25 years ago in U.S. Catholic: A mom’s-eye view of the Blessed Mother

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Article Saints, Feasts, and Seasons Women

By Margaret Mantle

This article appeared in the May 1989 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 54, No. 5, pages 29-31).

Like a lot of us, I grew up with a pretty traditional view of Mary. She was the gentle, sweet, patient mother of Jesus and a model of virtue to us all. She was the sort of perfect mom we all wanted to be when we grew up and had babies.

I did grow up and have babies—two lovely daughters. But I did not become a perfect mom, as both my children will readily attest. And many times in my own career as a mother I have had a lot of trouble relating to Mary as I first learned about her.

For one thing, my early acquaintance with Mary, gleaned from holy pictures, blue-robed statues, and later, classic art, heavily reinforced the image of the mother of a baby. No wonder that once my babies were no longer babies, I sort of lost touch with Mary the mother as a role model.

It took my own journey of motherhood to make me understand that years of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood—all, no doubt, presenting to Mary as to me the singular parenting challenges—lay between the infant on Mary’s knee and the dying Christ on the cross.

Today I am sure Mary was all those things we third graders or fifth graders believed her to be—gentle, humble, patient, kind. But today I’m also sure that was not the whole picture. If it were, if we see Mary only as a pale and patient shadow in the background of her home, a lot of us will probably have a problem relating her experiences as a mother to our own. In that perfect performance as the divinely chosen mother of a divine child, what can she have to say to us, struggling as we are with our earth-anchored lives and our earthly children?

So we need to look a bit closer; and if we do we find that Mary the mother of Jesus as he grew up does indeed have a lot more in common with the rest of us than we ever realized. The Holy Family may indeed have been holy—but practically nothing in Mary’s family life was arranged to make it easy for her. If I made a list of some of the pressures put on families in this country today, I’d find that Mary’s experiences of motherhood were often remarkably close to ours.

To begin with, Mary’s was not the traditional nuclear family. In modern terms, it wasn’t even an intact family—with parents and children biologically linked. Moreover, the marriage of Mary and Joseph started out under less than ideal circumstances: how was Mary supposed to let Joseph know she was having a baby, that it certainly wasn’t his, and in fact it wasn’t anyones—but that was okay because the angel said this baby was the Son of God? That’s the sort of stuff like National Enquirer headlines are made of, and we know Joseph was pretty upset.

Then, Joseph had to let people know that he was going ahead with the wedding, but everything was going to be fine because an angel told him so. An angel? Sure…

Then comes the birth of Jesus. Away from home. In a stable. With the child’s safety already threatened. Now there are three of them—unless you count the Holy Spirit, which would make four. And Mary and Joseph begin the unique task of raising the Son of God. No way could it have been easy.

For starters, Jesus was an only child. A potential trouble area, or so psychologists say. I have more than one child to absorb my affections, attentions, and anxieties. Mary didn’t. Nor did Joseph. And Jesus’ birth denied Joseph children of his own. Who knows how many of Joseph’s private dreams of fatherhood went out the window at the news of the divine pregnancy? And by anyone’s reckoning, Jesus was what people would now term an exceptional child. Any modern parent with a child that is labeled exceptional knows that labels are tough to deal with. I certainly know.

My eldest daughter, Victoria, has mental retardation. She’s different. That makes us different. We have had to learn both to rejoice in the special beauties of Victoria’s nature and to bear with equanimity the stares of people who don’t understand why a grown woman is behaving like a 6-year-old in a public place. We have had to put aside a lot of our expectations; it has been very hard.

In Nikos Kazantzakis’ powerful story The Last Temptation of Christ, Mary’s divine motherhood leaves her open to the fear and contempt of those who do not understand her son. That’s not the sort of picture of Mary the Mother of God I picked up in Catholic school, but who’s to say it’s any less valid? If Mary sometimes mourned silently for the middle-of-the-road, ordinary children she and Joseph might have had if the angel had kept his good news to himself, I can certainly understand how she felt. The Holy Family—an exceptional only child in a restructured family, with a virgin mother and a stepfather—isn’t exactly you average family down the block, even by today’s standards.

