A Long Overdue Attack on the Worship of Motherhood

We need to feel important sometimes. I get it. Feeling great about being ME! counts as one of the basic needs on that whole Maslow hierarchy thing that I didn’t pay attention to in Psych 101. It was right below Food and just above Scratching Where It Itches. Or the other way ’round.

This primordial drive manifests in myriad ways in today’s modern context. You’ve got your classics. The career-driven go-getter. The person sitting next to you who talks six of the seven hours of your non-stop Honolulu to Denver redeye about her job, her vacay in Kaua’i, recent dental exams, groceries, etc. and never once makes eye contact or asks you a question that she expects an answer to. And then there’s my personal favorite: the one-upper. He’s the guy who’s never impressed by your stories but always expects you to be suitably animated about his. “Wait, wait, this is even better….”

None of that’s news, generationally speaking. We’ve always had these folks around us — hell, we’ve all been these people at least once — and I think they’ll continue to avoid the endangered list.

By contrast, I’ve noticed the slow creep of a waxing cultural crescendo. It was conceived in the womb of Women’s Lib, way back in the day, entered its toddlerhood in the backlash against the roaring 80s and Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl, and it’s now awkwardly gangling into the preteen years. It blights our schools, befouls our suburbs, and infects Facebook with smarmy ecards and faux woe-to-me humblebrags.

You know of what I write. It’s the nemesis of the lazy afternoon and the slayer of general contentedness, the bane of all that is good and holy about being in the treasured demographic of 35-55 year olds with $5000 or more in disposable income: Motherhood.

Well, not motherhood per se. Rather, it is the worship of the trials and tribulations of motherhood, the deification of this most ancient and basic act of species-preservation. In particular, it is the apotheosis of the struggle of motherhood that concerns me here.

Some time in the last fifteen years everyone has bought into the cultural creed that admits — nay, proclaims! — freely and without reservation, that motherhood is the hardest job in the world. More than that, we seem even to enjoy fixating on and relishing the difficulty that accompanies the most visible and long-term consequences of sex.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Being a mother is hard. (So, is, not-so-incidentally, being a father. A good one, anyway.) And it’s perhaps the most important job in the world. But it is not the hardest job in the world.

Being a coal miner is a hard job. Accompanying Lewis and Clark on an expedition is a hard job. I was in Mexico not so long ago, and there was a bent-backed septuagenarian woman who cleaned nasty toilets at a working man’s marina everyday. That was a hard job.

After giving birth (which is so hard it does not even look possible), you have two jobs as a mom, or as a parent, really. One: Keep your kid alive. Two: Love your kid. (Chris Rock put it differently, but the idea is the same. Warning: NSFW.)

Task One is doomed to failure. One hundred percent of parents cannot accomplish this for long enough. One hopes to be lucky and see one’s children grow into old age, and you do what you can to mitigate unnecessary risks. But ultimately, every parent fails this sisyphean task. Failure here is not hard to accomplish; it is inhumanly hard to endure. Above all, though, it is inevitable.

Task Two can be achieved by anyone, with varying results and quality. Though anyone can do it, it is on this task that we so often fail, and for no good reason. I think we fail on this task because we have a generally terrible and incomplete understanding of what it means to love.

As readers of this blog know, I gave up my faith in god some time ago. Nevertheless, I remain grateful for some of the moral training I received via the Church. At the top of the list of moral insights is this:

Your life is not about you.

The attitude embodied in the “last shall be first and first shall be last” maxim of Christian faith represents perhaps the most valuable and least understood keys to happiness. The whole point of life is to maximize the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

And the way to maximize your own wellbeing is to forget about doing so and to focus on maximizing someone else’s.

Being a mother presents a prime opportunity for doing the latter. Of course, “maximizing wellbeing” creates a constant conflict between our present and future selves. We sometimes have to give up happiness now for more later. Or vice versa.

This isn’t just high falutin’ philosophy talk. It translates into real world applications.

When your daughter cries and whines and begs after you denied her a piece of candy, you have to decide. Do you give it to her anyway? That would increase your immediate happiness and perhaps hers. But you may be giving up some measure of future happiness for both of you as well. Leaving aside the health consequences, your daughter will be more likely to cry and whine and beg in the future in order to get her way, which begets misery for all in the vicinity, including that selfsame child.

IMG_3851
A great mom.

In such circumstances, in the heat of the moment, when you’re tired or cranky or distracted, I grant you that it is hard to always know what to do and how to act. It is difficult to know how to love in every circumstance. And what do I mean by “love”? I mean that it is hard to know how to give of your life so that someone else may have a happier one. This act of sacrifice, I argue, is no sacrifice at all. It is the surest path to our own happiness.

But the context of motherhood does not make the task any harder than it usually is. Indeed, it makes it easier. Consider: Would you rather focus on increasing the happiness of, say, a co-worker or the precious child you live with? From which of these do you receive the most love in return?

Let’s not forget that some moms have it pretty easy. They’ve got easy kids, easy lives, healthy relationships. Yes, this is possible, and we need not pretend that it isn’t.

Of course, some moms have it unimaginably hard. They may live in poverty, in squalor, in slavery, or in an abusive relationship, religion, or state. These are not features of motherhood, however. They are features of difficult life circumstances that exacerbate the challenging task of being a good mother.

Women who must endure the worst that life has to offer while also trying to raise good children deserve our utmost respect and admiration. To pretend that the suburban mom whose family has a steady income and a comfortable life and psychologically and physically average kids has struggles on par with the most difficult jobs out there is to demean the plight of those who don’t.

