Why I might have chosen the child-free life

During a recent radio interview with EWTN’s Sonrise Morning Show, we discussed how body image plays a role in keeping women from embracing pregnancy and becoming mothers. Our culture definitely perpetuates the whole I-don’t-want-to-do-that-to-my-body – “that” being pregnancy, otherwise known as granting your stomach and bum their very own zip codes and saying sayonara to your ankles for several months. This is my {hot} body and I’m not giving it up for a baby. Sacrificial love is out of style. And our bodies are mere objects rather than instruments we have the responsibility to take care of in order to fulfill our vocations.

I honestly thought we’d be discussing Time magazine’s recent “The Childfree Life” article, but I’m always up for a little body image talk. And as the conversation continued, it became clear that the fear of a woman losing her pre-mom bod ties in to the decision of more and more married couples to skip the whole procreation thing, and I did end up marbling in some of the the talking points I’d prepared into the conversation

I noticed Time cover story when I was sitting in the waiting room at the dentist. I don’t pay much attention to that “news” magazine, especially since I had a less-than-desirable personal experience with it. On the cover, there was a picture of a beautiful couple with toned bodies sunbathing with blissful smiles on their faces under the headline”The Childfree Life.” I thought of reading the article, but I decided to stick with checking out a chic pair of boots I had pulled up on my smartphone because I’m deep like that. Besides, I knew the cover and the article, which I did eventually check out online, had its own sensationalist agenda. Honestly, that toothy couple reminded me of advertising than journalism. Showing a good-lucking, childless couple was just another savvy marketing campaign. Forgo pregnancy, adoption, or any other way of acquiring soul-sucking, money pits, also known as children, and you, too, can travel the world, find the ultimate kind of happiness, and look like a movie star.

The cover definitely was suggesting choosing not to have children can be equated with more happiness, or in the very least, with more freedom to pursue things that might make you happy. On the flip side, the parenting camp has been guilty of using our own alluring marketing. Children are always blessings not burdens! You don’t know what real happiness is until you bring a child in to the world. They’re hard work, but they’re worth it. They give far more than they take! You think you’ll be fulfilled without them, but just wait when you’re old and there’s no one to take care of you! Have children, and you’ll have a different kind of happiness!

Upon closer examination, we see that child-free couples don’t have perfect careers or envy-worthy bodies, and they’re not always on vacation either. Their life is sometimes good and carefree, but I can bet sometimes it sucks. Just as parents’ lives sometimes do because of their kids or not. And children? Yes, of course they’re blessings, but sometimes they are a pain in the you-know-what. Children force us to live in the present, and usually this is put forward as a positive thing, but when that present involves poop all over your walls or a teenager screaming he hates you, you may wish you were anywhere but in that gut-wrenching, toxic moment. We love our children fiercely, but sometimes they disappoint us in little ways and in big ways, too. Or we disappoint ourselves because we don’t parent exactly the way we planned or desired. I’ve often wondered if my own parents have ever regretted having my older brother, who has given us hope but also plenty of despair throughout his lifelong struggle with addiction. I know they love him terribly and have invested many prayers in him and have also learned a lot from dealing with his sickness, but do they ever regret having him? I seriously doubt it. Anything worth creating exacts a prices from its creator, and sometimes the cost is very, very high. I should ask them. When I do, I’ll share what I find out.

I love being a mom, and I hold it to a very high esteem and yet, I can’t simply sugarcoat children or over-glorify motherhood anymore than someone who doesn’t choose to have kids can elevate the a life sans kiddos to one of hassle-free, money-flowing bliss. Nor can we making sweeping statements that people who choose to not have children are selfish. They are doing what they think will make them happy, and if we moms are honest, having children is something we pursue, in part, because we believe it would and does make us happy on some level. As Christian moms, our adversaries might even argue that we are “selfish” in that we are open to life because it serves as a conduit to grace or perhaps even a path to sainthood.

