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The most beautiful women I’ve ever known have deep lines on their faces, a crown of gray on their heads, and eyes that reflect the wisdom of a noble and loving soul.
—Denise C. McAllister6
Many of us live our lives one step at a time, just trying to get through the day, without giving much thought to the big picture. Sure, we think about our careers, our families, and what sorts of things we want to have, but when it comes to thinking about the type of women we want to become, not so much.
Thinking about the end of our lives and what we would like to look back upon has a way of crystallizing the most important values of our lives. Few people nearing the end of their lives regret that they didn’t work more, exercise more, or spend more time shopping. Instead, the regrets of the past center largely upon relationships—relationships that should be stronger or even those that never were. Barbara Walters, who broke through the glass ceiling of broadcast journalism, recently confessed that her greatest regret in life, despite countless awards and accolades, was that she didn’t have more children. Thinking about death, and what we want to remember when we reach our seventies and eighties and beyond, can have a clarifying effect on what we do now. We have to ask ourselves the ultimate question: What kind of woman do I want to become?
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find
Many years ago, I met an enchanting woman. Mary, a widow most lovingly called Mamoo, was in her eighties, with white hair, a face full of wrinkles, and a figure that could envelop several small grandchildren at once. Her expansive home with a beautiful chapel on Chesapeake Bay was a haven for her sprawling family, people on retreat, and various hangers-on (like me) who just couldn’t get enough of Mamoo. Her laugh was infectious and despite her advanced age, she was childlike and fun. While she had shed what had been her physical charms, she had an effervescent beauty that all who knew her wanted to be around and soak up. Mamoo’s wisdom, it was clear from her life well lived, had not come from agonizing over whether she “had it all.”
It is difficult to find wise women like Mamoo anymore—women who can draw the best out of anyone; who anticipate the needs of others; who are gracious and warm and funny and fun without the slightest bit of self-absorption; women who live in deep gratitude for their many blessings.
Recently I’ve been looking for Mamoo’s deep character in women of a similar age. It is hard to find. Among the many women I’ve met who have reached that age, few have come close. One woman at Mass voiced concern that there weren’t enough female Eucharistic servers on the altar. Another was fixated on her figure and Botoxing away her wrinkles. A third bemoaned the sad state of the world today, blaming it on interracial marriage. After picking my jaw up off the ground in response to the third, I found myself saddened that clearly despite their age, these women did not possess wisdom, but had latched on to some sort of -ism: feminism, ageism, and the adulation of youth, racism, whatever. It also made me sad for my children, that they will not grow up knowing that they can readily find women of a certain age to be a source of guidance,
insight, and deep character—true examples to emulate. But what has happened to women like Mamoo? Why are they hard to find? Because too many women today, for one reason or another, have been convinced to place personal comfort and ambition above love, above the transformative power of having children and raising them to be happy, healthy, and holy adults. Our culture is pro-lifestyle, not pro-life.
Scripture makes it clear how important motherhood is for the soul of a woman. “Yet she shall be saved through childbearing; if she continues in faith, and love, and sanctification, with sobriety” (1 Timothy 2:9–15). One Scripture scholar points out that the Greek word for childbearing used in the original—teknogia—doesn’t just refer to becoming pregnant or giving birth, but goes much further: it means the active and concrete reality of a woman in the home raising her children.7 Wisdom and grace don’t happen overnight, but unfold naturally as a woman experiences the many seasons of her life.
Centuries from now, historians will look back and see the twentieth century as the age when women forgot what it means to be a woman. In our drive to be “free” rather than get to the core of femininity, women have simply adopted the male vocation; it is reflected in our education, wardrobe, comportment, language, and many fashions of the day (and if it isn’t masculine, the trends run toward the hyper-sexualized version of womanhood, with very little in between). It is considered well beyond the boundaries of decorum bordering on insulting to suggest that women should be anything other than outspoken, ambitious, and independent. Every occupation that was exclusive to men has been opened to women, even in the military and firefighting, though fitness tests have been shaved down to make it possible for women to pass. Most Christian denominations have changed their centuries-old rules to accommodate women who feel called to the priesthood and to serve as bishops. Now that we have made it clear that we can do almost anything men can, there are few voices asking, “What really is the heart of a woman and what is our own vocation? Is it simply to try to be like men?”
Women benefit greatly from strong role models. Given our ability to focus on small details and our propensity to constantly compare ourselves with other women, finding other women to emulate is important. It has been pointed out recently that women benefit significantly when the Church emphasizes the life of the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman because she provides a clear image of holiness for us to follow. Catherine Tkacz, a theology professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University, has explained that not only is much lost theologically when we give up our devotion to Our Lady, but it leads to the dramatic confusion we see now about the role of women and even what it means to be a woman.
