As the oldest child in a large, conservative Catholic family, I was raised to believe that my purpose as a woman was to become a wife and mother. Caring for my younger siblings was part of my preparation for this vocation. Over the years I toilet trained toddlers, taught 4-year-olds to ride tricycles, and taught 6-year-olds to read. By age 14 I was staying up all night soothing fussy newborns then getting up in the morning to home-school myself. Explicitly, this was to ensuring that I would follow in my mother’s footsteps by getting married young and having as many children as possible. I was sent to small, insular Catholic colleges where, my parents hoped, their expectations would be met and an approved young man would marry me. The only other option was religious consecration with a lifetime of celibacy and “spiritual motherhood.” Either way, motherhood was presented as an inescapable duty that my body, biology, and God had destined.
As it happened, I did later choose to marry. I even chose to have children. And in May 2022, shortly after the news broke about the Supreme Court seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, we celebrated Mother’s Day. Many of us were weary and watchful that day. It was difficult to feel celebrated when the national discussion showed how cheaply too many people actually value the gift of motherhood. Why should the day be a cause for celebration for women if motherhood is just an expected part of every woman’s vocation? If motherhood is not a vocation that women are able to choose freely?
So much praise of mothers is for self-effacing actions. “She never thinks of herself.” “She is always giving. “She always says yes.” “She suffers with a smile.” “She never complains.” “Nothing is too heavy for her to carry for her family.” All these are meant as praise and encouragement to other women to be this way. Not many Mother’s Day sermons urge women to do the things they want to do, to rest, or to have boundaries. It is clear that motherhood is seen as something that must involve sacrifice. And particularly within the pockets of “traditional” Catholicism throughout the country, this is the only option presented for faithful Catholic women who do not feel called to lifelong celibacy.
Here’s the problem. If motherhood is the only acceptable option for women who are not called to a religious vocation, does our praise of mothers really honor women? Or is it about celebrating a patriarchal structure that succeeds in keeping women in their place? If motherhood is the price women have to pay to the world for their existence and their sexuality, then why pretend it is given to us as a gift or that we give it as a gift to the world? Why bother paying mothers the lip service if there are penalties for refusing this service?
A gift is something freely given, out of love, something that isn’t demanded. When unmarried or childless women are pressured to have children, this is not a case of valuing motherhood. A culture in which women who are childless by choice are stigmatized, and in which women who have abortions are demonized, does not truly value motherhood or mothers. If women who choose not to be mothers are shamed or disvalued for their choice, clearly motherhood is not being valued as a gift to be freely given. And when a woman’s capacity to choose to give freely is discounted and overlooked, that woman is not being cherished as a person created in the image of God, but only as a body to be valued for its functions. Punitive laws and demonizing rhetoric about women who are not mothers undermine all the language about valuing those women who are.
Many people who claim to be pro-life have made it clear that they want women punished for the audacity of refusing to fit into the narrow roles that are set for them. There is already a case in Oklahoma of a woman being charged with murder after suffering a miscarriage. Laws are already being passed in states to send physicians to prison. Some proposed laws would even punish women for having an abortion. Well-known pro-life spokesperson Abby Johnson even stated on Twitter that once abortion is illegal, post-abortive women should also be charged and convicted of murder.
Amid such animosity, rhetoric thanking us for our sacrifices rings hollow.
Sex should be appreciated as a good thing that social animals do for pleasure, companionship, affection, and procreation. The goodness of human sexuality is not restricted only to a reproductive act between one able-bodied heterosexual man and one able-bodied heterosexual woman. Such a narrow understanding excludes many disabled people, LGBTQ people, and intersex or nonbinary people. This joint treatment of women’s bodies as a means to an end and of sex as a means to an end is not only objectification but also ableism. Reducing sex to its reproductive possibilities produces a reductive relationship not only with femininity but with humanity.
My children are a gift to the world, just as they are, not for their productivity or profit. All children are. And all parents are. Sexuality is a gift from God for everyone, whether or not they choose to involve another person, whether or not it involves procreation. But it is a gift that humanity has historically feared and sometimes sought to distort by coercion.
Despite my chaotic, abusive upbringing—which could have easily repelled me from the idea of motherhood—I chose to become a mother. Perhaps it is a miracle. If so, it is an everyday, ordinary sort of miracle, like a sacrament. I chose to be a mother because I wanted to be, not because I felt I had to be. But the choice to be a mother must be freely given. The support, not the judgment and condemnation, of community is essential for people to thrive and flourish in their choices. Without the strong women who model the love and security I didn’t receive as a child, I wouldn’t be confident as a mother. Without the support and cooperation of my community and partner, I would languish, however much I love my children.
My brave choice wasn’t required to justify my sexuality or femininity. And mothers continue to bravely make these choices to give this world the precious gift of life. What the many other mothers like me need from our communities is not coercion but trust in the courage of women and in the mercy of God.
Coercion isn’t “openness to life.” My difficult and often traumatic upbringing was not “being open to life.” What would truly be open to life would be to trust that the everyday, ordinary miracle of a woman hoping for a child, giving birth, and loving a child will continue to happen. Don’t insult the beauty of this miracle by attempts at manipulation and coercion. And to Catholics who profess to revere life: I beg you to open your hearts to receive the gift we give. Remember, no self-gift is possible without freedom.
Image: Unsplash/Sergiu Vălenaș