In Praise of Catholic Motherhood

This is a week for celebrating life. In Washington D.C., the March for Life continues its long tradition of marking the anniversary of Roe v Wade with a massive demonstration in remembrance of the unborn. Appropriately enough, Pope Francis set the week off by affirming the Church’s stance on artificial contraceptives on his visit to the Philippines. (This of course was followed by the “rabbit” kerfuffle. I was still feeling good about the contraceptive statement, so I did myself a favor and didn’t read the cunicular details.)

Many of us are too young to remember Roe v Wade, or any time before it. It can still be interesting in this “week of life” to reflect on the origins of our own pro-life convictions, and the impact they have had on our lives as a whole.

I first started thinking about abortion during the run-up to the 1992 election. I was assigned to research the topic for my middle school civics class. Together with three other students, I was asked to prepare an informative presentation for the class. I had no views on abortion at the time, and even though my church and parents were both pro-life, I don’t remember feeling “obligated” to take a particular side. (This might partly reflect the fact that neither church nor parents had really discussed the issue with me before that time.) I read the arguments as someone ready to be persuaded.

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One of my fellow group members was also a longtime friend. When I asked her opinion, she answered straightforwardly that she believed that abortion was murder. “Just because fetuses are tiny doesn’t mean they’re not people,” she opined. “We should still want to protect them.”

I was impressed by this speech. After some consideration, I decided that I agreed. Interestingly, my friend changed her mind a week later. I didn’t. Twenty-two years later, I’m still pro-life.

Commitments held for that many years can have a deep impact on a person’s life. Sometimes we ourselves can’t fully trace the connections. What is the relationship, for example, between those early reflections on the preciousness of life, and my decision thirteen years later to accept the sacramental graces of the Church? Or my decision to marry a Catholic man, with a full understanding of what obligations that entailed? (At that time I was working through a competitive doctoral program, and some of my fellow students were quite astonished when they realized what I took marriage to involve.)

It’s hard to say with confidence how our lives might have been different if we had never explored a particular argument or read a particular book. But reading missives like this, it’s hard not to wonder: where did I become acquainted with basic realities that this person has obviously missed? At what point in our moral development do we grasp the preciousness of life, and the seriousness of our obligations to it? More importantly: why do some people not?

This, at any rate, was what I wondered when reading Margery Eagan’s lament. Eagan (who is the “spirituality columnist” for Crux) was “devastated” by Pope Francis’ affirmation of what has long been Catholic teaching on artificial contraceptives. She “had hoped for so much more from this man.” Who knew that he could be so backwards and confused?

Eagan finds the Church’s position on contraceptives baffling and offensive, and she offers two major reasons. First, sex is a good and beautiful thing, which is needed by “real people in real marriages.” Second, the Church’s position presumes that “the highest calling of married women is sacrificing all to rear children, as many as come along, no matter those women’s talents or skills or dreams.”

You’d think we could at least choose one or the other. If sex isn’t important, what need to sacrifice all (or anything for that matter) for the children? On the other hand, if women have devoted themselves entirely to their offspring (as many as come along!), we should at least be quite free to enjoy, as she puts it, “the beauty of sex.”

I already know, of course, that we live in a society that respects every woman’s work-and-family choices, except the ones it doesn’t. It might still be nice if “spirituality columnists” (at ostensibly Catholic publications!) would get to know one or two non-contracepting women before drawing such rash conclusions about them. On the issue of enjoying sex, I will only say that my Catholic friends and I have occasionally enjoyed some good laughs at the lengths to which some will go to stimulate some romantic feeling towards their spouses. These adventures in libido-enhancement sound to me like a bad sitcom episode. (And lest you draw unflattering conclusions about my marriage… I’ll just say that we’re expecting our fourth child this coming spring.) Maybe a bottomless supply of (literally) fruitless sex isn’t quite the unqualified good some imagine it to be? Who’s really missing the beauty here?

On the second charge, I would start by observing that rearing children (even many!) is by no means a trivial way to invest one’s energies, regardless of “talents, skills or dreams.” At the same time, the Church does not sentence Catholic women en masse to total maternal martyrdom. Making sacrifices for love is certainly an element of parenthood, and for that matter of any well-lived life. But very few are asked to “sacrifice all” for family or children. The only reason anyone would imagine that is because she herself harbors a razor-thin conception of what the successful, fulfilled life should involve.

As a PhD-holding Catholic mom, I get questions from time to time that betray a similar sort of narrowness. Do I find motherhood fulfilling, or do I sometimes wonder “what else I might have done”? Is my education “being used?” In some people’s eyes, educated Catholic moms necessarily appear as semi-tragic figures. They “threw it all away” in obeisance to the backwards teachings of an abusive, patriarchal Church.

It’s tempting to get a little snide in these situations. “Yes! The regret is unbearable. All I do now is nurture children, teach university courses, write articles, cook, garden and play Fantasy Football. Imagine what I might have done if I hadn’t wasted so much time bringing unique, precious new humans into the world. Maybe I could’ve had a pretty nice office by now.”

I don’t actually say these things, because I know how fortunate I am. For some people the trade-offs are more agonizing. It’s quite hard, for example, to be a world-class concert pianist while raising a large family. And I always have a sympathetic ear for women who are seriously working through these questions. But how many people become concert pianists? How many, by contrast, fritter their lives away in vicious distractions and empty entertainments? The truth is, the fertility-embracing women I know have a remarkable range of skills, talents and accomplishments. In a world filled with vice and loneliness, they seem to live in a veritable tornado of meaningful activity, surrounded by people who love and value them. Don’t cry for us, Margery Eagan.

In general, people who waste pity on open-to-life mothers probably just don’t know very many. At the same time, reflections like this display a more radical deficiency in understanding. Though ostensibly an expert in “spirituality,” Eagan magnificently fails to grasp what matters in life. She looks on large families with their abundant joy and energy and potential, and all she can see is the loss of (presumably conventional and secular) “talents, skills and dreams” on the woman’s part. It’s even worse when she moves on to discussing poorer women, because she seems not to grasp that the poor (which is to say, the people liberals are perpetually eager to sterilize) are especially likely to focus their whole lives around children and family (and faith!), since these can bring joy and meaning to an otherwise grim existence. This same callousness is replicated throughout our progressive culture of death. Abortion is celebrated, while marriage and children become ever scarcer, and more and more people find themselves alone.

Apparently I wasn’t the only person who found this column appalling. The torrent of angry reactions led to this follow-up, in which Eagan forgives her readers for being such philistines, but also takes heart from the kindred spirits who recognize, together with her, that Pope Francis expects all women to be “brood mares.” Maybe time to stop digging?

The March for Life is first and foremost about remembering the unborn. But we also know that a society in which the unborn are protected will look very different from the one our culture presents to us as glamorous and desirable. As Eagan suggests, it will indeed involve more personal sacrifice. That’s because it will also have so much life, love, and meaning that some modern people might not be able to bear it.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “First Caresses” was painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1866.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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