Finding It All
Of late, there has been unending infighting among women about having it all. The largely missed question is “What kind of woman do I want to become?” or “What can I do to develop
my character and become a woman of stunning beauty that radiates from my interior life even after eighty?” The debate is so fixated on the material and immediate aspects of life that the question of long-term character doesn’t make it to the table. (Evidence that this debate is ill-founded is that the nuns have yet to chime in. Imagine: “You think you have it bad—we can’t even leave our cloister! We can’t have kids! And have you seen our outfits? Same thing. Every day.”)
Despite all this, there is something unique to the woman who embraces her motherhood and the demands of raising children and serving her family joyfully that cannot be acquired through any job outside the home (even if she does also work outside the home). Every few years, a new movie comes out about a self-absorbed woman who, given some odd twist of fate, finds herself the guardian of a child, as in Raising Helen and No Reservations. The plot of these films follows the same path: Through the demands of caring for a child, the self-centered woman is transformed into someone she never dreamed she could be. This story is nothing new; in fact, it
is played out every day, but not usually in the “instant” version portrayed by Hollywood. It is the life of every mother. The transformation for most of us, however, happens much more slowly and is hard to capture in a ninety-minute film. It involves countless little changes to the habits that made life work before children. Little by little, a woman is drawn out of herself and drawn into the world of caring for others.
When he was still a bishop, Pope St. John Paul II included this key phrase in one of the Vatican II documents: “Man, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.”9 That one sentence is perhaps the most profound sentence ever written. But what does that mean? The secret to life is not to spend so much time focused on ourselves. If we look there, like a dog chasing his tail, we will never find our happiness, and ironically we will never find ourselves.
Most women understand this to a certain degree, but they only want to apply it so far. Most of us could do without being woken up many times a night, confounded by disobedient children, flummoxed by teenagers, or overwhelmed by the endless slog of laundry and cleaning. And yet, it is through all of these things that we find ourselves, when we humbly accept them for the good of our children and our family and when that humble spirit of service is allowed to grow and spread internally. This is the secret Mamoo knew, and every other woman before her and since who is graced with wisdom, charity, love, and hope. Motherhood puts a woman in the perfect place to grow in holiness, whether she knows it or not, through the growth of the virtues.
The Transforming Power of Love
Women will go a long way and make a lot of sacrifices for those things they want badly enough—think of the amount of pain or sacrifice we are willing to endure to lose weight, tone the abs, have a dream house, or conceive and give birth to a child. But it is difficult to see how spiritual pain and struggle can have real value and transforming power. Sadly, there are plenty of examples of vicious mothers. True transformation requires a conscious effort on the part of the mother to grow beyond the woman she was before she got the name Mom.
Mamoo’s secret and that of every beautiful woman who came before her is to recognize that “there is no real charity without detachment and self-renunciation. As love deepens through trial, so its capacity for sacrifice grows stronger.”10 This is the power of love. This power, however, isn’t just about giving of oneself; it has a hidden reward. Yes, women have a unique capacity to endure difficult situations, but they are able to simultaneously experience great joy. In the face of suffering, a mother can live in both joy and peace in her steady spirit and not be overcome with agitation or restlessness.
The old rite of Christian marriage used for weddings before the Second Vatican Council has a very helpful line: “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.”11 Herein lies the secret of motherhood: Joy, pain, sacrifice, and love all grow together. The deeper the sacrifices, the greater the love, the stronger the joy.
In his insightful book Man Enough, Dr. Frank Pittman remarks: “These guys who fear becoming a father don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of child-raising is not the child but the parent.”12 And truly, the same could be said for every woman. Parenthood offers us the opportunity to grow in perfect love, sacrifice, and joy—all wrapped up in the same package.
Questions for Reflection
1. What would you like to see when you look back on your life at age eighty?
2. Think of the women in your life whom you admire. What are some of the qualities that make them good women?
3. What do you find is the biggest impediment to living out these qualities in your own life?
by Carrie Gress
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Imagine receiving a makeover that not only promised to make you more beautiful, but softened the rough edges of your personality, helped you gain control of your emotions, better manage your relationships, and grow in wisdom. And what if it could actually make you happy?
Sounds too good to be true, right? Yet every woman can experience this makeover with the gift of motherhood. Along with your new bundle of joy, there are real rewards just waiting to be claimed.
Motherhood is difficult—there’s no getting around it. And yet, the challenges a woman faces when she becomes a mother don’t have to be in vain. Instead of a series of frustrating, exhausting, or exasperating experiences, author Carrie Gress (a mother of four young children) sees daily life as an opportunity to grow gracefully as a woman, mother, wife, and friend.
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Product Type Media Books
Author Carrie Gress
Book Format Paperback
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