“I want my Mom!” No, that wasn’t the wail of a four-year- old. . . . It was the inner wail of a young mom with a two-week-old baby, two toddlers under three, and a husband heading out the door for an unavoidable business trip. For the first time in my motherhood, I had more children than hands and felt barely able to take care of myself, much less three very wonderful, but very dependent, children.
My mom, unfortunately, left the week before—headed home 542 miles away to her own family, my dad and my eight younger siblings. My mom needed to be home. I desperately wanted her with me.
It was a lonely moment.
But in my loneliness, I prayed. I asked God to help me find a fellow mom to learn from and lean on. I hoped for a friend, but a wise friend, one whose footsteps I might follow on this journey of faith called ‘motherhood.’ God provided, all in His perfect time. I met an older mom who gently shepherded me through many a low point, sharing encouragement, wisdom, and, most powerfully, her gift of faith. At two other critical junctures in my life, additional “mentor moms” stepped forward, blessing me with perspective, encouragement, and practical help.
I didn’t have a label for these important women—I just knew I was grateful for their friendship and prayerful encouragement. They (as well as my own mom) made a tremendous difference to my mothering and my own spiritual growth.
A Heartfelt Need
Recently, I asked some blogger friends to pose these questions to their Catholic-mommy readers: “Would you be interested in a mentoring relationship with an older mom, and, if so, what qualities would you look for?”
The floodgates opened.
Mother after young mother posted a reply. Honest, emotional, and hungry, they shared how lonely and difficult motherhood can be. Our fast-moving consumer culture under-appreciates the intangible value of shaping a child’s heart and soul—and these mothers feel keenly that lack of support. In addition, these were Catholic moms, committed not only to raising their children well in secular terms, but also to raising them right in the eyes of God.
They need mentor moms. One young mom, Jenny, put it simply: “I would just love to have someone in real life to whom I could go to with questions or just for encouragement during rough times.” Patrice, a Catholic writer and mother, values a mentor’s sense of perspective and hope: “They can show me that I will live through whatever life stage I’m currently going through with my children.” Emily, an artist and teacher, remembers how overwhelming life seemed as a first-time mom. “In the beginning I was completely sleep-deprived and I just needed to have someone visit me and talk, maybe bring a meal and care about what was going on.” Mary Beth hopes for “someone who is . . . a few steps ahead on the journey of motherhood, someone willing to share wisdom they’ve gained on this journey, [and] who is faith-filled, encouraging, and has a bit of time.” Kate Wicker, a popular blogger whose writing encourages moms daily, summed it up: “What so many of us long for is maternal empathy.”
These moms yearn for basic mothering support, but within the rich context of their lives as Catholic mothers. Yes, they need practical help, but, as Emily says, “combined with prayer and spiritual wisdom.” For a mom like Christine, a mentor mom would build on the foundation laid by her own mother. “My mom was my first and greatest mentor. She shared with me her love for God and our Catholic faith.”
Very few women, though, seem to have their own moms, sisters, or grandmothers nearby. Even those who do, Antonina points out, don’t necessarily find support for a faithful Catholic life. ”We are either too far away from family or have made lifestyle choices that differ dramatically from their experiences, i.e. faith, home schooling, parenting.” Women who were mothered poorly, were not raised Catholic, or whose extended families embrace cafeteria-style Catholicism feel the need for a Catholic mentor mom most acutely. Tosha’s experience is typical: “My generation needs mentor moms! Many of us grew up in broken homes. Our mothers did not pass down any of the ‘female arts’ and homemaking skills that they took for granted. We are left with the Church to guide us and reading about raising a godly family in books and on blogs.”
Divorced Catholic moms face similar struggles—plus more. Lisa Duffy, who ministers to divorced Catholics through her excellent website (www.divorcedcatholic .com), finds that divorced Catholic moms want “what married mothers want . . . to be accepted, not judged, and loved. To not be excluded simply because they are divorced, to not be judged (because oftentimes they have fought valiantly to save their marriage and are divorced against their will), and for other women to be genuinely friendly to them, to listen patiently to them without having answers. Just to be interested and compassionate.”
Today’s young women struggle to raise not only healthy families, but also holy families anchored in Catholicism. They want to know how to:
● love their husbands and children more deeply and sacrificially
● pray and pass on the faith to their children
● raise happy, balanced children
● live the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality
● accept their trials, struggles, and mistakes without discouragement or resentment
● become holy, peace-filled moms
They are looking for something akin to spiritual mothering.
