I have been putting off this question for a long time. I don't like it. If you are Catholic and a mother then you are a Catholic mom. But lately a friend of mine (not a mother) was asking me why I do things one way and not the way other Catholic mothers seem to. Do you need to go to church every Sunday as a family? Do you pray the rosary (or a decade) nightly? Do you work outside the home? Do you home school or send your child(ren) to Catholic schools? Do you wear long skirts? Cover your head in church? Obey your husband? Use cloth diapers? Carry your baby in a sling as opposed to using a stroller?
To be fair, my friend couldn't care less about diapers or strollers; but other moms DO care. And they WILL give their opinion.
Before I get derailed in the politics of motherhood I would like to make one thing perfectly clear: No matter our vocation, we are called to do it with great love. This includes motherhood. This includes working outside the home. This includes our studies. This includes our family life. In fact, it begins within our own family. To be precise - with the most vulnerable within our family: our children, our elderly, and our most vulnerable.
Perhaps the first question we should be asking is what does it mean to be a Catholic? After all, motherhood is one of many roles we are called to play. We do not start out as mothers and one day our children will leave our home. But God calls each and every one of us to follow Him.
The reason I am taking a step back from motherhood is that it is so all encompassing that sometimes it does not make the best starting point. As I said earlier, it's too easy to get derailed. Yes, the above questions are important. Yes, every mother needs to explore them. That is why it is so important to have a firm understanding of what you, as a Catholic and as a mother, bring to your home and to society.
The rules and the Spirit:
Okay, I already said that being a Catholic is more that following 'the rules'. In this context I'm talking about the outward trappings and not substance. Do I wear a long skirt? Do I have rosary beads hanging off my rear view mirror in my minivan? Do I make it to church every week with all of my children freshly scrubbed and in their Sunday best?
But there are other, more important rules; rules that are as unpopular as they are important.
Some people think that we don't need rules, that we are intelligent human beings who can handle the consequences to our actions. Fair enough. I am not the morality police. Nor do I want to be. But let's take a closer look, shall we?
Imagine driving a car in a town without any traffic laws. A car is not evil. The driver is probably not evil. But together it can make for a dangerous, even deadly combination. Now I have several friends who are firefighters and police officers. I can tell you that they have absolutely no sense of humor when it comes to running red lights, speeding through school zones and cross walks, drunk driving, or using a cell phone while driving. Does that make them fascist? Cruel? Eager to exploit their authority and hand out tickets? Possibly. Or maybe they're just sick of scraping innocent people off the street. Maybe they want to go to sleep without having nightmares. Maybe they are just, gasp, trying to protect us from our own stupid and thoughtless decisions.
Now let's look at the moral equivalent of a car wreck. Ever talk to a Catholic mother who is wondering when she should take her daughter to the doctor to be put on birth control? Twelve is too early but kids are having sex earlier these days... What if she's at a party and gets drunk? Is thirteen too early or too late? CRASH! How are these questions even possible?? But you can't get away from what is 'out there'. The problems of children raping children and drug and alcohol abuse have been featured on Oprah, Dear Abbey, and countless news stations.
And who is to blame? The television? The parents? The children themselves?
There are also other, smaller rules that we break every day and we don't think much about them until the consequences creep up on us. This is where I really appreciate speaking with priests because they have heard everything. People do not go to confession when they think that what they're doing isn't so bad. People go to confession with their regrets and their heartbreaks, desperately wanting to undo the past. No priest can ever say the specific sins he hears in a confessional but a priest can speak in generalities. Most frequent cause of divorce (for men): pornography. That's right. They begin to see women as sexual objects instead of people. This attitude spills over into their marriage and parenting. Biggest regret for women: allowing themselves to be seen or used as sexual objects and/or what they have done to "prove" that they are free from the shackles of their femininity. For children: what they have done to gain love or approval from their peers, including lying.
Somewhere along the line we have forgotten the critical point: each and every one of us is made in the image and likeness of God and is worthy of dignity. This means that I have been created to be more than a sexual or political object. I am more than a woman silently raising her children. I am more than my education, my paycheck, the fulfillment of my ambitions or what I contribute so society. And I firmly believe that this is where so many of us get it wrong. Our imaginations cannot encomapss the wonder of God so we wonder if God is even there. So we get it into our heads that our ambition is more important than God's will for us. We can't fathom God's love for us so we settle for what we can quantify. It is time to stop.
How can we teach our children that they have worth if we believe that our own worth is limited to our achievements or based on the approval of others? How can we help others if we are suffering from the consequences of breaking the rules ourselves?
Jesus is continually reminding us of our worth when He invites us to partake of His presence in the Body and Blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist. He continually reminds us of the dignity of others. He is constantly inviting us into a personal conversation with Him about how best to use our time, talent, and treasures. Why do we continually deny the dignity that God Himself instilled in us when we were conceived? Why do we deny it in others? We all want to live in a just world where we are respected and treated with dignity but we don't dare reach for it.
Every single Christian has been commissioned by Jesus to seek out and serve the most vulnerable of society. This service may include fixing food and keeping house. It may include changing the diapers of an infant or an infirm adult. This service will probably be unglamorous and frequently isolating. Do it anyway. This service might call an educated woman to work within the home or challenge an uneducated woman to further education. This will probably be frightening. Do it anyway.
We all know this. This is nothing new. Perhaps what I am trying to say is that Catholicism isn't merely a set of rules which must be obeyed. It is not a way of differentiating ourselves from others. It is an invitation by God to live more deeply in Him. It is joyful and adaptable. (Frankly, anything that has been around for over 2000 years and spans continents needs to be adaptable.) It has structure that is timeless and recognizable. It is a way of asking God "what do I do with my time, treasure and talents?" in a way that there is hope of hearing a personal answer instead of in formulaic response.
And for us Catholic mothers? It begins within our own homes, with our children, our elderly, and our most vulnerable. It begins before we are mothers and will continue after the overwhelming aspects of motherhood are over.
And through the grace of God the rest will fall into place from there.
May God continue to bless you!