I knew that I was called to be a mother long before I felt any nudges of a particular career path. During interviews, when asked the inevitable, “Where do you hope to be in five years?” question, my gut reaction was to respond with, “Being a wife and a mother.”
Fast forward more than a decade — through a few relationships, breakups, and years of single life — and I am now mother to a newborn. Although months of pregnancy allowed for much preparation for our son’s arrival, I quickly discovered that my best efforts fell short in trulymaking me ready to receive this new babe. I knew that motherhood would be hard, but I did not expect it to be this hard. Through the disorienting stage of caring for a newborn, God gave me new perspectives on some of our core Catholic beliefs.
My Body, for You
A common item found on hospital bag packing lists is a photograph or object that can serve as a focal point during labor. I was grateful that the Catholic hospital where I delivered took care of this for me: Every room had a crucifix opposite the bed. During the strenuous parts of labor and pushing, I fought to look at the crucifix. Then, as I looked upon my son in the NICU with his feeding tube, CPAP mask, and numerous wires, there was a crucifix on the wall. In failed napping attempts and through many emotional breakdowns, I looked at the crucifix, for I did not have the words to pray.
In failed napping attempts and through many emotional breakdowns, I looked at the crucifix, for I did not have the words to pray.
Weeks later, I came across a passage from Scott Hahn’s First Comes Love that was shared in a Facebook group for Catholic cesarean section moms. Reflecting on witnessing his wife’s C-section and the birth of his son, Hahn writes:
When we arrived at the operating room, the nurses moved Kimberly again, now to a table, where they strapped her down and sedated her. She was freezing cold, shivering, and afraid. I stood beside my wife, her body spread out and strapped cruciform to the table, cut open in order to bring new life to the world ... it was Kimberly’s body that became something more than beautiful for me. Bloody and scarred and swollen with pain, it became something sacred, a holy sanctuary, and an altar of life-giving sacrifice. The life she gave to our world — this life we had made with God — I could now look upon and touch with my hands. (First Comes Love 12-13).
Reading this beautiful reflection helped me to connect the image of the crucifix with the truth of the Paschal Mystery: Death always precedes new life. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are promised new life. Although we may not know how or when new life will come about, we know that it will; this is God’s promise to us.
Suddenly, all of the sleepless nights, painful engorgement, hundreds of failed latches, getting covered in breastmilk and spit-up, diastasis recti and holding onto that pregnancy weight, stretch marks and a burning C-section incision, and trying unsuccessfully to soothe a crying baby, took on new meaning. My body, for you. All of these deaths were connected intimately to the new life that was literally right before my eyes. I began to see and love my child anew.
Recovery From Childbirth Is More Than Physical
I left our childbirth class feeling empowered. Learning about the stages of labor and delivery lessened my fear surrounding childbirth and even made me excited about the process. Then, after hours of active labor (and pushing), my son had to be born via C-section. It was a decision that my doctor ultimately allowed me to make, although it is a necessity for many women if the baby’s or mother’s health is threatened during the stress of labor.
In the weeks that followed, I experienced significant shame and guilt over not being able to give birth vaginally, and these feelings likely intensified symptoms of postpartum depression. My body — created to bear life and, in some sense, give birth — had somehow failed me. There was (and still is) grief in that realization.
In much the same way that new mothers reach out to other new mothers, I was surprised that friends who also had C-sections reached out to me to check in and hear my birth story. They seemed to share my initial feeling of shame, and hearing these women’s stories of finding peace began the process of my own healing.
Author Brené Brown is well-known for her research on shame, vulnerability, and the power of storytelling. She writes, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.”
This insight complements what we as Catholics believe about the way Christ heals us: Only when we bring our wounds to light is Christ able to heal them. Although it is uncomfortable and, at times, painful, sitting with our brokenness and allowing Christ’s love to touch our wounds is the first step toward resurrection.
Sitting with our brokenness and allowing Christ’s love to touch our wounds is the first step toward resurrection.
Initially, it was difficult to bring these symptoms to light. Yet admitting them to myself enabled me to share them with my doctor and, ultimately, receive the treatment and counseling I needed in order to experience new life. There is still work to be done in fully recovering from postpartum depression, but the new ending has already begun.
Learning to Love
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of becoming a mother was the lack of immediate connection I felt to my son. As a young, single woman, holding an infant (any infant) had brought a sense of peace and awe at the wonder of God who is Creator. At social gatherings where babies were present, I was always the woman holding them. I anticipated that these warm, fuzzy feelings and ponderings of the magnificence of God’s Creation would only multiply if I were to hold my own child one day.
Nine and a half hours after he was born, I held my son for the first time in the NICU, and he felt like a stranger. We had already been together for nine months. I had seen his face during an ultrasound with 3D imaging, and I could not wait to meet him. Yet, while holding him for the first time and several times after that, I did not experience the immediate awe that I previously experienced when holding babies. Instead, the emotional connection to him came slowly, over the course of days and weeks and months. Every day, I find myself feeling more connected to him, savoring the moments when I snuggle him close, nurse him, or watch him smile at me. Most days, I think to myself, “I cannot possibly love you more than I do right now.” And the following day, that love somehow grows.
Our Faith tells us that “to love is to will the good of another” (CCC 1766). It is not a feeling, although the warm feeling of being “in love” and the profound experiences of consolation certainly flow from love. Love is hard work. Love demands that we set aside our own desires and comfort for the sake of another. Waking up to feed a crying baby every few hours is neither fun nor pleasant, but I stumble out of bed and pick him up because I love him. He relies solely upon others to have his basic needs met. This recognition pulls me out of my own frustration and selfishness and, over time, has brought deep joy and an intimate bond with my son.
Waking up to feed a crying baby every few hours is neither fun nor pleasant, but I stumble out of bed and pick him up because I love him.
Making the Village
I am forever grateful to an acquaintance whom I met days after birth for encouraging me to attend a postpartum support group. Led by a local doula, the group is comprised of women who delivered babies within a similar time span. This community has become a lifeline for me, a safe space to ask questions and receive words of encouragement when I most need them. It is striking that we all come from different backgrounds and religious traditions, yet we understand each other so well because we share something in common: learning how to be mothers.
Created in the image and likeness of God — who is relationship — we are made for community. As a new mom, I felt this need deeply as my life’s focus shifted to a human being who depends on me for everything, but cannot offer me anything in return. In order to give of ourselves, we must be filled. I often wrestle with the implications of the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child. How can we better support mothers with no villages? How can we help new mothers make that village?
To my surprise, one woman has perpetually offered me her comfort and support. Despite living most of my life as a Catholic, it took pregnancy and motherhood for me to really understand the powerful intercession that Mary offers us. During the last trimester of pregnancy, I prayed the rosary whenever I began to feel anxious about the ways life would change with a child. In all of the moments since my son was born that I have found myself mentally exhausted, anxious, or simply doubting my ability to care for an infant, I think of Mary. As a new mother to Jesus, she likely experienced much (if not all) of the same exhaustion, frustration, and emotional lows. She probably had sleepless nights, got covered in breastmilk and spit-up, and struggled to soothe a fussy baby. And yet she lived to raise the Savior of the world, bearing God’s love to us all.
Mary probably had sleepless nights, got covered in breastmilk and spit-up, and struggled to soothe a fussy baby. And yet she lived to raise the Savior of the world, bearing God’s love to us all.