Parenting, faith and vomit

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Rachel Allred lives in California and loves her husband, her two young kids, and ice cream (not necessarily in that order).  She generally tries to make the world a more empathetic place.

I read Carolyn’s post on being terrified about having kids at 4am.  I turned to BCC to help me stay awake just over halfway through my two-year-old’s five-hour vomiting marathon (20+ times). Fortunately he only woke up his baby sister twice.  I’m responding to that post in bits and pieces while I’m home with that two-year-old and missing an important work deadline.*

Having kids isn’t for everyone. The fears in Carolyn’s opening post are realities for so many women (and men) who parent. Platitudes about how kids’ cuteness makes parenting worthwhile are probably evolutionarily true. But they neither do justice to the myriad reasons why anyone would go on the destructive mission that parenting sometimes feels like (especially to a vomit-covered hypochondriac like me), nor the bone-deep motivations that others have for opting out.

I don’t think the future of the world rides on the childbearing status of any one person’s uterus (not even the Virgin Mary). It rides on each of us using our agency to create a world for God’s family, however we are called to do it. And like the decision if/when/how to have children, how we create that world, what constitutes that calling for each of us, lies squarely between us and God.

The social pressure regarding nuclear families that keeps us from honestly assessing how we create a better world for God’s family seems counterproductive at best, and cruel and unworthy at worst. It pigeonholes us into roles many of us have to be threatened into taking (“you will singlehandedly bear responsibility for the destruction of all humankind if you don’t do this”) or guilted into performing (“this is your divine destiny and identity, so any resistance you feel is your fallen mortal nature and you’d better repent/change it”).  It chains us to unfalsifiable standards that can leave us anxious and reeling.

There are so many ways to be a good person in the world, and so many ways to create a world for God’s family. Tim’s comment (second on Carolyn’s post) says:

Your decision on when or if to have children won’t “bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” The “disintegration of the family” will do that. And disintegration of families is happening for many reasons–including governments tearing children away from parents at the border, preventing families from being together through tyrannical deportations, and country-specific immigration bans. If you’re involved in fighting any of that, you are fighting for families.

Amen.

Turns out, children were part of my calling. But I almost didn’t find that out.

I’ve always wanted a career, I never liked babysitting and I felt awkward around children I didn’t know (a divine “weakness” I tried to “fix” through abundant exposure). I felt further disqualified because I hate all things shabby chic.

I had — word-for-word, including my response — the same conversation as Carolyn about supporting my future husband so my children (sons) could have a brighter future, only instead of my Laurel advisor, it was with my parent. I never considered repenting, I just stayed confused, resistant, and afraid. I stalled through college coursework and beyond, anxious and unable to seriously consider what career would be best for me. Every time I tried to take myself seriously or think of a career that didn’t center around children, social/family messages of “you’re a sinner, you’re a sinner” played over and over in my head, drowning out everything else.  I couldn’t tell if the voice came from my parents/society or God.

But a little less than a year before I got pregnant with my now-vomiting 2-year-old, I realized I’d never once stopped to think about what my parenting status would mean to *me.*  I hadn’t thought independent of my parents telling me it was the only way to be a good female in God’s eyes, society telling me it would cost me everything, and my parents saying it was God’s will that it cost me everything.  So I stopped and thought about it. Did *I* want kids?

It took some therapy to separate the question from the baggage, and I ended up deciding it was almost a toss-up. Almost, except for one feeling I heard a pediatrician put into words years later. Yes, kids are cute and funny and all that. But the act of raising any child is the ultimate act of humility, an act of faith. It is the magical and terrible process of watching a human come into being. It is witnessing, in a participatory way, the becoming of a person.

And I wanted that. Even right this second, awash in hours of someone else’s vomit, it is the right fit for me. Last night, my trembling little toddler repeatedly pleaded to be “all done” throwing up; it was only after he reached for my hand that he finally fell asleep. Throughout the night he repeated the words I’d told him, that he was brave, that his body was doing important work to make him feel better. He snuggled in my arms as he watched Cinderella for the first time this morning. That was all cute and sweet. But it would have been horrible to have a kid for the cuteness and sweetness of those moments.

Rather, in the ultimate experience of humility, I participated as my little human came more fully into being last night. I watched and waited with him as he experienced suffering, as he learned about unremitting pain. I witnessed the grace and resilience and strength of my little child grow before my eyes. I felt a sacredness on the floor of that bathroom that I’ve never felt at church, the temple, or anywhere else. And because the privilege of watching my human come into being is usually less heartbreaking and lets me sleep at night, parenting is a good fit for me.

My candid, insightful mother-in-law often reflects on her own almost-a-toss-up decision to have children (and I paraphrase): “You never know what’s great about having a child until you do it. People can tell you and tell you but until you experience it yourself, you just don’t know. It’s okay if you don’t want to know — no one should have children just because someone tells them to. It’s way too excruciating for that. I’m just saying you can understand what’s so terrible about it before you get there. You can’t understand what’s so wonderful about it until you’re in it.”

