WHITEHALL, Pennsylvania, OCT. 27, 2003 (Zenit.org).- When Agnes Penny was pregnant with her first child and experiencing some trials of motherhood, she couldn’t find any spiritual books to help her embrace her vocation better.
After she endured months of sickness and feelings of isolation, and was rewarded with the joy of a child, she began writing to make sense of it all.
Penny continued writing during her second and third pregnancies and has recently penned a book of her gained wisdom, “Your Labor of Love: A Spiritual Companion for Expectant Mothers” (TAN).
Penny, who is expecting her fourth child in February, shared with ZENIT the delights and trials of pregnancy as a Catholic mother living in what John Paul II has called “the culture of death.”
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
Penny: When I was expecting my first child, I felt very sick; I had morning sickness long after it was supposed to have ended and then I had such severe heartburn in the last few months that I had to try to sleep at night sitting up in a rocking chair because I couldn’t lie down.
At that time, I didn’t have any friends who were expecting and I felt very alone and very discouraged about this vocation of motherhood for which I had always longed. It was very hard for me to keep a positive attitude about my vocation.
I tried to find some assistance in spiritual books on marriage and motherhood, but none of them gave pregnancy more than a passing mention. This surprised me, since the Church encourages couples to have large families, which obviously involves lots of time being pregnant. Pregnancy is a huge change in a woman’s life; it can be scary, uncomfortable and discouraging.
However, I didn’t begin writing until after I had the baby, and the incredible joy of holding her and caring for her helped me make sense of the sacrifices that I had made during the previous nine months.
I started to write just to sort things out in my own mind. With the next two pregnancies, I continued to write as new insights struck me and as new challenges confronted me — such as being cheerful and energetic with my toddlers when I was feeling sick and tired with a new pregnancy. Solving these difficulties on paper helped me cope with my everyday life.
Q: What is the value of pregnancy as a spiritual event vis-à-vis a culture that has less respect for the child in the womb?
Penny: Pregnancy is a gift from God and is an unparalleled privilege, for in pregnancy we cooperate with him in the creation of a new human life with a human soul that will live forever.
This view of pregnancy is totally denied in today’s culture, in which children are seen as commodities to be acquired at the exact time and in the exact quantity that the parents choose.
Pregnancy is also a huge responsibility because in each pregnancy, God has placed one of his precious children into our care, and sadly, this is denied when women leave their children to work outside the home, when they are driven not by economic need but by a desire for a luxurious standard of living.
Lastly, pregnancy can be a great opportunity for spiritual growth because almost all pregnancies involve some kind of suffering, great or small, and learning to suffer with joy and love is how we to grow closer to Christ. This, too, is denied by this hedonistic culture, in which any pain or discomfort is to be avoided at all costs.
Q: Why do expectant mothers need a spiritual companion?
Penny: Pregnancy is a difficult time in most women’s lives, whether it is their first or their eighth. Obviously, there are many physical discomforts associated with pregnancy.
Also, pregnancy can bring a variety of anxieties and fears, especially for first-time mothers, mothers who have had miscarriages, stillbirths or difficult labors in the past, or any mother who is experiencing financial or medical difficulties.
In order to avoid bitterness or discouragement in these trials, expectant mothers need a spiritual guide or companion to help them see value and meaning in their sufferings, and to show them the beauty and importance of their vocation.
This is even more crucial in today’s world, in which human life is not considered sacred and motherhood is not valued; expectant mothers living in a culture of death that truly values material goods over people receive little outside support in their choice to be open to new life.
Q: What spiritual revelations did you experience while being pregnant and writing this book?
Penny: Although I began this book right after I had my first baby, I did do a lot of work on it during my next two pregnancies and it was tremendously helpful to me. It helped me appreciate my vocation as a mother, particularly during that very special time when I was expecting and I couldn’t see or hold the baby in my womb — yet I could love that baby and reflect on the wonderful miracle that was occurring within me.
Also, I learned to grow closer to Our Lady and to other saints who were mothers, which is vital to the vocation of motherhood.
Lastly, writing this book while I was expecting helped me to identify what difficulties I was experiencing in my vocation and to come up with concrete answers that would really work.
Q: How have you found your spirituality to grow with each successive pregnancy?
Penny: When I first began writing, I think my manuscript emphasized the difficulties and problems that faced expectant mothers more than the beauty of the vocation of motherhood. But with each pregnancy, I have learned more and more to suffer the little discomforts with joy and peace because I know I can offer all of these up for the baby within me — that gives my suffering meaning.
During my third pregnancy, when I would sit up all night because of heartburn, I would just smile and talk to Our Lady about the baby, and about the things I wanted for my unborn child, such as purity, virtue love for the holy Eucharist. It was so much more peaceful than those restless nights I spent in the same chair two pregnancies earlier.
Q: How do you think fathers can plan spiritually for their children?
Penny: Most importantly, fathers should work on their own spiritual life, doing spiritual reading every day, attending daily Mass if possible and praying daily with their wives, too. The parents are the first and primary teachers of their children, so the holier they are, the better off their children will be.
Also, their wives will have a lot of needs during pregnancy, so the fathers can begin tending to the emotional and physical needs of their wives and offering up what they do for their wives for the salvation of their unborn baby. Encouragement, sympathy and help with the housework are all greatly appreciated by a tired or nauseated expectant mother.
Q: What can parishes do to help expectant mothers and fathers?
Penny: First, in the marriage preparation programs, parishes should teach engaged couples the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Instead of focusing too much on periodic abstinence by offering natural family planning classes to couples who aren’t even married, parish programs should emphasize the joys and advantages of having children and raising large families.
They should let couples know where NFP classes are available in case they ever need them, but teach the couples that, according to “Humanae Vitae” and “Casti Connubii,” periodic abstinence should only be used in grave circumstances; it is the exception, not the rule, for Catholic couples.
Otherwise, when NFP is overemphasized, couples enter marriage ready to use periodic abstinence with a contraceptive mind-set, which contributes to the contraceptive attitude that already permeates our society and makes couples who are expecting feel so isolated.
Also, parishes could offer Bible studies, prayer groups or discussion groups one night a week for mothers and another night for fathers so that young married couples can meet other Catholic couples and find the support they need.
It is very difficult for young married couples who are expecting or who have preschool-age children to meet other parents, and they desperately need the encouragement and camaraderie that such a program could provide in helping couples to fulfill their spiritual, as well as their social, needs.
Couples today are intimidated to be open to new life because they are afraid of the amount of work, the financial sacrifices and the change in their lifestyles that each new child brings. They need to see other Catholic couples embracing the Church’s teachings and living happy, fulfilled lives.
In this culture of death in which we live, this kind of support could really make a difference in encouraging Catholic couples to be open to new life and to appreciate their vocation as parents as a calling from God and as their way to sanctity.