Women

Womanhood as Vocation

As humans, we are simultaneously single-minded and easily distracted. Each of us has a past littered with unfulfilled dreams, incomplete goals, and missed opportunities. Every day, we screw up, and it’s often because we’re focused on everything but the right thing. But if our past is untidy with little—or big—mistakes, our futures are loaded with chances to make it right.

There is, really, only one way to fulfill our life’s purpose, whatever that vocation may be—and that’s to do it with our whole hearts.

Loving Womanhood

For me, vocation is a multifaceted thing. But, as I’ve grown up and matured into adulthood, I find that it comes down to one simple thing: I am proud to be a woman. Although I, like many other women of today, struggle at times with body image, I also feel honored to have the feminine genius gifted to me. It is a beautiful thing to be female; there is so much about womanhood that is precious and exclusive. I find that, despite the fact that I’m far from the most ladylike or traditionally effeminate of women, this inherent part of my identity is at the core of my vocations; it is what makes me called and qualified for the greater purposes that I see in life.

When I read Pope Saint John Paul II’s Letter to Women—originally distributed in the summer of 1995, when I was just a girl—my heart swells with pride. It’s the good kind of pride, though—the one that makes me so thankful for who I am, and so honored to be counted among the many beautiful and amazing women who grace my life and the world every single day.

I know it’s a bit late to be celebrating International Women’s Day, but I want each of those women to hear these words from a humble man, a pope and a saint, who dearly loved us all:

Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail. This experience makes you become God’s own smile upon the newborn child, the one who guides your child’s first steps, who helps it to grow, and who is the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life.

Thank you, women who are wives! You irrevocably join your future to that of your husbands, in a relationship of mutual giving, at the service of love and life.

Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters! Into the heart of the family, and then of all society, you bring the richness of your sensitivity, your intuitiveness, your generosity and fidelity.

Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life—social, economic, cultural, artistic, and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery,” to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.

Thank you, consecrated women! Following the example of the greatest of women, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God’s love. You help the Church and all mankind to experience a “spousal” relationship to God, one which magnificently expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with his creatures.

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.

The Journey Here

I’d be lying if I said that discovering this appreciation for my gender was easy or quick. The daily cultural pressures imposed on every woman in today’s world are heavy, unjust, and sometimes just plain repulsive. We are made to feel like lesser people if we don’t look like Barbie. We are expected to give of our physical selves before our partners are expected to truly appreciate it. We are told, even by fellow women, that we should live under a cloud of shame, and even that sacrificing our children can enrich our lives. We are given prescriptions to disrupt our bodies’ natural and beautiful functions like children are given candy, to conform our bodies and behaviors to the needs of others—and in the process we sacrifice our own comfort, health, and fertility.

All of this is enough to spark in me the frequent and fervent wish that things could be so much different than they are. And we haven’t even touched on how physically taxing it is to be a woman who bleeds and cramps every month, tolerates the many effects of natural (or unnatural) hormone cycles, carries and births children, and, often, takes on the everyday care of her home and family even as she juggles a full-time job and all those cultural pressures.

I’m tired just thinking about all of it.

But, like many other challenges in life, the hardships I have faced in my efforts to be a good woman of God—to be true to who God made me to be, to be kind to myself, and to be everything my family needs from me—have been so sanctifying. And when I come out of them feeling more confident, I also come out more humbled. Because none of this can be done alone, and I need a lot of help along the way.

That brings me to the little something that is sprinkled all over my true calling in life: the reminder to stay humble. I know that I am called to be a daughter, a wife, and a mother. I know I am called to be a writer. I know I am called to be Catholic. But I can do none of that well without that most elusive virtue, humility.

Next week (because I’m trying to write once a week for Lent!), I’ll talk more about that side of things and how it touches on my every nerve—and my every joy.

mommy image

Let’s Talk About Mommy Image

We women are hard on ourselves. We are hard on each other. And moms are often the hardest.

I recently read an article about women who regret becoming mothers. If given the chance, they would go back and choose never to have their children in the first place. Aside from being bone-crushingly sad and sharply heartbreaking, I find this so, so frustrating. Can you imagine what it must be like to wish your own child out of existence? To long for their permanent absence? To wish you’d never met them?

