Step back a couple of years and I would not have believed that I would be writing this post as I felt motherhood would always remain a distant dream. After over six years of praying and trying for a family I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy in July 2019, following the process of IVF. A process which though sometimes turbulent, was what I truly believe was the answer to our prayers. Our little boy was our very last frozen embryo and a survivor from the very start! As a cradle Catholic and having studied Theology for over fifteen years I prayed, questioned and over analysed everything like crazy. My relationship with God and with Church teaching had taken on a very close resemblance to a rollercoaster.
Prior to the start of our second round of IVF I spoke with a close Catholic friend from Africa and we prayed together. She prayed for the strength and intercession of my ancestors; before, during and after my pregnancy. Coming from an Irish background, I understood the significance of ancestry and especially the power of our female ancestors moving through the generations. It was when I was in labour that I really felt the true power of these intercessions. Due to complication after complication, more and more decisions were taken out of my hands and I had to trust all of the medical professionals who surrounded me. Through hours of agony and fear I prayed and pulled on the strength of all of the women who had come before. A deep strength came from somewhere I didn’t know existed. I visualised Mary, our Heavenly Mother, a young woman going into labour with no pain relief and no medical care in a drafty barn and I physically felt her strength. I don’t think I have ever identified more as a woman than in those twenty-four hours in my life. It was also a time when I felt as far from, and as close to, God as I have ever felt. Something Pope Francis said of Mary in 2015 which has stayed with me and especially spoke to me in those long hours of labour: “She gives us Jesus, she shows us Jesus, she lets us see Jesus,”[i] and she certainly gave me Jesus during that time and gave me the strength to survive. It also reminded me how extraordinarily incredible motherhood is.
And now I am here. A woman, a wife, a theologian, a Catholic and a mother. Along with research for my PhD thesis which looks at the relationships between the lived experiences of English Catholic women and Church teaching on family, I have read a great deal of Pope Francis’ work on his understanding of motherhood and have drawn a great deal of strength from his words. His views on motherhood come from his own personal family experience, from scripture and tradition and from encounters with many Catholic mothers with whom he has had audiences with over the years. He has broken the Papal mould in terms of engaging with women and their lives and despite closing the door to discussion of female ordination, he has entered into dialogue with women in a way no Pope has done before. Although far from being a feminist, Pope Francis’ willingness to engage with women as mothers, sisters, teachers, theologians and much more, the lives of women are beginning to have a light shone on them and their important roles realised. There are schools of thought in Feminist Theology which believe that the Church Father’s declared Mary as ‘ever virgin’ as a way to ‘deal’ with Mary’s femaleness and raise her onto an untouchable pedestal rather than focus on her human womanhood and motherhood[ii]. However, there are women who continue to explore this humanness; the pain, the passion and the woman whom Mary was. This is important for women in the Church as the elevation to sainthood and virginal holiness of Mary can alienate many and seem irrelevant to women who look to the woman who was the mother of Jesus, and empathise with all of the human pain and emotion she experienced. As a discipline, Feminist Theology looks to the experiences of women and the visceral, painful, powerful experience of bringing life into the world is one which should not be overlooked. However, it is probably too physical and messy for the Church to want to discuss and, as with many other experiences of women, are bypassed by mainstream theology.
Motherhood is made up of so much joy, pain, anxiety, monotony and sometimes loneliness. It often feels a long way from the feminine and tender picture of motherhood which the Church has a tendency to paint. Whilst it is refreshing to hear Pope Francis talk about the importance of women and mothers in the Church, as well as actively look to engage with women, I still feel that the realities of our lives are too often overlooked. This disconnection with real life seems to alienate many women who feel that what the Church has to say to them is irrelevant and frustrating. And so, as women and mothers we continue to look to our Heavenly Mother and draw on her strength as we live and love and struggle. The power of the Incarnation continues to speak to mothers throughout history, and our unique and vital relationship with God, through Mary, strengthens us as we move through our lives.
(Image credit https://foreveramber.co.uk/week-19-pregnancy-diary/)
[i] See Pope Francis, General Audience, Wednesday 7th January 2015.
[ii] See Isherwood and McEwan Introducing Feminist Theology Second ed, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield 2001.