Motherhood Brings Fulfillment Out of Brokenness

Our bodies are hollowed out with pain, yet it's in that sacrifice that true happiness lies.

I sit at my dining room table with one eye on my two-month-old, swaddled and snoozing away in her bassinet, and one ear listening for the stomping steps of my two-and-a-half-year-old, who is currently napping upstairs. The other eye and ear are mine, for now: this time, quietly lodged in the center of each day, is the time I use to write.

There are countless articles out there about motherhood and sacrifice. In 2013, Lauren Sandler said that the secret to being a writer and mother was to have only one child. In 2015, Sarah Manguso wrote a beautiful article for Harper’s about the great “shattering” involved in motherhood. Rufi Thorpe commented on motherhood’s inherent sacrifices and the writing life for Vela Magazine in 2016. And this past week, Claudia Dey wrote about the grief inherent in motherhood for The Paris Review.

These pieces share a similar theme, that motherhood’s sacrifice and banality are in direct contradiction with the quiet and self-focus necessary to curate a career (especially a creative one). Many of them seem to argue that the selflessness required by motherhood is too much, too patriarchal, or too painful for the modern career woman to countenance.

Another piece, published last week in The New York Times, sought to shed some of this weight. Author Diksha Bashu argues instead that motherhood is fun—even selfish:

Maybe more of us would have children if it weren’t seen as such an exercise in sacrifice. If we weren’t told that we were going to lose every bit of the self we had finally grown to love.

I want to enjoy this without caveats, without all the talk of selflessness and without seeing this change my identity. I want to be a mother and a writer, and a whole slew of other things, with no thought given to the order of those identities.

Bashu’s words mirror those of author Karen Rinaldi, who wrote about motherhood for The New York Times last year: “The assertion of motherhood as sacrifice comes with a perceived glorification,” she wrote. “A woman is expected to sacrifice her time, ambition and sense of self to a higher purpose, one more worthy than her own individual identity. This leaves a vacuum in the place of her value…. When we cling to the idea of motherhood as sacrifice, what we really sacrifice is our sense of self, as if it is the price we pay for having children.”

Instead, Rinaldi argues, we should reframe motherhood as a privilege: “We redirect agency back to the mother, empowering her, celebrating her autonomy instead of her sacrifice. …[B]y owning our roles as mothers and refusing the false accolades of martyrdom, we do more to empower all women.”

So which is it? Is motherhood selfish or sacrificial? Is it emptying or empowering? Is it delightful or is it difficult?

The answer, of course, is yes.

For a time during college, I was obsessed with my body. I worked out too much and ate too little in my efforts to become fit, beautiful, desirable. I wanted to achieve a twisted sort of perfection, caught up in our world’s view of bodily idealism, with its fixation on the quantifiable and the sexualized.

It was a fixation that left me shriveled up, lonely, and hungry—not just hungry in the physical sense, but in a larger spiritual sense. I was not enough. Every minute of every day, I knew this to be true. No matter how many miles I ran or calories I cut, this emptiness persisted.

With time and prayer, I realized that my problem was in seeking goodness and perfection in my own flesh. I needed to look, in the words of Ann Voskamp, to the “Messiah, not the mirror…to the Savior, not the self.” And as I looked to that Messiah, I saw that my own efforts at self-fulfillment had fallen short because they were self-focused. According to the Gospel, the only thing that will truly satisfy the soul is death: a death of self, a giving up of one’s will to something greater and truer and deeper.

Motherhood brought this lesson home for me because it is literally a giving up of one’s body to house and sustain and grow someone else. In pregnancy, we become vessels, emptied out to house another soul, another life. We are hollow inside, but hollow only so we can be filled. Pregnancy is, in many ways, a sacrifice. It is also a supreme wonder and inestimable joy.