I can’t begin to unpack all of the baggage in those thoughts. To me, there is the obvious conclusion that many of these women could be suffering from untreated depression. How else can you account for such a disconnect with one’s own identity (because motherhood surely does change our identities as women, as well it should)?

There’s also the clear problem of selfishness in modern culture. Although we can’t really know it until we’re in it, we all know that having kids will mean a serious life change—one that puts some of our own pursuits, by necessity, on the backburner. It means we can’t just up and do what we want anymore. There are more important things to worry about. There should be a natural bond in motherhood that makes those selfish impulses less important than the wellbeing of your child. If that’s missing, that’s a tragic problem that deserves attention. But I think, in some of these cases, people are just so caught up in a culture of “Do what YOU want because YOU want to and forget the rest!” that they forget that life can’t be lived that way in the context of a family.

Many of the women who contributed to that article cite societal pressure—to work, to not work, to breastfeed, to sacrifice—to “do right” by their children. They feel “trapped” and “coerced” into a life they didn’t expect. They feel forced to accept a singular identity as mothers. And they feel resentful that their children’s fathers aren’t held to the same standards.

Very little about being a mom is easy. I would venture to say that many new moms cry at least as many tears as their newborns during the first several months of life—and probably at several other stages of life, too. And there is a lot of self-doubt. That’s natural, and in many ways, it’s unavoidable. But it isn’t the doubt or the tears that should be life-changing. It’s the ultimate beauty of it all.

That said, it is incredibly difficult to live a life that basks in beauty when you can’t see the beauty within yourself. And that is where “mommy image” comes in.

Mommy image is the mental lens through which we view ourselves as mothers. Like body image, it is often a skewed perspective that casts a certain shade over the truth—one that is defined by unreasonable comparisons and unrealistic expectations. Whether that shade is warm or cold is up to us, but it is very difficult to see objectively, and it’s even harder to change.

In fact, body image is a major component of mommy image—and I think it’s an important and underemphasized one. There is so much pressure for moms to look a certain way. Tabloids are full of photographs featuring celebrities who’ve trimmed down immediately post-baby, and look like they did before pregnancy—or celebrities who haven’t, and are shamed for it.

During pregnancy, we are sold products to prevent stretch marks. After pregnancy, we are sold products to get rid of them. We are told to apply wraps or wear body shapers that will “shrink postpartum bellies.” In short, we are expected by others—and ourselves—to take time away from getting to know our babies and settling into our new roles to implement intense workout routines and carefully crafted diets (which may or may not be breastfeeding-friendly) so that our appearance might “go back to normal.”

But if there’s anything I’ve learned since becoming a mom, it’s that you don’t “go back to normal.” You need to find a new normal. Your life has changed—and so has your body. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Of course, we must do what we can to stay healthy. It isn’t a positive thing to ignore good nutrition and cease being active out of laziness or even distraction. But the focus should be a well-functioning body—not a good-looking one.

The fact is that the female body is not made to be looked at. It isn’t made to fit a Photoshop mold. And it certainly isn’t made to stay the same as life happens.

Though it’s an unpopular notion, the female body is meant to be given. We give ourselves to our husbands in the marital embrace. We give ourselves to ourselves when we maintain a healthy lifestyle and appreciate our appearance. We give ourselves to our neighbors when we spend our time and energy serving them. And, in such a profound and unmatchable way, we give ourselves to our children as we grow, nourish, and protect them from conception and throughout their lives.

When we focus on what we can give—and what we have given—instead of what we look like, it is a lot easier to see the beauty in our postpartum bodies. Those stretch marks and the loose skin exist because your body grew beyond the bounds of itself to accommodate a growing child, and to shelter her, in a warm, safe place, from a world she wasn’t ready for just yet. The extra padding on your thighs is there as a cushion for your child—one that will help nourish her as she grows in the womb, but also give her a soft place to land and hold onto as she learns to navigate life. The breasts that can’t seem to decide on a consistent shape, color, consistency, or size are working hard to feed your little one—and it is okay if this effort permanently alters their look, because it has significantly altered their purpose.

Motherhood has taught me many invaluable lessons, but one of them is to see the imperfections of my body and appreciate the miracle that left them on me. I can’t wish them away without wishing away the real privilege that gave them to me, and I would never want that.

