The Glad Sacrifice of Motherhood

Chris & David 2

Julia’s mother, Christine, with her son, David

A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves. –Mother Teresa

Before I became a mother, I often listened to the stories of sacrifice that populated my family’s collective memory, handed on like heirlooms. They were impressive to me then, as a child and adolescent, but the reality behind the tales has only gradually sunk in as I’ve had my own children and settled into life as a mother. This Mother’s Day has me remembering with gratitude the legacy of glad sacrifice in my maternal forebears.

When my grandfather returned from World War II he married the love of his life, my grandmother. When his son, my father, was four years old, my grandfather suddenly lost his ability to walk. He learned from doctors that a spinal column injury sustained during the war would, as they told him, give him the option of sitting or lying down. He told them he would walk. (And he did walk eventually – with a brace from hip to ankle, and supporting himself with a cane.) My grandmother looked after the children and visited him daily for months in the hospital and rehabilitation center. In the evening, she put her kids to bed and went off to work as a waitress. Tirelessly, she worked to put food on the table – from the time my grandfather was in the hospital to when he came home unable to walk, let alone work.

My maternal grandmother had seven children. My mother, Christine, was the third born. When my mother was in junior high, my grandfather grew gravely sick, suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. And so my grandmother went to work at a factory while my oldest aunts and uncles kept things going at home. And when my grandfather passed away when her youngest was still in grade school, she continued to work at night and be at home during the day, never taking her wedding band off her ring finger.

And then there’s my mother. After she married her high school sweetheart at the tender age of twenty-one, my mother left school, her family, and her way of life to move across the country for my father to go to seminary. Shortly after they arrived, she discovered she was pregnant. David was born nine months later. A very difficult labor made way for the even more difficult news that David had a heart condition that would require surgery in a few months’ time. When David was six months of age, my parents and their best friends got on their knees and pleaded with God to protect their firstborn son the next morning during open heart surgery. The next morning David died. My parents were twenty-three.

In sharing these stories, I don’t for a moment think that my family is unique. This kind of risky love and untiring devotion are wonderfully universal. There is beautiful commonality woven in the stories we all carry of our mothers, and of our mothers’ mothers. Each of us is here today precisely as the result of the sacrifice of others. Even those of us who may not have had ideal mothers have often benefited from mother-like sacrifices from someone who loved us.

When I’m tempted to despair at the solipsism of this world and question whether the era of this type of sacrifice has passed, I step back and consider the strong women around me, many of whom have forsaken family and country in the graduate journey, and now joyfully sacrifice to raise their children in circumstances that are not always easy – children who will, one day, look back on the difficulty their mothers endured with gratitude and wonder.

written by Julia, a former graduate wife

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