I still remember the time I first really felt called to be a mother. I was sitting on a subway reading Mother Teresa's A Simple Path. Out of nowhere I felt a familiar rush behind my eyes as they filled with tears. Mother Teresa was talking about how charity must begin at home, and I realized I wanted - more than anything - to be a mother someday.

It was a strong feeling – a true vocation.

Though the desire to be a mom was great for me, what I felt while holding friends' newborn infants in my arms more than envy or even joy was fear. I felt terribly clumsy cradling these tiny treasures. They were always so small. Tiny fingers. Scrunched up faces whimpering as I tried to rock them. My arms went stiff. It felt unnatural. So I began to worry: Where were my maternal instincts? How could I want to be a mom so badly if I couldn't even hold an infant the right way?

Then my vocation was fulfilled on November 15, 2004 when my husband and I brought home our first child (I'm now expecting number three!): A beautiful, healthy baby girl -  our Madeline.  I was surprised how holding my own infant was far easier than holding others' babies.

Looking back, those first few months of motherhood were a blur of happiness. I easily fell into the rhythm of motherhood, feeling lucky because I bonded instantly with my little miracle. I'd cry out of joy while nursing this symbol of love.

Postpartum blues? Not me. It was more like postpartum mania. I loved holding Madeline. I answered her every cry with my breast, cuddling, or a lullaby. Motherhood felt like heaven to me, and she was nothing short of an earthly angel.

Reality hits

But suddenly around six months when all my friends' babies were starting to "sleep through the night" I hit – no, slammed – into a wall. Madeline was still waking up almost every two hours, even though she wasn't hungry. She was a happy, energetic baby, but she needed constant interaction. Sleep was elusive for both of us, but I appeared to need it more than she did. I was drunk with exhaustion, and I was also scared – for the first time in my life - of getting pregnant again. To make matters worse, natural family planning wasn't as simple anymore now that I was nursing.

There was one night when Madeline was waking up every 45 minutes when I lost it. I cried out, "Help me, God."

And God did.

The next day I discovered an article in my parish newsletter about Christ's journey to the cross, and all I could think of were the parallelisms to the journey into motherhood.

Although Jesus' death on the cross pales in comparison to the act of mothering, being a good, Christian mother is undoubtedly a vocation that demands loving until it hurts – something Jesus did so well.

In today's society there are a lot of messages out there urging mothers to pamper themselves. Get a massage. Enjoy a pedicure. Hire a nanny or a maid. Ask Dad to fold the laundry, feed the baby, cook dinner and bring home the bacon.

While agree all moms need time outs, especially time to pray and nourish their soul for the tough vocation they’ve embraced, I do have to wonder: Are we afraid to put ourselves on the line? Is "giving until it hurts" not something we’re prepared to do?

While it's perfectly acceptable and absolutely necessary to ask for help sometimes, it's also important to look to Christ as an example of selfless love.

Madeline is 4 years now, and she's sleeping much, much better. And both my daughters are both so full of life and personality. I can't complain (although I admit I do too often).  I love being a mom (most of the time). When I do have a dark "mommy moment," I ask for God's grace, and I gently remind myself of the following similarities between motherhood and Jesus' journey to the cross:

Jesus gave himself unselfishly and excessively.

He could have given far less; one drop of his blood could have saved us all. Yet, he freely chose to shed every last bit of it. He gave what is beyond "enough" or sufficient. If there was more to give, he gave it. He never stopped to count the cost. Nor did he expect something in return.

Mothering can be a thankless job at times, especially when your baby is too young to hug you or even smile at you. When my babies were newborns (especially with Madeline since I didn't know what I kind of return I'd get later on once she left what my husband and I refer to the "lump stage"), I sometimes felt like they were only handed over to me when they were crying. It was my job to pacify the infants while others (grandparents, my husband, friends) enjoyed holding them when they were content. Even in the later months Madeline, in particular, would sometimes nurse and nurse and nurse, and I sometimes felt "used." Did this little leech only love me for my big, milky breasts?

