The spectacular joy and challenge of motherhood

10 mins read
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Mother’s Day is upon us once more. The yearly celebration is marked by bouquets of strangled dandelions held closely by chubby little fists, colorful cards of crayon and construction paper, singing your praises as the best pancake maker and storyteller in the world, as well as a myriad of other accolades.

I’m celebrating my 33rd Mother’s Day this year. Besides being astonished at the passage of time, I am in awe of how God has provided for my family and stretched my heart over the years. Motherhood is beautiful — but messy. It’s a roller-coaster ride where you give your heart permission to walk outside your body. It’s the best and worst job all rolled up in an imperfect human who’s just trying to love as best she can.

Motherhood is beautiful — but messy. It’s a roller coaster ride where you give your heart permission to walk outside your body. It’s the best and worst job all rolled up in an imperfect human who’s just trying to love as best she can.

I am often asked for advice on this most challenging and fulfilling of vocations. Before you jump to the conclusion that I must be a modern-day saint filled with virtue, grace and perfect in every way, know that Mary Poppins I am not. As a mother of four souls, two I did not get to hold this side of heaven, and two I got to love with my whole heart, my motherhood journey has been marked by as many potholes of pain as there have been windmills of wonder. I have baskets filled with mistakes, guilt and regrets that God has taken up into himself, redeemed, restored and renewed.

The highs and lows of marriage

For me, motherhood has been a lesson in surrender, acceptance and joy. They all work together. But first things first. The greatest gift I could give my kids is a healthy marriage to their father. This lesson came the hard way through years of struggle and pain. Every grace and blessing flows through the sacramental union.

My husband Jerry and I spent our first 12 years as an active-duty military family in the U.S. Navy, which included four deployments as we struggled to raise and care for our gifted and talented but highly sensitive son, and our daughter, Courtney, who was severely disabled and medically fragile. We have faced personal addictions to pornography and food, have had multiple career changes and financial struggles — almost losing our home twice in 20 years — as well as journeying with our son as he faced depression and anxiety during his college years. We experienced every marriage stressor the experts talk about, and by the grace of God, we are still married (and I still think he’s cute).

Because we live in a fallen world, many mothers reading this no longer have a spouse for one reason or another. I want you to know that God sees your hurt and your pain.

Marriage and family life are not for the faint of heart. It’s an uphill fight to stay the course that has been set before you. God chose Jerry for me and me for him, two flawed humans who had much to learn from one another. When we removed God from our marriage, there was someone else ready and waiting to take his place, one whose one job is to destroy — and boy did he. Once we allowed God full access to every dark corner of our hearts, things changed, and once we fully surrendered our marriage to him, life became more joy filled and peaceful.

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My marriage is proof that God is real, and miracles happen on the daily. I know this is not always the case. Because we live in a fallen world, many mothers reading this no longer have a spouse for one reason or another. I want you to know that God sees your hurt and your pain and desires to take up that ever-important heart space, walking with you and your children.

The same can be said for women desiring motherhood who have yet to see their dreams come to fruition. As women we are physically made to carry the heartbeat of another, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. I have no answers for the “why” of it, but I do wish to strongly encourage you in your spiritual motherhood. Being a spiritual mother is a sacred way to care for souls. It is a type of maternity that nurtures others and is open to all women regardless of age, state of life, or vocation. This gift has been such a blessing in my own life, especially in these later years.

Children belong first to God

Another lesson motherhood has taught me is that my children were made for me and I was made for them. Stop looking at another mother’s life and envying what they are doing. They are not you. They do not have your unique set of circumstances, your marriage, your child or your life. It’s said that comparison is the thief of joy, and in motherhood, nothing is more devastating than feeling that you’re doing it all wrong because some other mom is doing things differently.

We are all made in the image and likeness of God, as unique and unrepeatable as our own fingerprint. No one else can mother your child the way you can. No one understands them the way you do. No one has as much invested in your child as you do. Our children are part of our path to sanctification. God allows us to love and care for these unique individuals and their one-of-a-kind personalities, and while we may experience deep pain, frustration and fear as the most unexpected circumstances pop up, God remains faithful and true. He is the anchor in the midst of the storm, our safe harbor. I never expected to parent a severely disabled and medically fragile child all while trying to keep her extremely smart and perfectly able sibling on track. It stretched me in ways I never saw coming. The breaking of my heart allowed it to be remade, making room for more love and more compassion for each of them.

Our children are part of our path to sanctification.

Motherhood challenges us to accept our children as God made them to be, not as we desire them to be. It challenges us to stop comparing ourselves to others and remain in the present moment loving our kids as best we can. It challenges us to lean into the cross, letting go and allowing God to lead. It’s tough to bend our will to his, but it’s necessary for our children to go the way he desires to lead them. Children say, “Hey, mom, watch this,” and take our expectations and illusion of control, throwing them off the largest bridge they can find. We’re meant to love them, to guide them. They do not belong to us; they belong to God, and we just get to be a part of their story.

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Passing on the Faith

Kids come with questions, and as hard as Jerry and I tried, we made mistakes and did not have all the answers. Handing down the Faith to our kids was paramount. What joy we experience when we can share the heart of Jesus with our children, helping them know whose they are in Christ and who he is in them! It is a lesson that lasts a lifetime.

Having an active sacramental life is a wonderful example to your children of how much we need Jesus. Teaching them to have a relationship with God grounds them for when the questions and doubts come. Prayer is simply a conversation with God, one we should have daily.

