God in his providence has two ways of blessing marriages: one by giving them children; and the other, sometimes, because he loves them so much, by not giving them children. I don’t know which is the better blessing.St. Josemaria Escriva
Mary: As a child, I imagined my future children as persons that would just “be” when I was ready to start a family. I had their outfits and sports teams already picked out! I never considered the possibility of having to “work” for them. The Catholic culture that surrounded me did an excellent job at emphasizing the sacredness and value of new life, but without the balance of understanding new life as a gift and not a right to exercise at my will, I fell flat on my face when I couldn’t produce it.
It seemed like there was an unspoken rule which defined holiness by the amount of children each family accumulated, or the rate at which pregnancies occurred. Even though my inability to get pregnant was no fault of my own, I felt broken and unworthy as a Catholic woman who couldn’t compare to my fertile friends. Thankfully, God saw more value in me than I did in myself. I realized that he designed me to be just as fruitful as every other person— even the ones with multiple children. New life is not just grown on the inside of our bodies! My unique gifts are making a big difference in the world around me.
Emily: Mary, I love that you used the word “right” when talking about having children. It’s the perfect word to highlight the danger of this language that praises couples for having many children, as if children are a guarantee if you do everything right. It completely obscures the fact that children are gifts, given or not given at the will of God.
I recently got in a conversation with a woman who told me that she and her husband have felt the call to have many children. And let me just say, that is absolutely beautiful, and I am always awed by those who respond to that call with such openness. But one of the things that I pointed out to her in the course of our conversation — because she made clear that she saw NFP as “Catholic contraception” and that procreation was the sole primary purpose of marriage — was fertility awareness is about holistic health. One of the benefits is that women who have fertility issues can identify those issues and seek individualized health care. While it may not cure the underlying cause of infertility, it gives women the opportunity to become whole—physically, spiritually and mentally.
That point was completely lost on this woman. The benefit of fertility awareness in the case of infertility in her mind was solely to achieve pregnancy. The idea that a married woman could be whole without becoming a biological mother, or should seek healing for these underlying issues with or without the possibility of children, went right over her head.
Jen: That kind of thinking is what makes it so difficult to experience infertility these days! Because what if a couple is open to as many babies as this woman and ends up being infertile? Not only that, NFP is used for much more than just achieving or avoiding a pregnancy. It helps us learn more about how we were created as women. All of us are called to be a spiritual mother in some way, shape, or form.
Mary: Yup- and a unique call to all women, not just the ones without biological children! I use to really struggle with CCC 1652 quote “…Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves.” Not because it’s not true, but because my barrenness is no fault of my own and it initially sounds as if a woman like me would cheapen our vocation. Does it mean my marriage is inferior? Reserved from experiencing this supreme gift? No, it doesn’t. But it could easily be interpreted that way if read out of context.
Emily: Context is key! And it’s so important to point out that that quote does not say “biological children,” but we assume that.
It just makes me sad because we have such an incredible wealth of examples of spiritual motherhood in our Catholic faith, beginning from the top down with our Blessed Mother. She had one biological child, but she has billions of children by the merits of her Son. Many very holy women in scripture are noted as being infertile. In some cases, these women do end up having a child, but they were not somehow less because they didn’t have children. In fact, chapter 54 of Isaiah opens by proclaiming “Raise a glad cry, you barren one!” and then goes on to say that such women are not forgotten by God, and that they should expand their tents to make room for all their spiritual children.
The most obvious example of spiritual parenthood in our day-to-day life is in godparents and confirmation sponsors, who spiritually adopt children and adults through these sacraments. We also see spiritual parenthood palpably in nuns, and call the head of a convent “Mother”. We celebrate openly the truth that children are not the only, or even necessarily the primary, way that God can make us fruitful. If it were, I can’t see how celibacy would ever be allowed. Obviously, this does not give license to artificial means of limiting birth in the name of spiritual parenthood.
But it baffles me that even though we have the truth of spiritual parenthood glaring us in the face, and the evidence that fruitfulness extends beyond children, that we fail to apply this truth to married couples who are infertile, or married couples who for any number of reasons cannot add a child to their family.
