Meandering through a social media timeline, I stumbled upon one of those “listicles” that comprise so much of our empty internet clicking. This one was about how the adorableness of children should inspire everyone to be a parent, and the images were pretty cute, but my favorite bit was textual:
(I am working a morning shift at a cafe. We are serving breakfast. A little boy and his mother enter.)
Me: “So, what will it be?”
Child: “I WISH TO DEVOUR THE UNBORN.”
(There is a sudden silence and everyone turns to look. The mother looks very embarrassed.)
Mother: “Eggs . . . he would like some eggs. . . .”
It is easy to love our children, and to love parenting, when the stories are unique and funny and the memories are warm. It is one of God’s abiding mercies that, as years pass, parental reverie tends to enlarge the moments of adorable sweetness while the anxieties born of illnesses and outbursts are first diminished and then forgotten. As our children transition into responsible adulthood we feel a slow ebbing-away of the self-doubt that has been our decades-long companion on wakeful nights.
For every parent, though, a thin-but-constant electrical current of concern runs through the psyche. A psychotherapist friend once confessed to me that she still makes each of her five grown children call her on rainy nights, to tell her they are safely at home. “So many mothers run away from their children or put them in nurseries or go out to work,” Dorothy Day noted, “because they can’t stand . . . the suffering that such love entails.”
Sound parenting involves being a grown up, but almost none of us really are, when we get started. A parent becomes one within the act of learning to be a family-unit, amid the constantly changing dynamics of individuals advancing through life-stages together. One could argue that as parents raise the children, the children, quite paradoxically, raise the parents. When parents resist being raised, families break down and collapse.
A recent report explores whether a perceived lack of hope, mixed with evolving social norms and governmental interference, is behind the alarmingly low marriage and birth rates in Japan. I wonder, though, if having a career and going out with friends simply seems easier to people than committing to the long haul of lunacy and sorrow that comes with the intimacy of familial relationships:
Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered”. It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery, from the exorbitant costs of buying property in Japan to the uncertain expectations of a spouse and in-laws. And the centuries-old belief that the purpose of marriage is to produce children endures. Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security reports an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like.”
The report cites research from demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, arguing that “a distinctive set of factors is accelerating these trends in Japan [including] the lack of a religious authority that ordains marriage and family, the country’s precarious earthquake-prone ecology that engenders feelings of futility, and the high cost of living and raising children.”
Unmentioned within the piece is any notion that marriage and family—far from being simply one more life choice among many—is a true vocation, one capable of bringing depths of meaning and fulfillment that go beyond the satisfactions of work and friends.
Recent champions of such an idea include Tim and Sue Muldoon, authors of a new book, Six Sacred Rules for Families: A Spirituality for the Home. The Muldoons—he a professor at Boston College, she a therapist—draw upon their experience raising three children while referencing Ignatian spirituality. They manage, in a slender volume, to outline and discuss what a terrible, beautiful, intrusive, and ultimately enriching thing it is to cast our nets into the depths of marriage and family life.
“Family life is a crucible of letting go of our egos,” they write. “It is critical that parents model for children what it means to live compassionately, to practice obvious acts that show children how to choose to participate in building a Kingdom larger than oneself.”
What happens to a society in which no one wishes to be a parent, to abandon ego in order to model compassion and sacrifice in a way that forms healthy adults and, by extension, healthy nations? If we put adulthood into suspense and choose to live like perpetual college students—focused on the self to a profoundly exclusionary degree—will the political class become the de facto adults in our society? If so, what values will they model?
Currently, that class is telling religious sisters that they must provide insurance coverage guaranteeing free sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients for their employees, or be fined out of their ability to care for the poor. What messages will these governmental parents communicate beyond “obey”—beyond the notion that codified and compelled behavior (whether it is about enforcing “tolerance” for everything but diversity of thought, or promoting a utilitarian view that weighs a human life against degrees of “quality”)—is just compassionate enough?
It takes a true parent—a mature, selfless one—to know that modeling humane behavior to a child both edifies and teaches, while demanding it of them creates resistance. A real grown up understands that a stated desire to devour the unborn may be appropriate when deployed as a breakfast metaphor, but under any other circumstance, it is a distressing symptom that something has gone terribly awry.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.