Open Hand, Open Heart: Ministry to Young Mothers

It occurs to me that 21st century realities for young mothers — particularly for young mothers willing to have larger families — are quite different than they were thirty years ago, or fifty. In “the old days” — back when my mother had me, for instance, and my Mother-in-Law had my husband — families were larger to start with, and extended family members lived nearby. My grandmother lived with us; my husband’s grandmother lived a few blocks away; one aunt lived right up the street and another around the corner. A new mother had some resources to help her out, another pair of hands to catch a running kid; someone to sit with for a tea-break and an hour’s adult conversation.

Families are smaller, these days. Those young women who are nurturing “big” families rarely have family members who live within hollering distance; siblings are few and often living in another state and aunts and grandmas are off “having it all.”

Calah Alexander has written one of those brutally honest pieces about the trials, frustrations and fears that go hand-in-hand with mothering small children but she has added to it the twist that obedient Catholicism brings to the drama.

There is freedom in obedience but it can sometimes seem very hard to find when life is a blur of small, unruly people who are in constant states of screaming need and one’s post-partum chemistry is all afoul; a sincere attempt at religious obedience can feel like oncoming death or madness, especially if one is not getting some sound spiritual direction, and a little help. People who have no idea what it’s like to not even be alone while in the bathroom — to have no spare minute in which to collect oneself or re-tether oneself to heaven — cannot possibly imagine the strain.

Reading Calah’s piece, I couldn’t help but wonder why parishes do not have a “young mother’s ministry”. We have Consolation/Funeral Ministry, Divorced Men’s Ministry, Teen-group Ministry, Bereavement Ministry; why not a Ministry of Succor meant to help young mothers who have passed that “new baby” moment when everyone wants to help and are now in the thick of the everyday demands of motherhood — just her and the brood and hours of unrelieved, lonely coping.

I’m envisioning a ministry whereby older moms — perhaps women confronting an empty nest, or those facing retirement with some time on their hands — can simply visit with a young mom for an hour or so, a couple times a week — at home or in a park — and be present to her in a reassuring, and most importantly, confidential way.

I am not talking about babysitting, about some woman coming in while the young mother flees for the hour — and I’m not talking about someone who helps with the housework — I’m thinking about something more in line with a woman able to come in and take one kid into her lap, and maybe rock it to sleep, while the young mother deals with another kid but also has a chance to talk, spill, vent, cry; a woman who might be a prayer companion in those moments; a woman who can identify — who understands that the young mother is neither nuts nor incompetent, just overwhelmed; a woman who can reassure her that things get better — that the job of motherhood never becomes “easy” but it gets more manageable.

So, basically, I’m thinking a mother’s companion ministry; a “mothering presence” to a young mother — someone who might pour them both a cup of tea, hold a hand and say “yes, these small people are little packages of lunacy, joy and sorrow entrusted to you. Aren’t they beautiful? And doesn’t time speed by so quickly…” A voice to bring a little perspective into a life that currently seems telescopically narrowed.

It would involve some training, I think. Some training in “listening” skills, in facilitating and it what it means to simply “be there” for someone else, for no other reason than the love of God. To be Christ for a young mother; to be Mary, and simply hear her, love her, pray with her.

Most importantly, it would require a rock-solid commitment to confidentiality; such a ministry would be useless to any young mother if she felt there was no safety in her venting, or if she had to worry about gossip.

My husband and I used to facilitate a youth group — we took on kids in the 9th grade and they met weekly in our home until graduation from high school, just to talk, to be able to have a free, safe place in which to talk about anything they wanted, address sensitive issues or toss off challenging questions about church and the life of faith. We went through training for it, and yes, we signed a confidentiality agreement and the kids did, too. Barring something criminal or unsafe, what was said at a meeting stayed at the meeting. We did it for eight years, because it was a thing very much worth doing. People need to know they are seen and heard. Young moms need it, especially.

Seems to me, a ministry of succor to young moms might be worth doing, too. And it’s kind of part-and-parcel of “Becoming Apocalypse” for each other.

I’d love to know if such programs are already alive in some Catholic parishes?

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About Elizabeth Scalia