Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. She teaches and researches in the areas of women and religion, interreligious dialogue, comparative theology, Asian and Asian American theology, and Hindu-Christian studies. Tracy also co-chairs the Los Angeles Hindu-Catholic Dialogue.
Mary, her purity, and her role as Virgin Mother have become the primary language for talking about women and women’s place in the Church. The late Pope John Paul II held up Mary, both virgin and mother, as the perfect model for women. For the Pope, women’s sexuality and spirituality are united in a vision of woman’s personhood as that of nurturing self-gift. The calling of physical and spiritual motherhood is connected to women’s more receptive and nurturing nature. Men lead the Church, as Christ did, while women receive Christ and others in their homes and in the world, as Mary did. Mary’s receptive openness to God is manifest from the beginning in her consent to Jesus’ conception. Such receptivity is both biologically natural and spiritually essential. Mary as Virgin Mother shows both women and men the value and depth of the receptive, self-giving reality of womanhood.
I cannot help but be both attracted and repelled by this vision. John Paul II’s description of pregnancy shows no knowledge or understanding of actual pregnancy. Yes, pregnancy is a profound communion with life, but that communion with life is a communion in all of life’s messiness: a communion with nausea, constant trips to the bathroom, unbearable exhaustion, the utter failure of one’s memory. I have never felt less confident and more out of control with the on-going realization that my body, my life, is not my own than while I am pregnant. After twenty four hours of labor before an emergency c-section that lasted hours because of delays and complications, after a subsequent infection, after eight weeks of crying after every nursing session because of the pain, nothing is more clear to me than that. The beautiful idea of pregnancy, motherhood, self-gift, and nurturing the world may be true, but without the pain, emotional and psychological distress, strange bodily changes and – dare I say – emissions, the picture is incomplete. Just like the perfect Mary idealized out of her real life, the Pope’s vision of women is remote and unrealistic.
Such a vision also leads to a skewed vision of fatherhood. Of course, the Pope aims to highlight the significance of the mother, but this makes the significance of the father only secondary. The fact of the matter is that my husband was always, and is, just as attentive to my daughter as I am. And even if he did not physically give birth to or nurse her, he nurtures her in countless other ways. (In fact, the last time I was out of town, my husband sat up with my daughter throughout the night as she threw up all over the both of them repeatedly. I felt bad, knowing that she was sick and that he would be doing numerous loads of laundry the next day; but I was not worried. She was in competent and caring hands.)
In contemporary discussions of Mary, we often seem to be at an impasse. Either we accept the high, romantic view of Mary or we completely reject it. I do not like these seemingly opposed options. I think we need both perspectives: a real sense of Mary as Mother of God, and also a sense of the real mother of God, Mary. Mary can show all of us that to care for children is to care for God – but these little angels with their snuggles, giggles, playfulness, and pure joy are also little imps with tantrums, puberty, and sometimes paralyzing meanness. Parenting has brought me a love and joy I have never known; but parenting has also brought me to a level of frustration, fear, and pain that I have never known. We need to be mindful of both the sublime and the tragic: for Mary – and parenting – encompass both.