Similarly, childbirth is a brokenness—another sort of hollowing out, a pain that racks and rends, yet it results in deep fulfillment and happiness. After giving birth to my second child, a birth that was infinitely easier and smoother than my first one, my midwife was quick to remind me that I had still gone through a trauma and needed to rest. I had been emptied and pained and broken. Kate Middleton’s appearance after the birth of her firstborn, stomach still round and soft, was a reminder to the world that the hollowing out of pregnancy will not leave us unchanged. Our flesh is permanently transformed by the life it holds. Things don’t just spring back. They’re touched and molded by the life within.

As Sarah Manguso wrote in her Harper’s piece, “The point of having a child is to be rent asunder, torn in two.”

It is sad, perhaps, that I needed motherhood to truly learn this lesson, to see my body the way God intended it, as a vessel for service rather than for self. But I think motherhood is also a gift to humankind in that it teaches us this lesson so literally. Some men and women will learn this lesson without it, giving their lives to the needy, the vulnerable, the oppressed, without a second thought. Others of us will have to learn through one means or another that we are not our own, that we were bought at a price. “Therefore,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “glorify God in your body.”

I was reminded of this when reading these beautiful words by Amanda Evinger, written for the National Catholic Register this past March:

A few years ago, I gave birth to full-term conjoined twin girls. They died shortly after birth, and our lives have changed dramatically since they went back to their Heavenly Father. Their coming and leaving kindled in us a keen awareness of the gift of children, the eternal destiny of our family, and the beauty of the Gospel of Life.

When a woman really gives herself to motherhood, it hurts. And for some of us, it “martyrs” the heart. Yet, there is something intensely gorgeous about this hurt at times. Something seemingly mystical, something unique and pre-eminent like nothing else on the face of the earth. It is something that calms the cacophony of our fleshly ways and allows our soul to ascend beyond the drab humdrum of a self-centered existence. To me, it is like an ever-burning ember, creatively singeing away my pride, branding my heart with the divine mission of maternity….

Sacrifice is innately etched into the tapestry of motherhood. From the moment that a woman becomes a mother, she begins giving of herself—of her flesh and blood, and of the strength of her spirit. From the moment of conception, the minuscule child within her begins to draw nutrients out of her body, to form its own body in God’s image and likeness. What could be more awe-inspiring?

In motherhood, sacrifice and pain go hand in hand with joy. That is the thing so many of those writing about motherhood don’t capture. That is the thing that scores of women throughout our world need to understand. Our world hates pain and suffering. The United States is grappling with a massive opioid crisis that bears testament to that fact. We want to hit the “mute” button on our pain, make it go away, bury it with drugs or pills or paychecks. But pain teaches us to see what truly matters.

I am thankful for motherhood for many reasons, chief among them the lives of my two sweet, smart, and beautiful daughters. But I am also thankful for motherhood because it has transformed my gaze. It has taught me to see my body as a vessel, my life as one that is not my own.

We are privileged to have children. This is a fact that mothers, laden with cares over spilled Cheerios and poopy diapers and screaming toddlers, may all too easily forget. But we are lucky to have had the blessing of bringing life into this world. Not every pregnancy results in a birth. Some lives—frail and beautiful and short—are not lived outside the womb. We mothers should be thankful for every day we get to sacrifice for and with our children—for every day is a day we could have spent without them.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

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16 Responses to Motherhood Brings Fulfillment Out of Brokenness

  1. Jenna says:

    This was a well-written and moving essay — but you forgot to mention the many people whose parents only tramsmitted the pain and sacrifice of parenting, without the joy or affection, which only results in dysfunction in their children. Can we just be honest and admit that there are some people who really shouldn’t have children?

  2. anon says:

    The archetypical modern career woman’s observations that maternal sacrifices are incompatible with focused creative work, and Gracie’s observation that the sacrifices are more than worth it, are BOTH true. There is only one way to square the circle–the way that many creative women have chosen over the centuries: get a nanny. The nanny / governess / daycare teacher is an unsung hero of our era. She should be celebrated as she deserves. I suspect many mothers are ashamed to admit they have “help.” That’s a pity.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    I suggest the author read up on the damages to the human body that are possible in childbirth. Fistulas, permanent incontinence, permanent back pain…

    If the author herself had ended up with one of these situations, I wonder how quick she would be to applaud martyrdom. There’s a reason we have pain-killers.