In other words, having children is (among other things) an act of faith and humility. And I believe God can guide us to and through our personal acts of faith — the scary ones and the fun ones, with children (biological, adopted, fostered, etc) or otherwise.

So, to the post that inspired this — Carolyn, good luck. If you do decide to have children, consider purchasing some carpet cleaner for pet stains as a precautionary measure. Either way, I hope you find and feel confident in whatever path your next stage opens up to you.

*(I’m not the only one affected by a sick kid.  The consequences to my husband have been different but just as intense.)

Photo by ketan rajput on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Up until the pill people had sex and had babies. Now its a much more murky decision. There is no support in any of the standard works for intentional childlessness

  2. This is a wonderful and amazing essay and I love it. :)

  3. Rachel this is gorgeous, raw and a real punch in the gut.

  4. Rachel Allred says:

    Bbell, your last sentence is exactly the kind of unfalsifiable standard I was talking about :-) (The rabbit holes it raises are a murky maze, indeed!)

    That said, I think your comment brings up an interesting point. Birth control gives people (especially women) agency over parenting that we literally have never had before. Before the pill, parenting (especially as a woman) had very little to do with agency. You married someone (if you were lucky, that was your choice), you had sex (if you were lucky, that was your choice), and then luck determined whether a child came from that. And hopefully, if you were a woman, it happened in that order.

    Birth control has extended women’s (and men’s) agency to include this spectacularly consequential decision. This gives us a stewardship that our foremothers (and fathers) could never dream of. Agency is a profound gift from God, and, in my mind, our stewardships in this life are manifestations of God’s faith in us. In the parable of the talents, what they did with their stewardships was the thing Christ really cared about.

    So one way to think about birth control is that it elaborates God’s gift of agency to us. It gives us a stewardship that we should neither ignore nor bury in the ground. IMO, we should use it mindfully and conscientiously as part of our quest to reach our eternal potential.

  5. Very meaningful to me, and so well expressed. It feels fitting that one stage of your thinking considers having a child in terms of its effect on you (essentially the brief presented by Carolyn’s post), and then your conclusion focuses on the creation of another person. That’s interplay I’ll continue to think about. Thank you.

  6. Everyone has their own experiences, exactly. And there is no way to fully describe what it is like to have a child until you have one.

    Bbell, sigh. These comments are super annoying. What’s it to you if someone decides not to have children? How exactly do you suffer because of that? And someone needs to justify their decision not to have children in the standard works (nevermind the fact that people in the past have used the Bible to justify slavery)? Did Jesus say something about not judging in the standard works?

  7. alesueur218 says:

    Thank you for saying exactly what I have been unable to say for the last eight years of motherhood (I just haven’t been able to ever explain). I didn’t love children as a teenager and never found the cute parts of kids to be all that cute. But watching and helping another being grow. I had no idea how wonderful that would be and how difficult and growing and ultimately fulfilling.

  8. Rachel, thank you for reminding us how we grow as parents not from the cute times but during crisis. My little ones are now 21 and 15. The oldest has left the church, and the youngest struggles daily with seminary. The gray hairs gained over the years have bettered me much more than the chocolate pudding smeared on the high chairs and the mom’s lipstick painted on. My kids becoming brave and independent has been wonderful and terrible to see.

  9. Bbell, that may be true. But there’s also no support in the standard works for telecommuting, for the gold standard, for joint filing, for enjoying the 9th Star Wars movie, for getting a college education, or for working on the 14th floor of an urban midrise building. The scriptures weren’t written in anticipation of a modern information economy world (or, at least, weren’t written to provide a detailed blueprint for this world).

    In fact, we have to take what scriptures tell us, what inspiration tells us, and what our own gut and priorities tell us, and we have to navigate the world we live in using those (and other) tools. And Rachel’s post is an excellent example of one way of navigating the maze of an imperfect world with imperfect knowledge, but with faith and desire.

  10. Sam, When you say there is no support in the SW for enjoying the 9th Star Wars movie, do you mean to help you learn to enjoy it, or how to deal with the fallout of having enjoyed it? Asking for a friend.

    I have three sons, 21, 18, and 14. I love them with every fiber of my being. I would die for them. I can not name one other child on the face of the planet that I even want to spend an afternoon with. I will, because that is what we do in society, but I do not love all the little children. Since my kids are moving into adulthood I consider the possibility and likelihood that they too will one day soon consider the pros and cons of having children. At least one has already identified all the cons and none of the pros. I don’t know if they will have children of their own. And I’m not sure I would mind if they didn’t. Do I want them to experience the joy of parenthood? Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It’s the sweetest joy in the world. But the heartache that accompanies it?

    I imagine that’s kind of how God felt, He wanted us to have so much joy, but the pain we also face, I’m sure it breaks his heart.

  11. Actually I think that the 9th Star Wars movie was a violation in and of itself of several Biblical laws. The directors need to do some serious repenting after that one.

