The following is a guest post by Holly Taylor Coolman, Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College and mother to three.
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.
If this basic claim of personhood could be convincingly argued, it would accomplish a great deal. Not all instances of seeing children as fulfillment-of-adult-decisions-and-desires are as sharply articulated as the one described in the essay linked above, but such instances are everywhere. Pressing even further, though, allows the possibility of saying more, and allows a clearer possibility of seeing these “failures” as something more than simply inconvenience.
Although it is not often read today, Pope Pius XI reflects on the realities of children and family in the papal encyclical Casti Connubii, published in 1931. There, he offers another vision entirely. Interestingly enough, then, he turns our attention back to the world of commodities and economics in one of the metaphors he employs. If parents understand the matter rightly, he says, they will think of children not as products they acquire, but rather as a sort of investment on God’s part, with the parents as steward. Children, Pius insists, are best seen “as a talent committed to their charge by God, not only to be employed for their own advantage or for that of an earthly commonwealth, but to be restored to God with interest.” He alludes here to the biblical Parable of the Talents, in which the master gives each of three servants a number of talents (a significant monetary unit) and, in the end, rewards the servant who invested this money in a fruitful way, so that it grew. Every inconvenience, in other words, is an opportunity for parents to steward well something very valuable, something entrusted to them, in an important, if difficult, ongoing work.
Now this is a frankly theological argument, and it will not make sense to everyone in the public square. It is, however, an argument that is important to make. Children are “persons,” to be sure. But they are also children, those especially entrusted to their families—and to all of us.
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.