I’ve seen myriad responses to the Time magazine article – many of which have been guilty of accusing one side as being selfish or narrow-minded, but, again, it’s not so black and white, and both sides are idealizing their own realities. I’ve also seen arguments stripped of any emotions that simply present the practical and economic concerns of the dwindling birth rates in the United States. I have a friend who has more than half a dozen lovely children. She says that when approached about their super-sized family, her husband sometimes jokes that he’s just just trying to save Social Security. A funny way to deflect any potential judgment on the size of his family, yes, but there is some truth to it. We need young people to take care of the aging population.

To that end, Fr. Robert Barron discussed the problem with individualism when specifically applied to the decision to have children or not in his response to the Time article.

He writes,

What particularly struck me in this article was that none of the people interviewed ever moved outside of the ambit of his or her private desire. Some people, it seems, are into children, and others aren’t, just as some people like baseball and others prefer football. No childless couple would insist that every couple remain childless, and they would expect the same tolerance to be accorded to them from the other side. But never, in these discussions, was reference made to values that present themselves in their sheer objectivity to the subject, values that make a demand on freedom. Rather, the individual will was consistently construed as sovereign and self-disposing.

And this represents a sea change in cultural orientation. Up until very recent times, the decision whether or not to have children would never have been simply “up to the individual.” Rather, the individual choice would have been situated in the context of a whole series of values that properly condition and shape the will: family, neighborhood, society, culture, the human race, nature, and ultimately, God. We can see this so clearly in the initiation rituals of primal peoples and in the formation of young people in practically every culture on the planet until the modern period. Having children was about carrying on the family name and tradition; it was about contributing to the strength and integrity of one’s society; it was about perpetuating the great adventure of the human race; it was a participation in the dynamisms of nature itself. And finally, it was about cooperating with God’s desire that life flourish: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen. 9:7). None of this is meant to be crushing to the will, but liberating. When these great values present themselves to our freedom, we are drawn out beyond ourselves and integrated into great realities that expand us and make us more alive.

It is finally with relief and a burst of joy that we realize that our lives are not about us. Traditionally, having children was one of the primary means by which this shift in consciousness took place. That increasingly this liberation is forestalled and that people are finding themselves locked in the cold space of what they sovereignly choose, I find rather sad.

Fr. Robert Barron is a master wordsmith, intellectual, and a great theologian, so I very much appreciate and respect his analysis, and, yes, as a mother myself I do find it sad that some people aren’t having kids. I know what they are missing. (I know I’m missing some things, too. We do trips around here, not vacations. There is a difference.) However, there’s something more than solipsism behind this new childless ethos in our culture: Fear.

I cannot help but think of women I know who have made the decision to not have children and how outwardly, their decisions seem to be based upon what they think will make them happy (and perhaps does) – their desire to travel, their brilliant careers, or just not wanting to be tied down. But I have had several childless friends who, perhaps after a few glasses of wine, have confided in me that the real reason they don’t want to bring children into the world is rooted in fear. They’re not being selfish. On the contrary, they’re being overly concerned with what might go wrong if they become a mother. They are fearful for the children they may never have. That fear is not self-seeking; it comes from a place of love and a desire to do what they think is right. And I’m not talking about the fear of losing her girlish figure like Jillian Michaels once admitted to. No, it’s something even scarier than acquiring stretch marks. She’s afraid she will be an awful mother, and she’s great at her career and being a wife, so why screw things up? Or she’s afraid her genetics will come back to haunt her, and her child will grow up to have an addiction, an eating disorder, or some other mental health disease. Or she will get leukemia. Or she will just grow up to hate her. Her co-workers don’t hate her. She doesn’t want to be hated. She wants to be loved, and there’s a chance that that vessel of hopes and dreams we parents call babies will be a disappointment or will turn out like that terrifying character in the haunting novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I know another friend who does have a child and pondered having another one, but she just can’t make the jump. She makes things happen in the workplace; yet, she can’t make her child poop on the potty or do much of anything else. In a hushed whisper, she confesses she’d like to have another child, but she’s afraid – not just about finances and all that practical stuff – but because she feels like she’s sometimes a horrible mother. She knows the joy of being a mother and how it makes her a better person. But sometimes it makes her a worse person. Sometimes it hurts so viscerally, she’s not sure she can handle any more of it. She loves her child, but she doesn’t always love being a mother. She’s afraid she’s screwing up her kid.

