Last week, the Huffington Post offered readers an essay similar to several publications in recent years, in which mothers and fathers describe with candor the frustrations of parenting. For this father, writing anonymously, the situation looms in the near future: his wife is pregnant, and together they face the prospect of adding twins to a family in which they are already parenting a young son. Ironically, they actually very much hoped for a pregnancy. In fact, they “desperately tried to get pregnant for two years,” finally turning to artificial technologies with that express intent. It is just that the details are wrong. Already having a son, they wanted a daughter. Now, prenatal testing shows that they are expecting, instead, two additional sons.
What is striking is the level of disappointment this creates. Considering the unexpected gender and also especially the practical difficulties involved in raising two newborns at once, the author summarizes his situation with a defiant command: “So tell me how this isn’t going to suck.” He is unapologetic on this count. After all, having kids, he notes “is a selfish endeavor,” and the hard truth is that he and his wife simply “know better than to think that life with three children is going to be perfect.”
The question that has to be asked is a simple one: exactly what was he expecting of life with two? What if the pregnancy had gone exactly as the author and his wife had hoped? The implication seems to be that, in that case, they would have gotten exactly what they wanted. And in that case, the only additional question is exactly how long that illusion could have been maintained.
The author does know that his ideal, hypothetical daughter (like her older brother) probably would have cried and probably would have interrupted her parents’ sleep. What he does not seem to know is that the ways children fail to be what their parents want, the ways they fail to provide their parents a perfect life, go on and on. Children simply don’t stick to the plan. They require nerve-wracking trips to the ER. They have trouble in school. They fall ill, sometimes in ways that reshape their parents’ lives. They turn up, late-night, at the police station. They pair off and marry in ways their parents find desperately foolish. Decades later, they suddenly need assistance in ways no one could have predicted.
Happily, Catholic moral theology offers a vision that makes sense of this reality. These children, it would remind us, are persons, possessing absolute innate dignity. They are not commodities to be acquired for the benefit they provide. They can never be reduced to an expression of others’ choices, not even the choices of those who play a part in their conception.
Perhaps the author is right when he says that parenting is a “selfish” enterprise. At least, that may be possible for those with a complex and long-term account of self-interest. The purpose of children , though, is not to provide anyone with a perfect life. Whether they are girls or boys, whether they come in ones or twos or greater numbers, thank God, they themselves point toward their greater worth and a higher calling when they refuse to be exactly what we want them to be.
St. Vincent de Paul – September 27
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