Motherhood and Dignity of Women

Rosa Linda G. Valenzona
Spring 2008
Reproduced with Permission

A century ago life was very simple; women from all walks of life looked forward to a rewarding and fulfilled life as wife and mother. Motherhood was upheld as a noble and esteemed vocation. Nowadays if one meets a pregnant friend one has not seen in a long time it is natural to ask: is that your nth baby? Then she just might apologetically answer: this is my third one, as if she had just committed a heinous crime to humanity. Pregnant women nowadays are present day martyrs without dying. They face the criticism of society for bringing to earth another mouth to feed; one more person who will use up the earth's limited resources.

Modern Attitudes

Contemporary culture's negative outlook towards pregnancy and motherhood is best exemplified in the derogatory use of the label "barefoot and pregnant" for women who make a career of being a wife and mother. Having a baby has become a matter of choice nowadays. Contraception allows women to choose whether to bear a child at all and wherever abortion is legal, women can choose not to have a baby already conceived. For social and career considerations women can time their babies appropriately. Even the very term "unplanned pregnancy" would imply that having a baby should be something that one chooses to do and by implication a baby conceived accidentally is unwanted. It has gotten to the ridiculous point that this "choice" is now called a right - a reproductive right. Pope John Paul II has rightly called this wrong affirmation of human right as the exaltation of the individual in such an absolute way as to deny the baby that basic right - the right to human life.

Society's negative attitude is confirmed by a recent survey in the US that showed that although women derive a deep sense of satisfaction from being a mother they feel that society has come to value them less since becoming a mother.1 How did the world's attitude to motherhood undergo this drastic change? The assault on motherhood came from many fronts-the political and economic interests inspired by neo-Malthusian ideologies, the feminist rebellion against a culture perceived to uphold male dominance, the weakening of marriage through divorce and cohabitation to highlight a few. This assault from many fronts is what has given motherhood a negative connotation, transforming pregnancy it into a disease giving rise to the advocacy that women should be given access to contraception and abortion for the sake of reproductive health.

Fertility decline has reached global proportions. Population of many of the rich countries is now imploding and many poor countries are following suit. The signs of ageing and the resulting economic crisis are now appearing in the demographic horizon of these countries. Many fear that the coming demographic winter is a harbinger of the unprecedented decline of the human family. It is therefore important to restore motherhood to the place of dignity and honor it deserves. This paper will therefore attempt to do this by responding to the gamut of issues that have been raised against motherhood.

Personal Dignity

The dictionary defines dignity as those qualities that ennoble something, making that thing or someone deserve esteem and honor. Dignity is the main reason why something is valued, considered worthy. Dignity is a word closely associated with persons. Human beings are persons - created in the image and likeness of God, possessing knowledge and free will, capable of achieving their own fulfillment, thereby possessing qualities that ennoble them far above the created world. Every person of whatever sex must be respected for himself or herself, in his or her physical, intellectual and spiritual integrity. A person should never be treated as an object or be subjected to exploitation.

This simple reminder of the dignity of the human person is a reminder of how murder is a grave crime. Contraception and abortion are even graver because they are committed against a defenseless life by the mother - the very person naturally sworn to protect its life. These grave crimes against motherhood do not go unpunished. In the US it is now recognized that 500,000 women are suffering from Post Abortion Syndrome, the psychological disorder arising from the guilt and the trauma of having killed one's own baby.2 These women are high risk for suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc.

Equal But Different

Human beings are born sexed - embodied as a male or female person. Men and women are equal in dignity because they are both human persons. Though equally human this embodiment in the male or female body creates an essential difference between the male person and the female person.

Since the feminist assault on motherhood is responsible for much of the negative attitude let us dwell further on this topic. The feminist believe that all the discrimination against women come from the stereotypes that have considered women as the weaker sex in a culture which upholds male dominance. Women should achieve equality by fighting against these cultural stereotypes and competing with men in everything. The biological difference that gives women the unique privilege of pregnancy is especially resented, making feminists strong advocates of contraception and abortion as an essential element to reproductive rights.

Anthropologists studying 250 cultures have ascertained gender specific behavior in almost all cultures.3 Recent researches now show that these differences in male-female behavior are rooted male-female biological difference disproving feminist claims of cultural stereotyping as major cause for gender-specific behavior.4 Here are some interesting facts:

This data shows that male-female physiological differences embraces a broad area disproving the simplistic claim of feminists that this difference is exclusively limited to the reproductive aspect - a difference that should be neutralized by eliminating motherhood. The human person is fully differentiated in the male and female person; the female person is fully equipped with a feminine soul and a feminine body and similarly the male person is equally equipped with a masculine soul and a masculine body.

