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Children made me
A Catholic academic and feminist tells how she discovered the meaning of marriage and the joy of self-giving.
Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves | By Helen M. Alvaré (Ed) | Our Sunday Visitor (September20, 2012) | Hardback, $16.95
A White House policy that came into effect this month requires faith-based institutions, along with other employers, to provide health insurance for their employees that fully covers contraception, sterilization and drugs that can acts as abortifacients. Vigorous Catholic opposition led to claims there is a “war on women” and that no Catholic women were standing up for the Church’s demands for religious freedom in this matter.
This provoked law professor Helen M. Alvaré and lawyer Kim Daniels to launch an open letter inviting women to sign up and speak for themselves. Some 33,000 women have signed it. Now, in a new book, Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, nine women write about their experience of living up to the demands of their faith freely and with joy. The following article is excerpted from “Fear of Children”, Dr Alvaré’s opening essay.
Even when I was a fairly young child myself, I wondered how people could stand having children. Over the years from childhood to young adulthood, though my repugnance underwent several mutations, it remained essentially fixed. At first, it stemmed from a fundamental pessimism about life in this world, a consciousness that life is hard for human beings. This was undoubtedly related to the difficulties my nearest-in-age and disabled sister suffered while we were children together. These made me wonder why people would bring innocent beings into the world to suffer its regular disappointments and worse. Child-rearing also seemed a truly high-wire business: so much could go wrong. Why risk it?
Only slightly later, as an adolescent and young adult under feminist influence, I began to question why adults, women in particular – with the whole world potentially at their feet – would forego the opportunity to do really interesting things in order, for example, to hang out at the pool every day in the summer, or to cook and clean up after meals, day in and day out. I was pretty well known in my extended family and among my friends for my distaste for the whole business of parenting. I once “famously” told my Mother (after discovering some of her impressive college accomplishments) that she “could have been something.”
Today, however, I stand before you a woman convinced that children made me, in the sense of rendering me the half-way decent person I can claim to be. I also know that without them, I would be bored to tears by life in this world. They make me laugh every day and give me 100 reasons to be interested in the goings-on in the world around me.
Enter the Revolution
It is hard to overstate how completely – culturally speaking -- my adolescence and early adulthood corresponded with an extremely active phase of American feminism. Ms. Magazine was launched in 1971. Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 (although it ultimately failed to be ratified by enough states). Legislation and judicial opinions issued under the banner of “women’s equality” and concerning education, abortion, marital rape, access to credit and employment, and so on cascaded onto the scene throughout the 1970s. The “sexual revolution” was in full swing, promising to alter women’s sexual lives and social norms so that these corresponded with the so-called male norm. This claimed norm? Nonmarital sex with no commitment, no shame and definitely no babies.
Despite my parents’ best efforts to keep the revolution out of our traditional Catholic home, it walked right in. Every week when I picked up Time Magazine, loose pages fell onto the floor because my mother had ripped out their opposite sides for their crime of reporting on the aforesaid sexual revolution. Of course, I just read the excised pages at the local library. Their message was clear: motherhood was a waste of time, economically worthless, socially disvalued, and particularly so by comparison with the many other paths opening up for women. I felt personally challenged: these were paths that only men had previously taken, paths that paid real money. For self-worth, for income, for excitement, and for real equality there was nothing like the workplace. That’s where the then-reigning gender was, and it was an important source of their power. That’s where I should go too.
Soooo, I attended college at a place relatively recently opened to women. Its athletic programs and student activity funding reflected this perfectly. Funding was skewed toward men’s social groups and men’s athletics. I protested (unsuccessfully) the expenditures for new astro-turf for the football field, and petitioned (successfully) to equalize the funding as between my women’s singing group and the men’s. Simultaneously I began to reflect, both during college, and thereafter at law school, that it made no earthly sense to be investing so much in building up my—or any woman’s—— human capital, and then to abandon it or give it away by failing to exploit it in the workplace.
Now at this point, some readers are shaking their heads over my gullibility, my wholesale swallowing of the feminist propositions of the late 20th century. I won’t justify it, but there are explanations. Of course I could have instead learned to appreciate the example shown by my loving parents and my large extended family. My parents cared for us, particularly for my disabled sister, and for our frail elderly grandmother who lived with us until her death. I could have rejected the materialism inherent in a careerist world view. But the loudest voices in the world were urging women to look elsewhere.
It did not really occur to parents in those days, or even to the religious sisters who taught at my high school, to have an extended conversation with a young woman about the goods of marriage and family, or the possibility of making contributions to the world via work both inside and outside the home. It was all too new. Concepts like “balancing,” “flex time,” “sequencing,” “job sharing,” “maternity leave,” and “family friendly employer” hadn’t yet been invented. All I could see was that a girl who did well in school and was living in an economy where all things were opening up to women, could choose the path marked “excitement,” and “success,” versus the one labeled “stay home and have kids.”
A Growing Intuition
Considering all of this, what are the circumstances that led me to children nevertheless? It seems appropriate at this moment to stop and thank God for this thing people often call women’s biological clock. In my own case, I could hear it going off even though nothing in my conscious brain had deduced that “it’s time” to have children. I didn’t suddenly change my response to babies. Today, I have a bad case of “aww, look at that beautiful baby,” but no such condition affected me before I had children. Even now, I have trouble putting words to the transformation.
Part of it was a growing consciousness that my husband and I were living for ourselves alone – and in a happy marriage this feels quite similar to living for oneself. Staring down the years together, it seemed problematic to envision ourselves simply continuing to do nothing but entertain ourselves and our friends, and feather our nest, even if we were also engaging in volunteer work at times – he regularly donating platelets to a boy with leukemia, and me hanging out at a nursing home near our apartment, with a woman who had no family. There just grew in me a sense that there must be “more” to life, something at that moment closed to my understanding. It also occurred to me that I did not aspire to be like some married people I had met who seemed “allergic” to children. With almost no exceptions, I did not admire their lives. This gave me pause.
