Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Contraceptive Mentality: 19th Century Style

Anna Karenina has been my latest commuter literature, as I may have mentioned before, and this morning I hit this passage, which struck me because of all the discussion of "contraceptive mentality" which has been going on in local Catholic blog circles lately.

There's a tendency, at times, to think of our modern age as particularly afflicted while projecting onto the past a warm glow of wholesomeness. This is fairly natural. We know our own age up close and are much aware of all its faults. The past we encounter mostly through books, and it's easy to note the aspects we like without thinking so much of the rest.

What particularly struck me here is that this is a set of attitudes towards childbearing which sounds almost brutal now. After all, one of the things that makes the "contraceptive mentality" so attractive is that by rendering sex sterile, people can escape the unpleasant feeling of not liking "real" children. Either their conception can be avoided in the first place, or they can be aborted while they're "just a blob of cells". But in Russia circa 1870, we get this line of thinking out of Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly), a doting but often flustered mother, with a wandering husband and flagging strength:
At home, looking after her children, she had no time to think. So now, after this journey of four hours, all the thoughts she had suppressed before rushed swarming into her brain, and she thought over all her life as she never had before, and from the most different points of view. Her thoughts seemed strange even to herself. At first she thought about the children, about whom she was uneasy, although the princess and Kitty (she reckoned more upon her) had promised to look after them. ‘If only Masha does not begin her naughty tricks, if Grisha isn’t kicked by a horse, and Lily’s stomach isn’t upset again!’ she thought. But these questions of the present were succeeded by questions of the immediate future. She began thinking how she had to get a new flat in Moscow for the coming winter, to renew the drawing room furniture, and to make her elder girl a cloak. Then questions of the more remote future occurred to her: how she was to place her children in the world. ‘The girls are all right,’ she thought; ‘but the boys?’

‘It’s very well that I’m teaching Grisha, but of course that’s only because I am free myself now, I’m not with child. Stiva, of course, there’s no counting on. And with the help of good-natured friends I can bring them up; but if there’s another baby coming?...’ And the thought struck her how untruly it was said that the curse laid on woman
was that in sorrow she should bring forth children.

‘The birth itself, that’s nothing; but the months of carrying the child—that’s what’s so intolerable,’ she thought, picturing to herself her last pregnancy, and the death of the last baby. And she recalled the conversation she had just had with the young woman at the inn. On being asked whether she had any children, the handsome young woman had answered cheerfully:

‘I had a girl baby, but God set me free; I buried her last Lent.’

‘Well, did you grieve very much for her?’ asked Darya Alexandrovna.

‘Why grieve? The old man has grandchildren enough as it is. It was only a trouble. No working, nor nothing. Only a tie.’

This answer had struck Darya Alexandrovna as revolting in spite of the good-natured and pleasing face of the young woman; but now she could not help recalling these words. In those cynical words there was indeed a grain of truth.

‘Yes, altogether,’ thought Darya Alexandrovna, looking back over her whole existence during those fifteen years of her married life, ‘pregnancy, sickness, mental incapacity,indifference to everything, and most of all—hideousness. Kitty, young and pretty as she is, even Kitty has lost her looks; and I when I’m with child become hideous, I know it. The birth, the agony, the hideous agonies, that last moment...then the nursing, the sleepless nights, the fearful pains...’

Darya Alexandrovna shuddered at the mere recollection of the pain from sore breasts which she had suffered with almost every child. ‘Then the children’s illnesses, that everlasting apprehension; then bringing them up; evil propensities’ (she thought of little Masha’s crime among the raspberries), ‘education, Latin—it’s all so incomprehensible and difficult. And on the top of it all, the death of these children.’ And there rose again before her imagination the cruel memory, that always tore her mother’s heart, of the death of her last little baby, who had died of croup; his funeral, the callous indifference of all at the little pink coffin, and her own torn heart, and her lonely anguish at the sight of the pale little brow with its projecting temples, and the open, wondering little mouth seen in the coffin at the moment when it was being covered with the little pink lid with a cross braided on it.

‘And all this, what’s it for? What is to come of it all? That I’m wasting my life, never having a moment’s peace, either with child, or nursing a child, forever irritable, peevish, wretched myself and worrying others, repulsive to my husband, while the children are growing up unhappy, badly educated, and penniless. Even now, if it weren’t for spending the summer at the Levins’, I don’t know how we should be managing to live. Of course Kostya and Kitty have so much tact that we don’t feel it; but it can’t go on. They’ll have children, they won’t be able to keep us; it’s a drag on them as it is. How is papa, who has hardly anything left for himself, to help us? So that I can’t even bring the children up by myself, and may find it hard with the help of other people, at the cost of humiliation. Why, even if we suppose the greatest good luck, that the children don’t die, and I bring them up somehow. At the very best they’ll simply be decent people. That’s all I can hope for. And to gain simply that—what agonies, what toil!... One’s whole life ruined!’ Again she recalled what the young peasant woman had said, and again she was revolted at the thought; but she could not help admitting that there was a grain of brutal truth in the words.

