One Big Gaping Mess

Dear Joy,

I ran across an article the other day that left me feeling a little gut-punched, in a bad way. Let me set the scene for you.

I’m standing in my kitchen. My two boys are tumbling around somewhere; one is humming, loudly, and dumping out a drawer full of junk, while the other is playing trains, loudly, CHOO-CHOO’s interspersed with wailing fits whenever a boxcar derails. There are fingerprints on my walls and windows. There’s popcorn stuffed in between the cushions of my couch. Sand is slowly beginning to build up around the corners of my dining room (wood floors, thank you LORD) because someone (me) had the bright idea of putting a sandbox outside the back door, another bulwark against my children getting sucked into TV-land. (The tradeoff – sand everywhere – has made me rethink the virtues of TV watching).

So. Typical suburban mom standing in a bit of a mess (#firstworldproblems anyone?), and I’m feeling a little batty. I’m scrolling on my phone before I decide whether to tackle the sand, the junk drawer, or the wailing toddler, when I run across an article in The Atlantic: Sophie Gilbert, on “Why Women Choose Not to Have Children.” Gilbert is reviewing, commenting on, and agreeing with a new essay collection entitled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, where 16 writers wrestle with the social stigmas and implications of their decision to remain childless.

The article pinballs back and forth among the issues surrounding a choice to not have children: lack of social support for educated women; cost-benefit analysis coming out in favor of childlessness; the suggestion that children are no more than parasites, eating up earth’s natural resources; the concept that maternal affection and mother-child bonding is just a perpetuated myth; the idea that we don’t need children to be happy or feel significant; and the very real notion that children, literally and figuratively, mess up our lives.

I agree with some of it. Other parts leave me feeling incredulous. (“Mythical maternal affection,” or “humans are parasites”? Please.)

But, oh baby, do kids mess up our lives. In many respects, my life is one big gaping mess. And, I don’t care who you are: when your life gets messed up, selfishness rears its nasty head and roars. Single or married, kids or no kids, we are selfish. I am SELFISH. I wake up every morning, and my default mode is I am the CENTER OF THE WORLD. GET OUT OF THE WAY, HUSBAND AND SMALL CHILD. (If I was single, it would probably be GET OUT OF THE WAY, CAT.) I resonate a bit with Lionel Shriver, whom Gilbert quotes as saying of children, “I just didn’t want them. They are untidy, they would have messed up my apartment. In the main, they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned away too much time from my precious books.”

I have precious books. They often sit unread. I feel resentful, sometimes, on bad days, because I cannot read my books.

Gilbert goes on (I’m quoting this whole paragraph because it grabbed me and shook me, hard):

Shriver acknowledges that this attitude could be interpreted as selfish. But, it seems, her feelings are indicative of “a larger transformation in Western culture no less profound than our collective consensus on what life is for.” In other words, she’s saying, an existential shift in the way educated humans approach living—a switch from living for the (possibly celestial) future to enjoying the present—has led humans to think much more carefully about having children, since the drawbacks tend to outweigh the benefits. “As we age,” she writes, “we are apt to look back on our pasts and question, not, did I serve family, God, and country, but did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat? We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but whether they were interesting and fun.”

Here is the problem, with me and with Lionel Shriver and every other human being who ever lived: left to ourselves, we turn inward. If I’m doing what feels right to me, then I’m usually choosing what is most immediately beneficial, here, right now in this moment. I’m saying, really, “I’m done with the sand piles and the whining. These kids aren’t worth it.”

Kids or no kids, the selfishness is there, alive and well.

Every day, I’m making a choice, from the second I open my eyes in the morning until my head hits the pillow at night. As a Christian, following Jesus means reminding myself, every day, that I’m not here to serve myself. Sometimes, I forget right from the get-go, and I’m in trouble. Other times, I make it until dinnertime, when one of the boys does something, well, boyish, and all bets are off. Regardless, if I forget that I’m not here for me… out comes the resentment, the irritation, the annoyance that these kids are not following my well-devised plan for achieving my own personal happiness.

Being a parent is beautiful and lovely. There are baby kisses, squishy knees, profound thoughts from little minds, and a million other blessings. It is also very difficult. We spend lots of money on children’s multivitamins, doctor’s appointments, diapers. Our white duvet cover currently has red marker scribbles on it (I’m hoping it’s washable). I am potty training a small child, and routinely touch really gross stuff. None of what I just said makes me very cool.

And yet, I believe that human beings are innately wired to be the most happy and fulfilled when we are giving ourselves away. At the beginning of her article, Gilbert quotes the pope as saying that we are a depressed society. I say, he’s right, and he’s on to something. Could the reason be that we are so busy chasing after what will fulfill us that we are ignoring how we are actually wired to operate – that to gain your life, you have to lose it? That it is more blessed to give than to receive? That true life is found in laying down your life for the sake of another? I don’t care if you have kids or don’t have kids; the choice to raise kids is not a barometer of selfishness or personal fulfillment or any of that. But, single, married, childless, lots of kids, whoever you are, whatever I am: am I pouring out my life in service to others, for the sake of the God who poured himself out for me? I won’t find lasting happiness in a sand-free dining room, in shelves full of well-read books, in a boatload of kids or a quiet house. I’m watching other people, taking notes from history, and trying learn from their mistakes: a life devoted to landscape painting, marathons, exotic travel, or (if I may add) raising successful children doesn’t leave you full in the end. Paintings get thrown out, bodies grow old and brittle, trips are over before they even start, and kids don’t always do what you want them to do.

None of these things are bad, please don’t get me wrong – I love painting, I hope to run a marathon, I could do without a trip to Cuba – but I differ with Shriver here. I hope (please!) that my life is interesting and fun, but that’s not what makes it worth it. Right now, I’m fumbling my way toward laying my life down, very imperfectly, by doing what’s been put in front of me to do. I’m under no illusions that I’m “suffering,” or living a life of incredible sacrifice. (SAND ON THE FLOOR!!! Spare me.) But the choice to love deeply, with the long-term in view, at inconvenience to yourself, isn’t easy. And dear Joy, your life looks a little different than mine right now, but I love how you’re doing the same thing, on your own end. Thank you, thank you, for your transparency. It’s beautiful, and humbling.

Also: Rome, once a decade? Sign me up for that, pronto.

Love, Sherah