(Part I in a series on motherhood and fatherhood)
So much of who we are comes from our mothers. We are who we are in relation to others – and the first relationship we had was being nestled nine months in our mother’s womb.
“Male and female He created them” – it is fitting that with these words our first parents are introduced, since our first experience of gender, our first experience of male and female, comes – not from our analysis of gender roles in society – but really and concretely, from our mother and our father.
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” Because we are male, because we are female, we are in the image of God. We are not made in the image of God as mere androgynous souls with consciousness; rather, we are embodied in our masculinity and our femininity. Our lives are circumscribed between motherhood and fatherhood – none of us comes into this world without a natural father, none of us comes into this world without a natural mother.
In a time hidden from our memories, that initial relationship with our mothers forms us at the core of who we are. No person has ever grown to maturity without first passing through their mother’s body. Try as they might, technology still has yet to eclipse biology.
(If you want to be overwhelmed with all the particulars of gestational biology, check out this video.)
From the first moment of our existence in the womb of our mother, we are surrounded by her, enveloped in her body. Her body supplies for every one of our needs. As our cells divide and develop, our blood takes nourishment and oxygen from her blood; there is an exchange of life. By the time a mother is aware she is with child, her maternal body has known this already for weeks. Before she feels the budding movements of the child’s limbs, she is already being moved by the child – morning sickness, new diet, the maternal nesting instinct to tackle stale projects. But more than that, her whole life receives a new trajectory; she holds a person within her – two souls in one body.
I recall an experience of a friend of mine when his wife was pregnant with their first child. He came back from work one day to find his pregnant wife lying on her bed with her hands over her womb, filled with wonder. She explained to her husband that she felt her baby move for the first time and was overwhelmed with the realization of her motherhood, explaining to her husband, “I am not alone in my own body.”
A mother after having her first child will often comment that, had she known how much of herself would have been taken in order to love her child, she would not have thought herself capable of giving so much of herself. Motherhood is an experience that requires all of her. It is a self-emptying love that cares fiercely and intimately for her child.
Maternity, femininity, female-ness – this is our first experience of gender; it is our first experience of life. We are born into – conceived into – this relationship with our mother. It is most natural to us. It is the strongest and longest lasting of human bonds. It is a natural communion. For the rest of their lives, the mother and child will retain something of that intimacy where they were truly two souls in one body.
Beginning from this indescribable intimacy, the child goes through a development. Birth requires a leaving behind of the original closeness of the mother. The dependence of the child on the mother continues – nourishment, locomotion, comfort, bathroom issues – but slowly begins to wane. When the child learns to crawl, a mother is pained to see his reliance on her lessened. When the child takes his first steps, every step is a step away from the mother. Motherhood is tinged with sadness. Watching her child grow apart from her requires all of that self-emptying love.
In my own mother, I’ve seen this self-emptying love every time a sibling leaves my parents’ house to depart for college – fourteen times (I have a big family) one of her children left home, fourteen times she’s cried.
A mother’s vocation begins in intimacy, and ends in separation.
A mother’s love makes room for the child to grow. All human life takes as its origin the intimacy of motherhood. Fatherhood completes the picture.
We see this reality of maternal separation lived out most radically in the life of our Blessed Mother. Jesus shared a hidden intimacy with Mary for nine months. At his birth, the shepherds find Him, not wrapped in the arms of His immaculate mother, but wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger – apart from her. When He is twelve, after being lost for three days in the Temple, He tells her “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) At Cana, He begins His public ministry with what looks like a rebuke, “Woman, what have you to do with me?” Once while Jesus was close by, Mary tried to get through the crowd to see her Son, and He says, “Who are my mother and my brethren? Here are my mother and my brethren! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35) Even at the foot of the cross, when she is with Him again, He gives her away, saying to her “Woman, behold, your son” and to St. John, “Behold, your mother.” (John 19:26-27) And then He undergoes the ultimate separation, giving up His spirit and dying on the Cross.
Here, we let Blessed John Henry Newman take over, with his reflection on the Thirteenth Station of the Cross:
He is Thy property now, O Virgin Mother, once again, for He and the world have met and parted. He went out from Thee to do His Father’s work – and He has done and suffered it. Satan and bad men have now no longer any claim upon Him – too long has He been in their arms. Satan took Him up aloft to the high mountain; evil men lifted Him up upon the Cross. He has not been in Thy arms, O Mother of God, since He was a child – but now thou hast a claim upon Him, when the world has done its worst. For thou art the all-favoured, all-blessed, all-gracious Mother of the Highest. We rejoice in this great mystery. He has been hidden in thy womb, He has lain in thy bosom, He has been suckled at thy breasts, He has been carried in thy arms – and now that He is dead, He is placed upon thy lap.
Virgin Mother of God, pray for us.
Main image: “Virgin of the Angels,” William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881
Post by: Deacon Peter Gruber