Me, too, I whisper back. I’ve joked that at least with four kids one should turn out okay and will hopefully be a happy, selfless human being who remembers to call me on my birthday. But maybe not.

I know those fears intimately well. Lately, in fact, I’ve had more a lot of anxiety about my mothering. I don’t feel like I do too much right, and I’m worried that my children will share my own anxiety one day. I want them to be content and trusting and naturally happy – all these things that don’t come easy to me.

When my first child was put into my arms, I experienced profound joy, but I felt terrified, too. I wasn’t afraid of dropping my baby on her head or of SIDS, although trimming those tiny nails on those pink, delicate fingers made me nervous. My husband seemed to worry more about germs and all the potential physical dangers. My fears were more of the emotional variety. Before becoming a mother, I was aware of all those fears that were mostly about what I would lose once that squawking little one was placed in my arms – money, my body, the ability to travel, spontaneity, sleep. But even as I did start to lose some of those things just being pregnant, those weren’t the fears that kept me up at night. I was more afraid of what I might gain. Once I had a baby, I would have a new insight into my humanity, and I would be so invested in something I would love with all my being, but that love, well, it might not be enough. Wrapped right along with that sweet bundle of joy was the sometimes crippling fear that I’d be a horrible mother, that despite caring so much, maybe too much, I’d screw up big time.

It’s this fear that the Time magazine article and the child-free couples as well as parents seem to have completely overlooked as a reason for choosing not to have kids. They probably wouldn’t even admit that it ever came into play. There just was never a desire to have kids, they might argue. Maybe not, but fear has a funny way of burying every other feeling you’ve ever had. It can take over and is more invasive than the most noxious weed.

It’s this fear I have had to overcome every time I’ve given birth to a new life. It’s not wishing I could afford more designer jeans in my closet, hide away more money in our retirement savings account, or have more time to pursue writing that novel I’ve been dreaming about that would have kept me from procreating. If I had let anything prevent me from becoming a mother, it would have been fear that I’d be a dreadful mom, and my kids – because of what I did or didn’t do – would turn out to be miserable, in need of therapy, or not so nice.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” But we don’t want to do things badly. Getting fired from a job stinks, but feeling like you nurtured a bad seed or raised a terribly unhappy child? I’m not sure I could handle that. But what if I’d caved in to those fears? What if we all did? Being a parent is worth it – even when you make mistakes. Which we do. All of the time.

Here’s the thing about us parents, more specifically Christian parents. If we believe in God, then we believe in hope. We believe in redemption. We believe in light being born out of darkness. We bank on God’s compassion when we, in our human weakness, don’t dole it out to our children very freely or when we’re not very compassionate with ourselves. We slip, we stumble, we screw up all the time as parents, but God somehow makes good out of the mess we create or that is created for us and is out of our control. We don’t always see evidence of the goodness, but we believe it is there. If we don’t, then we’re not really believers.

As for being imperfect parents to imperfect children, we don’t give up on our children or our lowly selves, but sometimes we do have to give our children and ourselves up to Him. Whether we’re worried about money, losing our identity, or just being a lousy parent, we turn to Him. We trust. We learn to be optimists even when the glass is glaringly empty. This isn’t easy for someone with melancholic tendencies such as myself, but I have to be a Pollyanna – my faith demands that of me – and I have to learn to not rely on my own strength but to be open to the Holy Spirit and to believe in the promises of Christ.

The primacy of self may be partly to blame for people choosing the childless life, but it’s sometimes to blame for choosing to have kids, too. We want the good without the bad. We want the cuddles and kisses without the poop, tantrums, or wayward older children. We want the teenagers without the hormones. We want to kiss a boo-boo and have it immediately be all better. We don’t want to hurt or see our kids hurt. We certainly don’t want to hurt our own kids. We invest in our children because that’s what parents do but also because we expect a return for our investment. We want to see the fruit of our work ripen well and become something beautiful. We want to bear virtuous and content people into the world; we don’t want to create slaves to addiction or depression or worldly desires for sons or daughters. But becoming a parent forces you to face your fears. It forces you to relinquish control, to trust, and to look beyond yourself as well as your own limitations. When we’re fearful of rejection or what may come of us or our children, we become more focused on ourselves and our own desires. We push our children or even the idea of parenthood further and further away because we’re a bunch of scaredy cats.