A Scriptural Solution: Titus 2:3–5
Elizabeth Foss, a mother of nine and an award-winning blogger, believes that mentoring “re-creates” the extended family culture, allowing experienced moms to pass on the vision, skills, and faith at the heart of Catholic motherhood. It is spiritual motherhood, rooted in Scripture: “Older women . . . are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited” (Tit. 2:3–5).
In addition, Elizabeth points out, mentoring younger moms is a practical way to build the culture of life, “helping moms create strong families that will nurture” life. Emily’s situation provides a case in point: “I want to have a second child. Yet without support, I am scared.” Lack of support for motherhood creates a ripple effect across the lives of women and their families.
So, if younger women are eager to learn, are “older women” available to guide them? I turned to experienced moms and asked. Darby, an active parish volunteer, replied: “I would love to be a mentor. I’m a mother of 4 and a soon-to-be first-time grandmother! My youngest is going off to college in the fall. . . . The empty nest is becoming a reality too soon!” Colleen, whose youngest is in college, recalls John Paul II’s teaching that “every woman is a mother whether she is married or single, with children or without.” Genevieve Kineke, author of The Authentic Catholic Woman, agrees. “We’re called to this. . . . Every woman should be assessing her experiences for the wisdom to be gleaned” and shared, when appropriate.
Some mature moms very naturally share their time and wisdom. For others, it’s not so easy. “That is actually one of the biggest challenges,” shares one mom, “to ask seasoned moms, who have their own busy lives, to sacrifice quality time for younger moms.”
Kate Wicker, who writes beautifully about the generous mentors in her own life, sees humility rather than lack of generosity as the limiting factor. “So many of us long to have a sister in Christ to mentor us; yet we see ourselves as unworthy of ministering to other moms.” Jenn, whose five children range from 2 to 14, interpreted her own loneliness as God’s nudge to serve moms foundering in isolation. “Instead of answering my pleas directly, God has [given me] a passion for assisting other women so they don’t have to ‘go it alone.’”
Genevieve, a seasoned mentor, reassures us that although “women worry about one more demand on their time . . . I find the blessings, rewards, and joys far outweigh the demands and the energy [spent].”
What Makes Mentoring Successful?
Both experienced moms and newer moms identify similar qualities for a successful mentoring-mom relationship.
Be an Example. Nearly all the younger women were drawn first by the veteran mom’s example. A woman mature in the love of Christ, kind and friendly to others, teaches others constantly—and inspires imitation.
Be Real. Megan, a Texas mother of five, cautions, “Young moms need mentors . . . but they need real ones. [Otherwise] the expectations are too high and these poor young moms are left wondering what is wrong with them.” Elizabeth Foss highlights the need to “share your failures, your foibles, for someone else’s benefit. It’s almost impossible to mentor if you’ve set yourself up on a pedestal as someone who never made a mistake.”
Be Humble. Genevieve Kineke notes, “Others will be put off if we think that we are better, smarter, holier. Besides, it’s not true!” Say “I don’t know” if you don’t. Be willing to learn.
Be Empathetic. Seek to understand—to meet her where she is—and help her grow from there. Listen well. And never dismiss the younger mom’s struggles as insignificant.
Be Patient. It takes time for a relationship to grow and for insights to bear fruit. Helpful friendships may move forward before anyone labels it a “mentoring” relationship.
Be Confident. Elizabeth believes that “women are afraid to mentor because they think, ‘I don’t have it all together.’ Ask yourself instead, ‘What’s worked?’ and reflect on that.”
Instill Confidence. A mentor’s goal is not to micromanage or control, but to encourage and guide. Affirm good intuitions and decisions; help her learn from experience.
Be Charitable. No need to air the dirty laundry (about husband, children, mother-in-law, and other women) under the guise of mentoring.
Be Prudent. Tread delicately when it comes to marriage issues, moral questions, and childhood wounds. Know your limitations— and defer to a priest or professional counselor when needed.
Be Open. Moral issues aside, there may be many solutions to a particular issue. Each family is different. Jenny urges mentors “to be open to new or different ideas. . . and to encourage what works. . . . [Do] not judge, but offer constructive, helpful criticism.”
Be Available. Mentoring does not require a 24/7 commitment, but, like other important relationships, it thrives on availability. It takes “consistent time, energy, and vulnerability,” observes one mom. Agree on frequency and mode of communication (phone, email, in-person).
Be Trustworthy. Like any good friendship, a mentoring relationship requires trust. Keep confidences confidential.