Gregg Johnson's conclusion is even more interesting. Genesis 1:28 states "And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth." This translates into two mandates: to subdue the earth and to fill the earth. Clearly the differences in biological and psychological make-up of men and women show uniquely equipped them for the fundamental division of labor to fulfill the divine mandate. Man is particularly equipped to fulfill the commission to subdue the earth while woman is particularly suited to bear children to populate the earth.

Dignity of Motherhood

Having examined the inherent dignity and equality of the male and the female person we now continue our study of motherhood. We have seen how nature has endowed the feminine person with extraordinary qualities to equip her for motherhood. We should next look at the inherent qualities in motherhood that makes it deserving of esteem and respect.

Where does the nobility and worth of motherhood come from? How does the dignity of motherhood enhance the dignity of women? "In its personal and ethical sense motherhood shows a creativity on which the humanity of each human being largely depends; it also invites man to learn and to express his own fatherhood. Thus women contribute to society and to the Church their ability to nurture human beings."5 Genetically we all arrive at our humanity through our parents and in a special way through our mothers. Mothers are the primary companion, teacher, nurturer, who watch over children. Thus to be the redeemer of mankind our Lord Jesus Christ became true man by being born of a woman.6 This then is the most important reason for the esteem and honor we accord to motherhood.

Beyond the very basic level of genetics there are many other contributions unique to motherhood at the social and spiritual level. A very important element of motherhood is motherly care and motherly love. It is through the primeval experience of motherly care that every person discovers his/her self worth as infinitely valuable and precious in the eyes of his/her mother. Those who have been deprived of a mother's love are out of touch of their "belovedness"; they become convinced that they have no moral obligations and will not suffer the consequences for their unloving behavior.7 If one has not been loved it is difficult to know how to return love. The mother's love is a very important ingredient to our education as humans.8 The unique humanizing and civilizing influence of Motherhood on the person is motherhood's gift to society.

At the spiritual level a person intuits God's love for him through the motherly love he receives.9 In the words of Benedict XVI: "The joyful love with which our parents welcomed us and accompanied our first steps in this world is like a sacramental sign and prolongation of the benevolent love of God from which we have come. The experience of being welcomed and loved by God and by our parents is always the firm foundation for authentic human growth and authentic development, helping us to mature on the way towards truth and love, and to move beyond ourselves in order to enter into communion with others and with God."10

Economics is another equally important area where we can appreciate the value of motherhood to society. Motherhood makes women skilled at multi-tasking and time management, as she works as tutor, laundry woman, cook, housekeeper, psychiatrist, nurse, etc. She works a 60-hour work week, 52 weeks of the year. In the Philippines computing at minimum wage level-though she deserves much more - she would get an annual salary of more than P300,000!

Protecting Motherhood

The value of motherhood is upheld in all cultures regardless of time and place. Even in the most primitive culture the activities of sexuality and parenting is tolerated by societies only in the environment of committed marriage. The marriage vows even in the most primitive tribes have always been a religious rite implying the divine nature of the creative forces inherent in the exercise of sexuality. In the Church marriage is a sacrament - a visible sign of grace providing the married couple special help in fulfilling their parenting duties. This has given birth to a Christian culture that frowns on pre-marital and extra-marital sex as an offense against God and limiting sexuality to marriage. Men and women are expected to discipline their sexuality and keep it exclusive to marriage for a specific social purpose: the protection of motherhood.

Unfortunately the advent of the contraceptive elimination of pregnancy has brought on the sexual revolution-making premarital and extra-marital sex "fun free". This has served to detach sexual activity from the serious responsibilities of marriage and family and to open the way to widespread practice of cohabitation (that is, living together without the benefit of marriage). Moreover, since no contraception is 100 % effective in eliminating pregnancy it is also associated with the rise of single parenthood, leaving motherhood unprotected. Research in the West has associates single parenthood with the rise of poverty among women. Children from single parent households have been found to have poorer academic performance, have higher risk for substance abuse, for juvenile crimes, etc.11

Motherhood and Women

Since motherhood is the exclusive privilege of women we have already seen the privileges nature has accorded to women. We can now look at motherhood's contribution to the feminine genius.