Christians are lead to believe that Jesus was a pretty good kid, but I bet Mary spent a lot of time worrying about his future. She knew he wasn’t going to take over Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. The angel had told her that this child was destined for higher things. He had great expectations. Sooner or later, that was going to mean trouble. Yes, Mary must have lost a lot of sleep over what was to become of her boy.

Most parents have a hard time letting go of a child. I had to let go of Victoria when she was 16, when she let us know that home was no longer comfortable for her and we placed her in a residential facility for people with retardation. After that experience, I thought I had written the book on letting go. Until Emma, also at 16, gathered speed and careened headlong into adolescent rebellion. Suddenly I was no longer in the driver’s seat (literally, because at 16 she acquired a car—a pale-blue, four-door chariot to freedom).

Acknowledging the right of one’s baby to make decisions, including the wrong ones, requires some major attitude adjustment on the part of the parent. How did Mary feel when Jesus began to do, as we say, his own thing? She must have been especially anxious when Jesus started hanging out with the wrong crowd—lepers, prostitutes, and the like. And talking subversive talk in public places. Whichever way you look at it, though, Jesus was a troublemaker. Mothers usually prefer their children not to be troublemakers.

Whatever the emotional aches and pains I have experienced as the mother of my children, there is much I have been spared; and I thank God for the merciful dispensation. A friend of mine recently spent some time in Nicaragua talking to the Mothers of the Disappeared. Now there’s a group of women that has to be very close to the heart of Mary. Mary lived what they live today.

Mother’s Day is one of those holidays when everyone is expected to feel good, especially every mother. But holidays are very hard for people who cannot, for whatever reason, meet society’s demand to “feel good today.” Some mothers won’t be feeling good this year. Some have children who live far away. Some are estranged from their children. Some have lost a child to death. Those who feel they’ve failed their children will feel it today more than most days; those who feel their children have failed them will feel it today more than most days.

Motherhood now, as it was when Mary lived, is a chancy business. Death on a cross; death in a Third World torture chamber; death in a pathetic wreckage of a car driven by a drunk or doped-up kid… fearful thoughts. Fear walks close beside parents of any era’s children, and faith becomes not a luxury but a necessary state of mind.

The Mothers of the Disappeared must have known the awful risks their politically active children were taking. Mary must have known that Jesus, too, was walking a sure path to suffering. Then, at the end, she had to stand by while her only child was tortured and killed before her eyes. No mother’s nightmares could come true more violently than Mary’s did.

I am sure there were times when Mary, looking back, wished she’d told the angel, “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks….” But behind that demure veil, Mary must have been one strong, determined woman. And this strong, determined woman is the Mary I can turn to when being a parent feels like something I am not qualified to do. This is the Mary who speaks to mothers who struggle to raise good, happy children in a world that often seems neither good nor happy. This Mary, I am convinced, understands how hard it is for many of today’s mothers to raise children alone or in poverty; to keep children physically and spiritually healthy in the face of physical or spiritual squalor; to teach children real values in a society that values things more than people—where what you’ve got is more important than who you are.

In this context, I can see Mary not just as a model of gentleness and patience, although God knows I need someone to model those difficult virtues for me, but also as a model of endurance, right-mindedness, and common sense. She couldn’t have done her job as a mother with her head in the clouds—angel voices or no angel voices. Although I wonder if Mary, like me, sometimes wished the angel had picked someone else, I love her because she took the job on. I love her sense of adventure. She took risks.

On the face of it, agreeing to bear a divine child was a plain crazy thing to do. Mary took a risk—she accepted the adventure of motherhood. So did I. So did all who are mothers. Most of us have had times when we figure that if we’d known what we were getting into we’d have told the angel, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But we’d have missed an awful lot.

Motherhood is an adventure. Adventures get you into some extremely difficult spots. But adventures also take you to the top of the mountain, where you can almost touch the stars. Mary must have discovered this in a most extraordinary way. Yes, Mary the risk taker is my favorite image of the Mother of God.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Steve Snodgrass

Read more articles from past issues here: From the U.S. Catholic archives