Even as my kids grow older and "reward" me with hugs, kisses, handmade cards, handpicked flowers, "I love you, Mommy" and other statements that make my heart melt,  there won't be any report cards or a salary to validate my performance or worth as a mother – even though it's a 24/7 job.

But that's not why I or any other mom takes care of their children.

Like Jesus, mothers are called to give unselfishly without expecting anything in return. We sometimes must give every last drop of milk. We have to sacrifice sleep. We are called to constantly nurture our children. Of course, the irony is that we do get so much back in return – the coos, the smiles, the intent stares, giggles, the sacred word "Mama" passed from their lips – all those little things. And at the end of the day, we can hope that the greatest reward will be to raise an unselfish, Christian child.

Jesus made his sacrifice a supreme act of love for the Church.

Jesus actually saw sacrifice as desirable – as the most perfect way to show His love for us. This isn't a popular notion in a time when me, me, me rules the roost. Maybe this idea of "sacrifice is good for the soul" is behind the adage: "love hurts." If it doesn't hurt – at least a little some of the time – then is it really love?

Sacrificial love is the greatest love of all. "Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13). Just replace man with Mom and friends with children, and it paints an accurate picture of the kind of love a mom has for her children. Every day moms lay down their lives for their children – not literally, but we do give up a lot in order to be mother to our children. Gone are the days of marathon sweat sessions at the gym, lazy Saturday afternoons of curling up with a good book, a full night's sleep (can you tell I miss my sleep?!!?), eating a leisurely meal instead of wolfing down food so we can tend to our kids' needs…

There's always another diaper to be changed, another load of laundry to wash, dry and fold, another spill to be soaked up, but all these seemingly mundane tasks are tiny sacrifices and a way to show our children we love them. Jesus says, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23). Like most moms, my life has changed a great deal since the arrival of my first child; however, by giving up a career outside of the home, sleep, and some of my free time, I'm making small (very small compared to what Christ did for us) steps down the path to holiness. Sometimes moms have to deny themselves and put their children's needs first. When we do this, Jesus smiles down at us.

Jesus gave himself willingly and even joyfully.

Okay, here's where it gets tough, at least for me. It's not enough to give. As mothers, we must give with great love and joy. From making PBJ sandwiches to playing Peek-A-Boo, everything we do should be done with love. If I give as a mother all day, but then complain to my husband all night long, I am not being Christ-like. (Can you imagine if there was another chapter in the New Testament that consisted of Jesus complaining about dying on the cross for a bunch of pitiful sinners who didn't appreciate him?). Similarly, if I hear my child cry, scoop her into my arms and then snivel in frustration, I am not being joyful in my giving.

Believe me, I've "lost it" more than a handful of times when Madeline has needed me in the wee hours of the night or even during the day when one of my kids throws an irrational fit. I am only human, but God calls me to be more like Jesus in everything I do.

I once read – I regrettably can't remember where – that God does not expect us to fail. He only expects us to never fail to try. There will be days when I may complain or vent, days when my children test my patience, days when spreading peanut butter over bread seems like the most tedious chore in the whole world, but if I can just take a moment to think about Jesus and what he did for me (and how he did it with joy) then maybe I can go about my motherly duties with more love and less grumbling.

As busy moms, it may be difficult to find time to pray and remember what Jesus did for us. I've discovered that an easy way of honoring Him is to just pause for a moment and look at a crucifix or other religious icon (e.g., a rosary, the Bible, a book of saints, etc.) and whisper words of thanks and ask for his help. This helps me renew my strength and find peace even in the most chaotic days.

Some of the most beautiful moments of my journey into motherhood have been the ones when I've had to give and love until it hurts. Labor immediately comes into mind. What a joyous moment when I held my babies for the first time after hours of work! Talk about the fruit of your labor! Even those sleepless hours of the night when the rest of the house (and it feels like world) are peacefully slumbering are special. In those dark hours, my baby looks to me and no one else to "save" her (from hunger, loneliness, a wet diaper). I can only hope that with God's grace I can continue to rise to the occasion and give freely, excessively, joyfully and with supreme love.

*A version of this essay was originally published in Canticle.

Copyright 2009 Kate Wicker