Liberating Motherhood

The feminist slogan of the sixties, “sisterhood is powerful,” was not in itself a falsehood, but insofar as it led to an eclipse or a denial of the value of motherhood, it created a great deal of confusion and unhappiness for young women. Whereas John Paul II sees motherhood as a fulfillment of

women, one current collection of feminist essays offers this title: Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women. According to this book, children are simply an enormous burden, and bearing a child is equivalent to being sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.

After all, children interfere with a woman’s ability to seek the things that really matter— prestige, comfort, money, power, a stimulating career—all the things our culture holds out as the pearls of great price. In addition to pressures of selfishness and the pleasure-principles of our times, women have gradually come to accept the Playboy image of the ideal woman. Women feel they must become what they think men want them to be: young, thin, financially independent, childless, and sexually available, with no interest in commitment. That is, as the magazine’s title so shamelessly tells us, the ideal woman is a plaything for men. The willingness of women to accept this dehumanizing view of themselves is truly amazing; some women have even been known to sport T-shirts proclaiming in bold black letters across the front: BOY TOY.

When motherhood becomes a terror for women, and a threat to society, the main thing we must have above all else is reproductive control. “Planned parenthood” isn’t just the name of an organization; it has become the deepest moral imperative of modern life. The pope acknowledges in his Letter to Families and again in The Gospel of Life that there can be serious reasons to avoid the birth of a child for a time or even indefinitely. There are methods of natural family planning that enable couples to do this very effectively without divorcing the unitive dimension of the marriage act from its procreative dimension. Contraception always separates these two in practice, and over time it has the effect of separating them more and more in one’s mind, so that any unplanned pregnancy comes to be seen as a terrible mistake, a failure, a tragedy.

When this mentality combines with the hedonism of our culture, it is inevitable that new life will be seen as the ultimate disaster. A woman’s child is suddenly her greatest enemy. Enemy of her health? Rarely. Of her relationships? Sometimes. It may be that the father doesn’t welcome his child and doesn’t welcome the woman as a mother—after all, mothers are clearly not toys, and everyone knows it. Is her child the enemy of the mother’s career ambitions or of her financial stability? Often, at least to some extent. Of her pursuit of pleasure? Always! Otherwise it wouldn’t be possible for radical feminists to find an audience for their work. The feminist author referred to above actually calls for a twenty-year moratorium on having children so that women can get on with more important things in life, unburdened by maternal responsibilities. Another has suggested that “until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution.” I guess this means we’ll only have one generation of free women, but maybe it’s worth it!

What has been forgotten in these calculations is the truth about children. Children are priceless; they are precious beyond measure. Whether we use contraceptives or not, our attitude toward children can so easily be influenced by a hedonistic mentality—we can fail to welcome children as a gift from God and see them instead, in the well-worn phrase, as simply “another mouth to feed.” Pregnancy should be a cause of joy. The birth of a child is meant to be celebrated. Yes, it can be unanticipated; it can even bring a share in the cross; but this should not obscure the fact that the child is a great good, an infinite good. A child’s coming-to-be is not just a matter of “reproduction,” which can suggest a technical process under our control.

“Procreation” is a better word, because it reminds us that in this, the amazing pinnacle of earthly creation, God waits upon men and women—on our free cooperation with his desire that the earth should be filled with his children, that his redemptive plan for them should be fulfilled, and that heaven should one day resound with their shouts of thanksgiving and praise. The term “reproduction” implies that having a child is simply producing more of the same, but of course no child is the same as any other. Sidney Callahan tells of a debate she had with Francis Kissling, head of Catholics for Free Choice (which, the Vatican has publicly pronounced, is a decidedly non-Catholic organization). Professor Callahan was asking why Kissling would legally protect whales, baby seals, and spotted owls, but would not do the same for unborn children. Kissling’s answer was that, unlike the spotted owl, children are a renewable resource.

The power of motherhood lies ultimately in the fact that mothers know the truth about persons. In the closing pages of The Gospel of Life, John Paul II offers a special plea to women to promote reverence and love for human life. Why? Because women are deeply connected to motherhood, in their hearts if not always by physically giving birth, and mothers know the value of each individual human being by knowing the value of this one and that one.

