Sometime ago, I read an article here at The Catholic Thing by Mary Eberstadt about children and happiness. In it she had a memorable line about children ringing the death knell of the gym and martinis for the bourgeoisie. I no doubt read the article, closed my laptop, hit a Pilates class, and then met up with other D.C. folk for martinis.
The sun is setting on those days.
In three weeks, I am due to give birth to a little girl. And being a young, freedom-loving, gym-loving, martini-loving woman, it’s been hard to fight the culturally inherited anxiety that “my life will be totally over.”
I would argue that today, despite amazing advances in healthcare, there has never been a scarier time for a woman to be pregnant and bring a new life into the world. Why? Because young women like myself today live in a culture that pits mother against child: mother’s freedom versus child, mother’s happiness versus child, mother’s career ambitions versus child.
Childbirth is thought of as a kind of death for today’s modern, career-oriented city woman. At least that’s the way it’s been successfully framed. Pregnancy is the sunset before the dark night of parenthood descends.
Our self-obsessed culture views children as a threat to the self. Our culture endorses sex that is “safe” – from tyrannical babies. Our socially endorsed child-rearing techniques then warp “planned” childhood into just another means by which parents gratify themselves through their children’s success, from Baby Einstein to college admissions.
Childhood has become just another opportunity for parental consumption, the exploding shelves of stores like BuyBuyBaby bear witness to this.
And I’ll admit that I am no exemption to the temptations of turning the impending birth of my baby into an opportunity for consumption.
I have the Bob Revolution stroller assembled and waiting, a Peg Prego car seat standing by, and a Hoohobbers “moses basket” eagerly awaiting purchase in my baby registry.
Blah, blah, blah.
Mother and Child by Gari Melchers (1904)
But back to the point. The point is found somewhere in a meditation by St. Josemaria Escrivá that I recently stumbled across. He writes in The Furrow:
Ideologically you are very Catholic. You like the atmosphere of the hall of residence. A pity the Mass is not at twelve, and the classes are not in the afternoon, so you can study late in the evening after one or two drinks. That “Catholicism” of yours does not come up to the real thing: it remains simply bourgeois.– Don’t you see that you can’t think like that at your age? Leave behind your laziness and your self-worship. . .and adapt to the needs of others, to the reality around you, then you will be taking your Catholicism seriously.
He was most likely writing that specific point to young, college-aged men. But his message translates just fine to a young, yuppie woman like me. The bourgeois life of gym and Trader Joe’s and happy hour is great. But you are too old to stay so self-centered. And your faith will stumble along so long as you succumb to the easy life.
And your happiness will suffer too. Leon Kass addressed this topic last week in one of the most exquisite talks I have ever heard, given at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner, where Kass was being honored.
Kass began by quoting Irving Kristol, who warned that, “Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.” Kristol acknowledges that bourgeois society has created prosperity beyond our wildest beliefs, but has brought with it a spiritual poverty that weighs heavily on our culture. Kass suggests that, “To be truly human is to be humanly-at-work, exercising our humanity to the full.” He continues:
We human beings are at work not only when we are occupationally working. We are also deeply at work in the activities of love and friendship, and especially when we are actively engaged in family life, the domain of private life in which Americans find the most meaning.
And what is fuller work in human terms that bringing new life into the world? And then making your life’s work the loving and nurturing of that life?
So though Kass is a secular Jew, he gets to the heart of a most Christian belief: love is our daily work. And love requires daily conquering the gnarly Cyclops that is our “self.” The self that today is painted as so threatened by the most loveable of humans, newborn babies.
And while babies may make it harder to get out for a martini, they provide us with the type of human work that induces a euphoria no cocktail can rival.
So I accept the challenge of this impending work and reject the proposition that my life is over.
I’m ready to put on my big girl pants and get over myself. A little girl awaits a shot at life. For now, I will enjoy the sunset. Or better yet, the sunrise.