Motherhood is not an ordinary vocation

When I received a positive pregnancy test a month after my wedding, I cried. I was halfway through a graduate program and battling health issues, terrified that motherhood would upend my dreams and keep me firmly planted in sickly, unfulfilled unemployment for the rest of my life. Before marriage, I had long considered consecrated life and had a sneaking sense that motherhood — so soon! — was a threat to the things I wanted to achieve for God.

My sorrows melted the moment I held my son, but the fears remained. During those early weeks spent nursing my child, I read a book that transformed my outlook. “Motherhood: An Extraordinary Vocation” by Dr. Kathryn Rombs, helped me grasp the full potency of my vocation as a mother, while giving me hope that I could live a full and fulfilling life.

A philosophy professor and mother of six, Rombs speaks from hard-won experience and prayerful, studious reflection. In a culture that degrades motherhood, she asserts its beauty, worthiness and significance, encouraging mothers to be the artists of their own lives — lives that, if lived well, may come to mirror Christ’s in utterly unique ways.

Rombs’s book enlists a range of disciplines in its exploration of motherhood: philosophy, theology, art and history, which she weaves together with practical advice. Her ideas feel actionable. Each chapter is divided into four sections, the first treating a key theme with excerpts from saints, theologians and philosophers; the second introducing some great work of art that serves as a metaphor for a particular aspect of motherhood; the third focusing on a relevant spiritual practice or method of prayer; and the fourth posing questions for further reflection.

This approach makes for a full, rounded treatment of the material. Rombs examines her subject from all angles, and her ideas find a firm foothold in readers’ intellect and imagination.

Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is in proposing the idea that every mother is called to be the artist of her own life, thoughtfully developing a personal style of motherhood that fits her calling, talents and yearnings — not one that is predetermined by the accepted models already available.

Contrary to common rhetoric, motherhood is not a “low” calling, a refuge for the untalented and unintelligent. No, motherhood employs the highest faculties of the human person. We must not shy away from our profound ability for self-determination under the false conception that our lives as mothers are determined for us by outside forces. We are called not to passive womanhood but to a dynamic, powerful expression of our God-given freedom.

In this vein, Rombs explores the question that confronts every mother-to-be: whether to work or stay home. Her take is refreshing. Some women find their greatest fulfillment in being full-time homemakers, pouring themselves out in homeschooling their children and running their households. Others flourish best by actualizing parts of themselves that cannot be fulfilled through motherhood alone.

Rombs treats this as a serious discernment process. With her bracing practicality, she guides readers through the different choices mothers can make with respect to careers: full-time work, full-time with exceptions, part-time, staying home and pursuing a career later in life.

For Rombs, each of these choices is praiseworthy. She beautifully honors the love, courage, talent and intelligence required to live each one well. She encourages women to give of themselves in the fullest, boldest, most courageous way they can imagine and to creatively incorporate their motherhood into any work they feel called to pursue outside the home.

Rombs defies those who claim there is only one right way to live the vocation of motherhood or thrive in the workplace. In the face of so many conflicting and shaming voices, her approach is both freeing and exciting, shattering the musty confines that many women feel called to live within.

Rombs’s secondary focus is the dignity of motherhood. It is a high vocation — not, as she once believed, something chosen instead of a vocation — in which we can achieve the highest goal to which man can aspire: love. Self-realization, she says, comes through self-gift. The only way to be truly happy on earth is to make a gift of ourselves, our entire lives, in love. “At its best,” she writes, “[motherhood] is a singular life of love. It is worthy of your freedom and worth the leap. It is a cruciform life: a life in the shape of a cross.”

In a particularly inspired passage, Rombs proposes that motherhood bears a special resemblance to Christ’s passion in that it is the only vocation that requires the shedding of blood: “Has a biological mother shed blood as she delivers her baby? Has a woman struggling with infertility bled — oh, too many times — in anticipation of new life? … Is it not right to see in motherhood a tiny but singular reflection of Christ’s shedding blood on the cross?”

Rombs makes one last daring claim: that “mothers are the primary architects of society.” Through the way she raises her children and fosters a particular environment in her home, every mother has the chance to imbue society with the virtues she deems most worthy. In other words, mothers can change the world.

Rombs’s themes are deepened by her reflections on art and prayer. For the most part, the art reflections work well. There is a beautiful meditation on Grunewald’s “Crucifixion,” which ties Christ’s pain to the bodily suffering endured by mothers. But even the reflections that fall a bit flat (an analysis of Matisse’s “The Dessert” illustrating the feminine gift for recognizing beauty) are intriguing, inviting us to consider her themes on a broader level than we might have anticipated.

The sections on prayer are practical and engaging, giving meaty spiritual advice. Though many Catholics may already be familiar with lectio divina, the Ignatian spiritual exercises, St. Thérèse’s little way, and the concept of “offering up” sufferings, Rombs brings them to life in a new way for mothers.

Today’s feminist rhetoric presents motherhood as a lesser choice, a path for those not ambitious or talented enough for dazzling careers. Even Catholic mothers often feel that their vocation is unimpressive, failing to see anything meaningful in its ordinariness. Rombs shatters those misconceptions and presents motherhood as the powerful, freeing, creative, radically Christian and, indeed, extraordinary vocation that it is.

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