Recently, I was having a lousy day. My kids’ behavior was lackluster probably because they sensed that Mama was anxious. Well, a child or two was deserving of compassion that I did not give. Later that same day I wept and wondered how I could be so unkind to the people I love the most. I found myself wondering why the heck I was blessed with these children. How were my kids going to turn out having me as a mother? Then, not too long after my maternal misstep, I heard a child crying. Another child ran to her younger sister and reached out to her, “I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?” Not too long after the sincere apology and the mercy in return, they were playing together again. And I was hopeful. It is always hope that conquers my fears. When I feel like I’m sinking, I am buoyed by hope.

I wish I could convince all those couples contemplating having children that parenthood is the path to pure bliss, but that wouldn’t necessarily be true. Sometimes parenting a child is the path to heartbreaking sadness, financial woes, health worries, and more. Having a child makes you more vulnerable than ever before. I don’t know what the future holds for my own children – the ones who are here with me today and the ones who might end up under my care in the future. But if some of those subterranean fears surface and become a reality, I know what I must do. I must cast any blame aside. I’ll have to hold onto hope and detach myself from thinking I can save my child, or the belief that if I don’t save her or keep her from harm or unhappiness, that it’s because I am a lousy mother. I may have to let go of the very happiness our world lauds and says we are in control of and should seek. As Fr. Barron eloquently points out, our lives aren’t about us. We find freedom when we free ourselves from our own expectations and when we let go of the fear enough to let hope in.

Most of us who have chosen to have children (or it has been chosen for us and we have accepted it with grace and trust) probably do see children as bringing happiness and adding something meaningful to our lives. Children will grow up to be the adults who will someday save us all, we might tell our childless friends. Upon closer scrutiny, however, none of these things may actually end up being true at least not all of the time. Yet, every child we add to our families and communities serves as an ambassador of hope, a reminder that the future is worth investing in and sticking around for.

Having children sometimes brings happiness but it’s when it doesn’t that it becomes even more apparent that accepting the call to parenthood is one of the bravest and most hopeful things we can do.

Enter the Conversation...

4 Responses to “Why I might have chosen the child-free life”
  1. Jess says:

    so well-written Katie :) I used to judge woman for not having children back when Jaina was little. They didn’t know what they were missing. But I’ve since changed my views on childless couples. Its a very personal decision and we all have our reasons for doing what is best for our families.
    Jess recently posted..Who needs actions or presets? I’ve got scripts!

  2. Kris says:

    I love the part about fear. I wouldn’t have my last two if I had given into those fears of “how will we manage”, “how will it change things”, etc. I hate to be trite about “let go, let God”, but that’s really how it all works in mothering, I believe! And thank goodness for my kids’ endless ability for forgiveness.

  3. Melanie B says:

    Kate, Thank you. This is so beautiful and true. So often what we call selfishness masks fear. Real fear. And when we dismiss the reality of the hardships and risks motherhood encompasses we do no one any favors. Rather, we should focus on explaining why we have found that those hardships and risks have been worth it.

    But thinking further, I do think that the lessening of the influence of the social, communal, and reasons to have children, the emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual, magnifies those fears. When you are used only to considering yourself and not all of the other greater goods, then many of the positive reasons disappear and you are left with the negatives. And without God to lean on and extended social support structures, motherhood is much more of a burden. It really is too heavy to carry on your own.
    Melanie B recently posted..Autumn Afternoon with Sunflowers

  4. Pank24 says:

    The answer is definitely NO I don’t regret having Jason. I experienced the same joy and love with my first born as you did with Maddy. Just as I forgive him over and over again, I know God forgives him before he even screws up yet again. Jason isn’t evil and he has a relationship with Jesus. I believe he will go to heaven and any small part I had in leading him down that path was the most important job this mom had. Of course, I feel I was imperfect as a mother, but if he gets to heaven, all my prayers and wishes were answered despite my pain seeing a supposedly “wasted life.”

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