effect, but the intent of the medical intervention would be to save the life of the mother, not to kill the child. A hysterectomy is an ethical choice for mothers facing this difficult situation.

St. Gianna also could have chosen no intervention at all. She could continue the pregnancy, delaying her own medical care until the baby was safely delivered. She did not choose this option. St. Gianna chose to have surgery, while two months pregnant, to remove the tumor without removing her uterus.

She did not passively accept death. St. Gianna did everything possible to choose life for both herself and her unborn child. She delivered a healthy baby seven months after surgery. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, one week after the child was born, St. Gianna died from septic peritonitis, a severe infection.

St. Gianna's legacy is one of heroic prudence: using practical reason (her medical background and Catholic Faith) to discern the right means (surgery to remove a tumor) to achieve a true good (the life of both herself and her child). That it didn't turn out as she hoped, that in the end it cost her life, does not justify using her sainthood to promote a passive, hopeless, inevitable martyrdom of mothers.

St. Gianna did everything possible to choose life for both herself and her unborn child. . . . [Her] legacy is one of heroic prudence.

Does the way we talk about the life of St. Gianna Molla encourage mothers toward prudence, using their available resources to pursue the "true good in every circumstance" for both themselves and their children, as St. Gianna did? Or does it pressure mothers to presume their own death as necessary to fulfilling their ordinary maternal vocation?

Among Christians, there exists a tendency to force a cross onto mothers that's heavier than what a conscientious approach to our vocation would mandate. This can lead to gas lighting, isolation, and a devaluation of the lives of mothers.

When mothers begin to question whether their burden is heavier than God intends for them to carry, they're often met with dismissive or detached advice to "offer it up," "find the joy," or "trust that God won't give you more than you can handle." Well-intentioned Christian blogs suggest the problem is all in their heads.

However, if her concern is taken seriously - recognizing that a mother's exhaustion and eventual death are not the goalposts of a motherhood well-lived - our communal Christian response should be to affirm her concerns as valid, to outsource some of her responsibilities, and to bolster her mental and physical health.

[O]ur communal Christian response should be to affirm her concerns as valid, to outsource some of her responsibilities, and to bolster her mental and physical health.

A popular Christian healthcare sharing ministry refuses to cover the removal of an ectopic pregnancy until the unborn child dies naturally or the fallopian tube bursts, which constitutes an emergency and potentially fatal event for women. Medical guidelines that unnecessarily and unethically threaten a mother's health are just one example of the devaluation of a mother's life in the name of religion, under the incorrect assumption that death is a mother's highest calling. (This was not a Catholic healthcare provider, nor did it follow Catholic teaching, which allows the removal of a fallopian tube in an ectopic pregnancy with the intent to preserve the mother's health even though it indirectly causes the death of an unborn child.)

Recently, a friend had a conversation with her priest about the overwhelming daily sacrifice of motherhood. "Of course you are feeling despair," her priest acknowledged. Rather than berate my friend's inability to do it all, he identified her self-sufficiency as an unintended, ungodly burden of motherhood. We aren't meant to do it all, and certainly not on our own or unto death. Mothers need coworkers to accomplish the holy work entrusted to them. (Ah, that this wise priest's words could be broadcast to the world!)

Mothers need coworkers to accomplish the holy work entrusted to them.

In a secular context, the ill-presumed sacrificial nature of motherhood contributes to their marginalization.

Case in point: the absurd maternal mortality rate in our country usually elicits nothing more than a disinterested shrug and a finger-scroll to the next headline. If our callousness toward the deaths of women who are mothers is an indicator, we might ask whether motherhood is really so important to our culture. Or at the very least, why is contemporary society so comfortable with the increasing sacrificial deaths of mothers? Might it be that we don't actually view their deaths as tragic but rather, in some twisted way, as fulfillments of their ultimate purpose in life?

How many mothers are told after childbirth that incontinence, chronic pelvic pain, mood disorders, hemorrhoids, diastasis recti, prolapse, and heavy bleeding are just long term consequences of childbirth that they'll deal with for the rest of their lives?

"It's just part of motherhood," is an easier medical response than the research or funding necessary to provide better answers. Mothers are primed to accept this reasoning from a lifetime of women's healthcare that finds solutions in a combination of hormonal birth control prescriptions and the vague, catch-all diagnosis: "It's just part of womanhood, sorry."

And even in the case where medical solutions are available, how many moms don't receive "fourth trimester" care due to exhaustion, fear of seeming needy or high-maintenance, or the hassle of arranging childcare? Even among moms, it's easier to dismiss our own serious symptoms than seek care, especially if any significant expense is involved. Notably, this is an approach we would never take with our child's healthcare.

How many moms don't receive "fourth trimester" care due to exhaustion, fear of seeming needy or high-maintenance, or the hassle of arranging childcare?

There is an unnecessary shame around epidurals, antidepressants, routine counseling, physical therapy, and even thyroid medication, as if women need to apologize for not shouldering the pain that naturally accompanies the burden of their vocation.

Most moms tell jokes about how long it's been since a good night's sleep - usually years. "I'll sleep when I'm dead!"

Expectations for motherhood are often expressed as a complete sacrifice of self in service to family. While I believe these intentions are altruistic, I'm not convinced it's best for either mother or child, nor is it a prudent approach to our vocation.

Rather than viewing motherhood as a complete sacrifice of self that necessarily leads to death, it is healthier to view motherhood as a complete gift of self that, in rare cases, may require death. Whereas the first approach presumes the death of a mother to achieve its end, the second affirms the dignity of both mother and child while recognizing that the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of a mother are a necessary part of being the best gift possible for her family.

"For the 'civilization of love' it is essential that the husband should recognize that the motherhood of his wife is a gift: this is enormously important for the entire process of raising children. Much will depend on his willingness to take his own part in this first stage of the gift of humanity, and to become willingly involved as a husband and father in the motherhood of his wife." (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families 16)

Let us live out the gift of our maternal vocations with wholehearted devotion, praying to grow in the virtue of prudence so that we may discern the true good for both ourselves and our families - and choose the best means available to achieve it.

Charlene Bader

Born and raised in Texas, Charlene enjoys teaching, editing, and writing while raising 5 boys (ages 3-9) with her husband, Wally. Charlene learned to love Scripture from her Baptist parents and liturgy from her Episcopal grandma. A personal interest in church history and social justice led to her conversion to Catholicism in 2003. In 2004, Charlene graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Communications. She’s worked in the arts, administration, and education in the non-profit, private, and public sectors, as a full-time working mom, part-time working mom, work-from-home mom, and homeschooling mom. She’s passionate about social justice, ecumenism, and helping others experience a personal, relevant connection to the Lord in their everyday lives. Charlene’s blog can be found at www.sunrisebreaking.com.

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