Happy Mother’s Day!
I dislike the commercialization of holidays and Mother’s Day is no exception. The images show happy smiling children and perfect looking mothers sitting in well-appointed chairs, reading Hallmark cards and sipping lemonade.
When my kids were growing up, my house was always a mess and my kids were loved but disheveled. My husband often forgot to get me flowers because he was working on a project in the yard.
It took me years to be honest with my husband and children that what I really wanted for Mother’s Day was to be by myself. I felt guilty, so I readily complied with attending early Mass (I loved that part) and coming home to a big brunch of pancakes and bacon and eggs. There were dishes sitting in the sink all day.
As our family grew, we splurged for the breakfast specials at Friendly’s to have one less mess to clean up at home. After we bought our first child home, I started a tradition of planting flowers in the yard on Mother’s Day. This tradition gave me a few hours alone while my husband and kids made dinner. Later, I added time to write and reflect. For some it may seem a contradiction to want time alone on Mother’s Day. But to me, a homeschooling mom of four children and one with special needs, alone time was a precious gift.
What irks me about the commercialization of Mother’s Day, like most holidays we celebrate in the U.S., is that it misses the heart of the matter. Motherhood is much more than flowers and lemonade and perfect families. As any mom will tell you, there is a reason why giving birth is referred to as labor. It’s really hard work with lots of blood, sweat and more than a few tears.
I have pictures of my deliveries, much to the disgust of my children. When they used to show their baby books, they started with the third page, where the happy clean baby is resting in our arms. That’s just fine with me. Someday they will understand my reasons.
Perfect images of motherhood is probably the reason why many of us struggle relating to the mother of Jesus. Depictions of virginal purity and heavenly visages make it hard to relate to the Mother of God. I recall my mother-in-law sharing her frustration with relating to Mary as a real woman. She recounted, “As the mother of six crazy kids, I couldn’t relate to a woman who had one child and He was perfect.”
I came to know the Mother of Jesus through her strength and quiet presence in the Gospels. She was a young Jewish woman who said yes to God’s will and the whole course of human history was changed forever. As a young mother, I often recalled Mary’s example expressed in Luke 2;19: “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart”
To me, the clearest definition of motherhood I ever read was from an old man in a temple. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, they were greeted by Simeon. He recognized the Messiah in this little holy family and prophesied with joy over the fulfillment for which he waited and prayed all of his life.
Simeon prophesied about Jesus and then declared to Mary, “A sword shall pierce your heart.” (Luke 2:35) This word is for every mother. Every mom knows that motherhood is fulfilling and heartbreaking. We long to rescue our children from every pain, but cannot. We have all loved our children, even when it hurts.
The place where I truly met the mother of God was at the foot of the cross.
The final words of a dying man are important indeed. So it was with Jesus. From the cross He said to His mother Mary, “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, Jesus said, “Behold your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
I have taken Jesus at His Word and accepted Mary as my mother in faith and in life. While I can’t relate to holy and Hallmark images of perfect motherhood, I can relate to Mary as mother because I know she’s been there and she understands.
Her heart was broken as she saw her son suffer, just as my heart is broken when my children are in pain. Motherhood hurts. Mary knows this and so I can trust her with my prayers.
For me, Michelangelo’s Pieta is another poignant image of motherhood that few women would consider a treasured gift, especially on Mother’s Day.
Yet, every Mother’s Day, I find myself contemplating this Pieta as the ultimate sacrifice of motherhood.
I also recall the moment the Pieta came to life for me.
I was in the hospital with Johanna for weeks one spring. It was a very difficult time. I watched a pregnant mom, full of life, grieve for her 5-year-old child who died from a shunt malfunction. The same surgery that has saved my daughter numerous times before, failed this little girl as her brain was crushed from pressure and her heart stopped beating.
In that same time, another little warrior was dying of complications from this same neurological disease. I knew the mom and daughter very well. They were frequent flyers with us in the PICU. Knowing that this little girl’s time was coming to an end, I wheeled Johanna down the hall to visit her little friend one last time. We prayed with Mom and Dad and sang a lullaby as we kissed her good-bye. That night, I cried and held Johanna’s tiny fingers in my hands as we drifted off to sleep, our hearts broken for our friends.
In the hours just before dawn, my friend’s husband knocked on my door to tell me his daughter had died and asked if I could come to see them. I quietly left Johanna’s side and followed him into their room.
Nurses and doctors had gathered to console the family. I walked into that room expecting to find my friend wailing over the body of her daughter. Instead I found the most poignant image of motherhood I have ever witnessed.
This holy mother sat holding her lifeless daughter tenderly in her arms. With maternal comfort and reverence, this grieving mom held her lifeless child and kissed her forehead as tears dripped onto her daughter’s brow.
All I could do was fall to my knees and kiss the baby’s feet and cry. My friend comforted me and this living image of the Pieta was emblazoned on my soul as an icon of motherhood that I will never forget.
Motherhood is anything but sterile and perfect. It’s not a holy card or a Hallmark greeting. It is full of life and death, joys and sorrows, smiles and tears. Motherhood will break your heart and mold it into something more.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
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