This evening, my baby girl woke up around 10 p.m. for one more cuddle and nursing session before (maybe, hopefully) sleeping through the night. So I set down my computer, tiptoed into her room, and picked her up out of her crib.
She nuzzled her little head into my neck, sucking her thumb. I sat in the rocking chair and began to nurse her. As we sat there together, her fingers curled around mine and her body curved around my belly. She was perfectly relaxed. Perfectly trusting.
A year ago, I was still working in Washington DC—still riding the Metro to a city office every day, still attending panel discussions and work lunches and happy hours. I slipped on pencil skirts, put on makeup and heels, listened to podcasts on my commute.
Working outside of the home had its benefits. It provided me with an active social life, a diverse and broad viewpoint of the world, a host of important contacts and mentors who guided my professional career. It brought in a nice paycheck, and I’ll admit that it often gave me a feeling of importance—to be a journalist, to write opinions, to even have people read them.
But these days, I spend most of my time with my hair in a messy bun, makeup undone, clothes wrinkled. The pencil skirts are consigned to the back of my closet, I wear shirts that make for easy nursing, and I haven’t worn a pair of heels in months.
Should Women Regret Choosing Motherhood?
Is this sad? Have I given up everything that matters? Should I be disappointed in the way my life has turned out?
No. Never. Because my daughter is a living, breathing human being—a life that my life got to help create and bring into the world. No matter what she costs me in money, sleep, well-being, personal comfort, or career acclaim, she will be my greatest accomplishment and joy.
I don’t think you should ever regret choosing life. But that’s what many women these days are saying: lamenting the loss of freedom they might have otherwise enjoyed, because children came into their lives. Marie Claire wrote last week of a “movement” of mothers who are admitting that they wish their children had never been born.
Let’s lay aside, for a moment, the more shocking moral implications of such a declaration. Instead, let’s consider the fact that in today’s society, any controversial statement—as long as it’s grounded in the approved emotive instincts (self-fulfillment, self-actualization, anti-repression, anti-tradition)—is seen as a “movement” that progressive-minded people must empathize with, even wholeheartedly endorse.
On the face of it, there’s nothing particularly endorsable about the statement that one regrets having children. It’s depressing to the disinterested observer, psychologically and emotionally damaging for the children in question, and painfully demoralizing for the mothers who must now go about their lives believing they made an irreparable, life-crushing mistake.
Yet the writers of this article—and many feminists on the Left—would have us believe that this is some sort of “movement” we should get behind. Why?
Motherhood Relies on Virtue
In his excellent book “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis noted that our world increasingly disdains and tries to obliterate a set of old-fashioned virtues. St. Augustine defined virtue as ordo amoris, “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it.”
But in today’s world, there is no objective “order of love” we ought to follow. Instead, we’re told to follow our instinctual emotive and fleshly inclinations, to designate value according to our whim and wish. The idea of an objective natural law—“the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false,” as Lewis puts it—has disappeared from public discourse. There is only the self and its desires.
In almost eerie foreboding, Lewis points out in “The Abolition of Man” that the objective value one should designate to children is “delight,” and that to feel otherwise is (or at least should be) to recognize a flaw in oneself:
Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).
In other words: children ought to be delighted in, and loved—despite their faults and foibles, and despite the pain they might cause. When we do not love our children, it is a failing in ourselves, not in the children. A lack of love should not be celebrated. It is not a movement. It is a lack of virtue.
Yet in a world that’s rejected the idea of ordo amoris—a world that chafes at the idea that there exists a moral code or set of “demands” we ought to follow—mothers are free to reject their children (whether born or unborn), instead embracing feelings of self-pity and depression.
How to Parent In a World Without Absolute Morality?
Of course, we’ve been on this road for a while. Our atheistic age has sought to posit morality within the constructs of society, suggesting that we do certain things because of “instinct.” To desire to raise children—to see childbearing and rearing as a lovely thing—is a biological disposition cultivated for the survival of the species. Humankind’s survival requires children: therefore, society has created a moral code surrounding the procreation of children. It’s “instinct,” not ethics or virtue, that motivates us to embrace the role of mother.
But as Lewis so deftly puts it in The Abolition of Man, “no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. … In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment.” Neither will “survival of the species” sustain a mother when her newborn starts clusterfeeding through the night.