Aside from just the physical, mommy image can haunt our minds with constant questions. Am I doing this right? Should I have tried harder? What will the neighbor think? Why can’t I keep my patience? How many times will I screw this up before I finally just get it right?

It is so, so hard to get past these thoughts. The first step is tuning everyone else’s judgmental questions out—because, like an annoying song, they can easily get stuck in our heads, to be repeated in our thoughts thousands of times until we just can’t shake them. I have had to learn to take advice gratefully, analyze it personally, and set aside what doesn’t work—no complications involved. This exercise both helps ease my doubts (hey, I tried, right?) and tune out the outside influences that make me question myself.

In innumerable ways, many of us feel pressured, judged, and shamed as mothers at one point or another. This is a fault of modern culture—and we need to get better about withholding judgment against one another. However, we also need to know that motherhood is about toughening up and finding your own sense of confidence and natural ability. Do not let others’ judgments affect how you feel about your family and your inner and outer self.

So what does your mommy image look like? Is your view of yourself as a mother tickled pink, mottled brown, or queasy green? We can all work on ourselves, and we can all work on how we view ourselves. You are deserving of your own respect. If you’ve lost it, how can you get it back?

When you find a way—by meditating, praying, repeating uplifting mantras, seeking support from others, or whatever works for you—please own it. Own that self-respect and know that your mommy image is one that you truly deserve. Because you are among the world’s superheroes.

5 Places the Time Goes When You’re a New Mom

Scenario 1: Suddenly it’s been 3 minutes and there are two lines on that test, and the two weeks I’ve been waiting for this moment hardly even existed.

Scenario 2: That surreal day of labor and push, push, push! and first meetings was 2 months ago, and we feel like she’s been here all our lives.

It’s 2016. Where has the time gone? For me, 2015 was a big, wonderful, crazy ball of blazing-fast new experiences. And I think I must’ve asked myself that question a few million times.

So when I really think through it, I can follow the minutes down into these wormholes:

1. Into your body.

I have this theory that time is physically absorbed into your bloodstream. This is how aging happens. And how, when you’re pregnant, every day gets a little bit tougher (the last few weeks are the craziest) and yet spins by a little bit faster.

It’s because your womb is filling up with 9 months of new life. That means all those extra calories you’re consuming, the extra water you’re drinking every hour, and the all-encompassing thoughts of “I’m carrying a baby around with me right now. How is this a thing?” are adding up. The end result is a brand new baby who is much greater than the sum of all those days. Suddenly the last 9 months—which stretched out endlessly in front of you at the beginning—are behind you in the blink of an eye.

(I’m sure it’s also how moms “forget” the work of labor and, soon enough, look forward to a chance to do it all over again.)

Sammy&Erik-101

2. To the dogs.

Wasted time is wasted life. For the first few weeks of a new baby’s life, it’s vital for Mom and Dad to do absolutely nothing they don’t want to with the time between feedings. Two hours can pass by too quickly, and when you’ve got a newborn at home, sleeping is a wonderful answer to the “Where has the time gone?” question.

Fast forward a few months, though, and I can’t always forgive myself those wasted hours. Maybelle is sleeping well at night; I should be adulting during the day. If all of those 2-4 hour blocks are spent on nothing much more than Netflix and the couch, it’s my own fault. But if they’re spent on laundry, errands, and maybe blogging a little here and there? That’s a win.

3. Over the rainbow.

Here’s another cliché for you: hindsight is 20-20. Want another? The grass is always greener on the other side. Clichés are clichéd for a reason, and that reason is that they’re almost always true.

When you’re stuck in the middle of an ultra-fussy growth spurt, and suddenly your easygoing baby is inconsolable for hours at a time, and you’re wondering why you have to relearn to be a mom every single day because what worked yesterday isn’t doing the job today, you look back on the last easy week with nostalgic longing. I catch myself doing this all the time. What happened to my happy baby? Why can’t tonight be like last night?

But here’s the thing: Maybelle is the product of every growth spurt’s progress. When the last one was over, she started smiling and cooing at funny faces. The one before that left her opening her eyes to the world, instead of staying cozied up in her own dreams all the time. So what will the end of this growth spurt bring? Being a mom has taught me that no minute spent embracing this moment—even if you’re also looking forward to the next—is wasted.