Jen: This whole topic was the source of much angst and depression when we were trying to conceive and it just wasn’t happening. Maybe I struggled more because I actually did have a son but he was in heaven. Why do we not talk more about spiritual motherhood? Why do we just assume that you have to have living children in order to be a mother? God has created every woman—including nuns, like you said Emily—to be a mother in some way, shape, or form.
Looking back during our struggle with infertility (after we lost our first son), I actually was doing motherly things—teaching religion class at my church, coaching a soccer team of 11-year old girls, being a godmother to our nephew. But since nobody was talking about my worth as a woman and spiritual mother, I didn’t find fulfillment in that. All I wanted was to be a mother to a living child. I can’t help but think that I missed out on a big opportunity to use the other gifts God has given me.
Logan and I even became foster parents during that time of infertility, and we fostered a baby and then a toddler before finally getting pregnant again. That experience really made me realize the importance of doing what God calls me to, whether or not that includes birthing a baby, and to use my other God-given gifts. I just wish I had learned that earlier. Thankfully, I’m aware of it now, and I’m trying to the best of my ability to use those gifts while caring for our 3 boys.
Emily: Yes, that’s why it’s so important to understand this spiritual side of parenthood. You were robbed of finding the value of what God was trying to show you in that time of waiting and longing because you didn’t have the truth enforced to you, as you said, that our very nature as women is motherhood.
Mary: Y’all are feeding my heart as an infertile woman because not only was I feeling broken in respect to how God made me, but I was feeling isolated from other Catholic fertile women who didn’t seem to recognize such value in me. This stereotype of Catholic motherhood ends up limiting God rather than freeing the woman to discover every single aspect of the person whom God created her to be. Whether she has zero or twenty children, every woman is called to cultivate her own unique gifts and talents to serve God and shape the world in a specific and beautiful way that only she can.
And I, too, wonder how we so easily forget the richness of spiritual parenthood. We encounter priests sometimes daily and refer to them as “Father,” yet they have no biological children (most of the time). “Mother” Teresa was known for being abundantly fruitful, yet never gave birth. And most of us were single throughout our entire teenage years and some of us throughout our 20s, but does that mean we were not called to bear fruit, nurturing and protecting in ways that truly define spiritual motherhood and fatherhood?
CCC 1654 says,“Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, hospitality, and of sacrifice.”
Emily: So spot on! You know, if we take this idea to the extreme – that our ability to have children is the indicator that we should have children – then the Church would demand that women marry and start having children as soon as they hit puberty. Obviously, reason comes in to render that idea absurd, but just because we don’t have biological children for any number of reasons does not limit our ability to be mothers.
One of my good friends converted to Catholicism a few years back. I was her sponsor and it was awesome to be able to go through that process with her. She calls me her spiritual mother now, even though she’s older than me. My three year old daughter likes to “mother” her little brother, imitating me by giving him kisses and hugs, and saying things like “It’s ok boo” when he gets hurt. She is a natural nurturer. God isn’t limited by our fertility or even our age to make us mothers.
One of the most loving women I’ve ever known was my grandmother. Now, she has four biological children, nine biological grandchildren, and 15 biological great-grandchildren. But that woman’s progeny extends infinitely beyond that because she just loved people. Everyone she ever met felt loved by her, and that love, that nurturing, that protecting – that is what defines a mother.
Mary: I love those stories!
Jen: Like you said, Emily, our Blessed Mother only had one child…yet she’s a spiritual mother to all of us! I also know many beautiful women, married and not, who don’t have the family they always envisioned but are bearing fruit in so many other ways. We really aren’t doing anyone any favors when we fail to encourage women (and men, for that matter) to embrace their state of life, no matter what it is—married or single, having no babies or a dozen. One state of life is not holier than another. We are all called to holiness, and perhaps that’s the most important thing about Catholic motherhood and fatherhood.
Emily: “One state of life is not holier than another.” Boom! Holiness isn’t defined by a number of children, or by whether you say Mass or live in a convent. It is defined by actively and constantly looking for the will of God every moment and saying yes, and realizing that that yes will look different for everyone, even for the same people over the course of their life.
A “yes” to God isn’t static, it’s living. For some, that yes will give them 10 or more children. For others, that yes will give them none. Through our vocations and the fiats we gave when embracing them, we have the opportunity to understand the infinite creativity and love of our imaginative God.