My daughter and I were on our way to the store when she said something like, “When I grow up, I’m only going to have one child.”
“Why only one?” I asked.
“I just think it would be easier.”
I have to admit that at first pass, I was a tiny bit worried about my daughter’s life plan, not the number of kids, but the “easier” part. I feared she was developing the dreaded “contraceptive mentality” that fears hardship of any kind but especially that which comes in the shape of children. I didn’t want to go into a big explanation of birth control with her, and how Catholics don’t use it, so I said something kind of garbled about how God’s plans aren’t always our plans.
“…And you might change your mind someday. Big families are fun!”
“Ours isn’t fun. All I have are brothers, and Rebecca doesn’t have any hair yet, so I can’t braid her hair. And nobody in my class has more than two kids.”
“Catholics tend to do things a little differently than the rest of the world,” I said.
Just a few days earlier, I’d been thinking about how having a lot of kids really does set you apart. At the soccer fields, for instance, with three kids playing on three different fields at the same time, and a few more on my lap, I sat on the corners where I could rotate my chair to view all three games. I felt stupid doing it, because I’m highly visible there, separated from the other parents along the sidelines.
I’d like to know the other parents, and chat them up during the game, but my attention is always divided, which can be a considerable impediment to your social life.
On this particular night, at the store with my daughters, I had the baby with me in the sling, and people at the store were making googly eyes at her, wanting to talk. One lady, admiring the baby, asked if this were my only one, and I was forced to make that split second decision–Do I repulse this woman with the truth or soften the number of kids I have somehow?
My older daughter came up to me then–she’d been perusing the girls’ stuff–and I realized I’d have to tell the truth: “I have six children.”
The woman’s expression changed from cheerfulness to confusion. There was a beat of silence, and then the inevitable rejoinder, “And are you done then?”
I can’t tell you how much I wanted to say yes, just so the conversation could be over. And in truth, I’ve said it out loud –that I was done –right after having each of my kids. I said it just a few weeks ago, to my girlfriends from grade-school who have known me since I was five.
“But you’re not going on birth control?” one asked. “What are you going to do if you get pregnant again?”
“She’s going to laugh!” answered my other friend for me, which was a very good answer.
Ho, ho, ho! And after that, I would probably just keep doing what I’ve been doing: taking care of kids and a home, loving my husband, doing laundry, writing, cooking, taking walks, and not going on European vacations. My life is already inconceivable to most of my peers, even though at it’s core, it’s probably also remarkably similar. One more kid doesn’t make much of a difference in what I do; it just extends the period (and the quantities) in which I do it.
But this lady was a stranger, and my daughter was watching me, and we had just had a conversation not half an hour earlier about how good kids are, and how wonderful it is that we get to share our lives and our things with our siblings. I just couldn’t play along with the lady’s prompting me to agree with her that having more kids would be awful, especially in the presence of two children who are decidedly, not awful.
“I don’t really know if I’m done,” I said.
She looked at me in disbelief. She clearly didn’t know where to take the conversation from there. And yet, she could not be silent: “I know a Mexican lady, and she has twelve children, and now her body won’t hold them in anymore. She has to wear a belt to hold up her stomach, and the doctor finally told her DO NOT HAVE ANY MORE BABIES OR YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.”
She went on, lowering her voice, “You know, I don’t think she knew any better. Or maybe, she was Catholic, and thought she couldn’t use any birth control, though I hear they’ve lightened up on that now.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well I hear they’re planning to change some of that stuff.”
“No, nothing’s changed,” I said. By this time, it was dawning on her that she was speaking to a Catholic, though this particular Catholic was inching away from her.
So many opportunities to evangelize are wasted on me. I never have the right words at hand to shed positive light on a teaching that most people think of as absurd at best and misogynistic at worst. I wanted to say that I wouldn’t use birth control even if the Church changed it’s teaching. I wanted to say something about how I am free and relatively sane, and I do know “better” just as her Mexican friend probably also knows “better.” We just think her idea of “better” is not a huge improvement on the human condition.
Over the past week or so, an article has been circulating on social media by a mother in the UK who wishes she had never had children. Her children are now grown; she raised them the best she could; she wasn’t an effusive mother, but she did her best for them. And yet she can’t seem to forgive her children for having made her life more difficult:
“Having a child has been the biggest mistake of my life….I dreaded her (her daughter’s) dependence; resented the time she would consume, and that like parasites, both my children would continue to take from me and give nothing meaningful back in return.
There was quite a bit of chatter on Facebook calling this woman a monster. She’s crazy. Doesn’t she realize her kids can read? And yet, a lot of people agreed with the notion that children ruin your life. She just should not have said it out loud.
I have been unable to work up any malice for the woman.
Our culture cannot decide how it feels about new life. On one hand, people want children on demand, whenever it’s convenient, with in vitro and fertility treatments. On the other hand, people want abortion on demand, anytime, anywhere, no restrictions. Kids are either a malignancy to be avoided, or conversely, something you must want desperately.
There is no longer any room to allow children to happen, to receive them graciously, and to care for them because it’s the right thing to do. Culture demands that women make a choice between loving motherhood or hating it. And if you choose motherhood, you had better throw yourself into it with massive gusto, because it was your own silly decision.
I suspect that this woman felt a need to write the article because her own sentiments about parenthood simply could not jive with cultural sentiments that view motherhood in black and white terms. I can’t call her a monster. She’s probably a relatively normal woman who unfortunately never experienced joy in her vocation, and who wasted a large portion of her life wishing for a different reality. It’s pitiful, and wasteful, and hurtful to her children, but not much different than anyone who squanders their joy in the realities of life in favor of a dream.
I’ve spent many an afternoon doing the very same thing, and have made myself, at times, very miserable. This is the trap I want my daughter to avoid, whether she has no children or ten.
The repulsive truth is that nothing will provide satisfaction in life but self-gift. Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Married, Single or Religious, you have to find a way to give yourself to others, while expecting nothing meaningful back in return.
Motherhood is terribly difficult at times, and mothering many children can also be isolating and labor intensive. I know from experience that I make it worse by withholding myself and pretending I’m a martyr in someone else’s cause, and that my joy increases when I take responsibility for my actions, as well as my failures to act, and give myself wholeheartedly to whatever outcomes may befall me, even if they be children. And like any process of purification, the decision to give oneself is not once and forever, but has to be repeated every single day.
I refuse to fall into the trap of either fetishizing or denouncing the vocation of motherhood. I choose to be detached from the ridiculous ways people mischaracterize the Church’s teaching and those who follow it.
To the woman at the store, I smiled as I stepped away, interiorly congratulating her on having met a Catholic woman who is not actually dying of babies. And having given it more thought, the message I want to pass on to my daughter, and to all my kids, is that life really can be ugly when you refuse to give yourself away.