The Feminine Genius: Maternity
This post is a part of a Feminine Genius series written by 4 different bloggers, and is the final post of the Marian Virtues Series. You can find the start of the series and the list of articles in the introduction post. If you’re not a Catholic, or simply want to find out more about the Feminine Genius, please read the introduction post first. All quotes below are from the encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem, by Pope St. John Paul II.
The Feminine Genius: Maternity
I’ve rewritten this article several times and each time have felt that it falls short of the mark.
When I volunteered for this blog linkup, I had no idea how hard it would be to write on this topic. It’s so much easier to write about political matters than about personal ones; simpler to praise the institution of marriage than to write about my part in dishonouring it. But hopefully, I’ll be able to demonstrate how God has infused many gifts into my makeup in order to help me mother my children.
Now, I know any of you can google ‘The Feminine Genius” to find out what Pope St. John Paul II was referring to. And it wouldn’t be too hard for you to find some well-written articles by Catholic academics. These will give valuable insights into the subject. But I’m going to write from a more personal perspective – something that I’d been avoiding – because I think this is what many mothers need to read.
I’ll to write on my initial ideas about motherhood and about what I’ve come to know, and about the experiences that helped shape these ideas. This won’t be the quaint tableaux of simple family life that I’d planned to describe.
My Maternal Formation
My childhood was characterised by trauma and confusion. The experiences I had as a young child left me with serious problems that were not resolved for decades. The feminine influences in my life were mostly from my mother’s side of the family and could generally be described as soft feminism, soft mothering and soft Catholicism. But these influences left me with some strong impressions which have shaped my life. From trauma, shame and terror, emerged two deeply maternal beliefs: that there is something very wrong with contraception and that children must be protected at all costs.
I must stress that these beliefs don’t reflect any personal virtue of mine: I know they came from God and that they are intimately connected to my feminine nature. They prove that God uses adversity to shape us, and that maternity is available to any woman, no matter her circumstances.
As my life and character developed, I began to head down a dangerous path. I left behind my childish faith, my belief in wonderful saints and my love of the Holy Family, and rejected God for a life of sin and atheistic despair. Maternity, children, marriage – these were the last things on my mind. I was on a trajectory to hell, and it was escalating quickly.
At a most critical moment, when I was about to start on a new ‘career’ – that of dealing drugs – God sent me an opportunity to change my direction. He sent me the unexpected blessing of maternity, in the form of an unplanned pregnancy. You see, despite the morass of sin with which I surrounded myself, I retained my horror of contraception. From a biological point of view, a pregnancy really was no surprise, but it certainly threw me for a while. This didn’t last for long. The other driving force in my makeup – the desire to protect children – meant that this little one was never in serious danger of being aborted. The thought disappeared as soon as it came.
Misconceptions about Maternity
Life progressed, I married a Catholic and went on to have more 12 children. My aversion to contraception gained a philosophical aspect as I gradually learned about the Church’s teaching on marriage. The desire to protect children expressed itself as a desire not to enter the workforce and instead to homeschool my growing family.
I realise now that I went into marriage with some inaccurate ideas about motherhood. I had thought motherhood expressed itself most clearly when life went according to a particular pattern. That pattern was a romantic view of life that many of us are familiar with through beautiful artwork and literature. I still love scenes like those in the picture above: they remind us to slow down and appreciate the gentle aspects of family life, the quiet moments when the feminine genius shines.
But they don’t necessarily represent motherhood accurately. One dimension in these paintings immediately appeals to us; other dimensions may be hidden from view. I’d like to add the experiences of some mothers to these scenes, in order to draw an even deeper expression of the feminine genius from them.
Add to these charming scenes a backstory of domestic violence, pornography addiction, estranged older children, death, poverty or adultery. Add the emotions of fear, terror, betrayal, grief or heartache. Then we begin to see the true feminine genius at work.
A mother isn’t called to mother only when the home is clean, the income comfortable, the marriage stable. Mothers are called to fulfil their obligations through all kinds of hardship, and in fact, it could be said that we excel at mothering precisely during adversity.
Our skills potentially come more sharply into focus through hardship: most mothers can provide a beautiful meal during prosperity, but women also possess that special skill of preparing a meal with a cheerful atmosphere when food is scarce. It’s a pleasure to sit and nurse a child when the home is orderly, and chores are up to date, but some mothers with chronically-ill children know that there are often times when they need to sit down in the clutter or disarray because their child needs his mother at that moment.
Our maternal instinct can be stronger than our desire for cleanliness and order: that is part of the feminine genius.
Maternity During Hardship
Back to my own story.
After 24 years of marriage, our relationship went through a crisis from which it never recovered. At this time, my maternal resources were stretched to their limit. In some respects, our children had to take a back seat while their parents concentrated on trying to repair the marriage. I’m not sure if there could have been another way, but I certainly wish there had been a more peaceful path when navigating through that difficult time. Wounds were created during this phase, from which my skills could not protect my children. I can only entrust these wounds to the Lord and His Mercy.
We later separated; after some time, I appealed to the Marriage Tribunal, and after 18 months my marriage was found to have been null. This fact scandalises some Christians, Catholics included. But I give thanks for the Tribunal and that there exists this objective process that has the capacity to set minds and consciences at rest. It would be tragic to have to continue through life believing that a valid marriage was invalid, or vice versa.