There was also developing in my head the notion that while I knew this man, my husband, well and for years even before we began dating, I wasn’t fully his partner. We lived beside one another beautifully, but still we did not seem integrated enough. It was as if there was something missing in my belonging to him and him to me. I began to think that this might change in the presence of a child who was ours. That this would be a qualitatively different kind of togetherness as distinguished from all of the other things we did together—talk, entertain, read, visit families, commute, shop, and so on. It was that basic an intuition.
There was also this: the Catholic Church seemed always to be going on about how great a gift children are, referring to them using expressions like the “crown” or “summit” of marriage. All my life, I had been very much a “daughter of the Church”, convinced in my mind, and attempting to put into practice in my life, that no one had a better account than she did of the world, and of how people ought to live in it, alone and together. This conviction remained true despite my coming into regular contact with people who disagreed with this conclusion, sometimes vehemently. I therefore decided to grant the Church deference and even credence on its point about children. She was wiser and kinder than me, so perhaps I should take a fly.
I wish I could tell you the transition was easy, that once I had opened my heart and my mind to children all went well. But instead it was pretty darn awful. My pregnancies either ended in miscarriage (more than a few) or were very easy. But the first attempt at parenting was hard, very hard. We struggled with breastfeeding every day for months.
I loved my new baby, and saw new and amazing things in this man who had previously been only my husband but was now also somebody’s father. I saw new capabilities in myself too. Still, it would not be accurate to say that I thought of myself in “maternal” terms. Rather, I was still a woman who did X and Y and Z, but who was also taking care of a baby girl. This was a very demanding job, but not yet a vocation.
Not long after, and without knowing why, my husband I and concluded that of course we would not want this child to be an only child. We had no blessed idea why. (In fact the more I review this period of my life, it’s clear that some mind better than my own was in fact guiding my thoughts and actions about parenting.) It wasn’t as if I suffered rose-colored reflections on my life as one of five siblings, or received sage advice from prior generations about the beauties of siblings. I didn’t even make the utilitarian calculations about the usefulness of having one child to distract the other, or the good of having more children to take care of us in old age. The most I can say is that we felt called to have a bigger community. To have more “life” going on around us. And I wanted to join again in such a partnership with the man I loved.
Of course the next child was an easier adjustment. But what I remember most is the moment when he was just six or seven weeks old, and it occurred to me that I was officially open for more children in a very, very positive way. That I didn’t want to “count” or calculate anymore—I just wanted a family community with more life in it, whatever we could reasonably manage.
Why did this happen? Surely I was a more relaxed parent, thank God. This allowed me to see my baby boy as he was, and not any longer to see only my own incompetence as a parental unit. But surely there was something else, some new openness to life that had been gifted to me. Thus my third born child, and others later conceived, but lost to miscarriages. In particular, I won’t forget my being pregnant at age 45 (veeeery close to 46 if you must know) when I told my husband the news and he replied without missing a beat, “Well, we’ve always wanted another girl.” And I responded “Let’s just grandparent this baby. Let’s just decide not to worry at all about anything,” although I was fairly sure that at that age, the child would be born with at least some disability. How times had changed.
Accepting the Gift
So what do I understand now, almost 20 years into this journey? Not a whole lot, but a few things. I understand first that practically speaking, living for myself—or as a couple living for ourselves—would be a terrible temptation toward materialism, ego, and selfishness. Self-giving to a sacrificial extent is just more likely to happen when it’s in your face, in your house, where you get relentless opportunities to rise above your own self-interest, your own weaknesses, and to take care of others for decades not hours.
I also understand how intensely bored my husband and I would be without all that children have opened us to. And I say this as a person who has been very lucky to have a job that involves constant reading, writing, speaking, and traveling a good chunk of the world to some legendarily cool places: Paris, Sydney, Alaska and Cuba, to name just a few. Yet I can still conclude that watching another person develop, and listening to how children react to the world around them, and having the chance to watch them choose to be unselfish, or even generous, and reach out for a relationship with God, is the coolest thing. At a certain point, I remember saying to myself while traipsing around yet another beautiful European capital for work: I would so rather be home with my husband and kids.
I now understand my prior thinking about children as my giving into the temptation to refuse the basic human vocation to love. Bam. I’ve said it. I was resisting that whole finding-oneself-in-losing-oneself way of life that the last two popes in particular are always talking about. I didn’t want to experience the trials associated with the Christian way of life: self-gift, for as long a time as parenting takes. Have children made me truly “good?” Only God can say, but I am sure that I am thereby at least better than I would otherwise have been.
Finally, whereas before I had been convinced that having children would prevent me from using the years of learning and experience I had amassed at school and at work (where would I find the time?), I have come to see that I have good things to share in large part because of the ability to love that children have provoked in me. St Thomas Aquinas was right: Lord when I preach the love of truth, never let me forget the truth of love.”
How does this work? In practical terms, of course, one discovers that she can get off the couch at 11 pm to pick up a child somewhere, simply because that child needs a ride. One learns that she has the fortitude to pick up an extra job in order to pay for braces or a school trip. Maybe most importantly, however, one learns how to communicate with other people, once you begin to see them as other people’s children.
Adapted from Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, by Helen M. Alvaré (Ed). Publication date: September 20, 2012.
Helen M. Alvaré is a law professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, where she teaches and writes in the areas of family law, and law and religion. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and Chair of the Task Force on Conscience Protection, as well as a Consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Previously, she was the voice of the U.S. Catholic bishops on matters concerning respect for life, and a litigation associate at a Philadelphia law firm. She is married with three children.
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