UPDATE (based on some discussion with a friend, it struck me I should try to complete my thought process here a bit):

I think too often those of us who believe that contraception is wrong make an inappropriate leap into assuming that contraception came in and disrupted some idyllic situation in which families were huge and loving and every child was welcomed. But of course, that isn't the case. The reason why people adopted contraception so eagerly is because it seemed to be a solution to very real problems that made women and marriages miserable. Dolly (who really is an affectionate mother and wife, but who has a shallow and chronically unfaithful husband) is at the same time terrified of getting pregnant (which makes her unattractive to her husband, takes a toll on her body, and leaves her unable to cope well with the children which her husband is often happy to leave to her and the servants) and at the same time probably fears that her physical distance from her husband is one of the things that causes him to always be out chasing other women. And so she finds herself hating her fertility, and fearing motherhood, because it seems like it puts her in the place of denying her husband the one thing that might keep him around more. Now, does this mean that putting Dolly on the pill would have solved all her problems and made her marriage good? No. Her marriage is simply bad. Her husband would probably still cheat on her even if she were more available to him -- that's just how he is. She's in a terrible situation. It's probably a toss up whether contraception would really have helped her or not. But, it's completely obvious why if someone had offered her the seeming assurance of the pill, it would have seemed like a godsend to her.

In an odd sense, hearing this voice out of the past is a bit reassuring. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we, even if we stand in opposition to some elements of the culture, are still prisoners of it, and that when we find ourselves conflicted about these issues, that it is in some sense giving in. Really, though, "the contraceptive mentality" is simply the modern version of a conflict which has always existed for us in our fallen world and which will continue to exist as long as we do. It's hard to live by the limitations of what we are. So no, when we find these things hard, it's not because we've given in and been taken over by some spirit of the age. We're simply struggling with the same issues that people have always struggled with in marriages throughout history.


Charming Disarray said...

How is this anything except what is most likely an accurate reflection of what a woman in her situation would think? It seems like a perfectly normal human reaction. Not everyone is thrilled to have a bunch of kids, and life was tougher then.

Darwin said...

Charming Disarray,

I'd added a lengthy update, trying to draw out more what it was that actually struck me about the passage (based on a friend offering a similar challenge elsewhere) but the short version is: It struck me basically because I do think it's a perfectly normal reaction on her part. I other words the reactions that drive us to feel the way we do about the intersection of sex and procreation now are not something new, created only by the advent of artificial birth control, but are a permanent tension within the human condition, and thus within all marriages to one extent or another. Balancing desire and fertility is always going to cause difficulties and frustrations of one sort or another.

Brandon said...

I very much like this post. It's for reasons like these that I actually have a lot of sympathy for old-fashioned 'voluntary motherhood' arguments for contraception -- such arguments really do identify something important and worth taking seriously by everyone.

It also ties in with what I always point out about Humanae Vitae, that nearly half the encyclical (the largely ignored half) is devoted to recommendations and exhortations to Catholics in all walks of life to build a society that is family-friendly, that is supportive of parents themselves, and that makes it possible for married couples to get good advice: structurally speaking, it's this that is the thrust of the encyclical. It's also quite frank about the fact that it's asking people to take up burdens. Contraception is a crutch; but even crutches that are slowing recovery and interfering with healthy development are often being used as crutches for entirely understandable reasons. (Or, better, yet, it's like painkillers -- people in general don't randomly get addicted to painkillers, but start using them to get through their day. And the fact that painkillers only shut down symptoms doesn't change the fact that they are really having difficulty getting through the day and that painkillers help them do it. With contraception the dependence is social rather than biological, and the timeframes are much longer than a day, but he dynamic is similar.)

Matthew Lickona said...

I haven't read the novel, but "repulsive to her husband" was the phrase that jumped out at me as I read the excerpt. I thought, "Ah. The sufferings she describes are all real and horrible, but I wonder if they might not have been bearable if she hadn't suffered that particular one." Not that men are so wonderful that their attentions are a thing any woman would crawl through fire and babies to get, far from it. But if she was loved, if that fundamental craving was met, well, there are lots of songs about how people will do anything for love, and I think there's a reason for that. Thanks for this.

Rebekka said...

It's years since I've read AK (not since I was in college). I don't remember this excerpt at all, but now I can't imagine losing a baby and being relieved that it's one less person in the family. :(

Good analogy of the painkillers!

Matt Federoff said...

