The Madonna Complex

madonnaA couple of weeks ago, I talked about having a Martyr Complex, but I think I mis-named it. When I think of Martyrs, I think of people who gave selflessly, rather than people who give and give and then let you know about it so you can appreciate their sacrifices. When I described what I meant my martyr complex to a friend of mine, she corrected me: that’s the Madonna complex.


So what is the Madonna complex? Last week, I told you about my problem taking on other people’s stuff – even without them asking. This is part of it. Yet, it’s more than that. Let’s look at how Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Madonna is portrayed in our culture. Because I like to tell stories, we are going to put ourselves in Mary’s shoes. This is not going to sound very Biblical. Please bear with me.


8-year-old Mary woke to a bright light shining in her eyes. “Wh-what?” she murmured.


“Awaken, child,” she heard a voice say as she felt a hand on her arm.


Opening her eyes fully, she was nearly blinded by his presence. Fearful of the large man in front of her – who had wings! – she scooted back on her bed as far as she possibly could.


He smiled at her. “Do not be frightened, my child.” He held his hand out to her.


She shook her head. “Who are you?” she whispered, wondering why no one else was awake. It was bright in there!


“My name is Gabriel,” he explained, “And I’ve come to you with a message from above.”


Mary looked up at the ceiling, wondering what “above” he was referring to.


He chuckled. “I am a messenger of God,” he informed her.


Not fully grasping what he meant, Mary shook her head again.


“You are to be the mother of God incarnate, child,” he explains. “Do you know what that means?”


She shook her head.


“You will birth a son, a son who will save the world, but at great sacrifice to himself – the ultimate sacrifice.”


Mary stared at him. She had no idea what he was talking about. He must be one of those ‘special’ people the elders had told her about. People who heard voices and saw things that weren’t there.


“In three years hence, the Holy Spirit will visit you in the night. You will then become pregnant with God’s child and be the Mother of God,” Gabriel intoned.


This guy is really off his rocker, Mary thought.


“All will be revealed to you in time,” he promised.


Then poof. He was gone.


Mary blinked her eyes and shook her head. Trying to convince herself it had been a nightmare, she curled up in a little ball and went back to sleep.


***** Three years later *****




Mary cringed as the crowd through another rock at her.


“You are not fit to bear the child you carry,” a hateful woman scolded, rock in hand.


“No man will want you now,” an older woman jeered.


“Wait!” Joseph’s familiar voice sounded like heaven to her ears. “That is my wife of which you speak and she is carrying my child.”


Murmurs ran through the crowd. “When did you marry her?” “She’s a whore!” “She’s a disgrace.”


“Enough!” Joseph cried, raising his staff above his head. “I’ve been tending to my flock these last few months and this is what I return to find? My wife battered and bruised?” He looked around the crowd, anger and accusation evident on his face.


“Come, Mary!” he said and pulled her to safety into the small space he called home when he wasn’t in the fields tending sheep.


Sobbing, Mary clung to Joseph until she knew they were safely inside. Then he pushed her away.


“What is this?” he gestured at her obviously full belly.


Mary sobbed, “I’m pregnant!”


Joseph scowled, “Well, I can see that for myself. By whom?”


Mary shook her head.


“By whom?” Joseph loomed over her.


“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she whispered.


“Try,” he said.


So she started at the beginning – with the visit from the angel Gabriel – and ended with the night 4 months back that the Holy Spirit visited her. She had hoped that too was just a nightmare, but her growing belly proved otherwise.


When she was done, she raised her head. “Go ahead,” she said, holding out a stone she managed to catch before it hit her. “Cast a stone.”


Joseph snorted. “Not I,” he said. “Not I.”


Mary tilted her head at him in question.


“Everyone thinks we’re married. I suppose we should actually make that happen,” Joseph sighed.


“Why?” Mary asked. “Why would you do that?”


Joseph looked at her, and then looked away. “Because I had the same dreams.”


“You…?” Mary asked, confused.


“Yes,” he said. “I too was visited by Gabriel and told you would be my wife though you would be pregnant with another man’s child. He visited me a few nights ago and told me to abandon my flock. That if I didn’t come home to save you, you would die.” He threw up his hands. “What else was I supposed to do?”


