A Sacrifice on the Altar of Parenthood

 

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I was fourteen on the night I was bushwhacked by my father as he sat sipping his Seagrams 7 and 7-Up in the unlighted living room.

I tiptoed downstairs in the dark with the intent of reaching the basement, where the television lured with its single channel, WGAL-TV 8 (NBC). (In our household WGAL entertained, including our mother, seven “gals,” our father rounding it off to 8 viewers in the household, as if we were preeminent in the station’s study of its demographics.)

I tiptoed hoping to avoid any chance encounter with a parent. A couple of my sisters had preceded me downstairs, and all I wanted was to negotiate for space on the couch, knowing that would require a fair amount of pushing, pulling and pinching, before settling in to watch the antics of James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

I did not see my father sitting in the dark. I did not hear the clink of ice cubes rearranging themselves in his glass, so common a sound that perhaps I no longer heard it.

Slurring his words, he beckoned to me. “Steph, c’mere a minute.” Explaining that Captain Kirk waited for no one would be futile. I did what I was told.

I slumped next to him in the dark living room. My drunken father placed an arm around my shoulders, and, deeming it the best possible moment to enlighten me as to the limitless happiness he experienced when I was born, he said: “You were the first. I knew I could do it. The rest didn’t matter.”

I knew he didn’t mean he loved my sisters less, only that never again did he experience that jolt of joy as he did when I popped out healthy and whole. Been there done that.

Not for the first time, with fourteen years experience of my father’s parenting techniques, I thought: there are people in the world not cut out to be parents. My father was one of those people.

I may be another, possibly due, in part, to that particular evening.

I receive both sympathy and criticism for not having had children. In my travels, particularly in rural areas of the Third World, it was always the first question from friendly, curious women: “How many children do you have?” In India and Indonesia, these women stroked my hair, and told me how sorry they were that I was unable to birth children. Never would it occur to them that it was a conscious choice. Or, if not exactly a choice, an absence, of that maternal pull that enveloped so many women, and pitched them into paroxysms of grief if they are unable to conceive. I have not experienced that particular heartache.

I had a prescription for contraceptives, and eventually married a man who’d had a vasectomy before we met.

There are some, mostly women, who believe women like me are selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice aspects of our lives to raise a child. I’ve read this many times on mommy blogger sites, heard it shouted by pundits on quasi-news shows.

In 2007, Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for her novel, The Gathering. It’s a dark, but beautifully rendered evocation of family, and grief. In it the main character resents her parents for having too many children. Unaware and unthinking they never considered the consequences of their selfish behavior on all those children.

Reading this was a revelation. Finally, someone put into print, the equivalent of speaking aloud, something I’d felt for a long time.

Because you want something doesn’t mean you ought to have it. I have a friend who suffers from severe, debilitating anxiety. It’s in her family, in her DNA. She and her husband would like to have a child of their own, but have made the decision not to, for the child’s sake, not the mother’s. They won’t take the chance of having a son or daughter experience the turmoil the would-be mother has endured throughout her life.

How do you feel about the Duggars exploiting their 19 kids on a reality show to pay the bills? How do you feel about the older kids raising the younger kids because the parents lack the time, and the energy?

Those who choose not to have kids, whatever their reason, or however it came to pass ought to be celebrated, not criticized for our lack of ability, according to someone’s standards, to “sacrifice” our selfish lifestyles. We’re a counterbalance to those who have too many kids. Yes, there is such a thing as having too many kids.

So many parents have kids for the wrong reasons. My father had his first kid as evidence of his sperms’ macho motility. The rest came along with little thought. My mother was very young, very fertile, and Catholic.

The childless by choice are not lazy, or selfish. The child bearers are not self-indulgent at the expense of their kids. Or are we, or are they?

One thing I do know is that I’m an awesome Aunt. If any of you moms feel you’ve been sacrificing too much send your darlings to me for a summer break. I’m happy to sacrifice my summer for their enjoyment. As my nieces will tell you we have a blast!