Ouch...what dreariness. I know intellectually there is a grain of truth in the authenticity of emotion.

But I just can't relate....can't. I have never felt that way about my children or my wife. Never.

I cannot imagine not having them in my life. Just can't.

I get the desire for sex on a recreational level..a temptation for all of us men.

But therein lies the abyss

capitan underpants said...

To be or not to be, that is the question. The answer? Shrimp fried rice. What she order? Fish Filet.

Anonymous said...

Spoiler alert! If I remember the story correctly, Dolly then visits Anna. Anna tells her about birth control, which Anna is using because she almost died giving birth to Vronsky's child. For a moment Dolly, who has had no idea that such a thing is possible, thinks what a great thing that would be. Then she begins to feel that Anna is false and that her life is not as charming and wonderful as Dolly had thought at first. She begins to feel a greater contentment even with her imperfect marriage. The magical talent of Tolstoy is the ability to capture a moment of time in such great intensity.

Charming Disarray said...

Interesting clarification and update; I thought you were making a completely different point, so thanks. I agree it can be very dangerous to idealize the past, and the burdens described here certainly seem realistic. It's not hard to imagine at all why the pill seemed so revolutionary, although of course it looks different in retrospect, especially from a moral standpoint.

Calah said...

Yes, I remember this passage vividly. This passage and Dolly's further reflection after her visit to Anna are what made AK one of my favorite novels. I completely understand Dolly's mindset here, and I actually cried reading it, because I thought, "oh, maybe it's normal to feel this way, maybe I'm not a horrible mother and wife!" Granted, I don't feel that way all the time, but I read AK when struggling with post-partum depression, and I definitely feel like that then.

But it was really Dolly's thoughts after her visit to Anna (which someone already spoiled for you!) that won me over to the novel. I found it just...I don't know. Wonderful. So affirming of motherhood, in spite of Dolly's very real sufferings.

Anonymous said...

The reason why people adopted contraception so eagerly is because it seemed to be a solution to very real problems that made women and marriages miserable.

Correlatively, some Catholics forget that the Novus Ordo took off in the wrong direction in part because of the existing rot of undisciplined modernist theologians.

I would argue that a great many revolutions of this kind are little more than the revelations. Revealing hidden rot results in rapid, unstable changes very quickly.

Anyone agree? More importantly, anyone disagree? (Sharpen iron on iron, after all.)

BettyDuffy said...

I think someone in Dolly's situation is experiencing a strong biological pull towards self-preservation (the kind that keeps you alive, not the kind that makes you selfish). I'm not sure I'd credit her with a contraceptive mentality.

If in our modern debate, Dolly does not have "grave reason" to avoid conceiving, then no one does.

Foxfier said...

So... moral of the story... "simple" solutions that are "easy" seldom end up being simple, easy or even solutions?

JMB said...

Excellent analysis Darwin. Life is hard. We all have our own crosses to bear, and what looks like a blessing to some, is a huge cross to another. It's not for us to judge.

Darwin said...

Lady Hobbit & Calah,

Yeah, those were some really interesting developments at the conclusion of Dolly's visit. (MrsDarwin happened to check the email when Lady Hobbit's comment came through and she commanded me to go off and finish the chapter before reading the relevant comments.)

I was particularly struck by this bit from Anna where she makes the same argument against ever having children when David Benatar makes in Better Never to Have Been:

Dolly made no answer, she merely sighed. Anna noticed this sigh, indicating dissent, and she went on. In her armory she had other arguments so strong that no answer could be made to them.

"Do you say that it's not right? But you must consider," she went on; "you forget my position. How can I desire children? I'm not speaking of the suffering, I'm not afraid of that. Think only, what are my children to be? Ill-fated children, who will have to bear a stranger's name. For the very fact of their birth they will be forced to be ashamed of their mother, their father, their birth."

"But that is just why a divorce is necessary." But Anna did not hear her. She longed to give utterance to all the arguments with which she had so many times convinced herself.

"What is reason given me for, if I am not to use it to avoid bringing unhappy beings into the world!" She looked at Dolly, but without waiting for a reply she went on:

"I should always feel I had wronged these unhappy children," she said. "If they are not, at any rate they are not unhappy; while if they are unhappy, I alone should be to blame for it."

These were the very arguments Darya Alexandrovna had used in her own reflections; but she heard them without understanding them. "How can one wrong creatures that don't exist?" she thought. And all at once the idea struck her: could it possibly, under any circumstances, have been better for her favorite Grisha if he had never existed? And this seemed to her so wild, so strange, that she shook her head to drive away this tangle of whirling, mad ideas.

"No, I don't know; it's not right," was all she said, with an expression of disgust on her face.

