Bishop's Column

Motherhood and the common good

Last week, the New York Post published an essay arguing for a new concept in the workplace: “me-ternity leave.”  The essay’s author argued that working mothers—who are sometimes able to take leave from their jobs after having children—are granted a “sabbatical-like break,” a “time and space for reflection,” when they take maternity leave. She wrote that it was unfair that working mothers in her office were granted a “break,” while “co-workers without kids would stay behind to pick up the slack.”

The essay was entitled “I want all the perks of maternity leave — without having any kids.” It seemed to me to be so outrageous I thought it was satire. But it wasn’t. The author said that in her workplace, “parenthood was the only path that provided a modicum of flexibility,” and that working parents are more likely to achieve a good “work-life balance.”

Suggesting that working mothers have an easy time balancing their lives is certainly naïve. And saying that a mother’s time with a newborn is a “sabbatical-like break” is simply wrong and misguided. But the essay should not be dismissed offhand because it clearly points, in a disturbing way, to a mentality prevalent in our culture today. Simply put, we are forgetting the central role that parents, especially mothers, play in creating just, virtuous, thriving, and stable communities. 

We are forgetting that parenting is not primarily a journey of self-discovery or personal satisfaction. We are forgetting that parenting, motherhood especially, is an act of generosity and sacrifice, undertaken for the good of children, and for the common good of our civilization. And we are forgetting that all of us have a common responsibility to support the noble vocation of motherhood.

The month of May is a month when we, as Catholics, celebrate in a special way the sacrifice of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. We crown the blessed mother with flowers in the “May crowning.” Many families build a “May altar” of devotion to the Blessed Mother in their homes, adorned with flowers, candles, and pictures of Our Lady.  Some families plant marigolds- “Mary’s gold,” during the month of May. On May 13, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and on May 31, we honor two mothers as we celebrate the feast of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.

On Sunday, we honor our own mothers as we celebrate the civic holiday of Mother’s Day. All families are encouraged to honor their mothers with special gifts, meals, and celebrations.

The month of May is a time in which we particularly recognize the centrality of motherhood to the human family, and the gift of motherhood—in all its beauty—to each one of us.  Pope St. John Paul II said that “motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life… from the beginning a special openness to the new person… In this openness…the woman ‘discovers herself through a sincere gift of self.’”  Of course, not all women become physical mothers—but Pope St. John Paul said that all women are called to exercise “cultural” and “spiritual motherhood.”

Each one of us is called to help foster, protect, and celebrate the gift of motherhood in our families, communities, and nation. This is, for example, the reason why working mothers ought to be given flexibility and support from their employers: exceeding what is given to other employees. It is also the reason why our government should encourage and support the institution of marriage, in which mothers are joined to fathers in a relationship of mutual aid and support and directed toward children, the hope of a future. And it is the reason why we should commit to providing support, companionship, and resources to women in difficult pregnancies, in poverty or isolation, who may be understandably afraid of the sacrificial life of motherhood. Motherhood is a noble, beautiful, and challenging vocation, which no one should have to face without help, or without hope.

Our call to support motherhood should remind us, in all contexts, that the family is the nucleus of society, the basic-building block from which all communities begin. Supporting motherhood does not discriminate against unmarried or childless people, instead, it recognizes that every person has a mother, who likely has faced challenges, and made sacrifices, and has needed support.

The New York Post’s essay got it wrong. Support for families is not an unfair perk, and maternity is not a “break” from what’s really important. Motherhood, and family life, is what’s really important.  It’s one of the most important things in the whole world. And reasonable and decent support for mothers and fathers is an act of justice, and essential for the common good. Mothers participate in the mystery of Mary’s motherhood, and in the mystery of Christ’s salvation. 

This month, let us pray for mothers, let us work to support families, and let us thank God for the gift of our own mothers, and for the the beautiful gift of our gracious and holy Blessed Mother.

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