Riding the subway in Boston one sweltering afternoon last summer, I opened a text message from a friend and saw a photo — a plastic stick on a bathroom counter with two bold pink lines. A positive test result. She was pregnant. Again.
I paused for a moment as the noise and commotion of the subway surrounded me. I smiled and held my phone to my heart as I breathed a prayer of nervous joy on behalf of my friend. Thank you, Lord, and please, Lord, let this time be different.
In all of the congratulations that followed that day, and the happy talk of babies and bouncy seats in the weeks and months that followed, only some of us knew the whole truth behind that photo.
Only some of us knew the pain of my friend’s previous positive tests and previous joys that were followed by loss, grief, and tears. Only some of us knew how brave our friend was to open her wounded heart again and risk losing another precious baby.
Of all the ways God asks us to trust in him, I think the feminine call to trust him with our fertility is one of the most difficult. We want babies according to our own plans, and today’s modern culture feeds the notion that we can and should control when that happens. With something so personal and potentially life-changing as our fertility, we can feel betrayed by God when all does not go according to our plan.
This is not a new struggle. When we read ancient stories of women in Scripture, we find that many of them long for children and wrestle with God’s plan for their fertility — Rachel, Sarah, Hannah, and dozens more. One of my favorites of these ancient women is St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to apocryphal tradition, St. Anne longed for and prayed for a child but suffered many years of infertility. God had plans for her to be a mother to a very special child, indeed — but not yet.
When at last St. Anne was blessed with Mary, her precious daughter, she and her husband, St. Joachim, brought Mary to the temple in Jerusalem to consecrate her to God in an act of thanksgiving. We celebrate the memory of this event on the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, November 21.
This feast day is an opportunity to reflect on the gift of fertility and our sometimes complicated relationship with it. Do we truly see each child God sends us as an irreplaceable gift? Do we struggle to accept God’s will when we long and pray for something good, and He seems to say “No” or “Not now”?
And what of those children God might place in our lives who are not biologically our own, and yet are in desperate need of our motherhood?
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton found herself becoming a mother in just this way when she and her husband William took in his six youngest half-brothers and sisters, in addition to their own five children. When she dreamed of becoming a mother one day, this probably was not the kind of family she envisioned. It came with a unique set of challenges, and caring for 11 children was surely a never-ending and exhausting task.
Mothers do suffer. When in the Garden of Eden God told Eve “In pain you will bring forth children,” he was not just talking about labor pains. He was talking about the pain of longing for a child when we are infertile, of conceiving a child and then suffering miscarriage or stillbirth, of becoming a mother in unexpected ways, and of finding ourselves pregnant when it wasn’t our plan.
Through all of these feminine experiences, we find an opportunity to grow in trusting God. St. Anne sets a steadfast example of prayer and perseverance, and then humble thanksgiving. St Elizabeth Ann sets an example of faithfulness in unexpected, trying circumstances.
This Feast of the Presentation of Mary, I am praying for the grace to be more fully grateful for the gift of my own motherhood, and to humbly accept its unique challenges and trials. I am praying to see the people in my life who are not my biological children, but who God might be calling on me to “mother” in some way. Like St. Anne, I want to entrust my children to God; I want to accept them as gifts and return them to Him. Like St. Elizabeth Ann, I want to step into the hard tasks of motherhood with courage and unswerving faith.
God alone knows a mother’s heart. What will he find in mine?
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent,You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
Image: The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, by Luca Giordano, Naples, 1680s, oil on canvas – Blanton Museum of Art – Austin, Texas