When Satan Tells You “You’re too good for” Motherhood

This week we recognize the gift of femininity and the vocation of motherhood in its varied forms. We celebrate, as Pope Francis says, woman’s “great gift of being able to give life, of being able to give tenderness, of being able to give peace and joy.”

This article first appeared here, on Crisis Magazine. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

By: Marion Fernandez-Cueto, Guest Contributor

There is a line in Scripture that has always infuriated me. It’s Timothy 2:15, and for years I could not read it without wanting to hurl my Bible at the wall. “The woman,” writes St. Paul, “will be saved by childbearing, if only she continue with faith, love and holiness.” Its baptized misogyny was insulting enough (how typical to posit a woman’s salvation within her social confines of barefoot, pregnant servitude), yet beneath it lurked a more devastating injury: the idea that a woman’s sanctity was tied up in motherhood. That spelled damnation for me, I thought, for the drudgery of childbearing was the last thing I aspired to.

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Then I fell in love with a man who wanted kids the way former boyfriends had dreamed of plasma TVs. As he wooed and pursued me, I realized it was not motherhood per se I had long feared and mocked; it was the utter dying to self that motherhood entails. My individualism and selfishness were alive and well, fostered by nearly a decade of independence, during which my time, decisions, money, plans, and body had remained solely my own. The idea of marriage thrilled me (it was no sacrifice to love Andrés), but children held no such natural enticement toward self-oblation. Like St. Augustine’s tepid plea for chastity, I didn’t want my selfishness scourged quite yet.

But St. John writes that perfect love casts out fear, and it is true, even of flawed loves like ours: A year after our wedding, we found ourselves praying I might get pregnant. Two days later, I did. To say I was ecstatic would be a lie — I hadn’t expected an answer to arrive overnight express. But we were awed at this new life God and our union had wrought.

My pregnancy proceeded in a happy glow: I grew fat and contented as a tabby cat, unhampered by morning sickness. I shopped and cleaned, cooked and froze dinners, ordered parenting books, and interviewed doulas in a blissful whirl of organization. I found myself dreaming of long-scorned domestic scenes, a tangle of jolly siblings for our son, and a kitchen fragrant with hot meals and teasing affection. Finally, I thought, I was ready to be a mother.

Then Dominic was born. I still remember my feeling of incredulity when the hospital night nurse first woke me to feed him, seemingly minutes after a searing labor. I looked at the clock — 2:20 a.m. — then at my mewling, scrunchy little baby, and knew like Napoleon at Waterloo that the end had come — the end of life as I knew and liked it. This child, this responsibility, was mine for the rest of my life.

I felt a tidal wave of resentment that God had allowed me to welcome pregnancy while providing barely a shred of fuzzy maternal instinct beyond delivery. I knew my hormones were running amok, but I felt blindsided and betrayed. Where was the grace that had flooded the previous nine months? Right then, I wanted nothing more than to rewind time back to that September night when we’d first asked God for a baby, and postpone our prayer another two years. I wanted to push my son right back at the nurse and snap, “You feed him.” I’m a wretched mother already, I thought. Poor, innocent, ill-fated Dominic.

Somewhere I’d assumed that if only I prayed hard enough for grace when I accepted pregnancy, a good mother would be born with my son. I had forgotten that elemental wild card of Catholic theology: that grace builds on nature. Prayers are not magic spells, and none would instantly transform my long-fostered habit of selfishness into a spirit of enthusiastic self-sacrifice. Instead, over the next weeks and months, a loving Savior would ask me to take up my cross and learn to follow Him. In obeying, I would discover that God rarely calls the equipped. If we are asked to cooperate in our own salvation, it is only because He equips those He calls.

Meanwhile, Dominic didn’t know he was poor and ill-fated. He was a near-perfect baby by every account, with limpid blue eyes and pink, puckish smiles. I coddled and bathed him, tickled and sang to him, boasted shamelessly of his every new feat. When he napped on our bed, flushed with sweet sleep, I would lie beside him and murmur my undying love into his damp blond curls.