Is Religion Organized?

The algebra teacher adjusts her starched white wimple. She hikes her black, silky sleeves to her elbow exposing a thick, muscular forearm. With a pronounced languor she glides to the desk of a handsome 12-year old boy. At first glance her hand on his shoulder appears as a gentle encouragement. Until you hear him moan, see his eyes widen in fear, watch him slip beneath his desk. Her grip is like that of Mr. Spock on Star Trek as he subdued an enemy. The algebra teacher bends with the boy finally relinquishing her hold when he lies prostrate at her feet. We nicknamed her Bulldog.

Meanwhile a second grade girl is antsy at her desk in an adjacent classroom. The teacher is diminutive; shy of five feet, with a 20-inch waist cinched tight with a rosary, the crucifix a weapon at her navel. But she looms large in the eyes of the second grader as she approaches like a terrible phantasm to the girl’s desk. Without a word she encircles the girl’s tiny arm with her bird-like claw. The teacher points to her desk at the front of the classroom, and the tiny girl crawls into the dark recess, whimpering. There she remains for the next two hours. The algebra, and the second grade teachers are nuns, of a Roman Catholic Diocese; the meanest nuns in town.

True stories. I attended an elementary school run by Catholic nuns. By any standard the school was bizarre. A self-named “protectory” the school housed orphaned and abandoned boys, first through eighth grade. To support themselves and the boys, children from the surrounding area, those whose families attended the associated church, were recruited. In those days my parents believed a Catholic education, coupled with a certain amount of discipline, assured a well-rounded individual. They wised up by the end of the tenure of their third daughter. My three youngest sisters all attended public school.

From the nuns I learned how to memorize the catechism, but little else. I was a good student, never spoke out of turn, but even I was harrassed for the slightest infraction. In second grade I committed the punishable offense of glancing out the window at the rainstorm that battered the enormous windows. I was ordered to stand by that window, and focus only on the rain for the duration of the morning. Once, for smiling at a joke one of the more outspoken students dared to whisper, Bulldog snuck up behind me, and yanked my ponytail so that my neck whiplashed.

Years later I would wonder if having been relegated to a podunk town in rural Pennsylvania had contributed to their disappointment, or if their disappointment preceded their assignment.

 

From this early education I learned to eschew organized religion. I was witness only to the isolation, and the fear of difference, created by clinging to a rigid set of beliefs. Wars are fought; genocide is perpetrated, all for the tenet of a singular belief. We are human before we are Catholic, Hindu or Muslim.

Now that I’ve brought everyone to the point of asking their primary care physicians for an anti-depressant let me introduce you to the Sisters of the Humility of Mary and their green thumbs.

The Sisters till the soil of a 300-acre organic farm, the Villa Maria, on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border. Acres of vegetables and herbs are laid out in perfect symmetry. Sister Barbara O’Donnell asserts that she received a call from God to undertake this venture. Whether she did or didn’t is not for me to argue. The fact is the garden was an ambitious goal, as the farm had been in decline since the 1980’s, when Willie Nelson organized Farm Aid.

Today with the help of a large volunteer labor force the garden thrives year upon year, through a tomato blight, and without the use of fungicides. A conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers Villa Maria a showplace for sustainable agriculture. The Sisters donate half their harvest to shelters and food pantries. Recently they delivered 746 pounds of zucchini to the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, who presumably cooked up great vats of soup, and many loaves of zucchini bread.

 

I may prefer the voice of J. Krishnamurti who writes:

“It seems to me that before we set out on a journey to find reality, to find God, before we can act, before we can have any relationship with another, which is society, it is essential that we begin to understand ourselves first. If we are petty, jealous, vain, greedy – that is what we create about us, that is the society in which we live.”

And though I believe organized religion divides us rather than unites us, I cannot deny that the Sisters of Humility of Mary at Villa Maria do righteous work.

Thanks for listening!