Women full of grace

Mary the virgin mother is a tough act to follow. But there's more to Catholic women than whether they're moms.
Our Faith

A few years ago Sarah Keene found herself at Mass on Mother’s Day quite by accident. She had forgotten what day it was, and she and her husband, who had recently moved to a town in northeastern Ontario, went to church like any typical Sunday. They sat next to friends who are the parents of eight children, one of whom Keene (not her real last name) held in her lap when the priest asked all the mothers to stand up for a blessing at the end of Mass. “It seemed like everyone stood up,” she says. But Keene, who does not have children, felt a mix of awkwardness and pain at that moment, so much so that she approached her pastor later to ask if there was any way he could include women like her in future Mother’s Day blessings. 

Keene describes her pastor as compassionate and empathetic, but she never got a straight answer from him about whether he would offer a more inclusive blessing on future Mother’s Days. And Keene hasn’t been there to find out. “Usually we’ll go to another parish a few miles away,” she says. “I’d rather be completely anonymous on that day.” 

For women without children, Mother’s Day can be tough. But for Catholic women without children—whether by choice or by circumstance, as is the case for Keene—there’s a spiritual and religious dimension that influences their identity as Christian women. Mother’s Day is just the tip of the iceberg. 

There are weddings, with the promise of being open to children, and baptisms, with the blessing of the mother at the end of the ceremony. There is Easter and Christmas. There’s Respect Life Month in October. Even New Year’s Day—a day to savor the promise of new beginnings, the potential of as-yet unbroken resolutions, and the space to relax after the flurry of Christmas activity—can be a reminder of one’s maternal or non-maternal status. The solemnity of Mary the Mother of God makes January 1 a holy day of obligation. The fact that the calendar year starts out with such a high-level celebration of Mary as mother indicates the primacy that the church places on her motherhood and on the role she plays in “the mystery of salvation,” as Pope Paul VI wrote in his 1974 apostolic letter, Marialis Cultus


Even beyond church celebrations, a stream of messages that exalt motherhood, especially biological motherhood, continually pop up in sermons and blessings and parish groups and other Catholic contexts. Consider, for example, a line from Pope Benedict XVI’s January 1, 2012 homily: “The mystery of [Mary’s] divine motherhood that we celebrate today contains in superabundant measure the gift of grace that all human motherhood bears within it, so much so that the fruitfulness of the womb has always been associated with God’s blessing.” 

Or consider Pope Francis’ blunt, off-the-cuff statement in a general audience in St. Peter’s Square last February: “The choice to not have children is selfish.”

These are difficult words for a woman without children to hear.

A new vocation

As challenging as the church’s emphasis on motherhood is for some women, even those without children recognize why it’s such a touchstone of Catholic identity. “After all, [having children] really is what the majority of women do,” says Keene. But it can be a hard topic for women to talk about with family members, friends, fellow parishioners, or church leaders because of the emotions and expectations wrapped up in one’s maternal status. And it’s hard to talk about because there’s such a wide range of reasons for why more and more Catholic women don’t have children. 


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, slightly more than 10 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 44 did not have children in 1976. Thirty years later, in 2006, that number had reached slightly more than 20 percent. Within one generation, the number of U.S. women who were not mothers by the age of 44 had doubled. According to Gateway Women, a support network for women without children, these numbers don’t just reflect the lives of women in the United States, but in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and Australia as well.

The age of first-time mothers has also risen significantly over the same time period; in the United States, the average age of a first-time mother was just under 22 years old in 1976. By 2006, that age had risen to 25 years (and by 2013, the average age of first-time moms was 26). This means that life is changing even for women who are or do become mothers. They are living their lives and forming their identity in ways that do not include motherhood for longer periods of time. 