Mary tore at the fabric on her thinning smock. “You don’t have to, Joseph. You don’t know what they’ve … the things they’ve said to me … done…” Mary stopped on a sob.


Joseph wrapped his arms around her. “Yes, I do, Mare; yes, I do.”


*** 5 months later ***


“Joseph, please, I can’t go on. This is too much,” Mary screamed in pain again.


Joseph looked back at her. He had no idea where to go, what to do. The King had ordered all baby boys killed at birth and they had been on the run for months as the soldiers had taken to slaughtering all babies and some women to get at them. No woman or infant was safe. But it was getting harder to disguise Mary’s bulging belly, and her water had broken a few hours back. Even he knew that meant the end – or the beginning, whichever way you looked at it – was near.


In the distance, he spotted an old barn. “Just a little farther,” he promised her.



“He’s beautiful,” Mary sighed, exhausted from her labor and all the walking they’d been doing lately.


“He looks just like you,” Joseph commented.


Mary looked at Joseph. She wondered if at the same time he was thinking of how little his “son” looked like him.


“Thank you,” she whispered. “For keeping us safe.”


Joseph nodded. “I’ll just be outside.”


*** 12 years later ***


“Mom, did you see how they were listening to me?” Mary’s son Jesus inquired.


She smiled, “Yes, darling.”


“And did you see how I turned that water into wine?” he reminded her.


“Yes, dear.” She didn’t add that it was only at her suggestion that he performed this miracle.


“And did you see…”


Mary tuned him out as she moved to answer the knock at the door.


“Oh, Mary,” Ruth entered without asking. “I just don’t know what to do and I thought to myself, that Mary, she’ll know.”


Ever since Jesus had started delivering God’s message, the calls from friends and neighbors had increased. It’s as though being the Mother of God – or of the Prophet as everyone called him – suddenly made her know the answer to every problem anyone ever had. It was no use trying to explain that she hadn’t signed up for this and was the same Mary she’d always been. No, things were different now – vastly different. Gabriel hadn’t warned her about this part. Of course, she likely wouldn’t have listened anyway. She’d grown up quite a bit –she had to – since Gabriel’s first visit with her.


So Mary resigned herself to her fate as the village “wise woman” for lack of a better word. While Jesus prophesized, Mary was called on to heal, to cure, to bless babies and newlyweds, to arbitrate disputes, to ‘talk reason’ to women who prostituted themselves, to make sure her son remembered to actually feed the hundreds of people who came to see him. It was always something. Not to mention the fact that she still had to raise Jesus’ younger brother and try to give him as ‘normal’ a childhood as possible.


For her part, she’d done the best she could. But being Mother of God wasn’t easy, by any means. He was still a boy, after all.


And she knew the end was near – far nearer than she or Joseph liked. Not that Joseph was around that much anymore. She knew it was difficult for him to raise another man’s son, a son who looked nothing like him, and a son they had both been warned in Jesus’ early years would die a horrible, painful death in spite of – or perhaps worse, because of – his gifts.


*** 20 years later ***


Mary was tired. It was growing late and, as always, she waited for her son to come home. She grew more anxious with each passing year. Gabriel hadn’t told her exactly when they would come for her boy, but she knew it would be soon.


Poor Joseph had passed the year before. An otherwise healthy man, Mary suspected it was the constant worry that finally took him as well.


She was alone. With a son that needed more looking after than his father ever had and an ever-growing community of people seeking her out for this and that, the years had taken their toll. Her hands were arthritic, painful, and the salve only helped so much. So she sat by the fire, heat tended to help her aching bones, and waited for her son.


But tonight, he did not come home.


Instead, in the wee hours of morning, Elizabeth, her best friend and mother to one of Jesus’ best friends – and one of the few who knew the truth – knocked once on her door and opened it without waiting for Mary to answer.


“The time has come,” Elizabeth said as she rushed over to Mary. “It has happened.”



No mother should have to suffer watching her son die. No mother should be betrayed by the very people who claimed to be friends and sought her advice. Yet, here she was. Half feared, half pitied, Mary waited now for the end to take her.


