Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I first read The Awakening by American author Kate Chopin my junior year of high school. It was assigned reading in my class on American history and literature at my all girls Catholic high school. It was a kind of shocking read about a woman in a marriage in which she was provided for materially by her workaholic husband but hardly ever saw him. She grew in resentment of her children and husband over the course of a summer on the beach in a nice resort. She sought love from another man leaving her children to the care of her nurse. In the end, she decided that the only escape from her children was to kill herself (p. 120):
The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.
After reading this book, we discussed the sacrifices a woman has to make in order to be a mother, and the beginnings of the “women’s liberation” movement. Now that I am a mother myself I realize that this attitude toward one’s children is not new, but is as old as the existence of mothers.
A mother makes a sacrifice of many things when she chooses to give her body and life to her children, and the reality is that the evil one wants to make us mothers regret this sacrifice every single day. He wants us to regret that we have to give ourselves in care of our children, to think we are wasting our time and gifts, instead of seeing that motherhood is a beautiful opportunity to give ourselves to another human being in a way that can save our souls. He wants us to think that when we give of ourselves to our children that we will have nothing left for anyone else—that we will be left empty. One of the balms to heal us mothers of this regret and fear is to ask God to help us grow in the virtue of generosity and to show us how he wants us to serve him in our lives.
The Gospel passage from John about St. Mary Magdalen anointing Jesus’ feet with oil at Bethany after He raised her brother Lazarus from the dead (John 12:1-8) is a clear example of generosity in opposition to the pressures of the world to be selfish with one’s time and gifts:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him.
Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, "Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.
Jesus said, "Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.
When I read this passage, I see myself in the place of Mary. I have a choice to give myself in my vocation to my husband and children. The gift of myself is the greatest thing I have to give, and God gave me my free will to choose to give myself to others. Will I pour this costly oil onto Jesus’ feet by giving generously of these years of my fertility to my family? Or will I stand in fear that there will be nothing left of me to give?
I hear Judas saying, in his sly way: Why give of yourself in this way? You will have nothing left for yourself. Your gifts, which you could have used elsewhere, will be useless now.
Yet, Judas, does not care about others or me—he only cares about himself.
If I listened to him and chose to covet my time and talents, I would end up losing my soul to my selfishness. I would believe that I cannot serve my family and others at the same time. I would be afraid that if I gave of myself in one way, I could not possibly give of myself in another way.
Judas would have me neglect my children to spend endless hours seeking self-satisfaction, and end up like the mother in The Awakening feeling that the only way to escape would be to cut myself off entirely from my children. Or he would have me ignore my children to pursue my own talents and career to the detriment of the generosity that I owe them.
Thankfully, I have Jesus beside me rebuking Judas. He tells Judas to “leave her alone”—my children will not always be the little persons that they are now—one day they will not need my generosity in the laborious way they require it now. They are going to grow up. They will not always be with me in my home day to day. They will probably need me in different ways when they are grown, and even then, I must resist the temptation to not give of myself. It is not wasteful to pour my greatest gift of myself into the love and care of my family.
But this vocation of motherhood does not have to conflict with other gifts of myself. Mary could anoint Jesus with costly oil and still have money to give to the poor. The longer I have been a mother, the more God has led me to give of myself more to others outside my home. He has shown me that loving my husband, being a mother, working, taking time for self-care, serving the Church, and having a social life are all ways I am called to give of myself generously. They are not in conflict with my vocation, but can be united in a generous love of God and others. Christ wants us to live fully human lives, and has given us all gifts and talents to share.
It is hard to find balance in all the things that God has called us to. In attempting to be generous, we can easily give prodigally of ourselves in one area of our lives to the detriment of another. We can also give into the fear that we will not be happy in giving ourselves and covetously hold on to or use our time and talents on ourselves. In prayer, we can talk to God and ask him to help us find the balance, set our priorities and know our limits. Sometimes it means making a sacrifice of something we enjoy for the sake of a better thing. Sometimes it means rearranging our schedules—such as going to bed and waking up earlier in order to exercise at a time that is better for the family.
Virtue formation is slow, and we must take it one day at a time. Every little good act will help us form the good, virtuous habit. And we are not doing it alone; we have God’s grace to help us. We do not need to be afraid of giving of ourselves generously as modeled to us by all of the saints, Our Lady, and Jesus on the Cross. Christ wants to redeem every single moment of our time so that they can all be gifts to him, and he will not abandon us. He promises that we will be fulfilled and find joy if we submit ourselves to his will in our family life, work, and personal pursuits. When we give ourselves generously, we will find ourselves in him (Luke 9:23-25):
And he said to all, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
It is time for mothers to stop believing the lies of the world that make us afraid, and embrace the joy that comes with the generous love of the Cross.