During my undergraduate studies, I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to India for two weeks with a priest on his sabbatical. I leapt at the chance partially due to my youthful wanderlust, but also because I had a great love for the life and work of Mother Teresa. I had heard many stories about the way that this petite Albanian woman with a servant’s heart and a zeal for God sought to love each person she met. I was enamoured by her witness of self-emptying service and I was drawn to her title of “mother,” imagining what it could look like for people to call me “mother.”
Within a few years of those travels visiting the convent and tomb of the now St. Teresa of Calcutta, I found myself married and dreamt once again in a new way of this title, “mother.” Quickly, however, the dreams of motherhood started to fade as health problems and physical complications were manifest in my body that would make pregnancy difficult.
Mother Teresa’s lived expression of motherhood is often qualified as a form of “spiritual motherhood.” She had no biological children of her own, but she loved each person as if they belonged to her, even those that lay dying and decaying in the street. She is a beautiful witness to how God designed women to cultivate life.
Despite its connection to many holy women and saints, the title “spiritual mother” is one that often makes me cringe. For the 1 in 8 couples who struggle with infertility, spiritual parenthood can feel more like a “consolation prize” than a gift. The experience can be felt as, “Oh, you don’t get to be a real mother, but you can be a spiritual mother.” Doesn’t that sound nice?
My heart feels heavy with the thought, “I want to be a real mother.”
God whispers back to me, “You already are.”
I was recently visiting a friend whose daughter accidentally called me “mom.” I smiled down at the child and without skipping a beat responded, “Yes?” While I may not be her biological mother, I know it was not a mistake for that child to call me “mom.” She recognized that part of my soul in the way I related to her. There is a temptation I face regularly to think that I am not a mother unless I have children of my own that share my last name. But there is so much more to motherhood than birth. That is why we call the saint “Mother” Teresa.
There is not one path to motherhood. All forms of motherhood are just as real as the next. It is also not simply “biological motherhood” or “spiritual motherhood.” Rather, I believe there is but one “motherhood” all women have in common. It is an innate kind that every single woman is born with by virtue of being created in God’s image. He chose to reveal through our uniquely feminine identities different aspects of his very self — nurturing, caring, receptivity, openness, etc. The reality of “spiritual” motherhood is that all women are called to be mothers.
The gift of motherhood exists and is present apart from the act of literal birth. Bearing biological children is one of the ways that motherhood can be made visibly manifest, but it is not the exclusive way, and not even the primary way.
Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body describes how “the body and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it.” If motherhood can be a visible and physical part of our reality, it is only because it is first and primarily an invisible reality. This invisible reality of motherhood is innate to all women. It is made visible through our life-giving actions to the world.
Each and every woman is called upon to be a mother. Sometimes they are biological mothers, sometimes they are adoptive mothers, and sometimes they are mothers who God calls to neither state, but they are still mothers in the fullest sense. All women are called to live out motherhood first and primarily in a spiritual way. Some women may become more visible signs of motherhood in the ways that God calls them. Still, primarily all women are called to live out the innate and uniquely feminine spiritual reality of motherhood and make it manifest in diverse ways. It is real motherhood accessible to all women.
Even though no little voices regularly call me “mother,” the Lord still sees this part of my soul. Even though there is no Hallmark card for me on Mother’s Day, I know that the Lord sees my motherhood. I have not yet become a biological mother or an adoptive mother, but I am a mother to each person I encounter with love. I am a mother to the woman I met at the pub on Saturday night who shared about her severe back injury. I am a mother when I gather the teens at church for community, discipleship and prayer. I am a mother when I open the doors of my home to whatever lives God desires to cross the threshold of my domestic church. God has called me to be a mother in my own unique ways. I just have to respond “yes” and believe it in faith.