The potential of motherhood is a remarkable thing.
We can learn a great deal from it, whether we are mothers or not.
A woman carries a child inside her, slowly over time becoming more and more aware of its movements, its hiccups, its wakefulness, its tendency to kick in the middle of the night. Her days are divided between the work in front of her and the work happening inside her, but outside her control. Perhaps she worries. Perhaps she glows with joy. Perhaps she suffers from physical ailments, uncertainty, or instability.
Yet still, she goes on. The child grows and grows until the time comes to meet face to face.
Mothers whose children have died through miscarriage or stillbirth or who have received a prenatal diagnosis, integrate within them the understanding that there is so little they have power over in the process. They may try, but to have any peace, they must accept this unique circumstance.
All this awareness primes the mother’s brain to meet her child
to be deeply aware of his presence, to read the little signs in his face and behavior that he is hungry, tired, or uncomfortable. As he grows, her awareness grows as well. She quickly takes in the dangers of a room, the number of objects within reach, the hazards and the thrills that await the adventuresome little gentleman. As the child grows older, he begins to go beyond her reach and she learns to let go even more than she did during pregnancy, even more than she did when she knew now was the time for him to learn to climb that tree. But still, she keeps a steady awareness of him in her heart.
That is the natural and ideal path of motherhood, supported by a loving and attentive spouse who shares in the trials and joys of parenting. This awareness of the other person, able to take in the immediate information and the whole picture, able to see things concretely and yet take in the broad ramifications of the child’s personhood, is what Pope John Paul II referred to as the feminine genius. The feminine genius refers to this capacity in the woman. It starts as only a capacity. It must be developed to flourish. We see it naturally through the lived experience of motherhood, but many women will attest to its development in other ways. Many men may as well.
Although we see its potential, this path must be chosen and chosen all the more intentionally in today’s world where distractions abound. Internet, email, text messages, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, and so on, continue to ping, designed to draw and keep our intention. For those with freelance work, the changing algorithm demands even more attention if we are to “get ahead” or even “stay on track.” For students, the work of education is wrapped up in the same devices designed to entertain us.
Nowadays, we have to choose to stop, look, listen and focus.
Consider Betty Smith’s description in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind.”
In Tales of San Francisco, Samuel Dickson tells the story of poet Ina Coolbrith, “One day, a small boy came to the librarian, Miss Coolbrith. He was twelve years old, a dirty, small boy. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm; he was poor, shabby, uncared-for. And he said, please, Miss, could he have something to read? Something to read! That small boy was Jack London, and Ina Coolbrith gave him something to read. For months and years, she gave him something to read; she guided him, inspired him, and won his undying adoration.”
Whether the children in our house, the neighbor in need, the unvisited person at a retirement home, or the ones we encounter in our work, we can make a choice. When we choose to attend to the person, to be aware, to take into our minds and hearts the condition of the whole person before us and not merely the transactions, we have a great potential for good, for a life-giving, soul-filling good.