Motherhood starts with conception. Pope John Paul II said that the Annunciation, the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, is a high point not only of the history of the human race but of the universe. At the Annunciation, the Word became flesh, became flesh in the body of a woman.

Men are often tempted to think that their bodies were made for their own use. To a great extent this is true for everyone: Your hands, sir, are yours, they are for your use, and mine are for my use. A man can indulge this illusion of autonomy even further by supposing that even his genitals are there for himself. They’re a source of at times almost compelling drives and intriguing sensations. Even his testes are useful for him, in that the hormones they produce provide certain secondary sexual characteristics he has an interest in maintaining.

But a woman’s body has all these nooks and crannies which are no use to us but evidently were put there for someone else. Don’t get me wrong: We women have our pleasure doodads and our own hormonal self-interest as well. But then, well, there’s the womb. That’s not there for me. I can do without it. It was obviously put there for someone else. The same is true of mature mammary glands, rich with branching ducts and reservoirs, as they are found in nursing mothers and as they are not found in childless females, however nubile and Parton-esque they may be.

Our female bodies are connectors: Inter-connectedness is not just a concept, it’s built into us. This gives us the sense that we find in Mary’s Magnificat, of being, within our own bodies, the living link between past and future: “Behold, all generations will call me Blessed...His mercy is on those who fear him, from generation to generation...As he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.”

Mary sees ancestors past, and posterity future, linked in the center of her being. Her person—her body, her soul, her faithful heart—is the connector. She who is more spacious than the heavens. This makes autonomy, as an ideal, a poor fit for women. Women have a special gift, even a genius, for bondedness.

In conception and pregnancy, the mother and the child form a kind of multi-personed continuity. They are kaleidoscopically interdependent. To me, it is somewhat perverse even to imagine a pregnant woman and her unborn child separately.

It seems to me that when a woman marries a man, she has a right to expect children—or at least an honest go at it. I had a friend, Callie, with two children, Mark and Sophie, 5 and 2. Callie was a fine homemaker, the picture of happiness nursing her strong and vigorous little daughter, and obviously good at mothering. One day she told me she felt blue, because she knew Sophie was her last. After her, there would be no more babies.

“Callie, that’s so sad. What’s the problem?” I asked. “I always wanted four kids or so,” she told me, “but Burt (that’s her husband) only wanted one. I kinda sneaked past him with Sophie. But when she was born, he insisted that I should have my tubes tied.”

Tubes tied at 28. Her eyes brimmed up, and I could feel the tears start in my own eyes too, tears of sympathy, but also tears of anger. It’s as if her husband, instead of saying to her, “Callie, I dearly cherish what you are as a woman, a wife, and a mother,” had said, “Honey, I’d like you a lot better if I could get you surgically disabled. Motherhood? Let’s cut that out right here. Let’s cut you down to size.”

A horse-trainer and acoustic guitarist was giving me a ride from one end of North Dakota to the other. He related that he and his wife had had two children early in their marriage, and then practiced various forms of contraception for 10 years. Then they experienced a crisis that threatened their marriage, followed by a mid-life religious conversion and reconciliation. They decided to put their lives in the hands of God. Specifically, they decided to throw away their jellies and jams and diaphragms, and rely on Natural Family Planning.

This man told me it was stunning how much difference it made to them to be aware of their fertile times. Before, time was flat: One day was like another. Now time had texture, topography. You’re approaching fertility. You’re fertile. Hold your breath. Now you’re past the peak. Now you’re not fertile anymore.

He admitted that before, when they had disabled their fertility, he had been getting bored with sex. It was always the same. It seemed inane. Now, looks and gestures had drama. Touches, advances, could turn out either way. Sex and longing loomed bigger, took up a more significant chunk of emotional energy. He wasn’t sure he wanted sex to take up that much space. But he realized that his wife was taking up that much space. His wife. His wife. He found himself thinking about her as he had never thought about her since—well, since they were courting.

And one night, knowing they were fertile, with great awe and trembling, they decided to make love anyway, come what may. “You know,” he said, staring straight ahead at the North Dakota Interstate, “after 15 years of marriage, you don’t expect it to involve trembling anymore.”

“So? What happened?”

“So, we got pregnant. (Laughs.) Of course! (Laughs more.)”


“And it’s unquestionably—unquestionably—the best thing we’ve ever done. Our hearts just opened and melted. We had a wonderful—wonderful—here, let me show you a picture.” So he pulls off the road and shows me pictures of his wife and baby. Laughs again.

Pregnancy is depicted in Psalm 139 as a season of divine activity, as the Creator knits a child in his mother’s womb. What does a child need at this point? Only his mother, his Paradise. Mary is often called the New Eve, but she is also the New Eden. Her body is her child’s garden of delights, and her love radiates to her little one every time she sings, or prays, or breathes his name.

A child needs to love and to be loved, even before he or she is born; and meeting this need is both the simplest and most satisfying thing in the world. But the mother’s needs may be complex. Every mother in the world needs good food and pure water. She needs reassurance and cherishing love from those around her. She needs to be protected from anxieties and stresses so that she can experience pregnancy with calmness and confidence.

A woman with child who does not have the man who begot the child by her side is poor, no matter how much money she has. She is poor because she and the baby need him. “It takes a village,” some say, and pregnancy support services can do a lot, village-wise, to generate friendship and assistance for pregnant women. But when the door is closed and the lights are out, and the pregnant girl wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic, she doesn’t need a village, a helping-hands ministry, or a hotline: She needs a husband.

Every culture must uphold the personal bonds that unite the mother and her child, the bond God hallowed by making a young Jewish woman the Mother of God. Any so-called civilization can be judged in terms of whether it does, or does not, do justice to that relation by which our Savior came to us.

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