The above editorial cartoon "A Job With No Benefits" from the Onion (Issue 49:4, June 10, 2013) once again illustrates how satire can be so revealing about cultural perspectives. As you can see, this cartoon depicts a hospital room where a woman has just given birth. The mother, representing "Scheming Trollops" is seen handing the baby, labeled "Selfish, Demanding Babies" to the father "Innocent Young Men." The father pictures a grave marking the passing of his good years. The Statue of Liberty's torch goes up in flames as a tear falls from her eye, imitating the tear from the father's eye. And a man with a notepad describes the scene as "The Miracle of Strife," rather than "the miracle of life."
While this cartoon poses the opportunity for reflection on a variety of topics, such as naming women who want to have babies as "scheming trollops," I was most caught by the labels on the baby and on the father. It seemed to me that it would make sense to swap the labels between father and child (of course, then it would largely cease to be satirical). That's right, I think that babies are innocent. And I think that many men are selfish and demanding, especially when it comes to enjoying their "good years" by avoiding fatherhood.
It would be easy to name common examples of this prolonged adolescence, such as staying out late on the weekends drinking and then sleeping off a hangover. But rather than target those examples, I'd like to make this more personal by giving examples from my own singlehood and childlessness. Recently I've been reflecting on those years I lived in So Cal in the desert, teaching public school, and filling my free time with...
What did I fill all my free time with? I must have had so much free time. I finished my school days at 3:00. I had the summer off. I did not have to feed anyone, buy clothes for anyone, or keep a "self-dirtying" house clean. From what I can recall, I spent a fair amount of time (2-3 hours a day) exercising, that is, training for boxing (this was when I had my amateur boxing license) or going on long bicycle rides through date country. I taught Catechism at my parish, but let's be honest, that only took a couple of hours a week. I talked to family and friends on my phone. I hung out with friends, going to dinner or the movies. Aside from the strictures of my job, I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I went wherever I wanted to go and ate whatever I fancied (like raspados enchilados, machaca con huevos, and flan con rompope).
In short, it was a selfish kind of lifestyle. Of course, I didn't know it at the time. I probably realized I could put more time and effort into my teaching, but I don't think it ever occurred to me that I was surrounded by people who could have benefited from my self-giving if only I had been more generous with my time for them. In particular, I think of one of my colleagues who had a young family. In all the time I was there, I baby-sat for them once... why didn't I make it a more regular commitment?
I said above that people can be selfish both with children or without. But I think that children can be a major push toward self-giving for people like me, who are sort of unreflective in their selfishness. Awhile back, Holly Taylor Coolman wrote a great blogpost at catholicmoraltheology.com entitled "Parents as Stewards: Rejecting the Commodification of Reproduction." In it she cited Pius XI's Casti Connubii, wherein he uses a biblical parable to compare children to "talents" that the parents have been given; the kids are gifts from God which should be returned with interest. It was great for Dr. Coolman to remind us of this example because too often we see kids only as restrictions of our own freedom and happiness, rather than as something loaned to us to aid in our sanctification and theirs.
In our indulgent society, very few like to embrace the sacrifices that parenting requires, and a contraceptive culture has more or less isolated child-bearing from sex, causing both men and women to think they can indulge in sexual pleasure without responsibility for a child that may follow it. Why would people want to embrace the inconvenience of pregnancy, the sleepless nights, the frustrations in child-rearing, the material cost, etc. Even people who try to be loving and self-giving can feel caught unawares from the sudden realization that - "Hey! I now constantly have to think about this other person!" It's way different than the demands of marriage; you can leave your spouse alone to run to the store, but not your baby. For those who have no larger framework that can make sense of the sacrifices of parenthood, it must be even harder to deal with being a parent. Indeed, the "good years" are gone, if by good years we mean only thinking of ourselves and pleasing ourselves, doing whatever we want whenever we want without reference to "selfish demanding babies."
On this Father's Day weekend, I don't want to end on such a low point. Instead, I want to remind us of the generosity in fatherhood that we see in God, our Father. It plays out in a constant pedagogical framework; giving us free will, letting us choose what's wrong, gently guiding us back, forgiving us, and all the while loving us in our selfishness, our silliness, our foolish rejection of grace and God's love. The generosity of God the Father is patiently to teach us, allowing us to blaspheme and offend him, and in the end, being willing to save us through the offer of his own self-less Son, the answer to our perennial selfishness.
Every father, to the extent that he is good and generous, reflects this self-lessness of God. I think of St. Joseph, being willing to take upon himself a child who was not his biologically, becoming the protector of that child, even though it entailed leaving all he knew and fleeing in poverty to Egypt.
And of course, I have to end with a shout-out to my own husband, who has grown immensely in self-lessness since becoming a father. The man who once told me he "needs about 10 hours of sleep to feel really well-rested" now regularly gets less than six, due to the nighttime demands of parenting. He'd like to sleep in, but he's always showered and ready for the day by 7:00 a.m., packing lunch for Maia, making breakfast (including mine), reading Dr. Seuss books. While the bulk of his income in pre-fatherhood years went toward books and pizza, the bulk of it now goes toward providing house, food, and clothing for other people. Though every once in awhile he gets an itch to watch an espionage movie or buy a martial arts knife, in general his day is geared toward helping all the other people in his life, whether changing diapers, doing school drop-offs, or editing my dissertation footnotes. He doesn't ever mourn the "good days" (at least, not out loud!) when his work time was his own and his free time was his own without the constraints of children. And that's because his generosity comes from the sense that his life is not simply about himself, but about living for others. And that brings a satisfaction far beyond the shallow happiness of immediate pleasure. In a sense, it's both the miracle of life, and the miracle of strife. Both life and strife are gifts from God, and generous fatherhood means being willing to accept the strife that comes with life-giving love and finding satisfaction even in the sacrifices. It's definitely not "a job with no benefits."