I hold my son’s son, both hands cupped against his wife’s warm abdomen. Her baby rolls toward my touch and she smiles down at me. Maternal delight mingled with innocence shines through her flush of expectancy. Love flows from each of us into the center of her universe, into the womb that nurtures and protects our first—her child, my grandchild.
I love this daughter of my heart as if she were of my flesh. My joy over becoming her “other mother” and now her son’s grandmother has caught me by surprise, and she knows. But it’s tempered in this moment by what I know that she does not.
Should I tell her? Is it my place to voice the lessons borne of bearing, raising, and releasing four sons into the world? Surely she’s seen it, watching her own mother do the same with her two brothers.
I smile at her, pull back my hands and lower my eyes, hoping she won’t discover my thoughts.
“There will be blessings beyond your wildest imagination,” I want to say, “but also pain you never expected to endure. He will bring you deep-throated laughter, strength that can move mountains, fear beyond reason. And you’ll learn every day how to release him.”
I know that guiding a son to manhood will demand a divide that will break her heart, even while it grows her pride. “Because it’s different with mothers and sons,” I’d say. She will see in him always, as I do in her husband, the little boy she’ll want to protect even while she hopes he’s learning to protect others.
My daughter-in-law has longed for motherhood and her stack of parenting books is impressive. And I know that she, like me, will turn to Scripture to guide her in the mothering and for that I’m grateful. I learned much from mothers in Scripture as they faithfully embraced their calling in the midst of trials that would alter their lives. Women whose stories fill both the Old and New Testament have inspired me throughout the 35 years I’ve claimed the same identity—mother.
Eve, mother of us all, who saw her sons Cain and Abel destroy the family over the sin of pride.
Hagar, the substitute bearer of Abram’s seed, who is “seen” and protected by God.
Hannah, the barren wife who prayed for a son only to turn him over to God.
Miriam, Sarah, Rebekah, Jochebed, Leah, Rachel, Naomi, Bathsheba.
Flawed women, every one, but chosen to bear children who would change the course of history and reveal the very nature of a loving, forgiving God.
Of all women in Scripture, I identify most with Mary, virgin mother of Jesus. Mary, yet a child herself, could not know that along with her son’s birthright she would also receive the premonition of her son’s calling. How could she know his assignment from God would inflict on her the sting of rejection? Perhaps more than any other, Mary bore the ache of loss for a life sacrificed all too soon, by a mother’s measure, for reasons that, even in her grief, she came to understand and to respect.
No doubt my esteem for Mary is rooted in my Catholic heritage, in those formative years spent kneeling in the limestone chapel of Blessed Sacrament Church. Always, I claimed a spot at the front of the church, beneath the pale statue of Mary. The Holy Mother, robed in soft blue with a halo fixed above her head covering, became for me, a child separated from her own birth mother, the image of the perfect mother. Impressionable and devout, my devotion to her was cemented as I peeked at her through fingers laced in penitent prayers, hoping she was listening.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners. Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
In the beginning of my passion for Mary, it wasn’t her endurance or her discipleship that impressed me, but her maternal gaze and the reverence that others in my faith held for her.
My identification with the Nazarene mother also was fueled by fiction. A book my stepmother gave me, once she finally accepted that reading was more important to me than completing my chores or even playing outdoors, was titled simply Mary. In my eyes, it was an ancient book with a yellowed paper jacket and equally aged pages, but within those pages was a beautiful story that was as fresh and timely as my middle-grade novels—Mary’s life as a chosen mother and faithful wife. The book traveled with me to college and into adulthood and marriage. It held space on a shelf in my home for years, only to be handed on by me to another young woman who needed to know the Virgin Mother.
Now, as a mother releasing her son to the roles of husband and father, I look again on Mary’s face and realize that perhaps I’m standing in the legacy of Elizabeth, one who was given the gift of motherhood late in life and spoke into Christ’s identity while he was in the womb. Elizabeth, the woman who waited, “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord,” also is my guide and I share her identity as a late-in-life mother. Motherhood came to me after a decade of waiting, believing that children were not part of God’s plan for my life.
Mary had rushed to Elizabeth’s side to aid her cousin during her pregnancy. Elizabeth welcomed Mary with enthusiasm, bestowing on her the perfect gift—to be seen and known:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
And the words Mary spoke to Elizabeth moments after the elder woman’s proclamation is a song of praise and declaration of faith. I’ve taped them to the inside of my book of prayers.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my savior, for he has looked upon his handmaid in her lowliness; henceforth all ages will call me blessed…”
Blessed, indeed. Mary’s prayer, a canticle called simply The Magnificat, testifies to her deep faith and youthful enthusiasm for the God who is known to her. His loving mercy, his strength, his provision, and his promises—Mary declares them all in the moment she receives Elizabeth’s blessing.
“A disciple of her own son” is the identity given to Mary in Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld). “Mary had to learn to follow him as a disciple, rather than possessing and directing him as his mother.” The authors go on to say that Mary appears in the gospels as “a woman who is highly esteemed, acts like a normal mother, is spiritually more responsive than others but needs to grow as a woman of faith. She is neither exalted above normal womanhood nor looked down on as though her lapses in spiritual understanding had some connection with her being a woman.”
Because she believed, Mary’s humanity, her lifelong identity as both a loving mother and a faithful (though sometimes skeptical) disciple, continue to guide and inspire me as I walk into this next season of motherhood—grandmotherhood.
I hold in my heart Mary’s words: “Because He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name; and His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him.”
And offer my own: “There will be blessings beyond your wildest imagination, but also pain you never expected to endure. He will bring you deep-throated laughter, strength that can move mountains, fear beyond reason. And you’ll learn every day how to release him…”