Recently I was listening to the Women at the Well book club discussing The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur, and while I admittedly haven’t finished the book (yet!) it is clear that the life and witness of this holy woman can have a practical impact on all of us – no matter what our state in life – by embracing our intercessory role in the divine economy and offering up our sufferings for our own souls and the souls of others. The women at the book club acknowledged that not everyone has nieces and nephews, godchildren, or volunteer work that can seem like a gift-wrapped opportunity to “spiritually parent” someone (and even if you do, things aren’t always that clear-cut and simple). However, because of original sin, we all suffer in life, and Elisabeth shows us that you don’t even need to leave your bed – literally – in order to make this kind of offering to God. I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect a little bit on suffering and on how the testimonies of the lives of some other holy people can help us understand what parenthood is all about.
In this particular day and age it can be easy to buy into the cult of pregnancy and parenthood that we see celebrated on our social media feeds, from the pregnancy photo shoots with the long chiffon dress and flower crown, to the gender reveal parties (and possible subsequent wildfire), to the monthly ritualistic update so we can all admire Baby’s growth and smile. None of this is to lay any judgement on those parents blessed in this way – if I was able to have children, I would be SO THERE with the flower crown. My point is that our Instagram-sanitized perception of what pregnancy and parenthood are all about these days can obscure the fact that most parents have one thing in common: suffering, and often a lot of it.
As we know, those who struggle with infertility are also intimately acquainted with suffering. It is a suffering that comes on the heels of the happy news of others and follows us as we see a baby bump we weren’t expecting or review a friend’s baby shower registry. In this way I believe it can be especially powerful to offer up that same suffering for those who have been blessed in the same way we long to be blessed ourselves, perhaps by coming alongside a parent in need to lend a helping hand, praying for the person who asks us if we have any kids, offering up our loneliness for someone’s conversion, or joining our suffering to that of the Blessed Virgin who, through her one Son, became a mother to us all.
We also must remember the witnesses of the saints who show us a deeper meaning of parenthood, one that is more than a biological reality and that opens the door for those who struggle with infertility to participate as well. While the lives of Hannah and Saint Elizabeth may seem at first glance like the typical infertility story with a happy ending, we also should consider what came next for these two infant boys: a life dedicated in service to the Lord.
“For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me my petition which I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.” (1 Sam. 1:27–8 RSV)
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her….And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1:57–8; 80 RSV)
In this way Elizabeth and Hannah fulfilled a parent’s most sacred task – guiding their children on the path to Heaven. They understood that their children were not theirs, but God’s. I think of how radical it was that these women, who carried for such a long time the same burden of infertility as we do, promptly “returned” these children to God. How many of us would be able to do the same? What does it mean that these parents offered up their children to God in this way? How can those of us who find ourselves without children guide someone else on the path to Heaven?
There are three other saints I would like to mention here (although I’m sure those reading along would have other names to add to this list!). First, there is Saint Monica, who is known more for her prayers for her son Augustine’s conversion year after year (after year after year) then for simply being his mother. God heard her prayers and this beloved son became a Bishop, Saint and Doctor of the Church. Second we have Mother Teresa, who never gave birth to anyone and yet is one of the best mothers I can think of. Being childless, she gave life to so many. And finally we have Saint Joseph, the “foster father” God chose to be the model for all fathers. Indeed, his litany names him the “Head of the Holy Family,” “glory of home life” and “pillar of families.”
On my last day of chemotherapy for uterine and ovarian cancer, I made a short list in my journal of the things we had lost forever. This is the order they came out on that day: “Having babies that look like us, telling Mike that I’m pregnant, going into labor, the family coming to the hospital, simple biological parenthood, total acceptance of child by all family members, no questions asked, not having to share, glowing. The moment when your child comes out of you and you look into their face for the first time.” Another big thing for me was the baby names. I had a full list of names in my journal, and I would add onto it whenever I came across a new name I wanted to hold on to. But there were also the larger, eternal things we had also lost that went unsaid on that day: participating with God to create someone whose spirit would last forever, raising Saints for the Church, fulfilling what we believed to be our vocation. Looking at this list helps me to see my assumptions about motherhood that are all too easy to make: I wanted to become a mother the “easy,” “normal” way, and I wanted to feel like I was in control (as opposed to the loss of control one may feel going through an adoption process, for example). I wanted my kids to be “mine.” I wanted to choose their names. I didn’t want to have to suffer.
In the end, if we do become parents through fostering or adoption, we will be accepting an additional cross – a beautiful, important, holy cross, but a cross nonetheless. But we don’t have to wait for that calling to arrive, if it ever does, because through our prayers and suffering we can participate alongside parents and all people in the building of the Kingdom of God. We can start today in fulfilling this important mission for souls, knowing that all of us belong to the Lord.