The Magnitude of Motherhood

A week or so before the birth of our first child, I suddenly realized that I no longer feared labor. Let me clarify: while I held apprehensions about the intense birthing I’d never experienced, my thoughts had turned less to that one-time event and more to what came after. In short, I realized that the birth of our child would only last hours, perhaps days at the most. But our child would be ours to cherish and support for the rest of his or her life. While labor approached, so did lives—my life as a mother, my husband’s life as a father, our life together as a family, all wrapped up in our very needy, physical, helpless child, whose own life ex utero would begin shortly.  The dwarfing, sobering reality of what would soon happen—the beginning of the rest of all of our lives—and the all-consuming magnitude of motherhood made my previously fraught ruminations on labor and delivery seem short-sighted and small.

Nearly eleven years later, and five more babies later, motherhood is no less gigantic to me. If anything, the frivolous has become smaller and the significant weightier. My clueless confidence has long since been refined, over and over again, to humility at the sheer ridiculous responsibility motherhood requires of women. It is ridiculous responsibility not because it is silly, but because it is impossible. There’s no possible way I can mother my children well, and in just the right ways, all the days of their childhood lives, or even, God willing, into their adult years.  

G.K. Chesterton, the famous British commentarian, understood this. In What’s Wrong with the World, he spoke to the baffling characterization of motherhood as trivial. Instead, Chesterton articulated, in words we can still appreciate, the immeasurable magnitude of motherhood.

Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean.

When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Yes, indeed. Pity us mothers. Have mercy and compassion and empathy for the magnitude of our roles. Forgive our pride and self-importance and negligence and whining, understanding our sinful responses to motherhood and our sins within our vocations with the best possible construction: on our hearts are written the searing, impossible, gigantic responsibilities of lives, lives which we know we don’t and can’t maintain or keep perfectly. We are both exalted by our gifts and flattened by their hugeness. Remember us in your prayers, and commend us to the only One who ever did, does, and can handle giving us worlds, both created and spiritual, and making them well and perfect for us.

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