As soon as we take away the idea of virtue—the idea that an act, despite the pains and sacrifice it might require, is objectively good and worth pursuing for its own sake—we permanently impede humankind’s ability to pursue selfless action. It does not matter if you tell a woman she should procreate “for the good of the species,” or tell her that she’s biologically predisposed to want children. If there is no overarching moral code related to the bearing and raising of children, then motherhood is subjugated to the wild and changeful whims of human emotion and desire. One second, you might want a baby; the next, you might spurn your child—and there is no law or code that can suggest you should do otherwise. “Instinct” becomes “impulse,” and so we waffle from whim to whim.
We Have Created Mothers Without Chests
“When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” Lewis’s statement here fits perfectly with the sentiments described in the Marie Claire piece about regretful mothers: “Laura once believed that she wanted to be a mother. … But once her son was born, she was overwhelmed and frustrated, prone to lengthy crying jags, and consumed by boredom and dissatisfaction [emphasis added].”
The words italicized above are emotive impulses—and thus, they fluctuate circumstantially. This woman wanted to be a mother, but because she had no foundation (in sentiment, experience, or ethics) on which to ground that emotion, it dissipated as soon as things became challenging.
Lewis warns us that “those who stand outside all judgments of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.” While we can hope that benevolence or magnanimity will be our strongest impulses, we cannot be sure of that. We may even find ourselves in a situation like that above, in which a mother looks at her child and thinks, “I wish you had never been born.”
How to restabilize and reorient the self toward the good, toward some kind of governing natural law? Plato once wrote that “man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’” In other words, “The head rules the belly through the chest,” as Lewis puts it. The “chest” is the seat “of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest–Magnanimity–Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison of officers between cerebral man and visceral man.”
Parenting Isn’t About Self-Fulfillment
Motherhood is not easy. It is often painful, frustrating, and difficult. It involves a host of unpleasantries. In our age, in which the self reigns supreme, motherhood runs counter to every society-endorsed impulse and mantra. Motherhood is all about sacrifice—from the moment our bodies begin to reconfigure themselves in order to grow a new human being.
Motherhood means sleepless nights, sore nipples, baby blues, weight gain, aching backs, temper tantrums, frightening doctor’s appointments, endless laundry, constant cleaning, incessant worry, near heart attacks, and lots and lots of money. Motherhood isn’t about self-filling. It’s about self-emptying.
That isn’t to say motherhood can’t be fun and joyous. It truly is and can be. But in order to embrace it, one must believe that all of the pain and hardship involved in motherhood is good, and that the child that results from all our work and hardship is inherently, intrinsically good as well. One must have a moral imagination, a “stable sentiment.” Mothers must have chests.
Why Choose Motherhood Over Comfort Or Acclaim?
It is important to note that motherhood is not the only virtuous pursuit a woman can have. A woman can and ought to pursue a variety of vocations, and she should bring habits of virtue and magnanimity to all of them.
But motherhood, dealing as it does with the cultivation of other lives, is a vocation not easily abandoned—nor should it be lightly embraced. In ages past, the intrinsic goodness of bearing and raising children was easily assumed. Yet, all too often, our society treats motherhood—especially its stay-at-home, domestic varieties—with disdain, despite its (literally) vital purpose.
The world tries to tell women that in order to be happy, they must be liberated. We’re told that our importance grows with our paychecks and work titles. It is only through quantifiable goods and emancipated selves that we can achieve greatness.
But what if the opposite can be true? What if we can and even ought to pursue and cultivate relationships—goods that can’t be measured in nickels and dimes? What if we ought to yoke ourselves to human cares and concerns, limiting and subjecting ourselves to the whole host of human activities that cultivate life? What if our spirits tell us that motherhood is good, in a morally objective and virtuous sense—and that it’s worth pursuing even if it never gets us on the cover of Time magazine?
This is not mere instinct or impulse. My emotive impulses—as Joy so aptly put it yesterday—often remind me how freeing and pleasant it was to be baby-less. But my moral imagination is still in training. I’m still cultivating the sentiments, the virtues, that foster ordo amoris—the proper order of loves—in my life.
That moral imagination, fledgling though it may be, reminds me that true goodness and beauty come from moments such as this: when I rock my daughter back to sleep, cradling her sweet little body in my arms, whispering prayers and Psalms in her ear. This is precious, yes. But it is also good.