The Sacrifices of Motherhood
“How big is he?”
Karisa Bugal had barely enough strength left to whisper her question. She struggled to look up at the doctors who delivered her baby while medical staff wheeled her to intensive care.
Mrs. Bugal knew she was sacrificing her own life to save her baby on that cold November day in 2014. Her doctors made this very clear during labor and presented grim options to the young mother and her husband. Mrs. Bugal chose to have an emergency delivery to save her son. Her baby boy was delivered, but the mother died soon after, leaving behind a husband, a toddler, and a healthy newborn baby.
Motherhood involves the formation and management of your children. But this requires sacrifice; sometimes, incomprehensibly deep sacrifice. How do we make sense of the call for sacrifice—ultimately, surrender to God’s will when we would rather have things go our way?
The Depth of Sacrifice
We parents may sometimes be deluded by the wonders of modern medicine and technology. We do a good job of subduing the earth and ruling over it (Gen. 1:28). But our own strong wills may be mixed up with this dominion. We oftentimes struggle when we must resign ourselves to circumstances because we don’t want to let go of control. This dichotomy of control and resignation brings the sacrifices of motherhood to mind.
There are many mundane sacrifices, or daily hardships, of living as a Catholic wife and mother. These can be hard enough to bear. But there is another type that could require the very life of the mother, as in the case of Karisa Bugal. Can’t modern medicine do something? Do first-world women really still die in childbirth? Haven’t we gotten past this with our post-modern technology and medicine?
Yet, examples abound. Modern medicine could not save Mrs. Bugal. Another instance occurred last year in Italy, where a woman chose to let her baby live even though she knew that to do so would kill her. A British woman also made headlines when she died in childbirth from an infection. And early this year in the southwestern United States, a woman with high blood pressure died giving birth.
The horror of such situations is realized because they seem so wrong. Babies are not supposed to die. Young mothers are not supposed to die. We desperately want to hold onto life, at least life that we can measure in terms of “quality” and “productivity.” Yet Original Sin is what it is. We feel its effects all around us. Roses have thorns. People get sick. Death happens, even during the miracle of conception and human development.
We may talk about resignation to God’s will, but sometimes it takes extreme examples to make a point. A mother’s love is sacrificial in so many ways. When her own life is asked, she is practicing “no greater love” for another (John 15:13). When women bear children and give them life on this earth, we men give nothing in return, comparatively speaking. We stand by helplessly while holding our breath, waiting for our wives to give completely of themselves for the sake of bringing our babies into this world. As Dr. Andrew Childs marveled in a conference given in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 7th of this year, “Women give us people. We men give our women toasters.”
Maternal sacrifice during childbirth shows the rightness and the resignation which souls must have in following the natural law. It is never morally permissible to directly commit an evil act against innocent life to obtain a good outcome. Rather, Catholic parents who follow God’s will may have confidence that they are doing the right thing. “In proportion as you draw near to Truth by prayer, you inevitably increase your own conformity to the true pattern of yourself as it exists in the mind of God. And this means that, whatever it feels like, your life is going right” (Van Zeller, Holiness for Housewives, p. 62).
There is no easy answer to the sacrifices mothers must sometimes make. The vale of tears is sometimes a valley so vast we cannot see out of it. Yet, when it comes to hardship and sacrifice and what seem to be unbearable extremes, even death, we must remember that joy and peace come from doing the will of God. There is joy in the extreme sacrifice of motherhood, even though there is suffering.
Making Sense of Suffering
This is not to deny the very real pain caused by hardship, especially the death of the mother or the death or suffering of a child. These are the times when our Catholic catechetical formation matters the most. Who made you? Why? What is Original Sin? What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? Those without solid Catholic catechesis will stumble when confronted with the pain of severe loss and injustice.
Catholic parents can rest their hearts in the absolute confidence that God is not the author of death and suffering. These things are a result of the first sin which shook the whole universe. God created us out of love, and this love bears our free will and the terrifying chain of events that result from the choices men make. God endures this so that He may delight in receiving love freely from us. If love is a real human choice, we must necessarily have the power to choose not to love. The fallen natural order of things demonstrates this: death, suffering, selfishness, crime, all sorts of vice, diseases, sickness, and so on.
God never promised us happiness in this life. We are to persevere through the vale of tears, the vale of sorrow and joy and pleasure and growth and anguish and tedium—the vale of the whole experience of humanity pining for God. The alternative to following God is not a good sign, as St. Alphonsus de Liguori points out:
“Oh! What a chastisement is it when God abandons the sinner into the hands of his sins, and appears not to demand any further account of them!...Miserable the sinner that prospers in this life! His prosperity is a sign that God waits to make him a victim of His justice for eternity” (Preparation for Death, p. 177).
Mothers and fathers may take solace and encouragement in the knowledge that if they follow God and the natural law, and their motivation is love of God, He waits for them in heaven. The fruit of this is peace. The fruit of resignation to the hand of God is a tranquility even as we may experience sorrow in our circumstances. God sees your suffering and He wants you to offer it up to Him.
In some ways, it may seem easier to give entirely of self in one overwhelming sacrifice and be done with it. But no, you instead must go to the grocery store with your children and bear curious onlookers. Or you may have worldly relatives, asking in exasperated tones if you are done having children yet. These are sacrifices—temptations to compromise—little sacrifices that simply must be borne for the love of God. Yet, they all add up. It is a spiritual martyrdom, one day at a time. As Ven. Fulton Sheen wrote in 1957:
“It is well known that women are capable of far more sustained sacrifice than men; a man may be a hero in a crisis, and then slip back to mediocrity. He lacks the moral endurance which enables a woman to be heroic through the years, months, days and even seconds of her life, when the very repetitive monotony of her tasks wears down the spirit....Not only her mind, but her body must share in the Calvary of motherhood” (Way to Happiness, pp. 79-80).
Two Archetypal Women
Remember the juxtaposition of the two women who are leaders of humanity: Eve and Mary. Eve let her curiosity and feminine pride get the best of her. She looked at the fruit, walked closer to the fruit, toyed with the idea of eating the fruit, and then decided for herself that she should have this knowledge and power from the forbidden fruit. She did not trust God and certainly did not trust her husband; rather, she manipulated him into taking the fruit. Adam bears full responsibility for his action but he did not act alone.
Mary, on the other hand, practiced unconditional trustful surrender to God at all times, always choosing the greater good. She ignored the more reasonable voices of those around her, whether they were relatives, high priests, or anyone else. Redemption is beyond human reason. Mary turned to her Son, who waited for her prompting to begin His public ministry at Cana. Our Blessed Lord used His own divine power to effect Redemption, but He did so with Mary acting as co-redemptrix. As He is the new Adam, she is the new Eve.
Mothers today are confronted with a dynamic choice of following their own devices or surrendering to God and their husbands. This choice must ever be renewed daily, sometimes moment by moment, and thus it is a purposeful choice. We are not angels with instant thinking skills, who were given one shot at heaven or hell. We are human creatures, slowed by our physical bodies and thus we need many, many opportunities to continue practicing our love.
This human practice of love is shown by your daily surrender to your husband, your God, and even, to an extent, your circumstances. Your consolation is a joyful heart and the peace of knowing that you are doing all you can to sanctify your own soul and get your family to heaven.