Even the tougher minutes are worth your love and attention right now. Enjoy them if you can, endure them no matter what, and know that yesterday wasn’t objectively better just because it was easier.

4. Onto the internet (and, hopefully, some paper).

The absurd procrastinator in me is so, so thankful for smartphones and Instagram. If I raised my own family before this century—when parents had to remember cameras, their associated batteries and film/memory cards, getting the resulting images printed, and then sharing those prints with their extended families—I’d be a hot mess of forgotten moments and missed photo opportunities. In that way, the instant gratification and real-time results of social media are a blessing.

Still, nothing beats a thoughtfully composed, physical photo album or a well-documented baby book. And that’s something I need to get better at.

The reality of parenting is that you experience every moment thinking, “Wow, I will never forget this milestone!”—and then, a week later, you can’t quite recall the exact tone of voice that inspired that first smile in your little one. So don’t be ashamed and don’t lose those memories: document everything, and share the moments that fill your heart to bursting. You’ll be glad you did.

5. Into your family.

All that time I spent fretting over what I did (or didn’t) eat and drink, what vitamins I took and when, how I clocked in my exercise—all of that resulted in a healthy, happy baby born at term. The time my husband spent fixing up little things in our house, keeping me happy and comfortable during the pregnancy, and looking forward to fatherhood resulted in a wonderful foundation for our growing family. And the time we spent enjoying each other’s company—just the two of us—while we still could resulted in a stronger, happier marriage and a partnership that has saved us both more than once.

The time we share with others results in the most growth. When I obsess over myself for too long, that’s when my anxiety jumps, my energy plummets, and my confidence wavers. But when I focus on making my husband as happy as he makes me, helping my baby grow, and giving my family the best chance for bliss, that’s when we all come out on top.

 

The question only gets bigger from here. In 2015, my husband and I decided started trying for a baby, learned we were expecting our first child, enjoyed a healthy pregnancy, welcomed our daughter into the world, and began learning how to be parents during her first two months of life outside the womb. In sixteen years, I know we’ll look at her and wonder when this little baby disappeared and a young adult began to emerge.

Here’s the funny thing about life: the bigger the milestones, the smaller the clock. Love them—and live them—while you can.

(Photo taken by Roni Rose Photography of Huntley, IL. Roni and her husband are magicians with cameras; check them out!)

I’m Not a Feminist, But…

I am anti-abortion. I am also pro-life.

So when I hear politicians, super PACs, and activists say things like “women need access to abortion” or see blog posts like “10 Reasons to Have an Abortion – Illustrated by Adorable Cats,” I get sick to my stomach worrying about the value we place on healthy, happy, well-informed women.

The groups sharing those opinions often fight against informed consent laws that are designed to teach women in a vulnerable, emotional position the science behind their pregnancy. (A 14-year-old girl who’s frightened out of her wits—and uneducated on both pregnancy and the procedure of abortion—shouldn’t be denied a guaranteed opportunity to learn more about them before she decides to abort. Still, in many states, she is. If that’s not backing young women into a corner, I don’t know what is.)

Similar groups also fight against notification laws that are designed not just to protect young women from rash decisions and protect parents from losing influence over their children’s lives, but also to protect victims of rape and incest from continued abuse. They say they want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare,” but they virtually never support initiatives that would make that last one true—and, in fact, they fight actively against those efforts. More than 3,000 abortions take place every day in the United States alone. The number of abortions that have occurred in America since 1973 exceeds the number of U.S. military deaths in every war we’ve ever fought combined. There’s nothing rare about that.

The most outrageous among them claim that pregnancy is an “unnatural” or “unhealthy” state, which is a direct insult to the biology of the feminine genius. To suggest that our anatomy makes us “unnatural” or “unhealthy” is the most perversely anti-feminist thing I’ve ever heard.

