Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 4
Fear of Children from Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves
by Helen M. Alvaré, J.D., M.A.
Editor’s note: In the introduction to Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves (2012. Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Publishing Division), Helen Alvaré, the editor of this collection of essays by nine Catholic women, writes: “presently, America is flirting with the idea of ending its dialogue with, and reliance upon, religion as a trusted source of wisdom and values in the wider society. Catholic institutions have become a particular target. Driving this, in no small part, is the idea that religion is out of step with ‘freedom,’ especially women’s.” The women who contributed chapters “are honestly trying to grapple with how their faith might inform their thinking and their acting,” she writes.
The book was inspired by “Women Speak for Themselves,” the open letter drafted by Helen Alvaré and Kim Daniels in early 2012, responding to the claim that no women supported the Catholic Church’s stand for religious freedom in opposing the government’s “HHS mandate” following the Health Care Act. (The mandate requires all employers, including Catholic hospitals and institutions, to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization.) The open letter was soon signed by 30,000 women, including members of the Voices editorial board. (See womenspeakforthemselves.com).
With the kind permission of the Helen Alvaré and OSV, we are pleased to publish Chapter 1 of Breaking Through.
Even when I was a fairly young child myself, I wondered how people could stand having children. Though my repugnance underwent several mutations over the years from childhood to young adulthood, 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 endured while we were children together. This 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.” My second oldest nephew had a little sing-song when he was a toddler that went: “Mommy loves me. Daddy loves me, Aunt Helen doesn’t love me....”
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. Without them, I am fairly sure that even given my multiple statuses of wife, daughter, sister, friend, and professor, I would have devolved into an even more selfish person than I am. I would also undoubtedly be even less patient. Instead, I have learned to grit my teeth and sit through board games, hours of basic math review and sundry insipid kids’ movies without losing my (freaking) mind. I can spend the vast majority of my income on things like kids’ schooling, food, clothing, and transportation, and drive a seventeen-year-old truck and a seven-year-old van, and not only remain firm in the conclusion that my priorities are rightly ordered, but like the way I live. I can cry about and pray over the losses and reversals of friends and neighbors because I have learned to enter more genuinely into the sufferings of people other than my own little self. And I can see qualities in my husband unselfishness, determination, wise planning I would not likely otherwise have seen. Having boys in particular has helped this feminist grasp the charms of males qua males. (A friend and I recently laughed to discover that we had both told our husbands how much we had learned to love about men by raising sons, and how useful it would have been to have raised the boys first, and then met their fathers.)
I don’t mean to imply that children are some sort of utilitarian means to the end of ensuring that I do not go to hell. I believe they may just do that, although I swear I didn’t know about their salvific qualities before I had them. But it’s true, and I don’t think it’s harmful in any way to tell you that they are indeed a boon to their parents’ struggle for goodness, for holiness even, and for learning to put up with other human beings who amazingly enough are someone’s children too.
My journey from “Aunt Helen doesn’t love me” to “children made me” is likely unique, as will be your journey. But it is also quite possible that my journey and yours have common moments, too. We are swimming in the same American cultural and economic soup, with some of the same messages coming at us about the meaning of maternity, the contents of the good life, and the practical work involved in rearing children. How could we not worry about one or two of the same things? Further, my conversations with young women and with mothers around the country over the last twenty years have confirmed this intuition.
My first concrete thoughts about the value of children arose in response to the cruelty shown to my (now late) disabled sister in the suburban neighborhood where we grew up. Due to an accident at her birth, she was born four years before me with traumatic injuries to her brain. She was the fourth and I the last of the children in our family. During the 1960s, it seemed there was a great deal of pressure on the parents of disabled children to grit their teeth and bear privately all the work and the worries associated with rearing a disabled child. It wasn’t only that there were fewer public and private resources available to guide the families of disabled children.
There was also an unspoken expectation that the parents would try to ensure that, outwardly, the child could conform to social standards for “normal” children to the greatest degree possible. Generally, I’m a fan of external standards calling people to expectations loftier then they might otherwise observe. But not meaningless or ultimately harmful standards such as those applied to my sister concerning the emotional maturity, academic prowess, and fashion sense of a disabled girl-child.
