During quarantine at home with my three sons five and under, I’ve been reminded that being a parent is not fulfilling. My mornings usually start with wiping bums, changing diapers and washing my hands vigorously (not only out for fear of contracting COVID-19). Though my work at home has not had the pressures that I usually face, I end the day exhausted, collapsed on a couch, which feels like an island in a sea of small toys.
Studies have shown that becoming a parent can exacerbate depression, and any parent knows the emotional toll it can take. Still, many parents will concede here. “Fine,” they might say, “parenting doesn’t make us happy, but it is deeply and utterly fulfilling. All of the hard work eventually pays off.”
Not everyone desires to have children, however. Contraception or preferring a “chosen family” is preferable for some. But for those couples who intend to have children, the romantic idealization of family is another god in the pantheon of the West. For many, “family is everything.”
Interestingly, traditional family-centric values are often associated with right-wing evangelicals, as Seth Dowland notes in “’Family Values’ and the Formation of a Christian Right Agenda.” He writes, “Christian right leaders envisioned the family as the central unit of American society, and they framed their political activities throughout the 1980s and 1990s as a defense of the ‘traditional’ family” (607).
While Dowland’s study focuses on the American scene, he puts his finger on the pulse of wider movement, namely, that the family-centric grew up of the relatively recent project of white American evangelicals. This was not an enduring feature of Christendom, but a rather idiosyncratic development in the last several decades.
The vestiges of this movement from the last century remain, but it must be forcefully overlaid onto Christian Scripture to produce its intended effects. This is not to say that there does not exist an imperative to “be fruitful and multiply” that is taken up early in Genesis and resonates throughout the Old Testament. But the New Testament introduces tension into these commands with Jesus telling the crowds “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26 NRSV).
To this point, theologian David Bentley Hart observes, “In fact, far from teaching ‘family values,’ Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him.” At the very least, the Christian Bible provides a nuanced picture of family life.
Whether the idealization of family is at the behest of fundamentalist Christian ideology or rather the progressive fantasies that one finds in popular shows like Modern Family, it serves as the elusive centripetal force of life. It is elusive because there can always be more or better family experiences and further, for many, family life serves as the respite from the demands of working life.
Family looms as a god in the midst of modern life, demanding attention, because one can never fully satiate it. It promises fulfillment and peace, a safe harbour from the hard edges from the world out there.
It is not uncommon to hear the choice to become a parent is something like the choice of one’s career, or the decision to train for a marathon. Both require tremendous effort over long periods of time, but ultimately both can be deeply fulfilling despite the difficulty. Neither is easy, but we recognize that it is at least possible the effort will be worthwhile. At worst, we see choosing to have children as a “frivolous luxury.”
The notion that starting a family is a “life choice” is a novel twentieth-century invention. Though I risk oversimplifying, generally speaking, before the advent of reliable birth control, the road of life was forked in two directions. On the one hand, lay the path of abstinent singleness, which guaranteed freedom from progeny. On the other hand, was the path of married life, or some other form of partnership.
In this latter case, save from the tragic experience of infertility that still painfully persists, children were a kind of mysterious given, a fact of life. That couples produce children was as natural an expectation as that seed sown in the spring would produce some kind of fruit. And, as historian Steve Ozment notes about the Middle Ages in his book Ancestors, “non-procreative sex was the last thing newlyweds desired, and couples as a rule were not done with childbearing until a sizeable family existed as a hedge against high mortality. Once married, women in all social classes looked on sterility as the greatest curse of a marriage and pursued remedies against it as if they were golden.”
Not only were children expected, but their absence resounded like the ominous drone of death.
Not so any longer. There is no longer any direct connection between coupling and children in the Western mind. The question of whether or not to partner is kept at arm’s length from the question of children. Because of modern birth control, couples can effectively delay or forgo childrearing altogether.
I am not here arguing for or contra the permissiveness of contraception, especially given that the Catholic tradition has been set against it. I am pointing out, however, that whether or not couples choose to have children has become deeply tied to the hope for fulfillment in the ways that would have been foreign to most of human history. Children have become a means to an end.
When children are a given, a normal expectation of family life, one deals with them accordingly. One can savor the joys and roll with the punches. When children are a natural part of coupling, it is irrelevant if raising them is fulfilling, much as it is irrelevant whether or not having a body is fulfilling. Both are just part of the human experience.
When “family planning” becomes a meaningful choice, however, more is on the line. When we can calculate the relative costs to happiness in the short term with hopes for long-term gain, the stakes go higher still. When raising children does not provide the personal fulfillment we are seeking, not only are we disappointed, but we feel the guilt of making a choice that turned out to be less exalted than we hoped.
This is significant because it puts an unreasonable weight on parenthood. It is not longer an accepted part of life, with all of its challenges and hopes, but becomes an ingredient in our self-actualization. When it is not fulfilling – a phenomenon perhaps more common than the discourse around it suggests – it is all the more painful. Hooray for parents who find joy and satisfaction in what they do. But for many others, the disappointment of finding that the choice to have a family leaves one empty, the resentment is only more oppressive.
Does this mean we should revert to some premodern state of naivety? I don’t think so. But perhaps we should practice an openness to family life that goes beyond our desires for a fulfilling future.
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