“Success” and being an individual

“Success” and being an individual February 15, 2011

At the ladies bible study, one woman talked about feeling as though they were done having children, but she wasn’t sure what type of birth control to use.

Another spoke of her admiration for the Quiverfull families that could “put their family size completely in God’s hands and raise more children for Christ’s Kingdom” but added that she didn’t feel that she could handle raising as many kids as those families typically end up with.

At that point another woman piped up, “I can be a good mom to the 3 I have, but I know that I could never take care of 10, I would go crazy.” She said it in a guilty way, as though she was ashamed to be stopping at “only” 3 children. Then I interjected and said to her “It’s so great that you can recognize that about yourself!” I realized later, that may have come out wrong, possibly sounding as though I agreed with her assessment of her parenting and that there was no way she could handle more kids!

What I was trying to say to her was “It’s OK to be a great mom to 3 kids! It’s not a competition! It’s so cool that you can evaluate where you’re at and feel confident that you are content with the children you have.”

I’m actually a bit envious of her.

Limiting family size is a new concept to me. My whole childhood I was brought up to believe that getting married and having children was my sole purpose in the world. My interests and activities were tailored to fit that goal. I have always loved children, and I love my babies beyond words, but there has always been a sense of obligation too. That understanding that you have children because as a woman that’s all you are really good for.

Any work, dreams or ideas not directly related to having and raising children were painted as selfish endeavours. Next to producing children, all of it was worthless and pointless. My life’s value was very tied to my ability to reproduce. Trying to think of myself as having worth if I am not producing children anymore is a new challenge. What is the purpose of my existence?

It sounds crazy, but there have been times that the only reason I did not hurt myself out of depression, was because I was pregnant or nursing. With a baby to take care of, I mattered. Fundamentalism has a sort of addiction to “purpose”, and for a woman growing up the way I did, that purpose was tied up in producing children. Without a perpetual stream of babies, I might actually have to figure out who I am, and that is scary. What will I do without that security blanket of “self-worth”.

I love children. I love how their tiny little bodies curl up against you when they are newborns. I love how they can fall asleep in your arms. I love the look of wonder in their eyes when they discover something new. I love the excitement children have when repeating a comfortable routine. I will always consider motherhood and honour and a calling. Every child of mine is loved and wanted, my children are and always will be a wonderful meaningful part of my life.

But I am starting to realize that my value is not 100 percent tied to them.

I have always been defined by the group, the faith, the movement. I am a cog in the wheel of the family, a single thread in the tapestry God is making. What does it mean to be an individual? What is it that gives my life value? I have grown so much in the last 2 years, learning about myself as a wife and mother. I switched from punitive to positive parenting, I’ve set boundaries with my family of origin, I’ve given myself permission to work through the issues in my past and talk about them for the first time. But on the surface not much has changed. I am still a stay at home wife and mother. I still define myself by the people I care about.

I’m not even sure what I am interested in. I feel guilty when I have ideas or dreams that involve anything except the fulltime housekeeping or childcare that I have always done. It’s hard to think of limiting family size without feeling that would be “selfish”. Every baby is so special, how could I choose to never meet some potential child in my future? Sometimes I even feel afraid of losing my marriage or failing my kids, or all the other myriads of things I was always told would happen if I was an individual.

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I realize it is still part of the black and white thinking of fundamentalism, limiting family size does not mean that God will punish me and take away the children I do have. Putting my kids into school instead of homeschooling does not mean that my children will end up sexually abused and addicted to drugs. If I get a part-time job, that does not mean my kids will grow up feeling abandoned and hating me. Pursuing and eventually getting a college degree does not mean my husband will feel neglected and inferior and stop coming home at night. But that doesn’t make it easier to stop the instinctive reaction of shutting down my interests and ideas and trying desperately to shove myself back into “unselfish” mode.

Despite breaking away from the old thinking, and seeing the positive benefits that have come from that process, I still want to succeed in the old paradigm. Even though I no longer believe what it teaches, the old perfectionism holds me back.

“Success” in the fundamentalist mindset is pretty much impossible, (because you always could have done better) but I don’t want to be a “failure”. Why do I feel as though breaking out of the box I was told to fit into lessens my value? What is it that makes each individual valuable? How do you define yourself as an individual aside from your children and community?

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