I read an article from The Atlantic this week that is occupying some ongoing space in my mind. The article, Not Wanting Kids Is Entirely Normal, is from 2012 but I find the comments still resonate, still get me thinking. I am particularly struck by the author’s suggestion that the root causes of parents, particularly mothers, feeling regret after having children is somehow tied to what she calls “systemic issues: poverty, maternity leave, access to resources, and health care.” This claim is made, however, after the author explicitly recognizes that a significant portion of the mothers whose comments she uses to illustrate the current rampant displeasure with motherhood are not lacking for resources or support, they “simply don’t feel that motherhood is all it’s cracked up to be, and if given a second chance, they wouldn’t do it again.”
We are culturally incapable of making sense of brokenness in the world. We don’t have the framework to understand why a mother would despise her children, or would so regret having them that she would abandon them if given the chance to do so without repercussion. We don’t have the framework to explain why a woman would have children if she didn’t really want them, or why legislating safe haven laws or more maternity leave for working mothers doesn’t fix the problem. The suggestion seems to be that if politicians would just be willing to talk about thorny issues like sex education, contraception, and abortion then we’d start to see some real progress on this front.
But mothers don’t despise their children because they don’t get enough paid maternity leave or even because their pregnancy was a surprise. Mothers don’t commit infanticide or abandon their children at state hospitals because their birth control failed or they weren’t taking any to begin with. Maternity leave and contraception are reasonable issues to discuss, and certainly unsustainable work practices or lack of supportive services are valid concerns for mothers, but addressing a mother’s willingness or even desire to forsake her children does not start with legislation or social services. Any mother driven to such an extreme faces demons far more insidious than can be addressed with progressive social policies.
I want to be cautious, and clear, that I do not claim to have all the remedies for this social ill. Reading the above article and even contemplating the idea that a mother or father would seek out a place to drop off their children with the intention never to return feels so wrong and unimaginable it boggles the finite mind. But I see things around me that help such a reality make sense to me if only because it fits the theme of righteous things gone wrong. We live in a tumultuous world during a tumultuous time and all around I see people swearing up and down that the solution is just one policy change or one legislative session away. But what if all our man made problems don’t have a man made solution? What if we need something beyond our power to invent or implement?
I think there is a lot of power in vernacular. The things we say and how we say them are telling, even if—and on occasion, especially if—we are unaware of the implications. One particular word I hear thrown around a lot is deserve. It’s thrown around as cavalierly as the word love, with similar diluted effects. We talk about how we deserve a break, we deserve recognition, we deserve to be happy, we deserve to be understood, we deserve dessert. The word deserve has become cheap and meaningless. We tell complete strangers on social media what we think they deserve based on one picture they post, a one liner they write, a moment captured on video. We’ve created a world where our personal lives are put on public display and every audience member becomes a judge. But we’ve all gotten the message that we deserve, well, something better than we have. And that mentality sinks in.
We live in a culture that tells us hard things ought to earn us pamper points. If I have a hard day I should give myself a cookie. If someone is mean to me I should give them a piece of my mind and drop the mic. If things don’t go my way I should talk to my friends about it and they should sympathize and pat me on the back and tell me how great I am until I feel better about myself. We want everything to work out, everything to feel good, every road to lead up to the mountain peak, never lower into the valley.
But what can we really, truthfully say to the person whose valley just keeps getting deeper? What can we say to the chronically unemployed father who can’t afford housing for his family? What can we say to the mother with a special needs child who already feels like she’s at her breaking point and there’s no sign of things getting any easier? What do we say to the disillusioned parent who thought parenting would be this way but it turned out that way and the tension of unmet expectations and an unexpected reality creates unbearable friction? If those moms and dads have bought into the message that You deserve all good things and all good things will come if you just hang in there, therein lies a recipe for disaster.
The truth is we don’t deserve all good things. We don’t deserve happiness, ease, peace, comfort, wealth, or health. We don’t deserve children who are obedient, cooperative, quiet, healthy, intelligent, good looking, or grateful. We don’t. We want those things. We hope for those things; we work toward those things. But we don’t deserve them. And the second we start getting all bent out of shape because life didn’t give us the bed of roses we think we earned—that we deserve—is the second we reveal our flawed view of our place in this world.
We’ve gotten too big for our britches. We’ve told ourselves the lie that we deserve to be happy and we’ve told it so many times we believed it and now we see parents dropping their adolescent kids at public hospital doors because we thought this parenting thing was about us, about our fulfillment and our satisfaction and our dreams and goals and desires. Isn’t that what we always say—We want to start a family? We think this would be a the best time for us? Now’s not a good time but next year we’ll be settled enough, established enough, rich enough, ready enough. . . ? It’s always about us. Our planning and preparations, our thinking and scheming. We turn on the charm in the fall to plan for a summer baby. We schedule our c-sections around birthday parties and sporting events. We throw one-year-old birthday parties to rival a wedding reception for a baby who will never remember it and couldn’t care less. We make it all about us.
Except it’s not. Parenting is not about us. Other than the fact that it involves us, our parenting is almost never about our own needs, wants, or desires. Parenting is about giving of ourselves to nurture another. It’s about letting go for the sake of another’s good over and over and over again and seeing how our giving helps another person thrive. I think one thing we fundamentally miss in today’s me me me culture is that God did not design us to find lasting fulfillment when what we’re looking for is lasting fulfillment. When we seek to satisfy or please ourselves as an end in and of itself we’ll never succeed because God designed us to find our full satisfaction and pleasure in the act of losing ourselves for His sake. It’s not that we are supposed to lose ourselves when we become parents and be happy with that. If all we do is give give give for no known end we end up empty, as many parents can attest. But when we give and give and give for the purpose of fulfilling His righteous call to lose our lives for His sake, well then we are on to something indeed.
I am discovering more and more clearly that God’s purpose for us is not so much in the thing we do, but in the state of being in which we do.
I feel fortunate that I enjoy being a mother. I find great joy in the company of my children, in watching them grow, in teaching and mentoring them. But God did not give me children for my enjoyment, though I believe He takes pleasure in my gratitude. He did not give me children for my entertainment, though I believe He takes pleasure in hearing my joy. God gave me children for my blessing: that I might grow more like Him and serve Him faithfully as a mother because that is what I am. My purpose is to glorify and serve Him. That was my purpose before I ever became a mother; that is my purpose now. If I ever go looking for fulfillment in my kids I’m looking in the wrong place; my fulfillment comes from the Lord.
A parent abandoning a child—that is a symptom of deep brokenness. Legislation and public policy are bandaids. Where we really need to start is with the Healer of hearts.