Jerry and I had to learn to pray as a couple first before we could pass that on to our kids. We each had to dig into our personal relationship with Christ to be able to pass it down. It took almost a decade for us to pray together on the regular, but we persisted through the sludge of doubts and questions, and now we see the fruits of those years of prayer.

What I recognized was that when I’m folding the laundry, I could be praying for whoever’s piece of laundry I was folding. … It’s not long or intricate. It’s intentional.

My mom says the greatest gift she and my father ever passed down was their Catholic faith. It’s the only thing that matters. My father was a recovering alcoholic for half of my life, but he taught me that when God allows suffering to happen, you cling to Jesus and don’t let go. He is our sheltering tree, and he will never waver, no matter what. My dad was right.

Many young moms I speak with are concerned that they don’t have an active prayer life. They simply don’t have time. I get it. I remember the endless nursing, no sleep, teething and potty-training years. Guess what sister? As you love and serve your family, your whole life becomes a prayer.

With Courtney, I didn’t have help. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t talk. She was wheelchair bound, and I had to lift her everywhere. I couldn’t go to adoration or spend hours in prayer and study, and I always felt I wasn’t doing enough. Mother Teresa once said, “Many of us cannot do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” And St. Teresa of Ávila said, “We are the hands and feet of Christ.”

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What I recognized was that when I’m folding the laundry, I could be praying for whoever’s piece of laundry I was folding. I prayed, “Lord, protect them. Lord, keep them close.” That was my prayer. It’s not long or intricate, but it’s intentional. We love our family with our entire life. That means when I am outside and I am throwing the ball for the 15th time to the little leaguer who wants to go to the big leagues, and my arm is ready to just drop because Dad’s in the middle of the Mediterranean, I learned to pray as I did it.

Kids humble you on the daily. When you lose your temper, make false assumptions, or simply have a bad day, you must humble yourself. There’s a generation of parents that never humbled themselves and paid the price. Not until I was an adult did my parents humble themselves and say, “We didn’t always do it right, but we did our best and we love you with our whole heart.” It was beautiful when they asked for my forgiveness, and I never forgot that. I have done the same with my own children, building trust and fostering peace.

It won’t always be perfect, and they may decide later in life to walk away from the gift of faith they have been given, but that is their choice, not yours. Our jobs as mothers are to love them unconditionally and keep the door open with a seat at the table.

Find your tribe

It helps if you can find your people. We are not meant to be alone. We grow and thrive in community. We need help. I was a young mom on a military base where nobody’s doors were locked, and we would go to the playground with our coffee and our exhaustion, and everybody would have a baby in a sling. Sometimes we never even spoke. But we were there. And we knew that if anybody needed anything, no matter what, we would be there for each other. I had community. I had my people. I still have my people.

But because of social media, people have made their tribes online. And those people are not in your life in the same way. It’s lovely to have a community online. But what’s going to happen at 3 a.m. when you need help?

One place you find your people is at church, because you’re like-minded. Everybody there has a heart for the Lord. When you see another young mama there, go introduce yourself to her. Even if you’re an introvert, just sweat it out. Do it. It might change your life.

Your tribe should never be a mirror image of you. It should look like the United Nations of motherhood.

Another thing to remember is it’s not always who you think it’s going to be. It could be a bunch of young people. It could be an older couple. We are almost always the oldest in the room among our friends from church, oldest in the room by like 20 years. And it’s the best. Because you have all of this mess of life running around.

If you didn’t have a great role model in your own mother or father, then you find someone that is. Look around in your parish and find someone that’s 10 years ahead of you. Look for a solid marriage or one where you appreciate the way the couple parents their children. There’s something about them that draws you to them. Then become part of their circle. Ask to be let in.

Prayer for Mother's Day


And it works both ways. Since I’m not that someone’s parent, I can say things to them that can’t be said by a parent. We can have conversations because I wasn’t the mom that raised them. And it allows for a special kind of honesty, openness and direction toward the saints, toward Our Lady. Toward role models that are good and healthy and holy.

Your tribe should never be a mirror image of you. It should look like the United Nations of motherhood. I think most young people want people exactly like them. And that’s not what they need. Now, I’m not saying you have to go out of your way to find every odd duck in the world, but this is how we renew our parishes and our families, with friendship while building community.

mother and child


All comes down to love

All this to say, motherhood is all about love — loving God, loving your spouse and loving your child without conditions. When my Courtney was alive, I used to say all the time that love always wins. No matter what circumstances you or your children are facing, love will win the day.

My dad used to say, “Never give up, never quit, never lose your faith. It’s the one reason you are here. God chose this time and place for you, so what are you going to do with it?”

I hated hearing that quote growing up. So many eye rolls. Yet the older I get, the more it makes sense to me. Being a good mother simply means doing your best every day to love God, love your spouse and love your children. It’s in that daily surrender that we are given the grace to deal with crayon marks on the wall, teaching our teenagers how to drive, and keeping the tears at bay when we drive away from that first college dorm. No one is ever a perfect parent. It’s just not possible. God doesn’t expect perfection, he simply asks us to do our best, to persevere in faith and leave the rest to him.

A mother is the most important person on earth, says Venerable Cardinal József Mindszenty. “She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral,” the cardinal says, but “she has built something more magnificent than any cathedral — a dwelling for an immortal soul.” It’s easy to think that motherhood isn’t offering much, or to undervalue it, or to be so overwhelmed that you don’t even know where to start to be a loving mother. But you want to know how to be the best mother you can be? Go love the person in front of you.

Mary Lenaburg

Mary Lenaburg is a Catholic wife, mother, author and speaker. Learn more about her work at