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. These made me wonder why people would bring innocent beings into the world to suffer its regular disappointments and worse. Childrearing 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 singsong 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 halfway 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 its 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.
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.
This is an excerpt from “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves.” Read the rest of Helen Alvaré’s story as well as the stories of eight other Catholic women who have asked the hard questions.