“Gabriel,” she pleaded each night. “I’ve done what you asked. They have taken my son from me. I have nothing left to give.”


One day, he answered her pray.



Mary was mourned; she never knew how beloved she was in her own time and she certainly never dreamed how beloved she’d become over the thousands of years since her death. She stands in amazement of what a great prophet her son still is to this day, and what a difference she has made in the lives of so many.


But here’s the reality. Life wasn’t easy for Mary – ever. It was simply life. She took it in her own way. Not because she was passive, but because she felt she had no other choice. Gabriel forewarned of her great sacrifice. At the time, she thought he was referring to the death of her son. In reality, he meant the sacrifice of herself. When Gabriel first visited her at the age of 8, Mary ceased being Mary. In becoming the Mother of God, Mary gave up her own life for that of her son. That is the ultimate sacrifice.


So what is the Madonna Complex? To me, the Madonna Complex represents the life of Mary, Mother of God, rather than Mary, the person. In becoming the Mother of God, Mary became Mother to all of us. Everyone, no matter their age, was her child. She looked after all who sought her out – and even those who didn’t. It was her responsibility, you see, to be everyone to everything. It’s a role she wore well and with grace. Yet, few knew how hard it was on her. Only those close to her saw – even before she did – the toll being Mother to All was taking. Although we are told that giving is the greatest gift you can give, when taken to the extreme giving is just that – giving. And when you have given all you have, then you have nothing left. You are but a barren, shell of yourself. Poor Mary learned this lesson the hard way. While she never purposely allowed herself to be taken advantage of, she gave everything she had – until there was nothing left. The birth of her son, Jesus, was a miracle; but an even greater miracle was that the angels finally heard her prayers and let her take her last breath as their gift to her. Mary doesn’t have to give – at her own expense – anymore.


Yet, that’s what a Madonna does. She gives and gives and gives. At first, she might hope that those she gives to will reciprocate, or at least show some appreciation. But over time she realizes that is not to be so. People will take as much as you let them – even if they see you are suffering because of it. Such is the nature of man. At some level Mary knew this; yet, she also believed in the goodness of mankind and always held hope that Gabriel would be wrong – that man wouldn’t kill her son.


It became harder for her to give after Jesus was nailed to the cross. You see, she had given so much of herself because she hoped it would make his life easier, that he wouldn’t suffer quite so much. To some extent, her do-ing and endless giving helped. It certainly made Jesus the man he was. Yet, at the same time, it was never enough. Mary couldn’t change Jesus’ fate. That was never her gift to give. As she grew older, I think she realized this.


Yet, the picture painted of her in Modern times is that of the Madonna, Mother of God, nurturer, gift-giver. We are led to believe that Mary had no doubts, never got angry, never thought, “Why me?”, never wondered when this was all going to end. Yet, Mary was human. She was the Divine Feminine incarnated in a human’s body – just as each of us are. We are all Divine; yet we are all human. And no one is meant to sacrifice themselves for the good of all – not really. Mary, Mother of God, and Jesus, Son of God were who they were – gifts to the world, the Divine incarnate, but they were also human. Not every day was glorious, not everyone listened to their words of wisdom, and even they experienced self-doubt that they were really hearing and delivering the right message anyway.


Mary never meant for us women to be Madonnas. That was her – unwitting – sacrifice. She thought it would end with her, just as she thought the killing of prophets, men of God, would end with her son. Yet, culture dictates that a Madonna is exactly what we should be – Superwoman, People Pleaser, Giver, Nurturer – even at our own expense.


What would happen if we stopped? I promise you that the world would still go round. The Universe wouldn’t stop spinning. And maybe, just maybe, we’d be a whole lot healthier for it.


  • Minette says:

    What a great retelling of the Madonna story. I appreciated your perspective on the Madonna complex and will spend some time considering where am I overgiving in a way this is not of service to me or others.

    • Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks Minette! It really is so easy to over-give this time of year. We have to be careful not to exhaust or deplete ourselves.

  • Christa says:

    What a fun way to put it all, and I love the creative spin on what the Madonna Complex can mean – historically, as well as in our lives today. 🙂

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