As a stay at home dad, I figure I’ve changed maybe 11,000 diapers. That’s an estimate: three diapers a day for two years per kid times five kids, if you want to know the math.
This is not something I really ever aspired to; I mean, who does? No one says to their high school career counselor, “Yeah, one of my life goals is to spend ten years changing a few thousand diapers.” No one puts that accomplishment on their resume or CV.
And to be honest, while I got used to dealing with diapers every few hours, I always viewed the chore as one of the least dignified types of work an adult could engage in.
Don’t get me wrong: I willingly chose to stay home with my kids, and I have been glad that I did. But in the ten years I spent as a fulltime stay-at-home dad, I was reminded again and again that taking care of kids, especially at home, is not work that our society holds in high esteem. In secular America, staying home to care for little kids is not viewed as an act of loving sacrifice; instead, it’s that thing you do when you don’t have other options, or you don’t have real ambitions—or worse, when you’re lazy. No one really says this out loud, of course (well, usually), but the sentiment is expressed in a thousand other ways.
And nothing verifies that sentiment more than the dirty diapers that are part and parcel of caring for young children.
Not that I particularly bought into that view. I always rolled my eyes at my male friends who avoided changing diapers at all costs, or balked at the idea of wearing a baby sling. (The masculine mystique is more fragile than it lets on, sometimes.) Unless I was dealing with a huge, blow-out mess, I usually saw changing diapers as a good time to connect with baby—a little baby talk, a little tickle, or a simple warm gaze and exchange of smiles.
Even so, I was taken aback when, one day as I was changing yet another dirty diaper, I heard a voice in my head say: “This, too, is the work of Mary.”
Wherever the thought came from, it was surprising enough to make me stop and ask out loud, “What?”
I’m used to thinking of Mary in much loftier terms. I read somewhere that, if you count local observances, the Church celebrates more than 400 different Marian feast days. Not one of them is celebrated under the title Mary, Changer of Diapers. The Litany of Loreto names Mary as Mother Undefiled, Rose of David, Tower of Ivory, and Queen of the Angels—but nothing about cleaning bottoms, kissing scraped knees, or getting up to tend a crying kid…for the third time on one night.
I get it: We honor Mary primarily for her assent to God’s will at the Annunciation—the “yes” that reversed the “no” of our first parents and opened the way for all of us to cooperate in God’s plan of salvation. But isn’t it also true that her “yes” extended beyond that one moment, repeated thousands of times in the years that followed? Isn’t it true that the “yes” by which she gave her flesh to the incarnate God did not end with his birth, but was made real in thousands of unheralded acts of love and sacrifice?
“Yes” to nursing this coughing child; “yes” to carrying the tired toddler; “yes” to cleaning bottoms. And lest we think she got off the hook easy because she had the perfect baby, let’s remember that women of her time, like most women throughout history, would have shared childcare responsibilities for all the children of the neighborhood. Over the course of her mothering years, Mary probably cared for dozens of children.
And what does this mean for us, that the Mother of the Word Incarnate spent most of her life doing work too menial to merit mention in history books? What does it mean for me, standing agape over this undiapered child?
I suppose it means that all those dirty diapers and wet noses are little Annunciation moments, opportunities to join Mary in permitting the Word of God to become incarnate through us. And when we follow Mary’s example, then this work really and truly becomes the most important work in the world.
Mary, Mother of the Word Incarnate—and, yes, Changer of Diapers—pray for us.