Yet through it all, I rebelled. A voice in my head echoed the old cry of Lucifer: non serviam — I will not serve. “You’re too good for this,” said the voice. “You were made for better things — not the endless, mind-numbing tedium of diapers and dishes and laundry. Where is the glamour, the intellectual stimulation, the chances and promotions you still deserve? Is this really what God intended for you?”

The voice would resume each morning as I watched the army of lawyers and interns swinging down 16th Street with their lattes and briefcases and careers. Each smartly dressed young woman, luxuriating in her phone conversation or iPod, represented a life I couldn’t have anymore, opportunities and experiences that would never be mine. “You see?” the voice would prod. “You see?”

Of course, every slide into self-pity would trigger an even greater avalanche of guilt. The world over, women were struggling with infertility, miscarriages, the death of a child, or newborns with cruel, debilitating diseases. Thousands of new mothers would never have the luxury of choosing whether to go back to work. Thousands more lacked a caring, sensitive husband, or any kind soul to see them through the first dazed months. I despised myself utterly for chafing under Dominic’s featherweight load; I knew to the core how fortunate I was, how ludicrously bourgeois my malaise — and so my self-loathing would compile.

I reached my breaking point one afternoon while walking with Dominic past St. Matthew’s Cathedral. A panhandler standing at the corner took a long look at my stroller and its sleeping cargo and inexplicably dragged a condom out of his pocket. “If you’d used one of these,” he leered, “you wouldn’t have had him.” Shaken, I knew the man had articulated the very thought that had risen like a demonic specter on more than one sleep-deprived night. That condom represented every temptation I’d experienced in my struggle to be open to life, every forbidden alternative I might have taken as I struggled to welcome first pregnancy and then Dominic.

Sick with shame, I sought out a priest in confession. With the gentle yet exacting probe of an experienced confessor, he asked me to name what I would rather be doing. “Go on, imagine,” he urged. “Let’s say you can leave your family, your responsibilities. What do you want?”

My answers were distressingly ready. “I want to see the rest of the world,” I told him. “I want to be the foreign correspondent I trained to be. I want to take my morning coffee in silence, to read the paper uninterrupted. I want to sleep until noon on Saturdays — or at least through the night. I want my time, my space, my schedule, my plans, my peace, my quiet . . . I want me again. I just want me.”

The priest gazed at me, his eyes suffused with compassion. “All of us want that,” he said softly. But serving ourselves, living for ourselves . . . what does the Gospel say about that? ‘He who seeks to save his life, will lose it.’ ‘Unless the grain of wheat falls in the earth . . .’ We know we can’t find happiness that way.”

“Try me,” I thought darkly.

Not long after, God took me up on my silent challenge: When an old college friend flew in from France, I was given the chance to see, George Bailey-style, what my life might have been like without Dominic.

Veronique — a single, gorgeous, multilingual painter — was living out the very fantasy I had tried to articulate to my confessor. She jetted around the globe with no apparent responsibility standing between her next whim and reality. Her family was distant; her jobs, like her love interests, were sporadic and provisional; all were powerless against the lure of new ventures and continents. I couldn’t wait to hear her stories, to soak in the shimmering brilliance of her life. Inviting her over for tea one afternoon, I braced myself for the flash of pity I had often glimpsed in her eyes at my increasingly predictable, beige-hued existence (husband, child, mortgage, minivan).

It never came. Veronique was miserable, and desperately so. Approaching 30 like me, her hard independence, emotional skittishness, and sheer impulsivity were catching up with her. She hated her expensive art school. Her e-mails, dazzling travelogues forwarded to massive lists of friends, were going unacknowledged. The handful of men in her life arrived and then disappeared with a disturbingly familiar, slapdash autonomy. She was tired of being broke, of depending on the more conventionally stable for her car rides and phone calls and suppers. Yet the promising internships and positions were passing her by for younger college grads who had long since paid their dues in nine-to-five grunt jobs.

