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 Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.