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The Domestic Kenosis: A Response to Ross Douthat from the Mother of Eight Children

I was looking forward to my one or two children, and a life of ongoing validation through the achievement-acclaim-advancement sequence to which school had accustomed me. Is large family life an icon of the Lord’s emptying of himself on our behalf? No more, I believe, than any Christian life deliberately modeled upon His example.

I have eight children. All mine, all my husband’s. I won’t bore you with the reasons we have them, and I am familiar with the many reasons we shouldn’t have them. This was neither our dream nor our plan. It is simply where life took us.

Where we live, people don’t hate us for it. I am a necessary character in our very small town: the lady with all those kids. As a character, I do not need a personality, trade, or any other defining mark. Every acquaintance and stranger must comment on my number of children, and I must deliver my lines. Yes, they’re all mine. Yes, I’m a busy lady. Nope, no twins! Yes, we know what causes it, hardee har har! Nice talking to you! We obligingly live in a house that looks the part: old, large, with detritus in the yard. We play music, we play sports, we play Minecraft. We are not the perfect big family, and not the nightmarish one. We’re just us.

Ross Douthat must make a “Case For One More Child” because fertility control is the linchpin of contemporary society. Abortion is merely a failsafe. Commercial childcare becomes socially absurd and economically improbable in the face of all the children nature would grant. Contraception, abortion, and childcare are no three-legged stool of female liberation. Contraception is the absolute monarch. When contraception becomes available, people use it, no matter what their resources or culture. In fact, contraception becomes the culture. With a NuvaRing, I could—dare I say it?—rule the world! Unless, of course, everyone has a NuvaRing. Then the feminine plight reforms and resumes. All women but the richest are compelled to live in a certain way. Now it is the contraception way: one or two children, and a job where one’s real worth lies. Where, after all, did you spend most of your waking hours until last March?

I said I wouldn’t bore you with my reasons. They have a strong religious component, which makes me a bigot of some sort, and bigotry is the only remaining sin. Still, I am a living specimen of a history most in our culture believe they understand, as they work diligently to wipe it out. It stands to reason that I could offer some insight valuable to the righteous cause of relieving female pain.

My testimony is this: it is hard. Everyone is right about that. It is hard receiving the children nature is divinely designed to give, and I have received them in a committed and affectionate marriage.

 

It is physically hard, even when the fathomless pain of childbirth has been made largely optional; even where there is direct access to people who specialize in seeing women safely through pregnancies and repairing mangled reproductive equipment. The contemporary world has little place for the primitive damages of pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding. There are surely a variety of reasons that fertility falls off a cliff when a female population is given a route out of it, but we shouldn’t get too spiritual about it.

Today’s modern woman will tolerate the wrecking of her body for a child or two. She might hazard another round of the crazy-making nightmare that is caring for a newborn while recovering from childbirth. But even with all the relief offered by medical technology, the cost of bio-mothering remains exorbitant. Its lopsided distribution between the sexes in a time when such discrepancies give real offense is another problem. A woman who can nearly outrun a teenage boy, or lose a tennis match to a middle-ranked male player, is praised for her strength. A woman who rises from her second confinement to walk, smile, and bear another child has something wrong with her.

It is socially hard. I could have made something of myself if only I weren’t making so much of myself. No one knows what I am good at or what I like. I am good at having kids, and I like it. Obviously. The mom unlike all other moms can have no peers. I’m not raising THREE BOYS! because I’m actually raising four boys and four girls. I am the world’s leading expert in eight human beings, a field that makes me an utter cipher. Meanwhile, other people my age are making real money at respected jobs, buying nice things, and impressing each other. When a mother leaves the workforce, no one misses her. Staying home with children is well known to be a tedious waste of an intelligent woman’s potential. Her profound isolation and loneliness attract less concern.

It is financially hard. My husband has a full-time salaried job that includes our health insurance and housing. He also keeps several sizable contracts, while I keep several un-sizable ones. This patchwork of incomes allows me to stay home full-time, and we have no childcare expenses. We married young, but without debt. While our internal economy has numerous advantages, a household of ten is still a bit spendy. Our tax bracket is a humble one, and niceties must be limited. To all who believe that the last elective purchase you made for your child (such as a Happy Meal) wasn’t that expensive: multiply it by eight.

 

My own economic status is awkward. The traditional way of understanding our arrangement is that it is cooperative. But in cultural context, it is difficult to laugh off Engels’s spin (via Kate Millet): “In the family [the husband] is the bourgeois, the woman represents the proletariat.”  The gendered division of work requires a quantity of trust and a quality of humility from which we have all been actively deprogrammed since childhood. Prevailing wisdom teaches that help is to be extorted from others by political means, and that hubris is the highest virtue. Couples who have a hankering to make it the breadwinner/homemaker way have to do so from ethical scratch.

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. It is hard knowing how well I can affect goodness for a stranger, how easily I muster it for a friend selected for her likeness to myself, and how poorly I manifest it for my own dear little child. It is hard seeing what my character is really like. It is hard to keep from judging everyone who bears the title “mother” as fully as I do while she pays some poor female mercenary to do a mother’s heavy lifting. This economic arrangement demonstrates how much a mother’s heavy lifting is valued.

But a great deal of the hardness is born of my overhauled expectations. I was looking forward to my one or two children, and a life of ongoing validation through the achievement-acclaim-advancement sequence to which school had accustomed me. I believed the feminist narrative that this was a great prize won on my behalf. Having that vision replaced with a reality of public dismissal and full-time diapers and housework is disorienting and hard for anyone, even a bigot like me.

 

Although my primary motive for overpopulating my own house comes from a religious place, there are other motives as well. I marvel at all the people who want to “make a difference” by holding shapeless quaternary occupations—the kind that may shelter in place while other humans brave the virus to deliver the daily bread. The idea that working in a pink-collar industry is somehow superior to performing the same duties in the immediate service of one’s family is absurd. Preferring to participate in a more prestigious line of work rather than to care for one’s own children seems to me prideful, exploitative, and sad. I also suspect that the proposed policies to support family formation and caregiving might never be realized, effective, or applicable to me. It seems more likely that the harvest reaped from these eight children will allow all of us to be laid down to our final winters merely asleep, rather than frozen or starved.

The joys of motherhood are, I believe, primarily eschatological. I find eschatology persuasive, but this is not a common perspective. I think that Jonathan Last is correct in his contention that no amount of family-friendly policy will change a culture that has decided against having a third kid.

In the final analysis, Engels fails to intimidate me. John Updike’s iteration of the intramarital class struggle is more illuminating, from his novel Couples: “Every marriage tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant.” Am I so sure which of those two I am? My most productive years have been entirely committed to manufacturing and maintaining humans, but the weight of our world is on my husband’s shoulders. I set my own schedule, have some latitude in determining which tasks I will perform, and perform those tasks according to my own standards. He is a wage slave in the service of nine lives outside of his own, because together we have turned out to contain multitudes.

Mr. Douthat’s description of situations such as ours as kenotic necessarily calls to mind Philippians 2. Is large family life an icon of the Lord’s emptying of himself on our behalf? No more, I believe, than any Christian life deliberately modeled upon His example. And yet it could be a hacky way of getting at it for a lot of people.

Would you have goodness forced on you? Get married, and let marriage have its way with you. Those who come of it will become greater, O man, and you will become less.

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