The fight for abortion uses the same shaming I’ve mentioned before: it forces women to feel their ability to open themselves to the physical intervention of scalpels, suction, and chemicals is what will protect their health and independence, and help them avoid social judgment. It makes pregnancy shameful and pushes women to make them fit society’s opinions of who and what and how they should be. The argument that “women need access to abortion” seeks to force women’s opinions with perceived normalcy and education. It pretends to be the smarter, more forward-thinking majority. It says: “Trust us when we say you need a reactive way to ‘solve’ your problem—and it is your problem, since you’re the one who’s pregnant. We’re here to tell you what’s best for you now that you’ve gotten here, because you can’t be responsible for proactive options, and you shouldn’t have to think of anyone but yourself. It’s not selfishness; it’s independence.”

I won’t even get into how much this hurts the men involved, who have played an equal role in starting a pregnancy—with total consent from both sides, the vast majority of the time—and yet have no weight in the argument over whether that pregnancy can continue. Removing fathers from the equation hurts women, too. It puts those women into a very lonely place, wherein one of the most impactful decisions of their lives must be made alone because society tells each of them that the man’s opinion doesn’t matter, and this must be her choice and hers alone. That makes it her ‘problem’ to solve, as if she’s solely responsible for both its creation and “cleanup.” It is isolating, terrifying, and unfair for her to endure that struggle on her own.

Those are the insults to womanhood that make me feel like a feminist. Those are the claims that devalue me as a female member of society, fully capable of understanding my body, controlling my impulses, and sharing my life.

We should be teaching each other to understand the way our bodies work. We should be encouraging each other to make the safest, healthiest decisions to protect our wellness and accomplish our goals. When unplanned circumstances come our way—even when they’re by our own actions—we should be supporting each other the whole way through, not shaming each other for the decisions that have gotten us there.

The vast majority of the time, women seeking abortions are healthfully pregnant by their own—and the father’s—shared choices. We are too smart to be telling each other that’s not the case. We all know that sex is a procreative act. We all know that birth control fails. So to say, “I consented to sex, but I didn’t consent to pregnancy” is a fallacy and an example of profound ignorance. And we are too smart to tell each other that abortion doesn’t end a life, or that its graphic violence is ever our best or only option.

We are all called to love and respect one another and ourselves. So why can’t we do a better job of helping each other do just that? Pro-lifers should support mothers and babies, as the sincere ones do, both before and after a decision is made. Even if a tragedy occurs, we should be there to hope for and help support healing. And advocates for abortion should welcome conversation, equal education, and support into the equation before a decision is made.

Women need each other as much as they need the men in their lives and as much as those men need women. We are social beings and should not isolate ourselves or each other. That’s not how we were made to be. Instead of subjecting ourselves to shame, objectification, violence, and ignorance, we should stand hand-in-hand in our toughest moments. Those are the moments of history that people remember, and that inspire us to be better. We must make a decision to support our most frightened, most vulnerable, and most unprotected—whatever that looks like.

Defending Chastity (and the Feminine Genius)

I recently read an article vilifying the virtue of pre-marital virginity. The writer claimed that girls—and the families of those girls—who make a promise not to have sex before marriage are afraid of female sexuality, devalue girls and women who aren’t virgins, and perpetuate patriarchy.

I disagree on all counts. And so does the Church.

Catholic teachings on pre-marital sex are both misunderstood as patriarchal and misconstrued as outdated. To begin with, the Church’s teachings on sexuality apply to both men and women. In the eyes of the Faith, men are not held to any different standards, nor is their worth greater than that of their female counterparts. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from a skewed cultural perspective—not from the catechism. No one can dispute that pop culture glorifies men for sexual experience and mocks women for it, but that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it the position of the Catholic faith.

In truth, the Catholic Church holds the feminine genius in incredibly high esteem. During his papacy, Saint John Paul II was outspoken and passionate about the unique character and contributions of women in the Church, and in society at large. I’d encourage you to read his writings in his Letter to Women and Mulieris Dignitatem, which discuss the feminine genius—and the many and splendid roles of women in the Church—at length.

Moreover, the Church is, herself, personified as the bride of Christ. She is an essential partner in the salvation of humanity, and is both devoted to Christ and loved by him. If you truly reflect on that imagery—which was established centuries ago, at the foundation of the Church’s beginning—and it still doesn’t convince you of Catholicism’s love for femininity, I don’t know what will.