Catholic women don’t stand apart from those national demographic trends. “Catholics are part and parcel of larger cultural shifts,” says Teresa Berger, a professor of liturgical studies and Catholic theology at Yale Divinity School. The two vocational paths for women that the church has valued through history—becoming a wife and mother or becoming a consecrated virgin—have fit fewer women over the last century, she says. (Consecrated virginity dates back to the early church, long before monastic religious life was an option. While it was discontinued after religious life became more prevalent in the Middle Ages, it was reintroduced after the Second Vatican Council. Consecrated virginity and religious life are similar in many respects, but consecrated virgins remain in their home diocese to serve and pray for their local church. They are under the direct authority of their bishop.) 

As more women in North America and Europe began to work outside the home and as contraception became more widely available, the birth rate dropped. “Now you have many, many women who are neither wife and mother nor consecrated virgin,” Berger says. “We have a third, vibrant option between these two narratives, and that’s a fulfilling career.”

The childfree life

Dawn Llewellyn is a senior lecturer in Christian Studies at the University of Chester, England who studies Christian women who choose not to have children. One of the biggest challenges she faces is simply tracking down women willing to share their stories. “There aren’t places where you can talk easily about this decision,” she says. “There is a kind of taboo, a hiddenness about this subject.” Llewellyn suggests that the tradition of motherhood throughout history, as well as the place of motherhood in contemporary culture and in Christian theology, can weigh heavily on women, especially those who don’t feel called to have children. 

When she would ask to post leaflets with information about her project at churches, she would get responses like, “We don’t have any women like that; you might want to try somewhere else.” Eventually she was able to interview 22 women for her project, about half mothers and half not, from several Christian denominations. 

Some women Llewellyn interviewed expressed that they simply never had the maternal urge. “For some, there was just an easy acceptance that ‘I’ve been told I should have this [maternal feeling], I’ve never felt it, so that’s that.’ ”

Most of the women had more complex reasons. “If you look at the literature on voluntary childlessness, the reasons women give for choosing not to have children include focusing on their career, wanting to do other things, or concern for the environment,” Llewellyn says. “These things were definitely part of the reasons named by the women I interviewed, but they also said things like, ‘I’ve listened, I’m trying to work out what God’s desire is for me, and I’m interpreting it in this way.’ ” 


She also heard from women that having children would hinder what they thought God wanted them to do. Nearly everyone she interviewed used the word “vocation”: They saw their vocation and the outworking of their Christian faith as being linked to activities outside of motherhood. 

One Catholic woman who spoke with Llewellyn was a teacher in her 20s who had been married for about four years. She shared the story of how, when she and her then-fiancé met with the priest who was going to marry them, they were open about the fact that they did not plan to have children. Her vocation of teaching was the primary way she felt called to serve God. 


In addition, they had both endured difficult childhoods and were caring for her fiancé’s sibling, who needed supervision. “They wanted to look after existing family members, not new family members,” Llewellyn says. When the couple explained to the priest that they didn’t want to include the phrase about openness to children in the wedding ceremony, he refused to marry them. 

“That’s the kind of institutional barrier that is still in place, and that is going to stay in place for the time being,” Llewellyn says. (Eventually, the couple did find a Catholic priest who was willing to officiate the ceremony.) 

Childless by circumstance

Not all women are childless by choice, however. Others, like Sharon Berezne, have other reasons for remaining childless. And these women face a different set of problems in the church. “It’s important for Catholics to remember that there are a lot of people in our parishes who aren’t parents and who still do a lot of good,” Berezne says. “We’re just trying to be the best human beings we can be.”

Berezne is a lifelong Catholic and member of the Church of the Resurrection in Solon, Ohio. She and her husband teach seventh and eighth graders in their Parish School of Religion. “I’m proud of my faith and happy I’m a Catholic,” she says. She worked in human resources for 17 years and knew she wanted to have children, but she says she “waited to marry the right person,” which happened when she was 38. After trying unsuccessfully to conceive, Berezne and her husband went through the adoption process, but did not end up adopting. Nine years later, “I’m dealing with the outcome of how things have worked out,” she says. 

“My husband’s been very loving and supportive about it,” as have her mother and her parish community, Berezne says. But sometimes events at church will trigger her grief for what never came to be. Certain scripture readings are painful: On the feast of the Visitation, for instance, Berezne says it breaks her heart when Elizabeth greets Mary by saying “the infant in my womb leapt for joy” (Luke 1:39–56).