Becoming a mother transforms the woman into a person who generates, which means bringing up and bringing up not only children but all other people as well-with love and intuition. A mother's task is that of educating. Women combine this unique purpose and capacity with their roles within and outside the family in a manner that makes them uniquely different from men. "Motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman's part."12 This is woman's unique contribution to the human enterprise.

It is in choosing the great rewards and challenges of family life, as wife and mother that a woman finds ample opportunity to express the profoundly feminine part of herself, simultaneously serving others, developing her potential for greater love, greater service, greater fruitfulness and ultimately, a greater expression of herself. It is in her openness, to conceive and give birth to a child, that woman discovers herself through a sincere gift of self. Although parenthood belongs to both father and mother it is undeniable that it is realized much more fully in the woman. Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as the child develops in the mother's womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and ‘understands' with unique intuition what is happening inside her.

This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings-not only towards her own child, but to every human being-profoundly marks the woman's personality. This makes women more capable of paying attention to another person, something that is all the more enhanced when they become mothers. Women who become mothers are uniquely equipped to attend to others through their sensitivity to the expressed needs, hungers and yearnings betrayed by the tone of voice, look in the eyes, slumped shoulders and heavy sigh. The capacity to render a deeply humane attention to the seemingly unspecial people who constitute always and everywhere the overwhelming majority of the human race is the humanizing contribution women make to society.

Women are biologically hard-wired to be receptive, a capacity which comes to fruition in motherhood when she actively receives, embraces, nourishes and nurtures new life. This gives her a special genius to receive and assimilate new ideas into her world view. She has the openness to help new ideas along by helping the originator of new concepts, by reformulating and expanding on them. She is well disposed to seeing other people's intellectual offspring succeed, rooting for them like a mother encouraging her child to take his or her first steps.

There is no telling how much the loss of prestige of motherhood has made us women lose touch of these aspects of the feminine genius and through this decline we have contributed to making the world less harmonious and less peaceful.


Since women are by nature mothers, there is a primacy in motherhood for defining the true identity of woman. When women deny or compromise her vocation to motherhood she endangers not only the good of those for whom she is primarily responsible, but also her own physical, emotional and spiritual well being. They are cutting themselves off from their own nature - frustrating their own natural desire to love and care for those entrusted to her, to be receptive to them, to be fully attentive to their needs, and in return to be cherished, to be held in high regard and to be understood and blessed by them.13


1 The Motherhood Study, A report commissioned by the Mother's Council co-authored by Matha Farrel Erickson and Enola G. Aird, University of Minnesota, University of Connecticut and the Institute for American Values [Back]

2 This is documented in the article by David C. Reardon, Ph. D. Elliot Institute "Over 500,000 Women Affected by Post-Abortion Syndrome" [Back]

3 Of two hundred fifty cultures studied, males dominate in almost all. Males are almost always the rule makers, hunters, builders, fashioners of weapons, workers in metal, wood, or stone. Women are primary care givers and most involved in child rearing. Their activities center on maintenance and care of home and family. They are more often involved in making pottery, baskets, clothes, blankets, etc. They gather food, preserve and prepare food, obtain and carry firewood and water. They collect and grind grain. G. Murdock, "The Common Denominator of Cultures," in The Science of Man in the World Crisis, ed. R. Linton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945), pp. 123-142. [Back]

4 A thorough review is provided in "The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior", Gregg Johnson. [Back]

5 John Paul II, Motherhood, Woman's Gift to Society, Address during the Internal Meeting promoting the well-being of women. [Back]

6 Being the mother of God earned our Lady the privilege of the Immaculate Conception. [Back]

7 This beautiful thought comes from Mary Cunningham Agee in her article "The New Catholic Springtime", published in Lay Witness, July/August 1999. [Back]

8 This is clearly explained by Benedict XVI when he said. "The family is also a school which enables men and women to grow to the full measure of their humanity," and "the experience of being loved by their parents helps children to become aware of their dignity as children." [Back]

9 A mother's love is pure since she loves her child for his or her own sake alone. [Back]

10 Homily during the Holy Mass at the closure of the Valencia World Meeting of Families, July, 2006 [Back]

11 How Broken Families Rob Children of their Chances of Prosperity by Patrick Fagan, Senior Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues, Heritage Foundation [Back]

12 John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, Part VI [Back]

13 Mary Cunningham Agee, "Motherhood at the Heart of the New Feminism: A Vocation of Love and Service", paper presented at the International Conference on Women: Women Between Family and Career, Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, Rome, Italy, March 8, 2002 [Back]