People on both sides of this issue tend to think of those on the other side as selfish.
When I didn't desire children, I knew that some people saw me as selfish. I remember sitting around the workplace and listening to a coworker talk about her neighbor. "They don't even have any kids," she snorted. "How selfish is that?" I was stunned that the simple state of being childless could brand a woman. And ironically, although some of my reasons for wanting to avoid children were selfish, I had just as many reasons that I thought of as merciful to my would-be children. I was convinced I'd be a horrible parent.
Now that I'm on the flip side, a different group sees my actions as selfish.
Having been both childless by choice, and a mom of three, I can say this: motherhood is hard. And when I'm doing it right, it demands that I be anything but selfish.
Motherhood is a string of sacrifices. They start in pregnancy because -- let me tell you -- being pregnant was fun for me only during months four and five. That's when the 24/7 morning sickness ended, the progesterone treatments could halt, I finally looked pregnant instead of fat, and I wasn't yet so big that I waddled and was uncomfortable all the time. (I'm 5' 2" and one of my babies was almost nine pounds. This is a working definition of "off balance.")
Then there's labor (which my body does not perform well) and delivery and the realization that I'm actually responsible for another human being. In a piece I wrote several years ago (Are You New? for Babies Today), I mentioned this:
During labor, I'd developed a fever. Immediately after her birth, my baby was whisked away for testing and antibiotics because she, too, had a fever. In those first few hours I was in and out of lucidity and all I could think of was sleep. I remember asking myself, when they brought my daughter in for a nursing, "Why do they keep bringing me this baby?!" Only to realize, "Oh, yeah. I'm the mother." The reality and magnitude of my responsibility suddenly overwhelmed me. I'm the mother.I was the mom.
It was terrifying.
All the other cliches of new babydom, including excruciatingly sleepless nights, crying (oh, yeah -- the baby cried a lot, too) and beginning my worry about my children's futures before they'd sampled solid food kicked in.
I was recently reading Hilda van Stockum's Canadian Summer with the girls. In one scene, Grannie is describing how, when she was a little girl, she gave her beloved doll to orphans:
"And my mother warned me seriously that I would never have another like it and probably would miss it but I wanted to give it anyway."
"I guess you didn't realize," said Joan.
"Yes, I did realize and I knew I should be sorry and I was sorry. It was my first sacrifice," said Grannie, smiling gently into the fire ...
... "But I've remembered that doll all my life. In a way it is the only one I still have, for the others are forgotten. Which shows that it is what you give away that you truly possess."
It is what you give away that you truly possess.
When I had children, I gave myself away.
And in doing that, I came to genuinely possess who and what I am.
Not in the sense I used to imagine, which went something like this: "If I have children, I will become one of those desperate women without a life. I'll live through and for the kids and someday when they move out I won't even know who I am."
No. That's not it at all. My husband and family (because, incidentally, I once felt the same way about marriage) have become part of who I am, and I am a part of them, too. We weave in and out of each other's lives in ways that are surprising, unpredictable, hard and sublime.
And the sacrifices that motherhood requires of me have not resulted in a net loss but in immeasurable gains that are, to be sure, challenging and demanding but gains that are gifts.
As I wrote a couple of years ago in another post:
I could not see, as C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain:
"We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are... rebels who must lay down their arms."I didn't want to lay down my arms. But, clearly, at some point, my arms slipped or were wrenched from me (a bit of each, at various stages) because here I am. I surrendered, first of all, to a "mere Christianity," and later to the Catholic Church. And in laying down my arms and waving those white flags, in asking God to let me die so that I might rise again, in accepting that I might become a new creation in Him, I have found a peace the depth of which I couldn't have conceived in my atheist days.
In the midst of that peace is the knowledge that while I did "lose" myself I have paradoxically also become a truer version of myself. In surrendering everything (from my time, my marriage, my fertility, my writing, and my cherished sleep, oh, sleep) to God, He has shown me that He will lead me, wisely and well, in all things and that I will inch closer to becoming the person He intends me to be. He's proven to me that He knows better than my best-laid plans.
I really believe that most people on both "sides" of the issue of children are trying their best to figure it out and do the right thing. The world we live in makes it pretty complicated and confusing. For me, the answers became simple (not easy and not simple-minded, but simple to understand) in the context of my faith.
Children are both sacrifice and gift. Not everyone is called to have them -- hey, some of my best friends are celibate -- but when a gift is given, it is worth the sacrifice it takes to accept it.