Heart to heart: Mary and motherhood
Fact: Parents worry about their kids every day. No one knows this more than Mary.
As a kid in Catholic school, I grew up learning a lot about Mary. She was the Mother of God and the mother of all people everywhere. She wore a white dress and a blue veil and had a serene, dreamy expression. She also had a visible heart, one crowned with flames and pierced with swords.
Though I admired Mary’s pastel prettiness, I always thought the Immaculate Heart pictures were kind of creepy. After all, no woman I knew had a transparent chest or an exposed heart. I always found that image foreign, off-putting, and bizarre.
And then I had a child of my own.
When my son was four weeks old, he spit up blood. It wasn’t much, just a threadlike strand on the burp cloth, but it sent me into a panic. Novels in which 19th-century heroines cough up blood and die of consumption flashed into my mind.
The after-hours hotline put me in touch with a helpful nurse. Does he have a fever? No. Does he seem ill? No. How much blood was it? Well, hardly any. “Take him to the doctor tomorrow,” she said, “but I’m sure he’s fine. Oh, and bring the burp cloth with you.”
The next morning my husband and I presented the pediatrician with the cloth, sealed in a Ziploc bag like forensic evidence from a crime scene. She squinted to find the line of blood, hardly visible among the pattern of bears and bluebirds. She looked Matthew over carefully and pronounced him healthy, clearly accustomed to anxious first-time parents.
I reflect on that episode now, three years later, and remember my mom’s reaction when I told her about our scare. She laughed wryly—not the response I’d expected. “Ginny, get used to this,” she said. “This is the first in a long, long line of things you’ll worry about now that you’re a mom.” And as she said that, I felt a sinking sensation in my gut, because I knew that my mom was absolutely right.
Nothing had quite prepared me for the worries of motherhood. Having lost two pregnancies before Matthew was born, I’d believed that if I could just make it to the delivery, I’d be able to let down my guard. I’d sigh with relief, knowing that he had made it safely into the world.
It was only after Matthew’s birth that the menacing nature of that world became fully clear to me. Worries prodded me at every turn. I feared kidnappers and pneumonia; I obsessed that his carseat wasn’t correctly installed. My blood ran cold at the thought of SIDS, that angel of death that visits in the night. There was someone precious in my life now—in a different way from my husband. There was a little person whom I loved with a purity and intensity that nothing else could match. And the flip side of that love, of course, is the potential for massive grief.
It was during this time that I recalled a quote I’d read long ago. “Making the decision to have a child is momentous,” said Elizabeth Stone. “It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Bingo, I thought, that’s exactly it. Matthew is out of me now, in the wide open world—and that’s a very vulnerable place for a heart to be.
I thought again of Mary’s Immaculate Heart. For the first time those pictures of her open chest began to make sense. She, like me, had chosen motherhood, and in so doing had put her heart completely on the line. I’m sure that she, too, worried about her baby’s health. Losing the teenage Jesus in the temple must have been terrifying, while watching her adult son embark on his dangerous ministry surely took massive reserves of maternal courage.
Everything else, of course, pales in comparison to the crucifixion. How she endured her son’s torture and death I will never know. I do know that it was love that kept her rooted there at the foot of the cross, even as her heart was breaking.
But if asked, I know she’d choose it all again, just as I would. One thing I’m learning is that the drive to love is more than mere human instinct. Thinking about it from a spiritual angle, loving another person is a chance to align ourselves with God and to transcend our own cautious plans for our lives.
The fear of losing Matthew is something that I’m willing to face for the sheer joy of having him in my life, for all the surprising ways he stretches me to grow beyond myself. Thanks to the experience of raising my little boy, Mary’s open chest is no longer off-putting to me. It’s something else now, something tough and beautiful and real. It’s a visceral, visual testament to the astonishing resilience of a mother’s heart.
That’s not to say that I’ve sworn off of worrying. When my adventurous son falls off the couch and whacks his head on the floor, my heart practically stops. But as I hug him and tell him he’ll be OK, the worry dissolves into something bigger, warmer, enabling both of us to move beyond the limits of our fear. I’ll be OK, too, I realize as my heart darts away from me on determined legs, ready to take on the world.
This article appears in the May issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 5, pages 47-48).