A century ago life was very simple; women from all walks of life looked forward to a rewarding and fulfilled life as wife and mother. Motherhoodwas upheld as a noble and esteemed vocation. Nowadays if one meets a pregnant friend one has not seen in a long time it is natural to ask: is that your 1st baby? Then she just might apologetically answer: no, this is my third one, as if she had just committed a heinous crime to humanity. Pregnant women nowadays are present day martyrs without dying. They face the criticism of society for bringing to earth another mouth to feed; one more person who will use up the earth’s limited resources.
Contemporary culture’s negative outlook towards pregnancy and motherhood is best exemplified in the derogatory use of the label "barefoot and pregnant" for women who make a career of being a wife and mother. Having a baby has become a matter of choice nowadays. Contraception allows women to choose whether to bear a child at all and wherever abortion is legal, women can choose not to have a baby already conceived. For social and career considerations women can time their babies appropriately. Even the very term "unplanned pregnancy" would imply that having a baby should be something that one chooses to do and by implication a baby conceived accidentally is unwanted. It has gotten to the ridiculous point that this "choice" is now called a right – a reproductive right. The late Pope Blessed John Paul II rightly called this a wrong affirmation of a human right as the exaltation of the individual in such an absolute way as to deny the baby a basic right – the right to human life.
Society’s negative attitude is confirmed by a recent survey in the US that showed that although women derive a deep sense of satisfaction from being a mother they feel that society has come to value them less since becoming a mother. How did the world’s attitude to motherhood undergo this drastic change? The assault on motherhood came from many fronts-the political and economic interests inspired by neo-Malthusian ideologies, the feminist rebellion against a culture perceived to uphold male dominance, and the weakening of marriage through divorce and cohabitation to highlight just a few. This assault from many fronts is what has given motherhood a negative connotation, transforming pregnancy into a disease giving rise to the advocacy that women should be given access to contraception and abortion for the sake of reproductive health.
Fertility decline has reached global proportions. Population of many of the rich countries is now imploding and many poor countries are following suit. In fact, the European and American cultures as we currently understand them are expected to disappear in about 50 years, since their fertility rates have fallen well below the irreversible 1.9 fertility rate. In fifty years, the European and American cultures will be a combination of oriental, Hispanic, and Muslim. This is irreversible, notwithstanding divine intervention, of course, but this depends on us! The signs of aging and the resulting economic crisis are now appearing in the demographic horizon of these countries. Many fear that the coming demographic winter is a foreshadowing of the unprecedented decline of the human family. It’s therefore important to restore motherhood to the place of dignity and honor it deserves.
The dictionary defines dignity as those qualities that ennoble something, making that thing or someone deserve esteem and honor. Dignity is the main reason why something is valued, and considered worthy. Dignity is a word closely associated with persons. Human beings are persons – created in the image and likeness of God, possessing knowledge and free will, capable of achieving their own fulfillment, thereby possessing qualities that ennoble them far above the created world. Every person of whatever sex must be respected for himself or herself, in his or her physical, intellectual and spiritual integrity. A person should never be treated as an object or be subjected to exploitation.
This simple reminder of the dignity of the human person is a reminder of how murder is a grave crime. Contraception and abortion are even graver because they are committed against a defenseless life by the mother – the very person naturally sworn to protect its life. These grave crimes against motherhood do not go unpunished. In the US it is now recognized that 500,000 women are suffering from Post Abortion Syndrome, the psychological disorder arising from the guilt and the trauma of having killed one’s own baby. These women are high risk for suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, and so on.
Where does the nobility and worth of motherhood come from? How does the dignity of motherhood enhance the dignity of women? According to the late Pope John Paul II, "In its personal and ethical sense motherhood shows a creativity on which the humanity of each human being largely depends; it also invites man to learn and to express his own fatherhood. Thus women contribute to society and to the Church their ability to nurture human beings." Genetically we all arrive at our humanity through our parents and in a special way through our mothers. Mothers are the primary companion, teacher, and nurturer, who watch over children. Thus to be the redeemer of mankind our Lord Jesus Christ became true man by being born of a woman. This then is the most important reason for the esteem and honor we accord to motherhood.