While it may seem easy to quote historically significant theologians who touted anti-feminist teachings, it’s essential to remember one thing: no person since Christ and Mary themselves has been without sin, and no one but God is always right. Because many of even our greatest theological minds may been tainted by perspectives built by the societal hierarchies of their times, it’s critical to remember that the words and teachings of no Catholic—whether saint, sinner, pastor, or nun—are taken without question. We all must recognize that, humanly speaking, wisdom is selective, conditional, and not without influence.

One of the many beautiful things about Catholicism is that the Church, as the bride of Christ, is perfect—even if her members are not. Such is the structure that has kept her faithful for 2,000 years.

In addition to her teachings against patriarchy, the Church’s teachings say nothing to reject the worthiness of women—or men—who’ve lost their virginity before marriage. Is any one of us made less valuable by sin? Less loved by God? Less capable of being forgiven? Of course not. After all, our Church knows of only two individuals who spent their entire lives without bending to the temptation of sin: Christ himself, and Mary, his mother. No person, obviously, could ever match the perfection of God. But we haven’t even managed to emulate the devotion of Mary—a fellow human, through and through.

Without exception, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are” (Centesimus annus, #11).

Finally, the Church isn’t fearful of female sexuality—or sexuality in general, for that matter. A thorough, end-to-end education on Catholic teachings regarding sex can be found in the Church’s theology of the body, as well as the catechism. Neither resource refers to human sexuality alone as wrong, evil, frightening, or disgusting—or, in fact, any negative quality at all. In truth, the Church regards sexuality as one of God’s most precious gifts to mankind: it is a surreal, unique opportunity to express and strengthen the bond between a married couple. More importantly, it blesses us with the opportunity to take part in God’s greatest act: creation. There’s nothing dirty or unbecoming about an honest, truly committed, selfless, and open-to-life expression of sexuality by a man or a woman.

So what, then, does the Church say is wrong about pre-marital sex?

To understand that, it is essential to understand Catholic teachings on marriage. Please check out this post for a holistic discussion on that, but here’s an abridged version:

  • Catholic marriage is a sacrament—which counts it among the seven holiest experiences anyone in the Church could ever experience.
  • Among other reasons, marriage is treated as a sacrament because:
    • It was ordained by God Himself, who joined Adam and Eve together at the very beginning of everything humanity has ever known.
    • It is the relationship in which we take on an extremely blessed and sacred role in God’s creation: that of participants in the creation of new life, which is the formation of everything out of nothing.
  • The marital bond is permanent and unyielding. As a relationship of choice—the only permanent relationship we choose to experience with a specific person, as opposed to being born into a family of blood relatives—it requires the most profound commitment there is, and therefore cannot be revoked or undone. Thus, husband and wife “become one flesh,” and cannot be separated.
  • Because that permanent, unique union joined by God cannot be fully comprehended by our limited human understanding, the Church teaches that sex is a tangible, experiential way for us to begin to grasp its profundity, in that it is inherently bonding and there is no other experience like it.
  • The relationship between husband and wife is central to the family, and thus plays an essential and unmatched role in the Church.

So chastity outside of marriage is taught by the Church neither as the selfish command of an overprotective parent, nor the devaluation of sexually active single people, nor the rejection of female empowerment. It is a holistic approach to valuing oneself for all that we are worth, because a true spirit of chastity is about more than just withholding from sex. It is taught to be a simple, selfless decision to choose love over pleasure, permanence over brevity, giving over receiving, and life over egoism.

Purity

Battling Shame to Promote a Culture of Love and Life

I have never been a feminist. I believe in equality, not superiority. Of course, I’m well aware that most feminists out there feel the same way I do: that men and women should be treated equally, paid equally, and given the same opportunities. But I don’t consider that to be “feminism” so much as general human rights, if I’m being honest.

That said, there are two prevalent issues that never fail to spark some kind of feministy flame in my belly: the culture of shame, and abortion. I believe with my whole heart that those are the injustices that are really waging the so-called “war on women.”

To see what I mean, stop and consider what’s happening to virtually every girl and woman experiencing day-to-day pop culture and media right now.

Slut shaming. Virgin shaming. Skinny shaming. Fat shaming. Pretty shaming. Ugly shaming. Online shaming. In-person shaming. Smart shaming. Stupid shaming.

And do you know who’s often perpetuating that shame?

Women.