Veronique seemed haunted by a stirring realization that years of self-direction, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment (all so greedily panted after by me) had brought her not nirvana, but only herself — a self she was starting to find unbearable. As she watched me wipe applesauce off Dominic’s chin, help him down from the highchair, and start preparations for yet another meal, her eyes reflected not pity but raw, naked wishing. And her next words startled me further. “I wish I had someone to love and give myself to like that,” she said. “Sometimes I’m afraid my heart is going to shrivel up.”

I expected to feel relief at Veronique’s woe — after all, her admissions amounted to foundational cracks in a lifestyle I had lusted for with near idolatry. But instead I felt only wonder and the spreading epiphany that mothering — that vocation I wore like a penitent’s hair shirt — had spared me the tyranny, the terrible poverty, of my unconstrained will. As I glimpsed the bleakness in Veronique’s life, I realized I never could have borne the curse I had craved so long — that of gaining the whole world, only to lose my soul. In His all-seeing mercy, God had eliminated for me the option of exclusive self-service when I bore Dominic. As a wife and mother, my heart might bleed, but I knew it would never shrivel, pumped full as it was with the occupational hazards of delight and terror, grief and compassion. When Veronique left, I clutched my son to my breast and wept with gratitude.

Henry Ward Beecher once wrote that children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven. I first inscribed that quote in Dominic’s baby book, but it is only now, nearly four years and an infant daughter later, that I see it is simply a more palatable version of Timothy 2:15. Through Veronique I realized that what I once called heaven — all that came from my own stubborn choosing — was the quintessence of hell itself. Only children could roll away the stone from the grave of self in which I lay and offer my soul rebirth.

Though I mostly struggle and stagger in my vocation as mother, I do so rejoicing, knowing that God will hold me through it, if only I continue with faith, love, and holiness. This woman, at least, will be saved by childbearing.

An award-winning writer, speaker, and mother of three, Marion Fernandez-Cueto is a convert to Catholicism and lives in Houston with her husband Andres. She is completing a Master’s degree at the University of St. Thomas’ Center for Faith and Culture.

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21 thoughts on “When Satan Tells You “You’re too good for” Motherhood

  1. I’m so grateful for this post. I find myself going the way of your friend Veronique (except I’d say multilingual writer, instead), and I don’t know how to stop it. But at least this confirms my own intuitions about what’s going on. God bless you!

  2. Thank you so much for this post. It comes at the perfect time for me as I’m struggling to enjoy my role as wife & mother this week. Making 3 meals a day, cleaning every night & never ending discipline is wearing on me and making me have a bad attitude. Thank you for helping me see that I’m right where God wants me to be and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be either.

  3. This sounds just like my story, and I can’t thank you enough for telling it so wonderfully! I’m now the mother of five boys who I adore, but I have really struggled with my vocation to motherhood. I’m writing this with tears in my eyes 🙂

  4. I chose not to have children for many reasons, none of them are because I thought I was “too good for motherhood”. This is utter nonsense.

  5. I am a Catholic, but a liberal one. I cannot have children and wouldn’t have children even if I could. I serve my fellow man and my fellow beings through pursuing a life dedicated to teaching children with special needs, taking care of homeless animals, donating my singing/website-maintaining talents to my Church, among other things. I live a very full and blessed life and I simply would not have the time to do the things I do if I had children. To imply that I am somehow following the will of Satan is extremely judgmental and assumptive. We all have different callings in life, and they don’t all involve having our own children. I also think it’s quite interesting that our priests don’t have children, yet some of them can pass judgment upon those who choose to ALSO not have children. I’m happy you have found your calling in life and have learned to enjoy it. But your calling is not MY calling, and to imply that yours is somehow better than mine means, to me, that you need to think more about what it truly means to be a Christian.

  6. I met my husband my junior year of college, gave up my senior year plans to study abroad and travel, and had my first baby three years later. It has been an incredibly rich, grace – filled and difficult 8 years. Such a dying to self I never saw coming. I saw myself like a mirror in this.

