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Last week, Caroline Miranda proclaimed that “childfree adults are not selfish” in a column for Time. “This should not seem that radical,” she suggests, yet she details many ways that people treat her own childlessness as selfish. Miranda offers a defense, naming her care of parents and friends as visible signs that she and her husband are not selfish.
Perhaps it will seem surprising for a Catholic moral theologian, but I agree with much of what she writes. After all, how could I think otherwise, when we have the witness of childless couples, monks, nuns and priests who do many unselfish things? I worry, too about the ways Christians are often guilty of shaming infertile couples for not having children, which unfairly emphasizes that pain.
Furthermore, some of Miranda’s reasons for not having children – for example, the economic concerns she names – can coincide with Catholic teaching on acceptable reasons for deciding that the present moment is not a time to try for children.
It is quite possible, too, to have children with some selfish motivations, especially the desire to have children of a particular gender.
So, Miranda is right to want to speak against our very strong cultural sense childlessness is selfish.
Yet in her attempt to discuss why being childless is not selfish, Miranda undermines her own argument. One of the reasons she offers for choosing not to be a parent is that neither she nor her husband is baby-parenting material. She suggests the way her husband holds a six-month-old baby awkwardly as an example, which confirms for her an almost biological reality: she and her husband cannot parent. Miranda’s description suggests an underlying sense that some people are made for parenting and we can see that in how they act around and toward children.
Miranda’s assumed view that parenting is innate is at least as strongly held culturally as the idea that “childlessness is selfish” – and it is at least as strange a view to hold. Both views make strong, generalized presumptions about others that are not carefully based in the reality of those other peoples’ lives. If I awkwardly hold my own six-month-old (and believe me, I was not a “natural” at baby-holding) does that imply I, too, am not baby-parenting material?
What is more troublesome, though, is that this made for parenting idea is akin to a prominent cultural view of what love is supposed to be. We also have the idea that couples must be made for each other. The idea of “the one” or a soul mate all point to an innate sense of love: that there must be a particular kind of feeling or chemistry, or there really is no chance of love there. That view of love is proclaimed not only in fictitious romantic comedies but it is there in the rationales real people offer for why they enter or leave relationships: “There is/is not that spark or connection.”
While we do often try to live and love this way, ultimately I suggest that this is neither the way we want to be loved by others nor is it an unselfish view. A view that sees love as inherently innate is a view that enables people to love only those that they see as prescribed for them. It sees that love can only be enacted in reference to the kinds of love behaviors that are built into us. Both of those are self-referential and focused solely on the individual who needs to do the loving, rather than the person he or she is in a position to love. That’s selfishness.
It is not the view of love as innate, in other words, that enables Miranda to care for and love her father as he deals with brain cancer. I doubt that at the age of one or 10 or even 20 she thought about whether she possessed the innate characteristics that might enable her to love, whether she decided then how she’d do things if it got to that point. She loves him.
To love her friends and family does not mean that she has all the capabilities necessary to care for them, but it means she will find ways to give them what they need, including finding others who do have those capabilities. To love them also means that she’s learning, with each new event – the illness, the niece going to college – what it means to love.
Lovers are made, not born, just as much as love is more an action than it is a feeling. Many parents look at their newborn children in awe and have a “feeling” of connection, but just as many look at their children and find themselves concerned: “I have no feeling at all for this person.” (How many women with post-partum depression have agonized over that lack of “feeling”?)
The point is not the feeling or the innateness. The point is that there are people who are dependent on you and part of your life. It isn’t only children who are part of our lives in this way –though from a Catholic view, that is the most dependent it gets. It is also parents and neighbors and friends and strangers.
What will our response to them be? The hope is that all along the way, we will learn to love.
Jana Bennett is associate professor of moral theology at the University of Dayton.