The August 12 issue of TIME Magazine features a cover story entitled, “The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children.” Before this convert explores the values championed in this article relative to a Catholic worldview, she’ll endeavor to give you a brief summary of Lauren Sandler’s exposition on why more and more adults (and, in particular, women) are choosing to remain childfree.
Here we go: “The Childfree Life” examines the rise in the number of American women opting out of motherhood in pursuit of what Sandler calls “a new female archetype, one for whom having it all doesn’t mean having a baby.” The women she interviews express frustration with the constant questions from well-meaning friends and family about why they don’t have kids (a pressure, Sandler posits, that has become exponentially more intense with the advance and increased availability of reproductive technology). They lament the disappearance of their friends with kids into their respective small domestic spheres. They enjoy a life, as one woman puts it, “free from all the contingencies that come with children.” They treasure the opportunity to throw themselves completely into their careers, to travel frequently and on a whim, to spend money on creature comforts, to have drinks with friends whenever they choose, and to take classes, be involved in clubs, and spend uninterrupted time with their partners.
Sandler adds the voices of sociologists and economists to the mix; the former muse on the disastrous toll the dueling values of self-sufficiency and deep commitment to motherhood take on American women and the latter present highly controversial research indicating that women who opt out of motherhood are, on average, far more intelligent than their breeding counterparts. The piece comes to a close around the table of a meet-up of childfree adults in Nashville. “We can do anything we want, so why wouldn’t we?” one participant says as beer glasses are lifted and clinked together in approval.
OK, first let me tell you what I’m not going to say. I’m not going to launch full throttle into a lengthy apologetic aimed at convincing everyone who is able to “go forth and multiply.” I’m not going to try to parse out the implications of contraception in relationship to the economic thriving of women or the dissolution of the modern family. I’m not going to attempt to unwrap the messy and hopelessly ideologically entrenched reasons why male voices have been all but excluded from this conversation. This story has spurred a great deal of public debate on those topics already. What I want to talk about goes straight to the heart of how we define happiness. Of how we understand ourselves in relationship to each other and to our God. I want to talk about self-sacrifice.
I don’t mean sacrifice in the sense of detriment or loss. I mean sacrifice in terms of self-gift. I mean sacrifice the way Jesus describes it when he tells us that we must lose our lives to gain them. The way he teaches us how to order our hearts: God, neighbor, self. I don’t mean giving things up. I mean taking on love first and foremost. I mean making a gift of our lives to God and to each other … not out of obligation but because it brings us happiness. Deep happiness. Real happiness. Ultimate happiness.
All Catholics are called to a vocation of self-sacrifice. Those of us who are married live in loving service to our spouse and, subsequently, our children. (Here I want to specifically recognize Catholic couples who are unable to have children of their own who, by means of adoption or other acts of mercy, offer desperately needed maternal and paternal care to those in need.) Those of us who are priests and deacons live in loving service to our parish communities. Those of us who are religious sisters and brothers live in loving service to the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the imprisoned. Those of us who remain single for “the sake of the kingdom” live in loving service to our young people, our elderly, and the most vulnerable of our neighbors. The women Sandler interviewed and the experts with whom she consulted seem (at least in her cursory treatment of their views) to value independence, self-sufficiency, and comfort (economic and material) above self-sacrifice and service. They choose not to have children largely out of their prizing of economic success, social commitments, and unencumbered freedom above commitment to others. This is the “having it all” about which Sandler and her interviewees speak. We live in a culture that defines happiness as doing what we want when we want. The Church defines happiness as friendship with God through service to each other. These values are ultimately irreconcilable.
I would be remiss if I failed to comment on whether, as “The Childfree Life” seems to suggest, those who value motherhood do so at the expense of valuing the personhood of women. To this end, I’ll share with you the words of Blessed John Paul II from his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem:
(T)he Church gives thanks for each and every woman: for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family, which is the fundamental sign of the human community; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility; for “perfect” women and for “weak” women — for all women as they have come forth from the heart of God in all the beauty and richness of their femininity; as they have been embraced by his eternal love; as, together with men, they are pilgrims on this earth, which is the temporal “homeland” of all people and is transformed sometimes into a “valley of tears”; as they assume, together with men, a common responsibility for the destiny of humanity according to daily necessities and according to that definitive destiny which the human family has in God himself, in the bosom of the ineffable Trinity.
No, being a mother isn’t the summit of Catholic womanhood. But love, service, and self-sacrifice are. They are, in fact, equally central to Catholic manhood. Whether we are called to be parents or not, we are called to give of ourselves. The “Sacrifice-Free Life” is not enough. “Having it all” is not enough. We are made for so much more.