‘Mothering is beautiful, and it’s sacred’

Barbara Mahany calls them “motherprayers.” They are the special prayers, she said, that “take on an inexplicable mysticism, a holy pleading that falls to God’s feet and onto God’s heart.”

They come in ordinary moments, in joyful moments and in challenging times when a mother rises up to do whatever it takes to be a mother. Or to be a person who practices the art and commitment of mothering. She even suggests a Mothering Day to replace Mother’s Day, so that all who are called to the tender, merciful, caring role are honored.

Mothering, she said, “is the voyage of a lifetime, one that cannot even be imagined until you begin walking the walk.”

Mahany, who spent three decades as a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, in April released her second book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving” (Abingdon Press, $18.99), as a record of how deeply her sons are loved.

“It’s my deepest hope that through my family stories, my essays will be vessels that unlock the readers’ own stories,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I hope that whoever reads it really pauses to consider how important this work is — the work of loving another human being without measure, without question and without retreat.”

Mahany, 60, lives with her family in suburban Chicago. She got experience in caregiving as the second oldest of five siblings, was a hospital volunteer as a teenager and became a nurse in pediatric oncology.

“I was always taking care of kids, and I wanted so much to be a mom,” she said.

Her first son, Will, now 23, was born when Mahany was 36. Teddy, now 15, was born eight years later. They inspired her to take notes to capture the experience of mothering in a “crash course in love without end and without questioning.” It’s love with eyes and ears wide open, even when it’s not easy. Her journal and essays about the experiences, she said, were a spiritual exercise and “a lifelong inclination toward paying attention to the whispers of the heart.”

Mahany did not set out to be a writer. She planned to attend graduate school to become a nurse practitioner and open her own inner-city clinic to take care of mothers and children.

Plans changed when, at her father’s funeral in 1981, the priest read a letter that she had written to him two months earlier. The head of her father’s advertising agency heard it and later asked her if she ever thought of journalism. The same day he asked, she called Northwestern University’s Medill Graduate School of Journalism and put the wheels in motion.

She landed an internship at the Chicago Tribune and, in 1982, was offered a full-time job. It was there she met her husband, Blair Kamin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic.

Mahany covered murder trials, investigated the Iran-Contra controversy, traveled the country to talk to people who were hungry, covered respective visits to the United States by Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Prince Charles, and wrote human interest stories that reached deep into the hearts of ordinary people.

Halfway through her career, she started writing from home so she could be with her children.

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“Maybe one of the bravest things about writing this book is that there’s a lot of snarky mothering literature out there,” Mahany said. “There’s a lot of complaining and noise like that, and I guess that I’m a little counterculture right now. What’s in this book is really important stuff. Being a mother takes every ounce of intelligence you can possible muster, every ounce of courage and flexibility. Ultimately, we are forever making mistakes and have to regroup and figure out a new game plan. Our children are our teachers more often than we are their teachers. Mothering is beautiful, and it’s sacred, but my book is not filled with answers. It’s filled with questions and the astonishment of all the mothers around me. It’s a celebration of all mothers. It’s holy work that’s not easy. It’s a book that celebrates this magnificent kind of loving.”

Mahany lost a dear friend a year and a half ago. She was 54 and left behind two young-adult children.

“The week after she died, I was at my desk, supposed to be working on a different book, and I was struck in the way that we know we are struck,” she said. “I knew this is the book I had to write. I have this palpable sense that there is no promise for tomorrow. This dear friend dying far too young and knowing how much she lost gave me a sense of urgency that I didn’t want to wait.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Barbara Mahany Q&A
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