  4. RATMDC says:

    OK, but not everybody wants children, and there’s nothing wrong with that. People need to stop bothering them, and respect their stances. No more “you’ll change your mind,” among many other patronizing statements.

  5. gem6183 says:

    And when the hollowing out and pain keep on coming, with one new baby after the next, and without the support system or other resources to nurture each new life and heal the life from which it sprang? What about that all-too-common scenario?

  6. p myshkin says:

    it’s funny how much the martyrdom is the Cross of this moment’s obligations. I want so much to be doing this that or the other, but He comes in the form of six little crumb crunchers who must be fed, heard, loved, attended to, fussed over, cleaned, corralled, refereed, time outed, tickled, hugged, and lived with as the Divine Image they are. And this doesn’t even begin to touch the Cross when they try to break my heart. All shall be well.

  7. DRK says:

    I went to a funeral where the daughter gave a very moving eulogy for her mother. The daughter mentioned her mother’s lifelong self-sacrifice on her behalf, and gave it as an example that she, herself, could never live up to; which is why she was going to remain childless!

    Look, at the end of the day, people procreate because there’s a deep biological urge to reproduce. For most of history, if a woman engaged in sexual intercourse, eventually she was likely to get pregnant. These days, motherhood is a choice. People who choose this path should certainly do their very best to be good parents, but remember, taking care of your own genetic material is not noble; you are literally taking care of your own investment in time and resources. So don’t pat yourself quite so hard on the back.

    It is definitely good for a person to experience what it is like to have to put the needs of others first. Childbirth is painful and dangerous. (but it is not a “brokeness”; if all goes well, it is your body doing what it is designed to do). Motherhood is composed of both joy and sorrow. All these things are true. But make too big of a deal about motherhood, go on and on about the hollowing out of self and pain and service, and you will end up with girls who do not want to be mothers themselves, because it just seems too hard and frankly, unappealing.

    I am a proud and happy mother and grandmother. What I am not, is a “vessel” with no sense of self because I have subordinated it all to my family.

    After all, if you lose yourself in motherhood, what will you do when your kids leave home?

  8. mrscracker says:

    grumpy realist says:

    “I suggest the author read up on the damages to the human body that are possible in childbirth. Fistulas, permanent incontinence, permanent back pain…”
    *************

    Sure, there can be serious complications, even fatal outcomes, but childbirth isn’t a disease. And there are health risks & lost health benefits in being childless, too.

    Some complications can be due to over-medicalizing delivery. Thankfully we’ve mostly gotten beyond routine enemas, drugging, confinement to hospital beds, episiotomies, & suchlike, but C-section rates are still over high. And there’s still a patronizing attitude lingering in some hospitals.

    Pain killers are a God send when appropriate but I personally think the long term negative effects can be worse than short term pain. It’s much easier to care for a newborn after a non-medicated delivery. At least that’s been my experience-8 times.
    🙂

  9. Good Reason says:

    For believers, the link to the divine is important. Consider this using about God by Simone Weil:

    “God accepted this diminution. He emptied a part of his being from himself. God permitted the existence of things distinct from himself. God denied himself for our sakes in order to give us the possibility of sending ourselves for him. This response, this echo, which it is in our power to refuse, is the only possible justification for the folly of love of the creative act.”

    And then consider this statement by Thomas S. Monson:

    “One cannot forget mother and remember God. One cannot remember mother and forget God.”

    God is allowing mothers to more fully take upon themselves the divine image, and how we as mortals relate to our mothers says something very, very important about our own spirituality.

    (PS I was surprised at some of the comments. I have eight children and am a distinguished professor, and no, there was no nanny. My husband and I were it. I thank God for the privilege of the discipleship of motherhood, which made me stronger and gave me a larger perspective.)

  10. mrscracker says:

    Good Reason :
    “…I was surprised at some of the comments. I have eight children and am a distinguished professor, and no, there was no nanny.”
    *****************
    That goes for me, too. Minus the “distinguished” & professor parts.