We mock each other for eating, speaking, praying, exercising, socializing, dating, having sex, studying, and partying too much or too little. We judge one another mercilessly and aren’t afraid to share those judgments with others. We gossip. We bully. We pick fights and wage battles over boys we barely know.

That’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to see, but the thing to remember is that this lack of mercy does not define us. Inside every one of us is a beautiful, powerful heart made of love, not stone. So why don’t we let it shine? Why do we lock it up?

It’s because we constantly engage in something almost as bad as shaming each other: we shame ourselves.

It’s a vicious cycle, really. We compare ourselves to airbrushed fantasies, think of ourselves as sexual objects, and consider ourselves lucky when we capture the frisky attention of a male counterpart. In our weakness, we point out the faults in our peers to make our “positive” attributes stand out. We adhere to pop culture’s definitions of beauty and femininity and know that we don’t always fit them (because we can’t), but neither do our peers (because they can’t), and so we place the attention on them to avoid letting it fall on ourselves. And they do it right back. So on and on the cycle goes.

Without question, much of that shaming comes from standards that were set by men seeking the impossibly “perfect” woman. But it is neither empowering nor honest to say that they are solely responsible for that; we set the same—sometimes worse—standards of “perfection” and continue to demean ourselves into thinking they’re reality.

In the same way, even if we look in a mirror and make the sincere decision to love our bodies’ appearance, popping a pill so we can enjoy a man’s body—and be enjoyed by it—is not empowering, either. It’s debasing and objectifying. It’s telling us that, by taking a magic pill to suppress the bodies we claim to love, we can use our sexuality to physically enjoy ourselves “trouble-free,” and be the experience that man wants for his Saturday night.

Taking that a few steps further, it’s not empowering to be able to abort a pregnancy created by that Saturday night—it’s the opposite. As mothers, we bear the burden of telling that man about an unwanted pregnancy. That sharing role should be a blessing, not a curse; we should be able to joyfully tell the men we’ll always love, and who’ll always love us, that our children are on the way. But an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock robs us of that; instead, we must face a near-stranger with life-changing news or, worse, must face a man we thought we loved as he reacts with disdain. We are blamed for not taking a pill on time or reminding him to use a condom. And we are told, “Go to a clinic and get this taken care of.” That is an unjust shame.

Even if that man offers to be “supportive,” we must take the pills that make us cramp and bleed for hours, or lie down and open up for a doctor who will violate our most private space with steel instruments and tubes that literally cut and suck the life out of us.

There is nothing empowering about abortion. For some women, it is forced upon them by a “partner” who refuses to support a pregnancy. Others feel forced by economic circumstances, uncaring families, or their own doctors. Regardless of the reason, women often feel isolated and panicked—neither of which will help them make a decision they’re truly, lastingly comfortable with.

Sometimes it’s selfishness, yes—and that’s a reason for another blog post. But more often than we’d like to think, women get abortions because they feel they have no choice at all.

If you’re concerned about equality in the workplace but don’t see inequality in a woman saying “I can’t stay pregnant because of my career,” you’re missing something important. To be sure, being a parent will infringe on the amount of time you can commit to your career. But pregnancy doesn’t require parenthood—adoption is always a compassionate and merciful option—so that’s not really the argument here. The point is that, if employers aren’t offering sufficient prenatal care and accommodations to their female employees, we have a problem.

And speaking of adoption, there’s some kind of stigma around that, too, isn’t there? Adoption is an honorable, selfless thing. Abortion is violent and degrading. Though certainly not as severe a stigma as it once was, no woman should be embarrassed to say she’s given up a baby for adoption. Is it painful? Of course. But she accepted the consequences of her actions, took care of her baby while she could, and chose to give him or her the best life possible—not to mention giving two people desperate to be parents a family of their own. It’s hard to find a greater gift than that, and there should be no shame in such generosity of heart. How anyone could ever argue that a child will be worse off with a happy, loving family than they would be never being born at all is beyond me.

As women, we have so many unique gifts to give and share with the people we love. Instead of focusing on how we can or should look or what we should and shouldn’t do, we are capable of using those gifts to make this world a better place. Shame, violence, and stigma aren’t going to help us do that.

Love must come first. Not shame, pain, convenience, or ignorance. Only love.