    I have a thousand words to say but will only say three more: God bless you. 🙂

  7. Wow, this is powerful. Thank you for writing this. I’m 24, and a mother to two beautiful boys already. I often feel burnt out, but I’m realizing that I become stronger with time and practice, and my love grows through the difficulties.

  8. I’m glad you finally realized how much we as women really do need to serve: to be a wife and mother is far better than to be on our own. It’s what we were made for. Ironically, I’ve always seen it that way, always wanted to marry and have kids, but haven’t been able to make it happen. It’s like there’s a constant stream of roadblocks that thwart every one of my efforts. At 30 years old now, it’s terribly disheartening and frustrating. I’ve had to live the so-called “independent” life out of circumstance, all the while hating every minute of it. I’ve envied those who seem to acquire the family life so easily, and have never been able to understand how they also seem to not appreciate that they have that life.

  9. How beautiful! Thank you so much for your honest insight! I’m pregnant for the 1st time, and my husband and I are ecstatic. However, I’ve been struggling with loosing my job only 3days before the positive pregnancy test; I keep feeling like there is more I should do in my career. I keep forgetting my vocation of wife & mother comes first now! It’s not simple and boring; being a mother and good example for our family is probably the most important thing I will ever do!!

  10. Why put down other women by assuming your calling in life is greater than theirs? The world needs strong women to run it just as much as it needs strong mothers and neither is greater than the other.

  11. Thank you so much for this, it really hits home as I’m trying to see the gifts among the trials with a 2 yo and a 7 mo. And I love that HW Beecher quote! May God bless you with EXTRA special graces this Mother’s’ Day and always!

  12. Thank you for writing! As a single woman who has struggled with vocational discernment, it is helpful to hear from the “other side”. I have often feared the loss of the things you were longing for before your encounter with Veronique if I am called to marriage. I appreciate your testimony very much. I wonder if you have suggestions for single women who are also approaching 30 and do not want to live the way you were “lusting after” but who also are not finding the opportunity for marriage and family viable at the moment. For me, when those feelings of loneliness and desire to be taken care of come up, I try to appreciate the things I can do because I am single rather than longing for what I don’t have, and sometimes those things do appear selfish to others. It seems like the grass is always greener on the other side. If all of us can learn to appreciate our states of life while keeping our deepest longings at the forefront–and being grateful…perhaps this will be our salvation.

  13. It’s terribly late to respond, but I just saw these comments. Thank you all for writing!

    For my critics, I think it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t write the “Satan” title. Like most writers, I don’t generally get to choose the titles my work appears under. People choose to forgo children for numerous reasons, and I wouldn’t presume to attribute those reasons to Satan ipso facto! I don’t see where I implied that my experience was superior; I just wanted to share my own story for others who may be struggling to embrace their experience with motherhood more fully, especially because I think there is still a lot of fear and shame associated with a less-than-stellar motherhood experience.

    I do believe, however, that all of us are hardwired for relationship–called to a lifelong journey in learning to transcend ourselves in love, to continually grow in relationship with God and others (and ourselves!). And I think that parenthood is the natural way most of us learn to do that–one of the most efficient ways to learn to love someone else the way you love yourself is through marriage and children. As 2000 years of Catholic saints illustrates, however, it’s CLEARLY not the only way. I am really touched by the comments from singles who *are* longing for marriage and family, but want to ensure they are not living selfishly in the meantime. I don’t know that I have good advice, but I am confident God honors your beautiful desire to live for others and that He uses your personality and gifts to do that whenever you offer them to Him. Through recent experience, I’ve truly come to believe the adage that “the grass is not greener on the other side. The grass is greener where you water it.” (Incidentally, though, I want to note that the practice of NFP and its often-frustrating periods of abstinence are one of the important ways we married couples can practice solidarity with those of you who are single against your will…)

