“Did you make motherhood an idol?” my therapist asked me one day.
I’d been talking to her about my struggles with perfectionism since becoming a mother, about how hard it was when motherhood wasn’t how I’d pictured it would be. At this point, I thought I’d come to all the epiphanies I’d come to about this topic, but her question stopped me in my tracks.
Yes, I had turned motherhood into an idol. I’d dreamed of being a mother since I’d been a child, and motherhood had turned into something that I unconsciously felt would make me complete.
Maybe you can relate; maybe it’s a great job, a husband, a child, a religious vocation, or something else that is good that, because it is good, you haven’t realized has become an idol for you. These idols aren’t like the graven images of the Old Testament; they sneak up on us, because they are things that do enrich our life. Motherhood is a good thing; my vocation as a wife and mother is, God willing, my path to holiness. But, it does not make me complete. Only God can do that. And only God’s grace can make me the mother I want and should be.
Turning motherhood into an idol can lead us down some dangerous paths, and I found an illustration of this truth in an unlikely place: the new Marvel Cinematic Universe movie “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.”
Note: There will be spoilers in the remainder of this blog post.
The Danger of Idolatry
I was so sympathetic to Wanda’s character in last year’s “Wandavision.” My heart broke for her when I realized that her husband and children weren’t real, that she had created a fictional universe for herself out of desperate loneliness. I’d hoped that the next time we saw her, she would have found some healing.
But this new movie, ostensibly about Doctor Strange, was also, perhaps unintentionally, about what happens when we turn motherhood into an idol. In her (very good) desire to be a mother, Wanda becomes a villain. She succumbs to witchcraft and kills people. Ultimately, she realizes that she’s gone too far, that she can’t have what she wants and that she is going to unnatural and evil ends to try to get it.
When motherhood is an idol, it leads mothers to cling obsessively to their children even after they have left the nest. It leads to surrogacy and sperm donation. It leads to feelings of fear and insecurity born of perfectionism. It leads to feeling incomplete without a child—a feeling that can be devastating for single or infertile women.
Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote beautifully about the feminine soul and its maternity—and of how the natural gifts of a mother could be twisted by original sin. “In her relations to others, it is manifested in her complete absorption with them beyond the measure required by maternal functions,” she wrote. Woman can also have “the tendency to daydream and rhapsodize; her inner life with fantasy heroes in a fantasy world paralyzes her capacity for judgment and fitness for the real world.”
As Professor Dumbledore told Harry, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
Wanda dwelled in a dream, and she forgot to live. She was unable to grieve the loss of Vision, and she was unable to use her gifts to help others. Instead, she became a twisted version of a mother, willing to do whatever it takes to have children. That path led to death—for others and for herself.
Out of the Weeds
I am fully in the weeds of motherhood, chasing a toddler every day, trying to get her to eat her food rather than spit it out or throw it on the floor and trying to help a one-year-old with strong opinions learn to manage her suddenly big emotions. I love being a mother, and I worry constantly about whether I’m doing it “right.”
But the truth is, striving to be a perfect mother is not only an impossible path; it is also a wrong one. I can’t be a perfect mother, and trying to be one will lead me down a sinful road. Yes, I can do my best—but I can also acknowledge that my best will never be good enough unless it includes a surrender to God’s will and every attempt to cooperate with the grace that I know he’s given me. In other words, God is my idol. Motherhood is just the journey he’s taking me on.
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