Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Thinking About Having Children, Part 2: Selfishness and Sacrifice

Part I is here.

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.


  1. Karen, a beautiful post, and I had no idea you were 5'2". Good to know! I also had 9-lbers (plus), but I'm 5'4.5 (ha - had to throw in the half-inch). :) My sis-in-law had twins at 5'2" and couldn't get behind the wheel of her car toward the end. Oh, and I also had progesterone with three pregnancies. Anyway, all that trivia aside, just a very nice read and you're right about it being very complex. We addressed this in a radio talk, more along the lines of "discerning family size," and they're now making copies and distributing it to priests and couples looking at family size, with the help of a grant. We need to have a chance to look at it from many angles, and open our hearts to all the possibilities, particularly the one God is calling us too. I've never been so aware of my motherhood and the gifts of my children as when I've spent time with nuns in a convent. We all have our unique callings. Mine is motherhood, among other things. You wear it well, Karen, even when it's hard.

  2. Thanks, Roxane -- what a lovely comment.

    Glad you have that extra half-inch, too. It probably helped balance out the plus part of your 9-lbers. ;)

  3. Karen, I'm late reading this, but wow. Thank you.

    I think this is some of your most beautiful writing. Either that or it hits me square on the pregnant face. :)

    Thank you.

  4. I think why the two groups talk past each other is that the decision to have a family is more like an open hand than a ledger.

    Like Faith itself, the desire for embracing the challenges of motherhood is a gift from God, just like the child.

  5. A beautiful post for women who truly appreciate the sacrifice of being a good parent.

    Never chose that route for myself. I did not enjoy my childhood because I don't think my parents enjoyed me. I once asked my mother why she had children. She told me that it was either have your own kids or raise your younger siblings. She was in the middle of nine. The youngest called her mama.

    Do I feel sorry for her? Yes. I feel sorrier for me. She chose to bring me into this world and I am now 50 and still receive no love from her. I asked her why once. I was supposed to give her grandchildren. I guess she wanted me and my children to experience the horrible life she did??

    I don't know the answer but the pain I feel everyday reminds me that not all mothers are unselfish.

    If you are a good mother, I hope your kids appreciate you.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

  6. Thanks for your comment. I'm so sorry that you have such a troubled relationship with your mother. Thanks for sharing that. And I know that you're not alone in choosing not to have kids for such personal reasons.

    Peace and all good to you.

  7. Oops -- I'm Karen, not Ramona. My youngest has been on Blogger again. :)

  8. I can certainly identify with your post. I never wanted children for most of my life. At 31 I changed my mind and before I had really, truly thought through what that meant I was pregnant. Since having my son I struggle with the life and self that I have lost. Your quote "It is what you give away that you truly possess" that is really resonating with me. As I try to find my identity as a new mother I hope that I can bring those 2 lives together. My hope is that I will find that old self in new ways but also become a person that I never even knew I could be. Thanks for the post. It was a loving and compassionate way to state how complex our lives are and the choices that we might make in them.

  9. What a beautiful and sensitive and honest comment -- thank you.

    You wrote: "As I try to find my identity as a new mother I hope that I can bring those 2 lives together. My hope is that I will find that old self in new ways but also become a person that I never even knew I could be."

    Yes. That is what I've found to be true -- it continues happening to me -- over the years. Our journeys don't end when we decide to have children, or not to have them, or when we decide anything else, for that matter. Things keep unfolding ...

    Blessings and peace and all good things to you!