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Children Ask You to Die to Self
What can be destroyed by babies must be
Welcome back to a new year of Other Feminisms! I’ll be running a roundup of your thoughts on “When Women Are Left Out of Medicine” this Thursday. I’m really thrilled by how this newsletter has taken off—we broke 500 subscribers on Dec 31!
My plan is to stick to my current schedule of posting a prompt for discussion on Monday and running highlights of your comments on the Thursday of the following week. I’d love your nominations of topics for discussion or other ways you’d like to draw on the ideas and resources of this group.
And, if you’d like to help subsidize the time I spend on this project, I very much appreciate the paid subscribers. There are no perks for paid subscription—it’s simply a way for you to help me prioritize this work over paid freelancing. And now, on to this week’s topic.
On January 21st, I’ll be at Plough’s virtual event to celebrate the release of the “What Are Families For” issue of their magazine (you can register here). I’m one of several panelists, and our conversation will be centered on Ross Douthat’s cover story for the issue, “The Case for One More Child.”
What stuck with me about Douthat’s piece is that, ultimately, he doesn’t make his case for children according to worldly criteria. This isn’t an essay about the success sequence or children as an eldercare insurance policy. Douthat concludes the piece with these thoughts:
The deepest reason to have more kids, though, is self-centered in a radically different way. It’s that if you don’t feel cut out for spiritual heroism, if you aren’t chaste or poor or particularly obedient, if you aren’t ready to be Mother Teresa – well, then having a bunch of kids is the form of life most likely to force you toward kenosis, self-emptying, the experience of what it means to live entirely for someone other than yourself. […]
For the average sinner, though, for me and maybe for you, life with children establishes at least some of the preconditions for growing in holiness, even if there’s always the risk of being redirected into tribal narcissism. If I didn’t have kids there’s a 5 percent chance that I’d be doing something more radical in pursuit of sainthood; there’s a 95 percent chance that I’d just be a more persistent sinner, a more selfish person, because no squalling infant or tearful nine-year-old is there to force me to live for her and not myself.
This isn’t the pitch I usually hear! And it’s not the spirit that animates most of the books on parenting that I read in preparation for our baby. Most of the books on sleep, food, etc. sought to reassure the reader that a baby could be manageable. There would be challenges, though they’d primarily be logistical ones, not moral ones. (And these were the fairly good books that spoke frankly about the variability of children, not the more aggressive “one weird trick” ones.)
The author I’ve seen make Douthat’s pitch is playwright Sarah Ruhl. In her charming essay collection, 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, she describes her experience with her twins as follows:
There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby’s diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin) and finally I came to the thought: all right, then, annihilate me, that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe.
I’ve had a much easier time than Ruhl, but her essay (which I read before being pregnant with Beatrice) stuck with me. It’s a very different claim than the call to find a way to “have it all.”
Instead of a focus on what you are accomplishing, Douthat and Ruhl both focus on who you are becoming, and they take it as given that being a parent (or otherwise taking responsibility for somebody else) will remake you.
The trouble is, babies don’t annihilate enough. If children, to an extent, remake their parents around the shape of their need and their trust, they are less able to remake all of society to respond to their vulnerability. My essay in Plough’s family issue was “Dependence,” a meditation on what a politics centered on weakness, not autonomy, would look like.
I’d love to know where else you’ve seen this pitch for children as a spur to kenosis.
Is this a thought you return to in your own life, if you are a parent?
Are there moments you’ve seen the needs of children, or anyone else marked by a profound vulnerability, successfully annihilate some standoffish feature of our culture, including at the level of a particular, local community?
I’ll share a roundup of your thoughts in next week’s Thursday email.