‘The decision to have children has always struck me as an essentially selfish one: You choose, out of a desire for fulfillment or self-betterment or curiosity or boredom or baby-mania or peer pressure, to bring a new human into this world. And it has never seemed more selfish than today.”
There are a lot of pressures in the world today. But anything that makes a mother wonder whether she’s selfish has to be one of the utmost evils. Those words come from an essay titled “Giving Birth in the End Times.” The essay’s writer, Emily Holleman, was pregnant during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and when fires were blazing in a California that was new to her.
In explaining some of what had led her to consider motherhood selfish, she writes:
From a global perspective, having a child in a developed nation is among the most environmentally unsound decisions you can make — a baby born in the United States adds another 58.6 tons of carbon to the atmosphere per year. (That wipes out the net positives of my 25 years of vegetarianism in roughly three months). On the individual level, as fires rage and hurricanes form, as water grows scarce and fields lie fallow, it’s hard not to wonder: What kind of future can we offer a child?
Mercifully, though, this is not her solid conclusion. She’s too in love with the new life she was a co-creator in to leave things. Hope is within her, clearly — even though fear is only natural and the pressures around her are not always conducive to celebrating the gift of life. She has an “And yet.” Holleman shares:
On some level we still believe that a baby, our baby, will bring the world, our world, so much more than his carbon footprint. On another, we believe, like so many before us, that a baby can be the only balm after a loss. That it will transform me from a bereaved sister to something new and alien: a mother.
The essay is clearly written by a woman who is grieving, and in it she chooses to be brutally honest about what she is experiencing as a new mother and a brokenhearted sister. Her essay should remind us that we never know what is going on in another’s heart and soul. Even when she tells us, there may be wounds deeper than anything we could ever know. Wounds often want to hide — we often have myriad reasons for keeping them hidden.
Holleman does a beautiful thing in giving voice to her inner turmoil. And those of us now aware of it ought to consider how we each contribute to pressuring her to think that motherhood is anything other than self-giving love. When I read her words about selfishness, my heart immediately went to mothers of unborn children who frequently think that it would be better to have an abortion than to live their lives knowing they had “given up” a child to adoption. Adoption is not abandonment, it is a remarkable sacrifice and gift to an adoptive couple and to that child — giving the child a chance at life. It’s a tremendous power a mother has. And it’s so wrong that we don’t protect her heart better. When it comes to pregnancy, our culture sometimes seems to prefer death to life. That’s reflected in Holleman’s essay. Even in the joy of motherhood, she wonders whether there’s something inherently wrong about it, at least in these times.
Holleman is transparent about her fears about the future, but she also acknowledges that disengaging from all the madness of the world is not a “luxury” she has:
I have no choice but to believe that the future — troubled as it will be, stripped as it will be of my biting, brilliant sister — is still worth living in and fighting for. To believe not just in destruction, not just in accruing loss after loss after loss, but in counting blessings. Finding those small moments of joy. The smile on Jude’s face as he bashes his mouth into my cheek. “Boop,” I say as I tap his nose. The same sound Julia used to make when I tapped hers.
God does not come up in her reflection on motherhood during a pandemic and other crises that can make it feel like the end times, so I suspect it is not a big factor in her life. That absence and our own collective experience of COVID-19 highlight for me that people who do have hope in God must truly live in ways that reveal real trust in that hope — to attract others to it as well. Christians, for instance, have zero reason to be fearful. We believe in the resurrection of the dead, to live with God eternally. Everything else pales in comparison with this. Knowing the suffering that Jesus endured for us to cancel the finality of death puts all fear and suffering and injustice in perspective.
But in a particular way, we need to make absolutely clear what a gift motherhood is, and do everything in our power to make sure women know that — and that men protect and support moms. There is no more important job, and it’s in no small way why good men are so essential. I’m praying Emily Holleman knows that her motherhood is a beacon of light in the world. And her honesty, too, about how our culture can infect the motherly mind, can do a world of good.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.
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