In a recent article in "The Atlantic," Jessica Valenti wrote about motherhood and "not wanting kids." Ellyn von Huben read the article and sympathized with the sentiment, but not the celebration of this state-of-mind. Through an introspective look at her own path to motherhood, Ellyn highlights the self-sacrificing beauty of this vocation, something to be embraced on any path to true happiness.
My family knows by now that I can’t approach any situation without finding some sort of comic relief. For instance, I left work early two weeks ago to pick up my son from the hospital after he had been hospitalized suddenly in the course of a routine physical the day before. Once we were in the car and the usual wisecracking was going on, I pointed to the Safe Haven logo [Illinois' Safe Haven law was written to provide a safe alternative to abandonment for Illinois parents who feel they cannot cope with a newborn baby] and told the young man that I was under the impression that I was free to drop him off if he didn’t shape up. Already kind of an old joke, since I had said the same thing to his sisters the night before in the ER. Some joke. I’m scared to death about my son and then segue into a lame quip about leaving my cares behind at a safe haven.
It is truly good to see the Safe Haven logos at the local hospital. The idea of a mother being able to leave a child that she cannot care for is not new. There is a tradition of this in many cultures for centuries, and the United States has finally given mothers this option (with legalities varying from state to state) in all 50 states. The grave burdens that cause a mother to know that she cannot parent her child are eased by the opportunities for these children to live - to avoid the sentence of abortion, murder or abandonment to the elements. Our Church’s own St. Vincent de Paul installed a ‘baby hatch’ in one of his foundling homes in the early 17th century. Despite the history of these options, people today have become more comfortable with abortion and find leaving a tiny baby to be well cared for as the bizarre option. All of this shows that outer strife and inner conflict over childbearing has always been with us.
Conflicted emotions notwithstanding, it has always been expected that most people grow up, marry and have children: First comes love, then comes marriage...etc. as the jump-rope rhyme goes. So I am taken aback by some commentary of late that is virulently anti-motherhood, for example, “Not Wanting Kids is Entirely Normal” by Jessica Valenti. As a compulsive bookhound my eye had been caught by Valenti’s new book Why Have Kids?. But I passed on it, figuring I would probably find more irritation than fascination. Her short article via The Atlantic.com was about all I could take; skipping the book was probably a very good idea.
I would have to agree with the title of the Atlantic article. Not wanting kids is an entirely normal phase for many people. It is the nurturing and encouraging of this sentiment that disturbs me.
I didn’t want kids. I was a dreadful babysitter, counseled by my parents to find a better way to make pocket money. My mandated assignments to work at my church’s Sunday morning “Kiddy Keep” gave me a feeling of impending doom. Not long after a nerve-jangling summer working as a volunteer inner-city summer day camp counselor ( an activity mandated by my parents who thought a college junior shouldn’t just play tennis and ‘hang out’ all summer), I met the man who I would eventually marry. I distinctly remember chatting on our first date and declaring that I never wanted kids.
Six children and 34 years later, that feeling has passed. We change. We grow. We grow up. And as much as it sounds like a meaningless catch phrase, children are different when they are your own. That is not to say that it is easy. There are for all parents times when it is so very difficult and doubts set in.
But rather than finding support to work through the rough moments, women find in work like Valenti’s, validation for their negative feelings and no encouragement for working through the tough times. It appears to be an offshoot of the whole cultural sense of prolonged adolescence and no drive for young people to act like grown-ups. The subtitle of the article said: “How the ingrained expectation that women should want to become parents is detrimental and unhealthy;” disparaging those ingrained expectations that help us to develop into fully functioning adults. This is a great illustration of what our late Pope John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio, his Apostolic Exhortation on the Christian Family in the Modern World: “At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God's plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one's own selfish well-being.”
In discussing mothers’ frustrations, Valenti talks about how “The overwhelming sentiment, however was the feeling of a loss of self, the terrifying reality that their lives had been subsumed into the needs of their child....having to live it (motherhood) out every day is soul crushing.” Here I might want to say that it is my children who saved my life. They made me grow up. I wasn’t a crazy, wild child before I became a mother, but I certainly was relatively spoiled and self-absorbed.
Raising the six kids, losing three others in pregnancy, welcoming some close friends of the children into our family circle, became events that opened my soul and brought grace into my life. Having to live for someone else makes you grow up. If you are not ready, it all happens so quickly and frankly, terrifyingly. If you think you are ready, it still can come as a surprise. (My mother told me how much of a shock I was - after years of teaching she thought she knew children. But she did not yet know me nor my sister.) It was through this stretching of my soul (which has even more spiritual stretchmarks than my body) that I found my way to the Church and realized the truth of “ ...true married love and the whole structure of family life which results from it, without diminishment of the other ends of marriage, are directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate valiantly with the love of the Creator and Savior, who through them will increase and enrich his family from day to day.” (CCC 1652)
I ache at the realization of a developing culture that sees children as a burden rather than as a gift; a culture that cultivates the negative rather than encourages the positive. ( Or as John Paul II said so wisely “Others have become uncertain and bewildered over their role or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life.”) Catholic women are blessed to be shown that their souls won’t be crushed but rather refined.
Yes there is a loss of self - of our old selves - for we are given the opportunity to live out this Gospel instruction: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:23-26) For the Christian woman with a call to the vocation of marriage the opportunities are abundant. For some of us the “not wanting kids” may be, in fact, something of a fear of the unknown. A fear of taking up the cross, setting out into the deep. This is the moment when encouragement is called for. To quote John Paul II once more, remember his words at a daunting, pivotal moment of his life: “Be not afraid.”
Ellyn von Huben is a writer, speaker and Word on Fire Blog contributor.
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