Create the Opportunity
What’s the best way for mentoring relationships to develop? DeAnn, a home schooling mom, suggests “a balance between forming natural relationships with people that you are drawn to and doing so through an organized means provided by a church or home schooling group.” Moms on both sides of the relationship seem to find relationships that develop organically, arising naturally from situations that bring moms of a variety of ages together, most appealing. This requires, however, that moms of all ages “tune in” to both needs and opportunities. Dawn, another homeschooler, observes that “more experienced moms in our group who could be a great source of wisdom . . . tend to ‘hang out’ with each other and not with the younger moms. . . . I think it’s just that they have more in common with each other. They may not be aware that some of us would really like to form mentoring friendships!”
Conversely, younger moms must be careful not to prejudge, ruling out a good mentor in favor of an illusory “perfect” one. “My ideal mentor,” says Melanie, “would be a woman whose personality is similar to mine. . . . On the other hand . . . sometimes a woman who is very different in personality and in life situation may still have much wisdom to dispense. Perhaps the people we wouldn’t choose for ourselves are the very women God would put into our lives to challenge us, to help us grow and change beyond what we can imagine for ourselves.”
So what situations might bring women of all ages together? Anything that meets the practical needs of moms and family life. Elizabeth Foss suggests anyone with a heart for mentoring consider making herself available to new moms. “Bring meals to a woman after a baby is born,” suggests Elizabeth, “and strike up a conversation, telling them ‘I remember when . . .’ Offer perspective.”
Any parish ministry offers possibilities. One pastor let a parishioner teach free aerobics classes at the parish so moms could attend with their kids. Older women came as well, and mentoring relationships were born. Similarly, in another parish, a grandmother who teaches Atrium to four-year-olds lingers to chat with moms as they pick up their kids. They, in turn, seek her wisdom on all sorts of topics.
Sacramental preparation creates prime opportunities for mature moms to connect with younger moms on a sustained basis. In some dioceses, baptism classes for new parents are taught by couples who remain in touch even after the baptism. Similarly, Amy from Minnesota finds that, although she is only 31, “people that have come to me as a ‘mentor’ noticed me mostly because I have volunteered as the confirmation teacher at our parish for 10 years and take those children as my own.”
Sometimes mentoring relationships begin right next door. Maryan remembers living with her husband in military housing, right next door to “a family of 6 kids. . . . Being away from my mom (who would be a natural mentor), I was so consoled to have Joan right next door to answer all diaper, first aid, discipline, and home schooling questions. . . . Her mentorship to me was invaluable.”
As Internet-connected lifestyles become the norm, moms are plugging in to mentoring opportunities online, discovering relationships through influential mom-bloggers or social media, like Facebook and Twitter. According to the latest stats, web-savvy moms typically log on at least three—and sometimes up to a dozen—times a day. No wonder that many Catholic women increasingly turn to these virtual relationships for advice, encouragement, and support. One woman shared, “The Lord has slowly worked to mold and soften my heart for motherhood, and I truly believe that [a momblogger] played a large role in that, even though we have never met. . . . In the conversation about mentor-moms, Internet friendships must be included.”
Similarly, Kate Wicker writes, “I continue to be grateful for the online community and how it has allowed me to connect so many godly women. . . . Finding the right fit for a mentor . . . is in some ways easier online. We simply have access to more moms with just a click of a mouse.”
“Perhaps the reality is that there are different types of mentoring relationships that suit different needs, and we might have several different women who mentor us in different ways at different times in our lives. For me,” writes Melanie, “there are some distinct advantages to an online versus a ‘real life’ mentoring relationship. I am an intensely private person. . . . I often find it much easier to write about my interior struggles than I would to voice the same sorts of concerns to a friend over coffee. It would take years and years to build up that kind of trust and friendship and, frankly, I need help now.”
Finally, ministries that focus on pregnant teens or underprivileged women clamor for women to volunteer as mentor moms. Colleen, who works with Birthright, encourages moms to be “solid role models for these women to move out of a lifestyle pattern their moms and grandmoms have lived and are handing on.”
Are Catholic mentor moms needed? Absolutely. Hungry hearts are waiting. Genevieve Kineke offers two final thoughts to women who wonder whether to serve as a mentor mom. First, “It’s because we’re not perfect that we can do this,” and second, “Be not afraid to open your heart to one more soul.”
We will never regret giving of ourselves to others. And to my own mom, and the moms who have given to me so generously over the years . . . I cannot thank you enough! Happy Mother’s Day!
A version of this article was first published in the May/Jun 2010 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine, under the title “Catholic Mentor Moms—How to Find One, How to Be One.”