Occasionally she lets herself cry; her parish is built in the round, so this means that others will see her and sometimes approach her after Mass to ask how she’s doing. “I’m aware that I’m not at the typical Catholic parish. There are other communities where I don’t think that would happen.” 


Still, Berezne says, “I’d really like to see some Catholic support group for women going through this. We have resources in our parishes for people who have experienced divorce or the death of a spouse. There’s more support than there used to be for those who are grieving. This is a grieving process, too.” 

Kimberly Brennan and her husband have been married for 27 years. “We always wanted children, but it didn’t happen,” she says. Instead she’s channeled her mothering instinct in different professional contexts. Brennan worked for 15 years as the manager of the master’s program in nonprofit administration at the University of Notre Dame—a job in which she accompanied students who were making momentous decisions in their lives.

“It was a privilege to be with them as they set out on their journey and to help them when I could,” says Brennan, who became Catholic when she married her husband. Over the years she and her husband have been able to welcome young people into their home, including some who stayed for a while. “That was sort of a God-sign to me that these were the people who were supposed to be our surrogate children.”

The couple attends St. Thérèse, Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend, Indiana, and the parish has played an important role in helping them to discern how to live out their lives once they began to realize that they might not have children. “No matter what stage we were at, we were always met with kindness and acceptance,” Brennan says. She also has seen examples of life-giving activity among fellow parishioners without their own children—people who welcome refugees to town, participate in the parish’s prison ministry, or serve at its food pantry. “When I see examples like that, I realize that you can be a mom without giving birth.”

Mary: Help or hindrance to Christian women?

It’s not just childless women who struggle with the attitude toward motherhood they encounter in the church. Even mothers themselves do. Mary Ellen Konieczny is a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame whose book The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics (Oxford University Press) details her ethnographic research on marriage and family in parishes. 

“I found that mothers trying to achieve work-family balance often didn’t have a lot of religious or spiritual resources for helping them to see both their motherhood and their work in the world in vocational terms—which they wanted to do,” she said in a 2014 interview with Elizabeth Tenety. “Catholicism provides a model for mothers in the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the women I spoke with who were both mothers and working professionals talked about their work (as a vocation) but not about motherhood in religious terms. I think the church needs to find language and models for women like these, who find it difficult to see their experience reflected in how the church talks about women, work, and motherhood.” 

In the attempt to find models for Catholic women, Mary is the obvious choice. And it’s true that one of the ways the child-free Catholic women in Llewellyn’s study differed from child-free women of other Christian denominations was that Catholics mentioned Mary more often—but they didn’t do so in a good way. “I would hear that Mary’s difficult, that she’s not someone they could communicate with, and that they don’t understand why she’s been portrayed the way she has,” Llewellyn says.

As for the Catholic women with children in Llewellyn’s study, Mary didn’t fare much better. “They articulated that they couldn’t live up to her example. And so they’re left feeling that they’ve failed at every level as a mother. They’ve heard all this teaching about complementarity,” Llewellyn says, referring to the concept in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that emphasizes how women and men complement each other not just biologically, but through certain inborn gender-based characteristics—the idea of a “feminine genius” that John Paul II discussed in his 1995 Letter to Women. “Motherhood is supposed to be the gift. It’s supposed to be the thing women are supposed to do,” Llewellyn says. 


Theologians echo these sentiments. “Mary’s maternity has been associated with perfect mothering in a way that does not reflect the quotidian experiences of motherhood,” writes Cristina Lledo Gomez in Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). Instead, Gomez proposes the image of Mother Church to more accurately reflect the reality that what mothers do and experience is often as frustrating, disappointing, and challenging as it is pleasurable and rewarding. 

Obviously, not all women without children feel like they can’t connect with Mary. Berezne, who has cultivated a spiritual relationship with Mary since high school, says, “It hasn’t made me feel bad about not being a mother, but it’s allowed me to go to her in prayer and for support.” 

