My father was a Marine colonel. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. I grew up Catholic, but I really became serious about my faith when I came to realize both the ugliness of college life and the beauty of the Catholic faith while attending Mt. St. Mary’s University in Maryland. I was encouraged by many friends, seminarians, and priests to transfer to Christendom College. There my faith life flourished—spiritually, intellectually, liturgically—and there I met my husband, Matt. We’ve been married for 15½ years and have eight children.
How do I understand myself as a mother? I want to answer this question by means of three brief stories or vignettes, ones that have helped me and continue to help me to understand myself and express my own experience of motherhood.
The first story is an event in the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe. St. Maxmilian was in a concentration camp. One day the Nazis came to put fear into the prisoners by executing someone from among their ranks. The person they chose to kill was a man that Maximilian knew to be a husband and father. So, unprecedently, Maximilian volunteered his own life in place of the life of this young husband and father. The surprised Nazis turned to him to ask him who he was, and he answered simply, “I am a Catholic priest.” That is how he identified himself. He had grown into his vocational role in such a way that it became his identity, not in a way that suppressed his personality or individuality, but in a way that completed and perfected it. I hope, I pray, that if someone were to ask me who I was in a moment in which I had to stand up as a witness for something great, I would be satisfied and indeed honored to answer, simply, “I am a Catholic mother.”
This leads me to a second brief story, one from my own life. Matt and I did our marriage prep with a priest who is “old school,” no-nonsense, devoted, and beloved priest. After one our sessions, he took me aside and said in his gruff voice, “You know, Terrie, you really are preparing for the vocation of motherhood.” In all honesty, I was befuddled. What?! I thought he was crazy. Here I was, in love with Matt, engaged to be married, busy with wedding planning, looking forward to the big day and to the honeymoon and to getting to know my husband—and our priest is talking about my vocation to motherhood! I wanted to be a beautiful bride; I wanted to be a wife. I argued with him that I didn’t even know even what it was to be a wife yet, let alone a mother.
But our priest’s insistent words stuck with me. Now, I still don’t understand it fully; I’m still trying to figure out the tensions and hidden connections between my being a wife and my motherhood. But I know there is wisdom here, and that my identity is tied deeply to my motherhood, and that my motherhood is the fulfillment of my being a wife. It is the fulfillment of my femininity. What our priest was telling me, I think, is connected with what Maximilian Kolbe had learned. In other words, I am a Catholic mother, and this is a mysterious and difficult vocational role and identity to be granted and to live up to.
A third story—or in this case perhaps I should say it is more of an idea—comes from Jean Vanier. Jean Vanier is a Frenchman, a philosopher, and most importantly the founder of the l’Arche communities, communities that take in persons with intellectual disabilities and in a sense bring them to life again through the service of love, especially touching them and making them feel secure in being loved. Jean Vanier has been on my mind lately because he just won the Templeton Prize, a $1.7 million award given to honor a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. He has also been on my mind for the last year or so because my seventh child, Maria Grace, has Down syndrome—a surprise that is turning out to be a great blessing in my life, especially in terms of understanding my motherhood. When Jean Vanier speaks about love, he says something curious. He says that love is not doing something, as we often think; I love someone to the extent that I do things for them. For a mother, I think, this can be a misunderstanding that diminishes one’s motherhood. No, Jean Vanier says, to love is not to do, but to reveal—it is to reveal another person to himself or herself. One way that I understand this is to say that love is light. Love illuminates, it brings to light, the full reality of another. What I’m slowly coming to see about my motherhood is that it is a vocation to love in this sense. Being a mother involves revealing my children to themselves, thus allowing their full reality and identity to come to light. So, I hope one day to be able to say, with full honesty, that I am a Catholic mother and that the primary thing I did in my life was to reveal others to themselves, especially my children, by enabling them to know, accept, and perfect the beautiful selves that they are.
Right now, though, I find myself still in the very beginning stages of being a Catholic mother in this sense. This has hit home for me especially over the past four-and-a-half years, that is, ever since Maria Grace, our beautiful daughter with Down syndrome, swept into our lives. Some things are etched in our memories in a way that we can never erase. It’s like that for me when I recall the day Maria was born. I gave birth to her at home with the midwives after a very short labor. Soon after the midwives placed her on my chest. I looked down at her, looked up at my husband, looked down at her again, and oh! . . . I quickly looked to my midwives. “Um, does she have Down syndrome?” They answered, “Yes, we think so,” and then they started to tell me what they saw, all the markers for Down syndrome. . . . Total blur. . . . I didn’t cry, I didn’t get upset. I just said, “How am I going to do this? I already have so much on my plate.” I was afraid that any emotion I showed would be a rejection of her. But it was very hard at first. After the birth the midwives run an herbal, healing bath for the mother and then bring the baby in to bathe with the mother. Previously this had been a beautiful, bonding moment for me with each of my babies. With Maria, it was almost like torture. I held her and caressed her, but she didn’t feel like one of mine. I gazed down at her, but she didn’t look like one of mine. She cried a few times and that was perhaps the hardest, because she didn’t even sound like one of mine. Her cry did not resemble the lusty cry of my previous babies. Her cry was shrill and high-pitched, and each time I heard it was like hearing nails running on a chalkboard.
The early weeks were filled with a lot of doctor appointments, trips to specialists, cardiologists, and geneticists. Some of the appointments were encouraging and others felt like doom and gloom. Those weeks were also filled with a lot of walking, praying, and attempting to sort things out in my head. In the morning I’d go out into the garden before anyone else was awake and just sort of moan to God, “How can I do this? How can I meet her needs and take care of everyone else? Dear Lord, you’ve given me too much.” I, I, I, me, me, me. That was the tone and content of my prayers to God. Fists clenched, rigid with anxiety, I’d ask, “What about me? Will things ever be normal again?” . . . And then one day, they were. But, in fact, they were better. The overwhelming fears faded. And instead of knowing Down syndrome, I grew to know Maria Grace, this beautiful little girl who is the absolute sunshine of our home! Her soft little body that melts into you when she hugs you, and her eyes that twinkle with stars. A little girl with incredible drive, who works so hard to master each stage of development, but who also figures out how to find mischief wherever she goes! A little girl who sings “Itsy Bitsy Spider” every time she takes a shower and who never fails to blow a million kisses when I put her down to sleep. A little girl who reaches for the hands of her mommy and daddy when we say grace and who raises her own arms to heaven when she hears the name of Jesus. In a good—in a very good—way, then, Maria Grace shames me, not only when I recall how I struggled to accept this seemingly so different baby into my life and into my heart, but also every day when I recognize the honor it is to be her mother and the mother of all my children. God has honored me with a vocation to motherhood into which I am still growing and into which I will, hopefully, continue to grow to my dying day. And in a funny way it has been Maria Grace, our daughter with Down syndrome, who has most revealed this to me. Her love, her very existing, has revealed me and my vocation to myself.
Consider, then, these words written by Jean Vanier: “To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance; it is to understand them, understand their cries and their body language; it is to rejoice in their presence, spend time in their company and communicate with them. To love is to live a heart-to-heart relationship with another, giving to and receiving from each other.” Yes, as her mother, I love Maria Grace, and she, my young daughter, is teaching me the art of loving in the way that Jean Vanier speaks of. She is teaching me to understand better that, contrary to my desires for “me time” and contrary to the vanity of all those expectations and dreams I myself determined for my own life—she is teaching me that my primary identity is that I am her mother and the mother of all my children. I am still far from it, I know, but Maria Grace and all my children are preparing me for the end of my earthly life, when I hope to assert with gratitude and honesty, simply, . . . “I am a Catholic mother.”