    And just speaking for myself, I don’t resemble Ma Kettle either. When I tell people I have 8 children & a dozen grandchildren, that’s the visual stereotype that seems to come to mind.
    (I loved Marjorie Main in that role, though.)

  11. Dain says:

    Oh come on. Giving birth to conjoined twins that die shortly after is horrible and tragic. There’s nothing even remotely glorious about it. It’s unequivocally better to have not experienced that.

    This kind of thing is religious conservatism at its worst.

  12. saurabh says:

    There is nothing noble or moving about the pain involved for mothers in early childhood. It is only an unfortunate byproduct of the way we evolved, which involves labor pain due to a mismatch in cranial size and the width of the birth canal, and breastfeeding, which is how our branch of vertebrates provides nutrition to infants. To the extent that these are unavoidable in order to have children they must be endured, but let us not delude ourselves into celebrating the resulting pain.

    Furthermore the celebration of motherhood as sacrifice means an eclipsing of the role of fathers, who really should be in there doing what they can to mitigate the pain and trauma of mothering. Casting motherhood as a noble sacrifice makes fatherly assistance seem less necessary or even undesirable. This is folly.

    Further, dads also need to love their children, and squeezing them out in order to celebrate the great sacrifice of mothers means both that women cannot have a life apart from their children, and men cannot have a life with them – a tragic loss for both.

    Let us seek balance – motherhood is painful and often odious. Let’s just get through it with generous help from dad, and move on to raising our kids together – and giving each other space to be other than parents as well.

  13. mrscracker says:

    Dain says:

    Oh come on. Giving birth to conjoined twins that die shortly after is horrible and tragic. There’s nothing even remotely glorious about it. It’s unequivocally better to have not experienced that”
    ***************

    I’m pretty sure every mother could agree that losing twins shortly after birth would be terrible & tragic.

    By stating “unequivocally” it would be better to have never experienced their birth & death is to devalue the precious time those parents were allowed to spend with their babies & the impact those children made on their family & others. Each life, however short, has a meaning & purpose. I think Mrs. Evinger understood that purpose well.

    We are each just a heartbeat away from eternity. Nothing in this present life is guaranteed, but we have the hope of one day being reunited in the next. That’s what makes it different for people of faith.

    God bless!

  14. Anne (the other one) says:

    Mrscracker, I agree.

    Some in our society applaud women who used yoga to open their chakras. This same society criticizes women who radical change their consciousness by becoming mothers.

    Saying “motherhood is painful and often odious” misses the spiritual dimensions of motherhood.

  15. Kurt Gayle says:

    Thank you, mrscracker, for saying this–it needed to said:

    “We are each just a heartbeat away from eternity. Nothing in this present life is guaranteed, but we have the hope of one day being reunited in the next. That’s what makes it different for people of faith. God bless!”

    Some years ago I got to know pretty well a number of families who had Downs Syndrome children. There were two comments from mothers that I will always remember: “We’re so lucky. Having her has made such a difference for our whole family–made us closer and more loving” (yes, I wrote it down as soon as I heard it) and “He’s a shining example of God’s Grace in our lives.”

  16. Peter says:

    The ontological and teleological vision of motherhood has been lost in the West, especially America. The traditional concept of the asceticism of motherhood, now eschewed, has been replaced by the twin phantasms of fulfillment and happiness.

    Every, and I mean every, potential and real mother is well aware of the nuclear option that (falsely) promises the latter.

    Divorce. The surest formula for success and advantage to the mother is secured by (often false) allegations of abuse, either to her or the kids. Nearly every American court system has help desks and legal-aid foundations located in the courthouses to assist with this. These bastard factories are taxpayer-funded and culturally supported.

    Widely, this battle is lost; long lost. At my church, we have a tiny Down baby, at one year just able to sit up. So loved by all, it’s almost unimaginable he’ll be left fatherless. The spirit of discontent is so strong with mothers, I leave nothing impossible, given what I’ve seen in close families that are close to me.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s much later than many think.

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