Keene, however, echoes the sentiments of Gomez and Llewellyn’s interviewees. “It’s not like I don’t want a close relationship with her, but I don’t get it,” she says. “I don’t feel close to her.” 

“Mary has always been interesting and challenging,” says Regina Wilson, director of campus ministry at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. “The church teaches that the perfect woman is a virgin who gave birth. No woman is like that.” But Wilson says theological contributions of the last dozen years have helped humanize Mary’s image, pointing especially to Elizabeth Johnson’s 2006 book, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Bloomsbury Academic). “This depiction of Mary is a real person who had strengths and struggled. She questions things. She had sorrows. She was single when she became pregnant,” says Wilson.

Johnson’s latest essay appears in Catholic Women Speak, alongside Gomez’s essay and those of 39 other women theologians who, the introduction says, “believe that the Church cannot come to a wise and informed understanding of family life without listening to women.” The contributors, a mix of leading and emerging theologians, both moms and not, hail from around the globe and help to illustrate the “diversity, engagement, and learning” of Catholic women today. 

Catholic Women Speak Network produced this collection just before the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family. The goal is to create a resource for those who work in Catholic family ministry and to share insights about how women incorporate their faith and church teachings into their lives. At least one cardinal, Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has promised “to listen to every voice [in the project] and to have free and serious dialogue.”

It will be interesting when Ravasi and other high-level church leaders reach the contribution of Emma Jane Harris, a millennial who writes, “I assume the opportunities we have for education, work, a loving relationship, and taking responsibility for our reproductive decisions to be our rights. Exercising these rights is a considered and well-meaning choice that I am thankful for.”

A new mindset 

Harris’ essay captures a prevailing mindset of young Catholic women, but it’s certainly not the only one. The campus ministry office at Saint Mary’s, a women’s college, began organizing women’s spirituality groups nine years ago, and these groups cover topics ranging from relationships and sexuality to feminism and self-identity. 


Wilson estimates that an overwhelming majority of students involved in campus ministry would like to have children someday, and these same women expect to have a professional career. Many are on preprofessional tracks such as nursing, accountancy, education, or premed studies, she says, and that demonstrates the need for the church to develop a pastoral response and support for women choosing the middle ground between wife-and-mother and professional life. During a recent conversation with a sophomore biology student, Wilson was struck by the student’s calculation that she faced 13 more years of school before reaching her goal of becoming a neurosurgeon—13 years in which she also anticipated getting married and having children. 

“Most of the young women I meet really do embrace the idea of a professional career combined with motherhood,” Wilson says. But there is also a smaller group of women who may marry or not, but who don’t expect to have children and don’t plan to enter religious life. And there’s a third group: Women who see marriage and motherhood as their primary vocational path. 

That’s not unusual, according to Berger, the liturgical studies professor from Yale. “One of the signs of our times is how the choices for women have multiplied,” she says. “Suddenly a very traditional concept of motherhood is actually quite countercultural and new and different for younger women.” 

While it’s difficult to imagine centuries of entrenched beliefs about motherhood and the vocational path of women changing suddenly, there is good news for all women. Many church leaders, theologians, and pastoral ministers are engaging the topic of family life and coming to more accurate understandings of the complexities of women’s lives. 

But they have their work cut out for them: The last few generations of women’s experiences of work and family life have shifted far faster than church teaching or pastoral response, so there’s much to be done just for the church to adequately support and honor the maternal choices and circumstances of all women.

But even if women aren’t yet finding a pastoral response that speaks to the reality of their situation, Teresa Berger offers a spark of hope that emanates from the very earliest days of the church. “The Catholic tradition has always had more than one narrative available for women,” Berger says. “It’s important that we keep this in the front of our minds.” More than ever, it’s time for women and the church to acknowledge and build upon that truth.

This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 1, pages 12–17). 

Image: John Mark Arnold via Magdeleine

About the author

Heather Grennan Gary

Heather Grennan Gary is on staff at the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

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