Small children never doubt their need for a family. They live in utter dependency. Without help, they can’t eat, or get dressed, or hear their favorite stories read aloud.

They are on the receiving end of everything, and it makes for a good life. But, at some point, they become aware of yet another need: the need to be needed. They know that they’re not quite in “full communion” with the older family members, because they’re not yet contributing their fair share. To be needed — and not just to be loved — is what it means to be fully engaged in family life.

One afternoon when I was very young, I heard a scream from the kitchen. It was Mom’s voice! Immediately, I bolted down the hall and arrived to see my dear Mom backed up against the kitchen counter, terror flashing in her eyes. Mom scared? It was something I’d never seen before.

Her eyes were fixed downward, and she could barely get the words out: “Th- th-there’s a mouse!”

Then I realized: My mother needed me. Little me.

With the fire of filial courage inflaming my breast, off I went.

It took less than a minute. After cornering it, I reached down and grabbed it by the tail and picked it up. It was teeny-tiny. But Mom still looked on with terror in her eyes.

I then asked what seemed to be a very logical question, “What should I do?”

“Just get it out of here!”

Dutifully, I evicted the creature from the house and the drama was over.

But I knew that I had ascended to a new plane.

For the first time in my life, my Mom needed me! I could actually meet the needs of the person who had been meeting all of mine, all my life.

It was a moment of illumination, a full initiation into family life, a first glimpse of a mystery that dwelt at the heart of our family home.

What I glimpsed was the mysterious and inseparable relationship between love and sacrifice. We need to be needed for our own unique contribution, our own unique gifts. What we have been given, we long to give away in turn, and we won’t be happy until we fulfill that longing, until we give ourselves to someone else in love, holding nothing back.

The family is where these needs are satisfied in the natural way that was ordained by God. St. Augustine spoke of the family as a network of mutual, natural needs, which were really God’s gentle way of getting us to love one another (see “Confessions” 1.6).

The sacrament of marriage raises these natural drives and natural fulfillment to a supernatural level, so that all our loving and all our giving prepares us for the supreme and ultimate act of loving and giving, which we call heaven.

In May we traditionally honor our mothers, and especially Mary, the mother we share with Jesus. Do something great for them.