The humility of motherhood

Every church with families knows this classic Sunday scene: Holy Mass is “accompanied” by the noisy cries of a restless toddler. Through the Liturgy of the Word, the parents have kept their wee one occupied with a book or a handful of cereal, but just like clockwork, by the time the consecration begins that child has run out of tolerance for being contained in the prayerful quiet of the pew.

Their cries, yells or giggles begin to escalate until an exasperated parent seeks a quick escape from the sanctuary, with their wailing toddler flailing in their arms. Kind and understanding worshippers observe the scene with knowing glances, happily returning to their prayers once the disturbance has been removed from the pews.

This year, that noisy child is mine. I am that exasperated mother.

Since I am also a lay pastoral leader in the same parish, my little boy is not only a busy toddler, he also is popularly known among many parish families. After a recent Mass, several older mothers gathered around me to commiserate and reminisce on their own similar experiences. Laughing at the memory of her child’s antics, a friend looked at me and stated, “Motherhood is absolutely humbling.”

And yet, we continue to bring them to Mass, trying to ingrain in them some consistency of faith life and religious practice. Catholic mothers and guardians are called to bring our children to the Lord and to nurture their faith as the most important relationship in their lives.

We continue to pray for our children, to dream for their happiness, fulfillment and holiness. We risk our own humiliation from their unpredictable behavior because we want them to get to know God at a young age and to grow in a friendship with Christ. Without our realizing it, our motherly love is actually the first conduit of God to our child.

After the shock and awe of childbirth, a baby is placed on her mother’s chest for a moment so that both of them may catch their breaths and gaze upon one another. Our bodies are so intricately designed for connection that immediately at birth a mother and baby can regulate each other’s temperature, blood pressure and breathing pattern.

From that moment on, the baby feels more secure and content whenever near the mother. I think God designed this sort of bond for us, so that our original “hardwiring” is to be at rest in the embrace of our maker.

Our mothers or guardians positively create our world in the first years of our lives. When we are very young children, we look at our mothers as flawless individuals. A child looking at his mother believes she is omniscient, omnipotent, and it goes without saying that she is absolutely beautiful.

As we grow much older the harsh realities of life become more apparent to us, and by then we come to realize that, just like any other person, she has always carried insecurities and concealed personal wounds. She is always special to us, but she is human. This makes her unconditional love for us all the more profound. But reflecting on those earliest years in which a child simply basks in the glow of his mom’s warmth, we may first glimpse the nature of God’s love for us too.

Even before birth, our very first experiences of life are those of love: being carried and nurtured by our mothers. For an unborn and newborn baby, to exist is to know nothing but love. As we hear in the First Letter of John, to know love is to know God, “because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. … For God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8)

A few years ago, I had a miscarriage that taught me some unexpected lessons about motherhood. Early in my grief over the loss, I was sitting in spiritual direction one day, lamenting that I felt like I had failed at my job to care for my lost child, because my pregnancy had failed to carry to term.

My spiritual director, in her wisdom, suggested that I had not failed my baby at all. She reminded me that even though the baby wasn’t born, my baby had been fully loved into being. My baby knew nothing except my love and the love of God our father. Now, the soul of that child gets to live eternally in that love, and can love me back from heaven.

Hearing this — that my child can now spiritually take care of me, even better than I had dreamed of caring for my child in life — simply undid me. How is that for humbling? My prayer of lament transformed into a prayer of thanksgiving for the abiding love my baby and I would continue to share through eternity.

This Mother’s Day, let us reconnect to the default “hardwiring” that God installed in us, to be held in love. To reflect his grace in our lives, the Lord has given us the hearts of our guardians, godmothers and grandmothers.

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(Cassandra Palmer lives with her husband and children in Baltimore, where she is director of religious education at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church. She holds a master’s degree in church ministries from the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary, and a bachelor’s degree in theology from Mount Saint Mary’s University.)