I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I won’t: As a Protestant woman who stays home with my children, I felt thrown under the bus by the church. I came to realize that among the multiplicity of “theologies” about women, there was nothing of substance to bolster the position of women in a society that does not treat women well. There is the nonsense, angryspeak of the wildly liberal feminist theologians (and don’t worry Protestant friends, Catholics have those too) I read in some of my seminary classes (much of it seriously unintelligible dross, but hey, you gotta know what’s out there, so I appreciated the introduction), and then there is the homey theology of the extreme right which espouses lots o’ wifely submission in a very narrow sense of the word. In the vacuum, I began to wonder what the value of women really was in the eyes of the church.
With the prohibition of birth control being chucked out the window by Protestants in the ‘30’s and the rise of feminism, women, especially mothers within the Protestant community, were left without any defense, and boy did I feel it. Was I just being overly-sensitive? I really don’t think so. What I was looking for was a sane counter-argument, not acquiescence to the story that secular society buys into-the story that women are better off when they are liberated from the bondage of motherhood.
That is why, along with so many other things, I found great relief and affirmation in what the Catholic Church had to say about women. I was amazed to find within her walls a well-developed and articulated theology. I’m going to cover three lies about women that particularly bother me in my next 2-3 posts. So let’s get down to business:
Lie #1: Motherhood is nice in a sentimental sort of way, but it has no real value in and of itself. Pregnancy has become a huge market. Between the obsession over celebrity babies, the over-flooded market of must-have baby gear, parenting magazines and books, “babymoons”, “push presents”(Blech, really? Who even came up with that?) and just about everything else that smacks of rampant materialism, it’s clear that having a baby is cool. Like, K-E-W-L. It’s like having a little tiny pink pet to dress up and push around in a $500 stroller and validate me! Unfortunately, that’s usually where it all ends; with the gear and the warm fuzzies of joining some kind of trendy club.
Beyond the congratulations that come with acquiring a new pet, being a mother doesn’t attract many accolades. Believe me, having attended plenty of social and professional functions with Jason, I’ve gotten the blank stares and and frozen smiles with the pronouncement that I stay home with our kids, especially when I refuse to do that tap dance where I lay out my pre-children resume to give the assurance that I do, indeed, have a brain. I am seriously troubled that our society has made mothers so insecure that they feel they need to attach titles to their name now so that the world knows they actually do something: Mary Smith, mother and astrophysicist. (I’m very sorry if someone named Mary Smith is reading this and I’m really hoping you’re not an astrophysicist. Totally not knocking you, potentially existent reader. I have nothing against astrophysics.)
But the secular world and the realm of the Christian should be different places. All too often though, as a Protestant I saw that motherhood was sold as a phase that would end, thankfully leaving “real life” to be lived: an optional choice for wives, at that. Sure, there is a spiritual dimension to motherhood, but how serious can that be when in the same breath, contraception is pushed as the only sane decision for a woman. So nurturing precious souls to glorify God just by existing, to live a life of virtue in this world, and hopefully get to heaven is nice, but hey, limit the souls please, because they’re kind of annoying. What I saw in that kind of double-speak was the denigration of motherhood. Nothing special: just a choice among many options.
Let’s be real about how this attitude really plays out. With contraception on the table, motherhood, especially the stay-at-home brand beyond the reasonable number of children, is seen as a lesser choice. It is positively stupid to take yourself out of the marketplace and put yourself at the disposal of a bunch of little people who will not, by any means, give you a leg up in the world.
It makes me sad that so many Christians, armed with a contraceptive mindset, buy into the idea that motherhood is ok for a time, but ultimately, to be “just a mother” implies inferiority. I am not saying that this is a Protestant/Catholic issue and that all Catholics have this wonderful view of women and motherhood and that they live it out so much better than Protestants. Sadly, that’s not true. I would say though, that the Catholic Church has a position on the matter that is explicitly and beautifully articulated and that it would make life so much better for families…and our society if Catholics lived it out.
And the Catholic response? Well, take it from Blessed John Paul II:
Motherhood has been introduced into the order of the Covenant that God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. Each and every time that motherhood is repeated in human history, it is always related to the Covenant which God established with the human race through the motherhood of the Mother of God. Does not Jesus bear witness to this reality when he answers the exclamation of that woman in the crowd who blessed him for Mary’s motherhood: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”? Jesus replies: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27-28). Jesus confirms the meaning of motherhood in reference to the body, but at the same time he indicates an even deeper meaning, which is connected with the order of the spirit: it is a sign of the Covenant with God who “is spirit” (Jn 4: 24). This is true above all for the motherhood of the Mother of God. The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is similarly not only “of flesh and blood”: it expresses a profound “listening to the word of the living God” and a readiness to “safeguard” this Word, which is “the word of eternal life” (cf. Jn 6:68). For it is precisely those born of earthly mothers, the sons and daughters of the human race, who receive from the Son of God the power to become “children of God” (Jn 1:12). A dimension of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood enters into human parenthood, making it a reality and a task for “new creatures” (cf. 2 Cor 5: 17). The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood; crossing it conditions “the revelation of the children of God” (cf. Rom 8: 19). -Mulieras Dignitatem, JPII
What I took from JPII’s words here is that in the grand scheme of things, what a mother does in bringing children into the world far surpasses any feeling of accomplishment one can find outside of the home. I’m glad I can find that kind of affirmation from the Church.
This post wouldn’t be complete without including our friend, G.K. Chesterton. I first came across his book, What’s Wrong with the World at the 2010 American Chesterton Society Conference. You can download the excellent talk here (for the low, low price of $1.99!) that left me holding back tears like a big repressed crybaby. Actually, there was a lot I initially encountered within the Catholic Faith that left me in that condition (and it often still does.) What struck me was Chesterton’s incredulity, even 100 years ago, over the notion that what a woman does in the home is a small thing. In his words:
The final fact which fixes this is a sufficiently plain one. Supposing it to be conceded that humanity has acted at least not unnaturally in dividing itself into two halves, respectively typifying the ideals of special talent and of general sanity (since they are genuinely difficult to combine completely in one mind), it is not difficult to see why the line of cleavage has followed the line of sex, or why the female became the emblem of the universal and the male of the special and superior. Two gigantic facts of nature fixed it thus: first, that the woman who frequently fulfilled her functions literally could not be specially prominent in experiment and adventure; and second, that the same natural operation surrounded her with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness. – What’s Wrong With the World?
For me, it was overwhelming to find a place where motherhood was affirmed without reservations or exceptions; it’s not just a patronizing nicety that the Church offers. I haven’t even gotten to the matter of Mary yet, which I’ll address later in this series. I will say that the fact that Catholics embrace Mary, rather than sweeping her under the rug as a footnote (except at Christmas, of course) lends to a more respectful view of motherhood.
I don’t think that motherhood will ever be an “easy” thing- there are many days when I think it would be a lot easier to hide out in an office somewhere, but knowing I have the support of my Church gives me a level of security I never felt before. Rather than feeling shamed for choosing a hard path, I kind of feel like a rock star. That’s definitely good enough for me.
Stay tuned for more lies about women.