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Your Reflections on Children and Kenosis
How does parenthood push us to become a different (better?) person?
Last week, I shared Ross Douthat’s Plough cover story “The Case for One More Child” with all of you, focusing on his pitch for children as invitation to kenosis (self-emptying) and sainthood. I’ll be joining Ross on Thursday, Jan 21st for a panel discussion, and I’m keeping your comments in mind! You can also still send me items for next week’s classifieds.
There were so many good comments, that I broke them out a little with subheadings here, and I don’t want this to close out the conversation. Send me your requests about how you’d like to continue the discussion, whether you’d like to see some guest posts from commenters, have me host a video conversation with several of you, or something else.
More Suffering != More Sanctity
I want to start with pushback some of you offered to the article, especially from women who have seen the gift of children weaponized. Rachel wrote:
I have a harder time with this thought: "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." Because children are not a means to an end, or "a life hack that might crack the door of heaven." And I'm sensitive to that because I have encountered the damaging idea (from religious circles) that it can almost never be wrong to have more kids because they make you holier, because siblings are the greatest gift you can give your child, etc. And if you're not willing to be forced toward kenosis in this way, there is something wrong with you, or you're just not trying hard enough to be holy.
And Lorrie seconded, saying, “You can't sign up for kenosis like it's joining the Marines.”
I’ve been lucky not to encounter this mindset as much in my own circles, but I know it exists. A subtler version tells women that any sacrifice they make for their children is worth it, and is helping us on the road to sainthood—but sleep-deprivation is not necessary for sanctity!
God can bring good out of any struggle we offer to Him, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask for (and merit) help when we’re in difficulties. Being honest and humble about our limits can be a path to sainthood—and a just society cares for the vulnerable, parents included!
Courtney added one other cautionary note:
Another danger I've seen and heard addressed in my church growing up was the dangers of having a child-centered home. Obviously NOT talking about the newborn years when you are meeting the needs of a helpless infant, but rather when parents are skipping bible studies and church for their children's soccer games and when the whole family revolves around the children in an unhealthy way. This can be just as damaging as a parent-centered home where the selfishness of parents never gives way to the self-giving emptying of oneself for others. The solution isn't a meeting in the middle, but rather having a Christ-centered home where parents are shepherding their children into laying down their lives for Christ and others.
Sufficient in your smallness
It is personally hard, learning that all it takes to be a good mother is goodness. A baby is not impressed by public achievement or acclaim. A child does not care how well-known or well-paid his mother is. He only wants her, and for her to deal with him in patience, temperance, mercy, warmth, and kindness. It is hard learning how little of those things I have in me.
We’ve just gotten through our first fever, and I was surprised by how not anxious I was. It was a relief that just holding my daughter was most of what she needed from me. This put me in mind of Robert Farrar Capon’s Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage, especially this passage:
You are not only a link with something. You are the thing itself; and you are the sacrament, the instrument, by which we learn to love the things that are. Your body is the first object any child of man ever wanted. Therefore, dispose yourself to be loved, to be wanted, to be available. Be there for them with a vengeance. Be a gracious, bending woman. Incline your ear, your hands, your heart to them. Be found warm and comfortable, and disposed to affection. Be ready to be done by and to welcome their casual effusions with something better than preoccupation and indifference. It isn’t a matter of how much time; only how much intensity. Children love fat mothers. They like them because while any mother is a diagram of place, a picture of home, a fat one is a clearer diagram, a greater sacrament. She is more there.
I’d second Sophia’s recommendation of the memoir Raising a Rare Girl, and add Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian. If Capon and Curtis are talking about the sufficiencies of mothers in their there-ness, not their worldly excellences, these two memoirs (both about babies with congenital issues) are about the sufficiencies of the authors’ daughters—exactly as they are.
The Monastic Rule, according to toddlers
Finally, I appreciated this comment from Lauren O.
I remember when I was discerning joining a particular convent and how much I disliked how early they had to get up. What a fool I was! The “little years” of parenting take it out of you physically and emotionally, and I have never been more keenly aware of how selfish I am. Though I only have two kids now (3.5 and 1.5) we do plan to have more, and some days I really just have to go on faith that this is our path to holiness.
I loved this framing, since the rule of life of a religious order can be so intimidating. But imagine the Rule of St. Benedict-style primer on life with a toddler (or a teenager) setting out your limits and responsibilities as a parent.
I hope in some ways, that makes both paths a little less daunting—the rules seem rigid in the abstract, but they feel different when you live them daily out of love.