Let me start by saying: I’m not much worried about whether or not A.J. Delgado should have children. I wasn’t planning to harass her about it.
But I did find her recent essay on childlessness rather obtuse. She seems not to understand at all how children come into this world. I’m half tempted to launch into a “birds and bees” talk right here.
Delgado thinks it should be more acceptable to be a childless conservative. She also thinks that we (by which she means conservatives, and also Pope Francis) should stop pressuring people to have kids if they don’t want them. It’s unconservative, she argues, to put that kind of pressure on people; those who “truly” want kids will “get there on their own.”
Actually applying soft social pressure is totally consistent with conservatism, but never mind about that now. How do people figure out whether they “truly want” kids? Does the answer lie hidden deep within our hearts? It’s actually an important question because distinguishing the “true parent” from all the big, fat fakers out there turns out to be quite important for Delgado. She sets the bar high.
Most Parents Are Selfish?
Many women, she asserts, reproduce just because it’s “something to do” or even (gasp!) because their friends are doing it. They have kids for “selfish” reasons: because it gives them a sense of self-worth, because they hope it will help their careers, or because they want “someone to love.” This last Delgado deems “the definition of selfish behavior.”
Let’s set aside for a moment the hilarious idea that women might be having children to further their careers. (Delgado gets that claim from a friend’s anecdote about how parents are more respected in his law firm. But this was a male friend, and I’m guessing his wife was planning to assume the primary caregiver role. There’s a reason why “mommy track” doesn’t imply “straight to the top.”) What qualifies as a good reason for having kids?
Delgado tries to head off miffed parental readers by asserting that “the vast majority” reproduce for good reasons. Given her list, though, I’m skeptical. If peer pressure, social status, and even the desire to love all put you in the “selfish” camp, I’m pretty sure I don’t know any of these mythical “true parents.” The ones I know are all just ordinary mortals with normal yearnings for love and meaningful activity (“something to do!”) and a respected place within their communities. But all of those motives for wanting kids seem to be on Delgado’s bad list. Shall we just consign the human race to oblivion right now? I guess we’d better, because practically nobody has a “good enough” reason to bear any offspring.
Here’s another way of looking at the question. Sit back and ask yourself: why did my parents have me? Was I a “peer pressure” baby? A salve for loneliness? Was bringing me into existence “just something to do”? Ironically, considering the matter from this angle, it might seem that “accident” is the most honorable of titles, since it at least implies an attitude of generosity and self-sacrifice. If your parents weren’t planning to conceive you, they can’t have done it for the wrong reasons, and their willingness to shoulder the responsibility for your life might then seem genuinely noble.
Newsflash: Humans Naturally Make Babies
There’s a deep truth there, even though the proverbial “crisis pregnancy” of course is not ideal. We shouldn’t be worrying about people who have kids for “the wrong reasons.” We should be worried about this modern notion that childbearing needs to be preceded (and justified) by an exhaustive search for “adequate” reasons. When “unplanned” becomes a pejorative, we’ve already got things pretty backwards.
My parents got married in their early twenties, and just knowing what people are like at that age, it’s hard to imagine that they were oracles of wisdom or burning founts of selfless, sacrificial love. To my knowledge I wasn’t an “accident,” but I think my parents had me for the sorts of reasons most people have had kids throughout all of human history. They liked each other and they got married, and when you live, shall we say, a typical married life, the arrival of children is just a natural and expected thing. True fact: You don’t even have to plan it! For most people it just happens, and in most times and places that hasn’t been called “a crisis pregnancy” or even “an unplanned pregnancy.” It was just a pregnancy.
Were my parents’ motivations serious enough to justify my life and the lives of my four siblings? Surely not. How could they be? We are five independent human beings with whole lifetimes of hopes and dreams and triumphs and failures all our own. Expecting twenty-somethings to have morally sufficient reasons for something so consequential is fairly preposterous just on face. As it happens, my mother and father both came from a religious and conservative culture, so they just went ahead and had us anyway without worrying too much about it. Irresponsible morons. Just see how that turned out!
Parents aren’t tasked with justifying their children’s very existences. The fact that many now feel pressure to do so really explains a lot, both about our falling birth rates, and about the puzzled, exhausted state in which American parents now find themselves. If parenthood is just a normal stage of married adult life, it’s possible to love your kids and care for them while also accepting that they are unique individuals who will eventually go their own way.
On the other hand, people who see childbearing as a personal project for which they need adequate justification are thrown into a paralyzing cycle of worry and over-programming, not to mention crushing guilt every time a child experiences disappointment or failure. It’s hugely burdensome for parents, and as some have recently noted, it’s not even good for the kids. But the only real solution is to recognize that having kids is not per se a call to ascend to unfathomable heights of completely selfless service and love. It’s what people do. It’s part of married life. It’s normal.
How to Embrace Life
That, of course, is precisely what Delgado doesn’t want. If childbearing is the done thing, people like her get pressured to explain why they’re not doing it. They’d rather throw that pressure back on us parents. “Why are you doing this thing that almost all healthy adults have done since the beginning of time? Explain yourselves!”
It’s particularly depressing to hear this kind of talk from a fellow Catholic, and I would encourage her to read and think more seriously about why many Catholics care so deeply about being “open to life.” A truly life-embracing perspective involves much more than just picketing Planned Parenthood. (Although that’s a fine place to start.) It recognizes that real vocations (such as parenthood) always magnify our lives beyond our own petty motivations and concerns. We shouldn’t obsess too much about our initial motivations for doing them. Rather, we should accept them humbly, and allow the experience to transform us into wiser and better people than we could ever have “planned” to become.
And we should allow ourselves to be human along the way. Delgado quotes Amanda Marcotte on the shocking, shocking phenomenon of people entering into parenthood “ambivalent about the whole endeavor” and “feeling like they had to do it.” I wonder whether there’s any parent alive who hasn’t had those sorts of feelings. Delgado presumably wasn’t thinking about this, but it’s actually kind of cruel to stress this point, when there’s probably some new-mom reader out there feeling guilty over the not-so-loving feelings that her colicky baby is stirring up. Maybe she’s not a “true parent”! And her kids will ultimately suffer the consequences!
Allow me to reassure that person: It’s perfectly normal, and it passes. Reasonable people recognize that ambivalence, frustration, and even some resentment, are all to be expected. And ultimately those feelings aren’t that important. By the time your kids are grown you won’t even remember why you had them, but you’ll be able to write a book on how completely they transformed your life. Very few people would add “for the worse.”
Perhaps, despite all this, Delgado has good reasons for not being a mother. I won’t ask. But I would ask her to stop trying to justify her “no” by pressuring the rest of us to overthink our “yes.” That’s not how human society works. Articles like hers partly explain why society is not working particularly well now.