Motherhood Trumps the Culture Wars

A portrait photo of Helen M. Alvare in front of a wall of books.
A circular logo with a silhouette of a woman in the middle holding her finger to her mouth as if to say, shhhh.

Secretum Meum Mihi Press

Motherhood Trumps the Culture Wars

An Interview with Helen Alvare

Helen M. Alvare served as the spokesperson on pro-life issues for the National Council of Catholic Bishops from 1990-2000. She is the Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty for Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. THis interview with editor Kristen West McGuire was completed in 2007.

Kristen: What is it like being at the center of a media storm?

Helen: Something in me is attracted to a storm. I can evaluate it. A controversial movement needs many kinds of personalities– you need the counselors, the organizers, the demonstrators outside the court. That’s not me. I am a thinker and a speaker, not a rallying person. Getting on 60 Minutes in front of millions of people doesn’t bother me in the least. It doesn’t give me a rushed up beat of the heart and that’s a grace. At the same time, it’s high profile work. Mistakes are embarrassing.

That’s why I am a huge believer in knowing something in depth, and not allowing yourself to speak to subjects you don’t know well. Once, I ended a debate by quoting a key footnote of my opponent’s reference work. Being a master of the material gives me peace of mind.

Kristen: What is your focus at work now?

Helen: I am writing about same sex laws. I’m in another storm– big surprise, eh? (laughs) The empirical evidence on male- female relations and the gift of marital stability trashes the other theories, but it makes little impression on policy. It’s the couples who live it and their children who can witness to this truth.

Kristen: Family life can be just as stormy as political life. How do you keep your balance at home?

Helen: I have a delightful schedule that allows me to be home with the kids every afternoon, weekends and summer. In some ways, family is easier. There is a formula for family life: when they’re home, be home with them. My schedule has to serve the needs of their schedule.

There’s no formula for this other vocation in my life. I have found an odd niche in the American Catholic Church where perhaps I can contribute beyond the classroom. There’s a limitless need for this, to take what is good about the church’s teaching on marriage and family life and make it understandable and appealing to the world at large. The question becomes, “How little can I sleep?”

Kristen: But the two vocations do end up in conflict sometimes, don’t they?

Helen: Putting first what children put first, and their happiness and security and development helps me prioritize the other vocation.

Here’s an example: I was asked by the White House to be part of their delegation to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral. How could you say no, right? But that would have meant my daughter would miss a third piano lesson in a row. I told them I had a prior engagement. Three weeks later, they called and asked if I would like to attend Pope Benedict’s first Mass. Now that I could do. I picked my kids up from school Friday, dropped them off, went to Rome, talked with important people about the new pope’s message, and got home in time to get the lunches packed on Sunday night.

Kristen: Do you think women get lost in their motherhood duties?

Helen: The original sin for women is to get closed within their own instincts. Bake something for the bake sale, but don’t be ashamed to send in a box from the store. I’m very practical. Young women come in my office at the law school and ask me what they should do with their lives. I tell them, “You have to go find the work that will motivate you to get up at 4:45 a.m. every morning to fit it all in.”

Kristen: How does your husband figure into this equation?

Helen: I married my best friend in college. He’s so supportive! But when we married, we lived in separate states for three years, while I practiced law at a firm in Philly. Finally, I had a kind of crisis. The legal work was depressing to me.

I had skipped a grade in college and was up all night seeking the zinger in each case. Was this the end? What was it all for?

I figured if I knew more, I would figure it out. Instead of praying, right? (laughs) So I went back to graduate school in theology. Then, CUA gave me a scholarship, and I moved south and have been here ever since. After you study about God for three years in your 20s, that can carry you through the rest of your life!

Kristen: Are women scared to be passionate about something outside the home?

Helen: My first thought is that people have not devoted the time to know enough other things well enough to let that other thing call them. People are very scattered, and women particularly so. And, in our culture, women are constantly told to look good, look sexy, be beautiful. I call it the “yummy mommy” syndrome.

Kristen: (laughs) You didn’t have a “yummy mommy?”

Helen: I was lucky to have parents who were excited about the faith and the Church: Aquinas, Augustine, the popes’ encyclicals. Religion was something to know, not just something to believe. Now, my mom says, “You look so tired!” Maybe I am looking a little older than I should for my age, but it’s ok because I’m doing what I am called to do, and that keeps me going.

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