Laborers of Love

Re-envisioning Motherhood & Caretaking as Valuable Work

In a huge pro-family victory, the Irish recently gave a resounding vote of “no” to removing the word “motherhood” from their Constitution.1 A second amendment, which proposed removing a Constitutional provision stipulating that women should not be forced by economic necessity to take a job to the “neglect of their duties in the home” was also soundly defeated. Irish attorney Maria Steen, who campaigned against the proposed amendments, called the outcomes an “expression by the Irish people of gratitude and of love—gratitude to women for the work that they do in their homes, that is often unseen and unsung.”

The concept of motherhood as an important role that entails important work is one that deserves further fleshing out. Every social system must deal with the fact that children are not easy to care for and raise—and that someone must do it, and do it well, if the state is going to survive. Even more elementally, someone must first bear children to begin with. In her 2020 book Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us About Being Human, Valparaiso University professor Agnes R. Howard delves into this first step and examines the important work of pregnancy itself.

Radical Hospitality

It is easy, she writes, to reduce our view of pregnancy to sentimental sweet nothings, or to hormones, or to a medical experience, or to any number of other things. Her thesis is that pregnancy is a concept worth taking seriously for what it tells us about the human experience.

Howard begins by taking us through the history of how past civilizations have viewed pregnancy. Before modern medicine and imaging, the unborn child was most often viewed as the seed of the man, deposited into the woman. She was the receptacle, but she was also responsible for not messing things up. Her emotional state, along with her habits or vices, might be either credited for the baby’s wellness or blamed for its lack thereof. With more modern understandings of pregnancy came a new set of stringent rules. The expectant mother is now allowed to be contributing something (half the genetic material), but she is still held to a set of rules guiding her behavior for the sake of the child’s wellbeing—no shellfish, lie on your left side to sleep and not your right, no smoking or drinking, take your prenatal vitamins, and the list goes on.

Rather than a list of rules, a medical experience, or sentimental sappiness, Howard invites us to see pregnancy as an act of “radical hospitality”—the giving over of one’s body for the sake of another. She explains how, just as a family might shrink itself into two bedrooms instead of three to accommodate houseguests, so a woman’s internal organs are rearranged and shoved aside to accommodate the growing baby. The uterus, to take an obvious example, which is normally a very small organ (roughly three inches long), expands to the size of a watermelon by the end of the third trimester. To make room, the intestines, stomach, and liver are all forced upward, eventually pressing against the lungs, which causes shortness of breath. Also participating in the effort to make room for the “guest,” the ribcage expands, as do the hips during childbirth itself.

Pregnancy is also a unique opportunity for a woman to practice the virtues—especially prudence, charity, generosity, and courage. She must regulate her eating, drinking, and sleeping; she demonstrates generosity in the giving of her body for the sake of another; she shows courage in facing down the physical pain, discomfort, and risks related to both pregnancy and childbirth.

More than anything, however, pregnancy points to our dependence upon one another:

Pregnancy exhibits relationship as fundamental to human life. We call on each other to do well in order that the species go on, one adult body willing to carry, provide, protect, and suffer on behalf of another one not yet fully formed. … What a loss it would be to understand the point of this prenatal activity as just to get a baby born.

Howard draws attention to an important and oft-overlooked fact: pregnancy—and with it, motherhood itself—changes women in permanent ways, ways that science is only beginning to understand. Our culture demands that pregnancy and motherhood be mere add-ons to the experience of being a modern woman, extras undertaken for the nebulous purpose of “personal fulfillment.” This “add-on” view is an impoverished understanding of the mother-child relationship for child and mother alike. In pregnancy and breastfeeding especially, brains and bodies are restructured for the purpose of taking care of others.2 One cannot simply shut these things down to return to “normal life.”

Dependence & Interdependence

Instead, Howard insists that care of others is a crucial part of being human, and that relational dependence is important and good. In an essay in The Cresset titled “All in the Family: Making Over Motherhood for Mutual Flourishing,” she addresses what we often refer to as the “work-life balance” crunch. But she rewords the problem that millions of mothers especially face: “What we have to ‘balance’ is not ‘work’ and ‘life’ but work and work.” Instead of calling for typical secular remedies, such as subsidized childcare or more flexible work schedules, she proposes a threefold solution:

The first gestures at simplicity: strip some of the bells and whistles from the childhood-experience package, conceding less to the way commerce and fashion dictate kids’ needs. The second concerns children themselves, who get a promotion: inviting them to become collaborators in the goods of the household rather than passive dependents awaiting delivery of services. Together, those shifts help cultivate a household where life together is the point of living together, not just as a second shift or break room for working parents or a launching pad for future adults. The third change concerns work, which gets a demotion: recasting one’s job not as the dominant feature of adult identity but in a proper subordinate place, work put in relationship to other aspects of a flourishing life.

Overall, these excellent suggestions can be rounded up in a single sentence: Elevate the caretaking work of the home—for all. The child learns to take care of himself and his home environment, and the adults learn to place home and family caretaking in a more important light than individual promotion in the money economy.

Sanctified Life Together

Howard’s suggestions here dovetail nicely with the thesis of her book. Caring for each other—starting with the members of our own families—is the most important work we can undertake. It also offers unique opportunities for sanctification, the process whereby God invites us into hard work and even suffering to make us holier. Let us give it the respect it deserves for all members of the household.

1. Michael Kelly, “Irish Voters Reject Constitutional Overhaul of Motherhood and Family,National Catholic Register (March 11, 2024).
2. See Abigail Tucker, Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct (2021).

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #69, Summer 2024 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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