  12. anonymous for this one says:

    I think the biggest unknown is the kids you’ll get, and there’s no way to know until you get them. If I could guarantee you that you’d get two kids like my younger two, I’d suggest that parenting would be your jam–there have been the normal ups and downs with them, but all-in-all a really gratifying experience. But I’ve also got an older one who is what I’ll call invisible special needs, and raising him has been the hardest experience of my life–by a wide margin. So much patience necessary from a dad who isn’t known for his patience for a child who by nature mostly lacks the ability to appreciate that patience. I love him dearly, and Mormon cosmology (or maybe folk doctrine) gives me hope that he and I are together because God saw something in my wife and me that said we could handle this. But I wouldn’t wish raising a child like this on my worst enemy.

  13. @ bbell , My mother, born in 1925 and still living at 95 years old used birth control in the 1940s (as well as my father…). Her 6 sisters and 3 brothers did as well. The “pill” was a diaphragm. Less convenient perhaps but thinking that birth control pills are the creation of childlessness is questionable.

  14. In defense of @Bbell, it us true that there is no support in the SW for intentional childlessness for the very reason @Bbell posits–it was never a situation anyone who wrote the SW ever considered because it was a situation that never existed prior to the invention of modern birth control methods (beyond abstinence).

    Thank goodness for modern revelation and the teachings of living prophets that the decision of when and how and how often to use birth control or to have children is entirely left to couples to decide after their own private wrestling with our Heavenly Parents. To quote the Church’s website on this topic:

    “Husband and wife are encouraged to pray and counsel together as they plan their families. Issues to consider include the physical and mental health of the mother and father and their capacity to provide the basic necessities of life for their children. Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rest solely with each married couple.”

    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/birth-control?lang=eng

    And to quote another prophet, with a minor edit of my own:

    “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death [or to insist on giving life] in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

    Hopefully the rest of us can take to heart the implications of these teachings and hold space for each person and each couple to make such difficult decisions for themselves.

  15. I never had any interest in having kids when I was growing up, and I always assumed I would not have them, which made me feel out of place in a church that put so much emphasis on women becoming mothers. As a young adult I was talking to my father about my murky future and made a snide remark along the lines of, “If I were righteous, having kids would be all I wanted to do.” He said, “There’s nothing more important to me than my family, but having kids isn’t the only thing a woman can do.” I think up until that point, I didn’t realize that I was waiting for “permission” to feel the way I felt about having kids. (I guess that would be “validation.”) It didn’t make me magically want to have kids, but I no longer had angst about my lack of desire, which I think put me in a better frame of mind to choose parenthood later on.

    Also, your comment about birth control and agency is straight fire, 14/10, would cross-stitch on a pillow.

  16. Birth control isn’t a modern invention. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used various forms of plant based spermicides sometimes soaked into a fibrous material to act as a form of diaphragm. All of these usages were contemporary with both Old Testament and New Testament history.

    Whether or not the scriptures are silent on them is an open question but we have modern Prophets and revelation who leave the choice to all of us.

  17. Anonymous, thanks for sharing that insight. I’m very aware that I’m less than 3 years into this parenting journey — there’s a lot of life ahead of us. Moreover, so far I’d probably identify my kids more closely with your younger two. I think there’s a whole other post to be written about what it’s like to take that leap of faith and have kids, only to find that it may not (in one or more cases) be as good a fit as you’d hoped. I wish you all the best on your journey.

    UTManMI, thank you for bringing in that timely and meaningful quote, and Rebecca for adding that cross-stitch image into my brain ;-)

    Alain, it’s true, the history of birth control is long and complex. But generally, throughout history, it has been available only to the wealthy, more-or-less effective, and controlled by men. Famine, disease, etc., were the big issues that kept the average (and non-average) family from raising children to adulthood, not contraception. The pill was revolutionary in that it was more effective *and* put power over conception in the hands of women.

  18. Aussie Mum says:

    I really like your quote ……. the act of raising any child is the ultimate act of humility, an act of faith. It is the magical and terrible process of watching a human come into being. It is witnessing, in a participatory way, the becoming of a person.

    I have been trying to put into words my feelings as I have watched my children grow. They are now 20, 18 and 16. I look back at their early years with joy but no longing. I didn’t cry with sadness when they hit milestones of school and graduations. When I am asked which stage/age was my favorite it is always whichever one they are currently in.

    I did not have children to have cute moments and children that loved me, I did it to raise my individuals ready to change the world to be a better place. It has not been easy. When my eldest ran away for 10 months in her mid-teens it nearly broke me. But now as a 20-year-old living independently at a University in a faraway city, living a life very different from mine, I am so proud to see her stand up for different values than I taught her. I tried to teach her to think independently and not just to follow the crowd and she has done that.

    As I watch my next child, about to put in his mission papers, I am also proud as I know he has come to this decision by himself. He is so different from his older sister, not as independent but that is to be expected at 18. I see him ready to launch to take on the world and I am so excited.

    And then the sweet 16-year-old who is still trying to figure out who she is. Watching her develop her own tastes in clothes, music, and values are better than watching any movie. So exciting. I am not scared of the empty nest but I look forward to seeing what they accomplish as adults from a distance. Watching them become children.

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