Monday, December 21, 2020

When Motherhood Changes Our Dreams

Each Christmas, as the world retells Mary's story of unexpected pregnancy, I recall my own first pregnancy, a fearful surprise that inevitably affected the careful hopes I'd imagined for myself.

We receive confusing messages on life and motherhood. On the one hand, we're assured that nothing changes: You can still do it all with a baby! A baby won't take away your dreams!

On the other hand, we're told that personal ambitions are ultimately insignificant next to the grandeur of motherhood: Being a mom is better than anything else in the world!

And, of course, there's some truth to all of it. Some families seem to effortlessly incorporate children into their ongoing lives. Some moms use maternity leave to launch new businesses. And especially at Christmas, how reassuring to contemplate the life-changing gift of an unexpected child.

But we need to be careful with our well-meaning platitudes. When we diminish the real sacrifice of motherhood—claiming it doesn't have the power to change or replace the hopes and dreams of a woman—we also, inadvertently, diminish the love of a mother. A mother's love is the deepest understanding of love for many humans, not because it's uncomplicated, simple, easy, or painless, but precisely, because it is not.

Ten years after my first surprise baby, I'm still furrowing through these immersive lessons of adoration and humiliation that frame motherhood. I wasn't expecting the messiness, the pee, the vomit, the intense neediness that deeply defines our humanity. How we need one another, even when we think we've outgrown it.

And my box of every answer, so proudly toted around through high school, college, young adulthood... it hasn't had all the answers since that first confounded pregnancy test. Oh, to have Mary's faith, calmly contemplating God's strangeness as each life event pulled her further from normalcy, from the future she might have imagined for herself as a child.

As it happens, motherhood often means re-writing the life we thought we were living. When cultural adages fall short, at some point, we reckon with reality: I can't do it all. Women do let go of personal dreams and desires when they become mothers.

And yet, new dreams on old themes continue to float around. I have to believe trolling through endless sleepless days of babies and toddlers has been good for them; my hopes are clearer and more daring than past guarded ambitions. Even so, I'm unsure. What doors might close because my children need me? But also, what new doors might open because the needs of my children put me in the right place at the right time? 

It's also taken motherhood for me to realize that my one-size-fits-all ideal of God is just as wrong as it is useless. (For plenty of people, it doesn't take motherhood to arrive here. I think it just takes brokenness. I wonder, then, at the overlap between motherhood and brokenness...) But before wandering into another post for another day, I'll pause in gratitude that my Jesus is not an XXL camp tee that "fits all" but sorts easily to the Goodwill pile.

Perhaps this was the root of Mary's comfort that first Christmas. She already knew God as more than a lofty spirit or calloused wishing well. Mary weathered storms with the Lord long before Jesus calmed seas for the disciples; she knew the personal affinity of God—not just for her, but for each of us. What new work is God doing with you, for love of you?

Moms: your sacrifice is real. Perhaps in this particularly difficult year, your life drifted even farther from the storyline you thought you were living. 
This Christmas, may the Spirit of God find each of us wherever we are and inspire us with renewed hopes and new dreams. 

Mother of the Word Incarnate, pray for us.

An edited version of this post was also published Dec 2020 at CatholicMom.