The saints Perpetua and Felicity, martyred in North Africa in the early 3rd century, hold an important place in the memory of the Church. Liturgically, these women are mentioned in the traditional litany of saints, and their feast day was celebrated recently - March 7th.
I've had the privilege of teaching "The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity" to students in four different classes now. I say it's a "privilege" because this text always raises a lot of questions and discussion from the students. I have to be honest and admit that - like my students - I also struggle with this text, especially now as a theologian mom.
On the one hand, Perpetua is an easy source of inspiration for a theologian mom. Her authorship of at least part of this text is a demonstration of early theology from a mom. Perpetua was clearly well-educated, and perhaps the first theologian to write in Latin. Moreover, Perpetua is not of the traditional virgin-martyr or professed religious saint mold. She was a mother - but not a mother as we might stereotypically imagine women of that time, i.e. confined to the house and concerned with the "private" realm. No, Perpetua was a public mother and a public theologian, connected to a community wherein her holy leadership was valued.
The challenge for theologian moms today, however, comes in Perpetua and Felicity's seeming lack of concern regarding their children. Even my childless students are shocked that Felicity would want to have her child early specifically so that she could be martyred and "abandon" that child. Yet we have to acknowledge that these women did care for their children. After all, Perpetua tells us that, in the midst of the overcrowding of the prison, "I was tormented with a brand new concern - my child" (III.6. Trans. Maureen Tilley). She notes that her breast-feeding infant had lost weight from her time in prison. After nursing her son, she asks her brother to take care of him. But she later notes that her son had gotten used to staying in prison with her and breast-feeding (VI.6.). This situation ends when her father refuses to return the child, and the son miraculously no longer wants to nurse while Perpetua's breasts are miraculously no longer swollen with milk. Perpetua says "Consequently, I did not wither away with worry about my child or any pain in my breasts" (VI.7.).
This is the last we hear of Perpetua's son, and perhaps this is why my students easily categorize Perpetua's refusal to pay tribute to the emperor as a neglect of her vocation as mother. At the beginning she seems to care deeply for her son, but by the end, he is not even a factor for consideration. This interpretation could be even more strongly supported by the case of Felicity, who has her child in prison and immediately gives her up that she might be martyred with her companions. Going to meet the "ferocious cow," Felicity is described as "immediately post partum with milk still leaking from her breasts" (XX.2.).
An interpretation of Perpetua and Felicity as neglectful mothers, however, seems grossly inadequate and a real misdescription of their choices here. Despite their joy at meeting their martyrdom, I argue that they were not negligent toward their children. Rather, they represent several insights regarding how to be a theologian mom.
First, Perpetua and Felicity exhibit a deep trust in the Christian community of which they are a part. We are told that Felicity's daughter was immediately adopted and raised as the daughter of one of the sisters. Perpetua and Felicity were part of a deeply devoted and spiritually united Church. We can also see in their story a deep trust in the heavenly Christian community. Even prior to her death, Perpetua exhibited an understanding of connection between the "dead" and the living, as her prayers for her deceased brother Dinocrates attained his contentment in the afterlife. Given this, we might consider that Perpetua and Felicity did not see death as the end of their relationships with their children. Rather, they could continue to be of assistance to them, albeit in a less "tangible" way.
Most importantly, however, we see in Perpetua and Felicity a willingness to sacrifice tangible motherhood for their beliefs. In this sense, we can say that it is not that they saw motherhood as something worthless, but that they saw their martyrdom as a necessity. In other words, motherhood is a real good, but God is the true and ultimate good; hence it was not possible to deny Christ.
I am grateful and I pray in thanksgiving that I am not faced with the situation of Perpetua and Felicity. But even as I write this, Perpetua and Felicity stand as a real challenge to me as a theologian mom. Does my theology adequately account for the Christian community, living and eternally living? Does my theology consistently acknowledge God as the true and ultimate good? Does my motherhood adequately account for the role the Church plays in the formation and care of my child? And does my motherhood consistently acknowledge God as the true and ultimate good? Saints Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us theologian moms!