Lessons from saints about the virtues of motherhood

5 mins read
St. Gianna Beretta Molla is pictured on a family outing with daughter Laura in an undated photo. The Italian doctor and mother, who sacrificed her own life for the life of her child, was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2004. (CNS photo)

There’s nothing easy about being a mother. Maybe you’re great at discipline or work-life balance or potty training, but motherhood will test you all the same. And as mommy wars rage on every side, condemning you for how you feed or educate or correct your child, it’s hard not to feel as though you’re doing everything wrong.

Mercifully, the standard set for us isn’t an Instagram account, a resume or a Mass attendance sheet. The standard set for us is the love of Christ — which is less intimidating than it sounds.

“Be imitators of me,” St. Paul said (1 Cor 11:1), “as I am of Christ.” Paul knew, as we do, that the goal of the Christian life is the imitation of Christ, not the imitation of Paul. But for those with pasts like Paul’s, his example sure helps.

It’s the same for moms. Jesus never struggled to breastfeed a child, so how can we imitate him in this? By looking to St. Zélie Martin, who did. Jesus never buried a child, but Venerable Cornelia Connelly buried two. Jesus wasn’t a military spouse, but St. Joaquina Vedruna de Mas was.

Certainly, mothers can learn just as much from childless saints. But in the specific struggles of motherhood, it helps to know some saints who raised children and came out holier for having been mothers.

Motherly saints

St. Monica

St. Monica has long been popular as a patroness for mothers, but she’s hardly the only saintly woman whose children are also saints. Known as “the mother of saints,” St. Emilia of Caesarea (d. 375) was the mother of 10, six of whom (including St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa) are saints. But while Emilia and her husband, St. Basil the Elder, did their best to raise a holy family, they also learned from their children.

St. Macrina the Younger, their oldest, was famously influential not only on her brothers but on her mother as well. When Emilia was mourning the death of her son, St. Naucratios, she lost sight of heaven in her grief. Macrina gently spoke truth to her, saying, “It is not right for a Christian to mourn as one who has no hope.” Reminded of the hope that lies in heaven, Emilia refocused her heart on Jesus and joined Macrina in founding a religious community.

Nor was St. Emilia the only saint to mourn the death of her child. St. Magdalena Son So-byok (1802-40) was the mother of a young daughter when she lost her second child as an infant. And her third. And her fourth. Nine children in a row died as infants. Finally, a little girl survived, a balm for the grieving mother’s soul, though she must have ached for the little ones she’d buried. But she and her husband (St. Peter Choe Chang-hub) trusted in God’s goodness even in their unrelenting sorrow.

When their oldest daughter, St. Barbara Choe Yong-i, was a young mother and their youngest only 2, the family was arrested and the three adults martyred. Finally, the mother who had spent so many years with empty arms and aching heart was reunited with her little ones, children whose loss had drawn her into the pierced heart of Jesus and whose intercession had made it possible for her to persevere amid all her suffering.

Though she’s best remembered for her heroic death, St. Gianna Molla (1922-62) is a model not only for pregnant women undergoing a health crisis but also for working mothers and for mothers who’ve lost children through miscarriage. Though she had difficult pregnancies, complicated by her age, Gianna rejoiced at each positive pregnancy test. When she lost her fourth and fifth children to miscarriage, she was disconsolate, worried about the fate of their souls and begging her friends to pray for her babies. When she became pregnant again and doctors found a tumor in her uterus, Gianna was ready to do whatever was necessary to save her baby. She loved her lost children too much to lose another.

Inopportune time

For women who find themselves pregnant at an inopportune time, the dismay that accompanies a positive pregnancy test often leads to guilt. “What kind of mother,” they may wonder, “is upset to find that she’s having a child?”

Blessed Maria Quattrocchi (1884-1965) was no stranger to that feeling. She and her husband, Blessed Luigi, were an Italian couple with four children, beatified for a fairly ordinary marriage lived with extraordinary love. Their children came fast — three in their first four years of marriage, and Maria hadn’t been thrilled about any of the pregnancies. The first sparked fear in her, the second despair. “Who will give me the strength to think of two children?” she wrote to her husband. “To endure the physical and physiological exhaustion of pregnancy and the rest? Believe me, I am truly in despair.”

“I’d prefer anything to another pregnancy,” she wrote in another letter. “How can I take care of both children in the state I’m in?” This wasn’t before her conversion — this is what holiness looked like for her. Because feelings aren’t sins. Maria loved her children and she loved being a mother, but her pregnancies were hard, and so was raising babies. There was nothing sinful in her apprehension, nor did she love her children any less because it took her some time to rejoice in their existence. And if you’re struggling to come to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, she’s a great intercessor.

For mothers who feel like they’re drowning in their lives, there’s Blessed Concepción Cabrera de Armida (1862-1937), a Mexican mother of nine who was widowed when her oldest wasn’t even 16. Conchita managed to raise all nine children alone, while also experiencing mystical prayer and becoming a leader in her local church.

Various attributes

Servant of God Daphrose Rugamba

For mothers with troubled marriages, there’s Servant of God Daphrose Rugamba (1944-94), a Rwandan woman whose atheist husband (Servant of God Cyprien) was abusive and hateful for 20 years before her love led to his conversion — and his conversion healed their marriage.

For mothers balancing work and family, there’s St. Zélie Martin (1831-77), mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and successful lacemaker whose business was so successful that her husband, St. Louis Martin, sold his business to work for her full time.

For introverted mothers stretched to the breaking point, there’s St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440), a woman so introverted that the social duties of being a noblewoman once led to a nervous breakdown.

For stepmothers, there’s Blessed Columba Kang and Blessed Saturnina Rodríguez de Zavalía, for adoptive mothers St. Martha Wang Luo Mande and Blessed Eurosia Fabris, for divorced mothers Venerable Cornelia Connelly and Servant of God Catherine Doherty, and for never-married mothers St. Margaret of Cortona and Servant of God Dorothy Day.

There are saints whose children loathed each other, saints whose children were impossible toddlers, probably even saints who had to scream into a pillow now and then when motherhood was too much for them.

Whatever the joys and challenges you experience in motherhood, you’re not alone. The saints surround us, interceding for us and reminding us that holiness doesn’t necessarily mean angelic patience, immaculate children and liturgical arts and crafts. Holiness is repentance, mercy and trust in God’s goodness even when life is too much to handle. And with the intercession of the saints, that’s possible for even the most broken among us.

Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a Catholic author and speaker. Visit her website at piercedhands.com.