Labor of Love: Suffering and the Motherly Vocation


This week I happened across this YouTube video ( in which two strapping young Dutch men experience the joy of childbirth … well, two hours of simulated labor pains. That’s almost the same thing, right?


In his classic work Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen acknowledges that the mystery of suffering will remain just that – leaving us in our brokenness – until we are willing to embrace that brokenness by “befriending” it, and then “putting it under the blessing” (p.75). He continues:

The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain … can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity.

It is not hard to say to one another, “All that is good and beautiful leads us to the glory of the children of God.” But it is very hard to say, “But didn’t you know that we all have to suffer and thus enter into the glory?” Nonetheless, real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway to joy (p.77).

This truth resonated with me as I watched the documentary Babies (, and was struck by the similarities of young women bringing new life into the world. Their circumstances were very different – women from Tokyo, San Francisco, Mongolia, and the African bush – yet the similarities of their experiences were also striking. They pushed through the pain . . . and experienced the joy of motherhood.

Which, if you think about it, summarizes very neatly what is also in store, until their children become old enough to make them grandmothers.

It’s something you don’t often hear in pre-Cana classes, that authentic married love expresses itself most tellingly not in sex, but in suffering, in giving of yourself until it hurts. All vocations are like this, I would imagine — but I only know this one. I’ve realized that in marriage there are infinite possibilities for both selfishness and self-sacrifice. Once children enter the picture, those possibilities are infinitely multiplied.

And here’s the thing: Looking back (like Lot’s wife) does not ease that suffering, but increases it. In reality, there is no “back.” Only forward. I used to wonder if the car accident (which made physical maternity highly unlikely for me) was God’s way of saying I wasn’t “mother material.” I’ve since come to see the error of this.

True motherhood is centered not in the womb, but in the heart. A mother’s heart is purified daily as her imperfections – her anxieties and fears, her angry and selfish impulses – brush against the needs of her family. We should strive be thankful for those pains — just as the new mother laughs at the sight of her newborn –as a sign of the new work God wants to do deep in our souls, where we need it most.

Please pray for my husband and me this weekend, as we take some much needed time away together in historic Williamsburg. After months and months of labor, it’s time for joy!



About Author

Heidi Saxton is an author of several books and columns. She and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two children. Her "Extraordinary Moms Network" has special relevance to families of adopted, foster, or special-needs children. Heidi is currently writing her thesis for a Masters in Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.