My parents worked tirelessly, but it didn’t stop the children in my neighborhood from excluding my sister from their play or from ridiculing her appearance, her physical awkwardness, or her emotional neediness. Their parents seemed little better. I have one particularly horrid memory of bursting into the house of my least favorite neighbors during a dinner party and calling the mother out in the presence of all of her guests for her nasty treatment of my sister. Ugh. While I have come to believe that this steeled me for my later public advocacy on behalf of vulnerable unborn children, it still made for a dark Saturday for a ten-year-old and her victim.
At that time of my life, then, I promised myself I would never have children. Why re-create a Lord of the Flies society? Children were too primitive, too selfish, too driven by the desire to be accepted by their peers. And their parents, too, seemed unable to cope with the less-than-perfect children of others. What of the children I knew who didn’t fit that mold (and I liked to count myself among them, along with a few of my school friends)? I believed we were few and would always be at the mercy of these others who were the prettiest and most popular kids in the neighborhood. I didn’t know how my parents’ hearts failed to break during those years of my sister’s childhood. But I knew I couldn’t bear such a large part of life my own children’s happiness being so utterly out of my control. As I emerged into my late teen years, this sense had merged with a new observation: Times were changing drastically for women in the later 1970s, and it would be easy for me in fact vastly superior to avoid motherhood completely. All those boring maternal duties and all the anguish over children’s suffering could simply be sidestepped while I made a life out of one of the many interesting possibilities opening up for women in the world.
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 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 for women. I felt personally challenged: These were paths 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 to men’s social groups and men’s athletics. I protested (unsuccessfully) the expenditures for new Astroturf for the football field and petitioned (successfully) to equalize the funding 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 propositions of the late twentieth 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 worldview. 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 through work both inside and outside the home. It was all too new. Concepts such as “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.” Combine this with my Lord of the Flies neighborhood and, dear reader, I succumbed.
My story, sans the personal distaste for children, was certainly playing out in America in general beginning at that time. Consequently, from the 1970s to today, birth rates have declined and abortion rates have risen. The “mommy wars” are alive and kicking as women continue to argue over the relative value of work inside versus outside the home.
Also, it is probably fair to say that still today the legal and cultural “tool-kit” for women trying to handle mothering and some amount of paid work is still quite small. It is not at all sufficient for the way families live in our modern economy, There is no requirement that employers pay a “family wage” so that one parent could stay home with children, even during the early years, or to care for a sick child or parent. Jobs that pay a lot of income to one spouse usually result in a lot “less spouse” at home. They also tend to be located in parts of the country where it is expensive to live. People who want to send their children to religious schools are confronted with the relatively high cost of these institutions. And don’t even get me started on the costs of college, even lower-cost state colleges. Also, while more jobs can be performed remotely, still the vast majority of employment requires leaving home to travel to work. Complicating the picture, our economic times have raised real questions about the future supply of work performed traditionally by men jobs requiring on average greater physical strength while the supply of work in jobs equally available to both sexes has soared.
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 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 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 would be a qualitatively different kind of togetherness as distinguished from all of the other things we did together talk, 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, in marriage and in the wider society. 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 her point about children. She was wiser and kinder than I, 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 it 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. Between feeding and “the pump,” I spent about six hours a day just getting the minimal amount of food into my first baby. Nine or ten formulas later, we ended up required by a pediatric gastroenterologist to feed her goat milk from a farm where the female and male goats were kept separately so that the milk wouldn’t smell awful. (This led to some interesting encounters at the only store selling such milk where, thanks to my husband, I learned to reply to the endless inquiry “Why aren’t you breastfeeding” with a mumbled lie: “double mastectomy”).
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 and I 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 forty-five (veeeery close to forty-six, 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 my advanced 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 twenty 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 l 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. 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 in to 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. Saint Thomas Aquinas was right: “Lord, in my zeal for the love of truth, never let me forget the truth about love.” How does this work? In practical terms, of course, one discovers that she can get off the couch at 11 p.m. 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, to decide in advance to give them “that look of love they crave” once you begin to see them as other people’s children.
In 2011, I gave a series of lectures to thousands of teenagers at World Youth Day in Spain. The subject was love, sex, and marriage. A young priest who was present later said to me: “You are knowledgeable about the law and about family data, I can tell, and that makes you believable. But your speeches seem wise to me, and you can deliver them with smile, I believe, only because you are a mother who has practiced loving your family for a long time now.” Amen to that, Father.
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 a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and chairman of the Task Force on Conscience Protection, as well as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family. Previously, she was the voice of the US 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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