Beyond the very basic level of genetics there are many other contributions unique to motherhood at the social and spiritual level. At the social level, a very important element of motherhood is motherly care and motherly love. It is through the fundamental experience of motherly care that every person discovers their self worth as infinitely valuable and precious in the eyes of their mother. Those who have been deprived of a mother’s love are out of touch of their "belovedness"; they become convinced that they have no moral obligations and will not suffer the consequences for their unloving behavior. If one has not been loved it is difficult to know how to return love. The mother’s love is a very important ingredient to our education as humans. The unique humanizing and civilizing influence of Motherhood on the person is motherhood’s gift to society. At the spiritual level a person intuits God’s love for him through the motherly love he receives. In the words of Benedict XVI: "The joyful love with which our parents welcomed us and accompanied our first steps in this world is like a sacramental sign and prolongation of the benevolent love of God from which we have come. The experience of being welcomed and loved by God and by our parents is always the firm foundation for authentic human growth and authentic development, helping us to mature on the way towards truth and love, and to move beyond ourselves in order to enter into communion with others and with God."
Economics is another equally important area where we can appreciate the value of motherhood to society. Motherhood makes women skilled at multi-tasking and time management, as she works as tutor, laundry woman, cook, housekeeper, psychiatrist, nurse, and so on. She works a 60-hour work week, 52 weeks of the year. In the US computing at just the minimum wage level – although she deserves much, much more – she would get an annual salary, without benefits, of more than $28,000.
The value of motherhood is upheld in all cultures regardless of time and place. Even in the most primitive culture the activities of sexuality and parenting is tolerated by societies only in the environment of committed marriage. The marriage vows even in the most primitive tribes have always been a religious rite implying the divine nature of the creative forces inherent in the exercise of sexuality. In the Church marriage is a sacrament – a visible sign of grace providing the married couple special help in fulfilling their parenting duties. This has given birth to a Christian culture that frowns on pre-marital and extra-marital sex as an offense against God and limiting sexuality to marriage. Men and women are expected to discipline their sexuality and keep it exclusive to marriage for a specific social purpose: the protection of motherhood.
Unfortunately the advent of the contraceptive elimination of pregnancy has brought on the sexual revolution – making premarital and extra-marital sex "free fun". This has served to detach sexual activity from the serious responsibilities of marriage and family and to open the way to widespread practice of cohabitation (that is, living together without the benefit of marriage). Moreover, since no contraception is 100 % effective in eliminating pregnancy it is also associated with the rise of single parenthood, leaving motherhood unprotected. Research in the West associates single parenthood with the rise of poverty among women. Children from single parent households have been found to have poorer academic performance, have higher risk for substance abuse, for juvenile crimes, and so on.
Since motherhood is the exclusive privilege of women we have already seen the privileges nature has accorded to women. We can now look at motherhood’s contribution to the feminine genius.
Becoming a mother transforms the woman into a person who generates, which means bringing up and bringing up not only children but all other people as well – with love and intuition. A mother’s task is that of educating. Women combine this unique purpose and capacity with their roles within and outside the family in a manner that makes them uniquely different from men. "Motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman’s part." This is woman’s unique contribution to mankind.
It’s in choosing the great rewards and challenges of family life, as wife and mother that a woman finds ample opportunity to express the profoundly feminine part of herself, simultaneously serving others, developing her potential for greater love, greater service, greater fruitfulness and ultimately, a greater expression of herself. It’s in her openness; to conceive and give birth to a child, that woman discovers herself through a sincere gift of self. Although parenthood belongs to both father and mother it’s undeniable that it is realized much more fully in the woman. Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as the child develops in the mother’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and understands with unique intuition what is happening inside her.
This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but to every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. This makes women more capable of paying attention to another person, something that is all the more enhanced when they become mothers. Women who become mothers are uniquely equipped to attend to others through their sensitivity to the expressed needs, hungers and yearnings portrayed by the tone of voice, a look in the eyes, slumped shoulders and heavy sigh. The capacity to render a deeply humane attention to the seemingly not so special people who constitute always and everywhere the overwhelming majority of the human race is the humanizing contribution women make to society.
Women are biologically hard-wired to be receptive, a capacity which comes to fruition in motherhood when she actively receives, embraces, nourishes and nurtures new life. This gives her a special genius to receive and assimilate new ideas into her world view. She has the openness to help new ideas along by helping the originator of new concepts, by reformulating and expanding on them. She is well disposed to seeing other people’s intellectual offspring succeed, rooting for them like a mother encouraging her own child to take his or her first steps.
There is no telling how much the loss of prestige of motherhood has made women lose touch of these aspects of the feminine genius and through this decline have contributed to making the world less harmonious and less peaceful.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, since women are by nature mothers, there is a primacy in motherhood for defining the true identity of woman. When women deny or compromise their vocation to motherhood they endanger not only the good of those for whom she is primarily responsible, but also her own physical, emotional and spiritual well being. They are cutting themselves off from their own nature – frustrating their own natural desire to love and care for those entrusted to her, to be receptive to them, and to be fully attentive to their needs, and in return to be cherished, to be held in high regard and to be understood and blessed by them.
Mary, Mother of Our Redeemer, pray for us!