I know of at least one African American woman, a pediatrician, who converted to Catholicism because of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the value of life and the absolute evil of abortion. But she was also a convert to that pro-life principle. She said her views had changed one day in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital in Missouri, where she and another doctor were struggling to save the life of a tiny baby boy. He weighed less than two pounds, and his mother, also African American, was addicted to crack cocaine and had turned to prostitution to support her addiction. At one point, the baby took a turn for the worse, and frustration levels ran high. The physician in charge finally turned in disgust, muttering as he walked away, “So what? It’s just another piece of scum from a dirtbag.” This is a lie about that baby—helpless, innocent victim of the illnesses of our culture. And it is a lie about his mother as well—if not completely innocent, still in need of mercy and genuine compassion and assistance.

The pro-life movement has emphasized the rights of the child, but not always the joy, the wonder, the mystery, the opportunity for love that the child represents. In a society so completely focused on the wealth and comfort of the individual self, we are in danger of looking at our neighbors as competitors, as obstacles to our success. Our weaker neighbors, even when they are members of our own families, come to be evaluated in terms of what they will subtract from our own largely self-serving goals. These days you don’t have a baby—you have another threat to the rain forest.

Perhaps we wouldn’t go as far as the couple interviewed a few years ago in Newsweek who said they couldn’t possibly have a child because their apartment had wall-to-wall white shag carpeting. But I suspect there are countless versions of this same attitude much closer to home. About three years ago I was waiting at the photo department of Sears to obtain the annual Christmas picture I have promised to my children’s grandparents. I struck up a conversation with a woman who seemed as desperate for distractions as I was. She was picking up photos of her grandson, an adorable toddler of about eighteen months. She confided that although she was taking care of him for the time being, she planned to send him back after the holidays into what would likely be a situation of continuing abuse and neglect, because, as she put it, “I have to have a life too.” In her life, apparently, there was little room for his. What makes this attitude doubly sad is that we don’t find happiness by simply “living our own lives.” The only real happiness is found in opening our hearts to others, in that gift of self which enriches both the one who receives and the one who gives.

Every human being is a gift, and every one has value. Nor should we lose sight of the anguish of those couples who long to welcome a child of their own and find that other remedies have not availed. But it is important to remember that John Paul II writes, “Marriage does not confer upon the spouses the right to have a child, but only to perform those natural acts which are … ordered to procreation. A true and proper right to a child would be contrary to the child’s dignity and nature. The child is not an object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered an object of ownership.”

Human beings can never be treated as objects; they are not disposable; they are not to be valued only when they help the economy, private or public. John Paul II pleads with us to adopt a “contemplative outlook” in place of the materialistic, utilitarian outlook that has gripped us for so long. The contemplative outlook “is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image.”

The pope calls upon every person to foster this attitude in our society today, but draws attention especially to “the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women.” It is a lesson women learn by their connection to motherhood, which “profoundly marks the woman’s personality” regardless of whether or not she has biological children.

A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity that comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty, or health.

Wherever motherhood is despised, children will be despised; and where children are despised, motherhood is also despised. We must break out of this destructive spiral by affirming both the value of children and the value of motherhood.

We should turn especially to the mother of Jesus, asking her to teach us the true power of motherhood. The pope closes his letter on life with a prayer addressed to Mary, the incomparable model of how life should be welcomed and cared for. Her motherhood, which she lives amid suffering, is still “pervaded by the certainty that God is near her and that he accompanies her with his providential care…. Mary is a living word of comfort for the Church in her struggle against death.” It is a wonderful sign of hope that this letter was signed on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, when Mary’s word of acceptance brought life to the whole world. The culture of death will not have the last word.


  • Laura L. Garcia

    Laura L. Garcia teaches philosophy at Boston College. She specializes in philosophical theology and metaphysics, and has taught at Calvin College, the University of Notre Dame, the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota), The Catholic University of America, Georgetown University and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

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