    One last thing: This article is pretty old (Dominic’s turning 9 🙂 but it still gets reprinted a lot, and with the benefit of a bit more maturity and growth, I would love to be able to add an addendum: I would hate for anyone to think that she has to choose between a totally hedonistic, self-centered life and total self-obliteration, a stoic martyrdom that kills her gifts and dreams and personality. Nothing could be more false. It is undeniably true that as Christians we are called to die to ourselves, but the dying part should never be the goal itself, but rather, abundant life in Christ–full, free, and fruitful. When I wrote this article, I was still pretty shell-shocked by how incredibly tough motherhood can be, and so I zeroed-in on the selfishness thing. That was (and always will be) a big factor for me–everything I wrote was true–but I now know I was also struggling with tremendous isolation and grief at the time, which made the experience all the more difficult. The good news is this: once I was able to really embrace the transition to motherhood, and accept that it wasn’t all about me anymore, and trust that God was great enough to know what He was doing with me as a mother, then I started to experience a sort of resurrection: I went back to graduate school, and journalism, and started doing some public speaking to help break through some of the unspoken shame and fears I had encountered in myself and in Christian circles surrounding the experience of motherhood. (Here’s an example from last year’s Edel Conference for those interested: http://www.conversiondiary.com/2014/08/four-amazing-talks-from-the-edel-gathering.html; forgive the bad recording). I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback, and I continue to marvel that God can use our most difficult experiences to draw us gently into the riches of His love, and bring us into communion with others if we dare to be vulnerable about those experiences…

    • I love your reply.

      Contrasting your experience of motherhood with Veronique’s life, which is the extreme opposite, was not fair, as it is the same either-or fallacy, or false dilemma, that frequently turns up in Catholic publications.

      However, I am very happy to hear that you have since found joy and meaning in a middle ground, with children as well as “lattes and briefcases.” Congratulations and God Bless.

      • I personally didn’t see it as a false dilemma. I’ve had similar thoughts and struggles watching my peers do all the things I “should” be doing. Whenever something is hard, we gravitate towards whatever we perceive is “not that.” And it’s helpful to see sometimes that the path that looks like the epitome of shiny and smooth from where you sit isn’t actually any more so than yours.

  14. My family is always one to pressure us into what they think we ‘should’ be doing, and anything we are doing is wrong. Examples of this are miles long, going back to childhood. I learned to ignore them, though.sometimes mom’s advice to do all the wrong things gets under my skin. Funny enough, my sister who does the ‘right’ things still is a ‘screw up’. So a no win there too. I found my path is no better than theirs, but it is mine and they are unable to understand. There is no one way, but my sister has found photography to help her, and I have found supporting deployed soldiers helps me step outside of myself too.

  15. What may masquerade as a theological faith-based war within oneself, may, in actuality, be simple postpartum or maternal depression that affects women all over the planet, regardless of religious identity. It is a sign that all is not well within us and signals us that there is some deep inner work to be done. It is normal to grieve lost opportunities and to compare lives. However, if a woman is at odds with her child, and, in any way internalizing her relationship with an innocent child as her ‘cross to bear,’ or using that child to play into a martyred religious script, she must do more than pray and theologically explain it away. She must seek professional help and do the serious inner work to truly heal. Professional help means a psychiatrist or psychologist, preferably a female. Certainly not a priest. Not only are priests disconnected from their sexuality and non-participants in procreation, they know absolutely nothing about what it means to become and to be a mother. They are men. Not women. A wounded mother must examine her experiences as a child that could have contributed to difficulties in adjusting to or welcoming motherhood. She must examine her experience with her own mother and father. Admitting these wounds and confronting them honestly will be the first step toward healing and forgiving oneself. All too often, healing does not occur because the culprits that must be addressed, are, instead, idealized, denied or unrecognized as a part of the problem. Honestly and openly confronting whatever history could have played into the pain of motherhood, as well as ruling out any other medical matters or imbalances, is crucial in the deep healing that needs to happen for inner peace. This has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with simply being a woman and a human being. All too often, women avoid seeking the professional mental help they need by wrapping themselves up in faith. Many times, mental illness can remain neglected as it hides behind faith obsession.

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