At this point, I’d like to draw attention to another extreme form of maternal hardship. It’s one that I haven’t experienced myself, but for which I have a great deal of sympathy. My involvement in pro-life work has made me aware of this situation; it is when a child is conceived from rape.
A rape experience is so traumatic and so deeply disturbing that an initial response can be that forcing a victim to carry her rapist’s child will compound the trauma. But evidence shows that the feminine genius can come to the fore in this exceptionally shocking circumstance. A strong maternal bond often rises up in such mothers, as they recognise that the child also is a victim. Although suffering greatly, their focus shifts to the one who is even more vulnerable, even more needing to be nurtured. They look to the little one within as an object for the love and tenderness they themselves need to be shown.
Many mothers who choose to birth a child conceived in rape find that this is a way of showing that something good can come out of something extremely evil. In fact, in his Letter to Women, Pope John Paul II makes a special reference to women who are victims of rape and conceive a child in this way, to show the Church’s appreciation for their heroic stance.
It takes a special kind of love to accept a child under these circumstances and this gives an insight into the extremely strong maternal bond that is part of women’s makeup.
The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is similarly not only “of flesh and blood”: it expresses a profound “listening to the word of the living God” and a readiness to “safeguard” this Word, which is “the word of eternal life” (cf. Jn 6:68). (MD #19)
Pope St. John Paul II describes spiritual maternity as a readiness to ‘safeguard the Word’, giving it an evangelical dimension. For a pro-life Christian, there are many opportunities to practice this. The first is quite obvious: spiritual adoption of an unborn child. You may have heard of this Catholic devotion: we make a commitment to pray for a specific but unknown baby, who is in danger of abortion, for nine months. No matter what the outcome, we know that these prayers are never wasted. This practise is a wonderful exercise in both spiritual maternity and paternity.
The feminine genius plays out in another way through a different form of pro-life work: sidewalk counselling outside an abortion facility. Of course, men also pray and counsel women who are about to kill their offspring. Men bring a slightly different charism to this work and are invaluable for their own contribution. Some aborting mothers relate better to men, while some respond better to other women.
But speaking as a woman, I can see what it means to a distressed mother to be approached by another woman. I also know how much it means to a post-abortive mother to know that she isn’t condemned by one of her same sex. Being able to show unconditional love to mothers contemplating abortion or to those who have had abortions is yet another expression of the feminine genius. It reflects the unconditional love we try to show our biological children, allows us to cooperate with God in saving souls and simply brings more love into this troubled world.
A third example of spiritual maternity is in the area of pro-life education. I recently met two young women who are full-time missionaries, going into schools to teach about relationships, dignity and chastity. These missionaries characterise an aspect of the feminine genius by spiritually adopting students with whom they come in contact. Ultimately, as with the other examples, their work is about saving souls.
Thus the “perfect woman” (cf. Prov 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit. These “perfect women” are owed much by their families, and sometimes by whole nations.(#30)
An emerging sphere for living out the feminine genius is in the online world. This is especially important at the moment among the people of Australia. Australians recently voted to redefine the institution of marriage. Although Christians and others worked extremely hard to defend traditional marriage, our largely secular population was taken in by pithy slogans and a false sense of compassion for homosexuals. The Australian Constitution has nothing like the protections found in that of the US: there are no explicit guarantees for freedom of speech, of conscience or assembly. This means that conservative Australians are feeling quite vulnerable and nervous about their future.
Even adults still need nurturing from their mothers, and this is no different for the virtual adults in our lives. I see this as nothing more than an extension of the feminine genius into the online world.
Maternity: Seeking the Good
The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. (#30)
Throughout the Old Testament, God the Father promised to, and did protect the widow and orphan, the desolate wife, and the lowly. This is a sign of His high esteem for motherhood and its role in child-rearing. Then in the New Testament, God revealed Himself to humanity through the Person of Jesus Christ, and He also revealed the dignity of women through the maternity of Mary, the mother of God. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus gives us a model of respect for women: He upheld feminine dignity but showed that it must not come at the expense of the dignity of men.
As mentioned above, I owe my life to my first, unplanned baby. That is not an overstatement. I was hurtling towards hell and a slave to the culture of death. But if I’d continued down that destructive path, there’s still a chance I would have found my way eventually without experiencing motherhood.
This makes me wonder what kind of woman I’d have been, had I not had children.
Perhaps I’d have been competent and organised and better educated. I would probably have had a rounder vocabulary and a longer list of completed Great Books. I would certainly have known many more acquaintances and would have a wider network of interesting friends. I’d have dressed better and would have had a nicer home by now. This isn’t difficult to imagine.
But it’s likely that there are many aspects of femininity that I’d never have developed without experiencing maternity. This is something that is largely lost on the young women of today. They see no benefit in motherhood except as a means to achieving one more goal in a long line of goals. I find this very sad. Motherhood needs to be valued as something good and necessary in itself, and something vital for the healthy functioning of society.
There needs to be a return to acknowledging this special way that God ‘entrusts human beings to us.’ Our role is unique; we aren’t men, we aren’t incubators: we are mothers. Our ability to continue mothering even during hardship is testament both to the existence of the feminine genius and to God’s graciousness in providing for His children.
Feminine Genius Giveaway
Thanks to my daughter Madeleine for providing the photograph of my baby grandson. And thanks to Chloe for setting up this series – one lucky reader will win a hand knitted coffee cozy from The Cozy Wife and a Totus Tuus t-shirt from Lively Faith Co.
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Editor, The Freedoms ProjectClick here to find out more about Kathy