It's a really interesting turn-around we see in Dolly over the course of the visit. When she's going out to see Anna, she's fantasizing about being in Anna's place -- leaving her marriage for some other man who "really loves her". But really, what she wants when she's imagining this is just that she have a better marriage. When she sees the lived reality of Anna's life with Vronsky, she's repulsed by the form an outside-of-marriage relationship takes, and particularly that very thing that Dolly had first been wishing for: sex without children.

Darwin said...


I think someone in Dolly's situation is experiencing a strong biological pull towards self-preservation (the kind that keeps you alive, not the kind that makes you selfish). I'm not sure I'd credit her with a contraceptive mentality.

If in our modern debate, Dolly does not have "grave reason" to avoid conceiving, then no one does.

One of the things that's struck me, reading through and occasionally participating in these debates, is that "contraceptive mentality" is a phrase that a lot of people use in very different ways.

I think it best describes either believing that sex has not relation to procreation, or wanting sex to have no relation to procreation, as in, feeling that it's unfair that one can't have a full "sex life" without worrying about offspring.

The whole "is this reason grave enough to allow you to use NFP" question strikes me as one that really there's no point in talking about, since it's so individual to the couple and to the particular situation they find themselves in -- but even if we take it as a given that a couple is using NFP for reasons that aren't "grave", that doesn't necessarily strike me as at all having a "contraceptive mentality" since the way one uses NFP is by avoiding sex a lot of the time, and so necessarily the connection between sex and procreation is very much maintained.

Darwin said...


Correlatively, some Catholics forget that the Novus Ordo took off in the wrong direction in part because of the existing rot of undisciplined modernist theologians.

I would argue that a great many revolutions of this kind are little more than the revelations. Revealing hidden rot results in rapid, unstable changes very quickly.

Anyone agree? More importantly, anyone disagree? (Sharpen iron on iron, after all.)

I would certainly agree that these kind of sudden revolutions are often more a case of some inciting incident allowing already formed forces to become apparent.

With the problems in the Church since Vatican II, I don't know that I'd put it down just to wandering theologians not being disciplined (though that's surely part of it) but also to the guardians of orthodoxy having become complacent, more willing to simply issue disciplines than to actually formulate new arguments against new errors.

Clare said...

This is why I love AK--the way different moral situations play off of each other through character doubles linked in some way. That's why I think Tolstoy admired Austen so much--they were both fantastic at exploring morality in a communal setting.

I actually wrote my term paper last year on fertility and community in Anna Karenina--that A and Vronsky are really the "happy family" or are at least trying to be, and because "all happy families are alike" that desire for perfection through sameness and constancy renders their union barren, isolated, and ultimately self destructive.

Christy from fountains of home said...

I haven't read Anna Karenina since my high school days and had forgotten this great section of the story. I think you're exactly right in pointing out that this was a normal, human, difficult struggle that Tolstoy portrays so acutely.

I think what's different in our contraceptive culture today is that this struggle is no longer dealt with or talked about; it really no longer exists in society at large. We have eliminated this struggle with the pill. Now, those who deal with this real, eternal human struggle are those of us who embrace NFP and Catholic teaching. Yet it seems we seldom discuss feelings similar to Dolly's because we fear being viewed as "not open to life".

This is a really interesting discussion and so many of you have made great points!

Anonymous said...

The struggle is displaced, not eliminated, among those who have a contraceptive mentality, which should of course be immediately obvious.

Christy from fountains of home said...

I understand that it becomes displaced. But the specific struggle that Dolly goes through is one that isn't being dealt with in our age of the pill and abortion. Another problem altogether is created in a way, the killing of a child in abortion or the complete negation of fertility due to the pill is different than struggling with God's will and dealing with our fertility naturally. I'm just saying that instead of dealing with this harrowing fact of our fertility is in fact a major, defining area of our lives whether we're happy about it or not is not present in our culture anymore because of the ways we have to suppress it or get rid of the results.

Jenny said...

Actually in our modern culture anyone with this struggle is not recognized as having a struggle at all, but is blamed for making bad decisions. We are expected to perfectly control our fertility and any problem arising out of the lack of perfect control is not met with empathy but condemnation.

Banshee said...

Reminds me of a rather creepy UK mystery novel from the 30's, where there was a poor woman in a bad marriage with a zillion kids, complaining to her sister and her sister's employer a bit. And the employer, being Progressive, tells the woman to go get sterilized and that she'll even pay for it. She can't understand why the poor mother and her sister totally lose it with anger, instead of being grateful for the generous offer.

Contextually, I'm still not sure whether the author meant to present her as sinister or a sweet well-meaning person. I thought she was pretty much creepy throughout, but even the detective said a lot of nice things about her wonderfulness and wisdom. Weird novel.