There are two guilt-inducing monologues that play in my head each day.
On one shoulder is a snooty professional smirking at the zucchini puree smeared on my sweatshirt. She rolls her eyes when my phone calls are colored by the squeaks of a Sophie giraffe. She counts the minutes left in my baby’s nap as I scramble to finish my articles. And at the end of each day she gestures towards the accomplishments of renowned female journalists and documentarians with a “you think you’ll ever get there like this?”
On the other shoulder a poster-child for motherhood raises her eyebrows at the laundry amassing on the floor. She shames me for resorting to frozen pizza for the third night in a row. And berates me for carting my baby to interviews or film sets. At the end of each day she looks at the “pitiable” fruits of my motherhood and reminds me I’m “selfish, selfish, selfish.”
I know many women who work full-time and feel the need to offer justifications when they explain their childcare situation. I know women who stay at home full-time who feel the need to promise a future where they will get back in the workforce. And as a mother who works from home I’m in the unique position of feeling half guilty on both ends.
Above all is the uncomfortable void of cultural consensus about what is “right.” My generation of mothers are wedged between two eras, the first encouraging strictly “daily sacrifices for husband and children,” as the way to sanctity, according to Pope Pius XII, and the second affirming that women who work “make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of ‘mystery’...” according to St. John Paul II. The real question, though, is can I do both in a day without feeling guilt?
Post-industrial motherhood has grappled with its new terrain for decades. Coming from a largely agrarian workforce where men and women worked from the home and cared for the children, we have struggled to determine what makes a “good mother” as work has shifted outside the home.
For Catholic women this is particularly trying as we are raised since childhood to esteem motherhood in a way that is often countercultural and we grow to view motherhood with a holy awe as a sacred calling. But the healthy re-emphasis on the importance of motherhood has taken on the undertone of an exclusive moral choice, just as broader secular culture looks at “career women” as having made the “right” choice, presenting my generation of Catholic women a false dichotomy of misery if they have the slightest doubt about their path.
Yet, like many things we wish were black and white- this isn’t. Like so many choices we make, the church teaching is not explicit, it is left to meditate and uncover through our personal prayer lives, discernment and place in life.
It’s a difficult balance, and one that can leave many Catholic women who recognize the significance of their vocation uneasy. It can lead us to make ultimatums, to judge others’ choices. And it can leave you with a profound sense of guilt.
It is important we dethrone this mythical “perfect mother” in our minds. For many women it is a talisman we unhealthily hold onto when real motherhood means self-sacrifice. And there are many modes for that. For some that will mean surrendering a career or turning down a promotion. For some it will mean picking up a job when you would rather stay at home. For all who wish it, it will be sanctifying.
Walking through the airport a few weeks ago I was a vision of distress. With my baby strapped around my back, camera equipment in my arms, and sweat stains on my shirt I hustled to catch a five-hour flight for a documentary my husband and I were shooting. As the aforementioned guilt-inducing voices in my head started chattering away I heard a woman yell, “You can do it mama!” I turned to see a middle-aged woman with two little girls and a shirt with large cursive font that said “The struggle is real” on it. God had sent me my own “Clarence” for the day, and it got me thinking about what mothers need.
The saints of our time may live lives of unconventional motherhood, but they will be ones of inconceivable love and joyful self-sacrifice. They will be strengthened by sisterly charity and not condemnation. I want us all to be bellowing “You can do it mama!” to all mothers grappling with this path to sainthood. So whether you’re hobbling sense out of unkempt homes or apologizing when child-rearing spills messily into your work, this is my ode to you. You can do it mamas.