So how about we do this: Let’s talk about motherhood soberly. We can recognize its challenges while also acknowledging that some women have it pretty easy. Let’s be honest about our own situations and let’s not focus on the ME! factor. No one-upping, no faux suffering, no fabricated drama. The real suffering and drama will suffice.

Being a mom can be hard. Being a good, honest, healthy person — mother or not — is harder. Let’s strive for that.

Opinions

The professor stood in front of the whiteboard, finger raised in righteous purpose before twenty totally focused students of Ancient Greek. The bearded, unkempt, bespectacled academic had suspended his recitation of the intricacies of noun declensions to hold forth on the “why” of it all.

Lower lip trembling as if he were close to tears, Dr. Johnson proclaimed, “A liberal arts education changes you. It doesn’t just — or even primarily — prepare you for a job. It is about becoming a better version of yourself.”

He stared us down, making the depth of his point via the passion on his face.

~~~

“I want to be an apologist, maybe as a professor at a university or something,” I said to Dr. Smith, another of my Classics professors. We had been chatting informally in the hallway outside his office. He had asked what I wanted to do with my life.

Dr. Smith had dedicated his life and heart to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus. Even some of his tests in Ancient Greek were designed with a missionary purpose…concurrent with high quality language instruction.

“That’s interesting,” he replied. “But the point of a university is to seek Truth, wherever it is to be found. As an apologist, you are — by design — saying you have the Truth and must defend it. You are defending the Faith, not advancing it.”

~~~

I spent ten years or so in college, progressing from an undergraduate at a Baptist school majoring in Religion and minoring in Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin), to a Masters student learning Business, to a law student. Over that long and varied span, the project, the telos, the point of education became clear to me.

There are two, actually. First, job preparation. Though this never took with me particularly, I recognize that many people go to university to be better able to land desirable employment after school.

Second, training of the mind. With a proper education, you learn how to learn. You learn how much you don’t know. You learn to take in information, digest it, analyze it, and — crucially — critique it. If the information conflicts with other conclusions you hold, you learn how to more or less simultaneously challenge the validity of the new data and examine your previous conclusions. Using the techniques of science, reason, and discussion, you gradually learn how to arrive at the conclusions that are more likely than not to hold up over time.

That is, after a proper education, you change, as Dr. Johnson expressed so passionately and, as Dr. Smith suggested, you become equipped to discover Truth with some reliable measure of precision.

Part of the project is to learn how to reject old ideas, no matter how deeply held, and to adopt new ones. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to hold a conclusion provisionally, always subject to new evidence or argumentation.

At least this is what I thought education was for…

But I noticed that even professors who taught me to critique literature or to evaluate the merits of a business merger or to tear apart a line of constitutional argument would cling emotionally to deeply held beliefs. Some opinions simply ran too deep. They reached the core of the professor’s identity and as such sat beyond his willingness to apply the very techniques he was teaching us.

I recall an incident in law school. My Corporations professor had veered from scholarly instruction into the murky realm of indoctrination. He was a socialist at heart, you see, and so saw fit to rail against the concept of corporate stock being understood as “property” in any real sense of the word. Departing from the standard deference that students give professors who are on a tear, I challenged — politely, I thought — the professor’s opinion about stock. For my efforts, the next morning he treated me to a private chew-out session in his office, even suggesting that I drop the class. He said he had never been so insulted in his sixteen years of teaching law students. To be clear, my only challenge was to his ideas; I never asserted anything untoward about his character.

The surreality of this situation has stuck with me for more than a decade, and it comes to mind any time I find myself in disagreement with someone else on any issue that runs emotionally deep. It was surreal, of course, because it occurred at an institution that was specifically designed to teach me to argue points such as the one raised that day in Corporations.

It also comes to mind because, even though most of the people I know beyond a passing familiarity do in fact hold university degrees, I so rarely find anyone who can distinguish between a critique of their ideas and an attack on their character. Instead, they tend to act like the Corporations professor.

I don’t have the actual data, but it certainly seems that most of the discussions I have that delve into closely held opinions end poorly. Almost without exception, my interlocutor feels insulted.

Now, I grant that I can be brash. I do my best — I really do! — to keep my comments directed at the ideas being discussed, but my manner and demeanor seem to be substantially off-putting. I’ve known this about myself since I was young and I have put in a non-trivial amount of effort to be as polite as I can in such conversations without sacrificing the intellectual rigor of criticism (again, of ideas). Nevertheless, I seem to piss people off.

Even when I think I’m being polite, though, as with the law school professor mentioned above and with others, this doesn’t generally mollify my counterpart. Among the accusations commonly directed at me in such discussions are these:

  • “You just want to be right.”
  • “You want everyone to agree with you.”
  • “You want to dominate the conversation.”
  • “You won’t change your mind.”

What can I say? I do want to be right.

Not for reasons of ego, but because I simply don’t want to be wrong a minute longer than I have to.

Also, I want to find areas of agreement because the whole point of discussions on matters of some controversy is to arrive at a better approximation of the Truth.

Since I’m writing on my blog, I guess I am dominating the conversation. In a real exchange, however, I feel this charge is unfair because I so rarely try to shout people down. If they digress, devolve into insults, or (very commonly) speak incoherently, I will generally end the conversation. Whether that counts as dominance, I’m not sure.

Finally, I most definitely do want to change my mind, if it warrants changing. And I have. As a youngster, I went from being a sort of agnostic to a serious, dedicated Christian. As an adult, I changed my mind about that and rejected religion and faith. As a law clerk at the Montana Supreme Court, I regularly engaged in political and social arguments with a fellow clerk. She almost never made sense in these discussions, but her willingness to engage permitted me to really challenge and clarify my own thinking. As a result, my opinions evolved substantially on matters like the treatment of animals.

Over the last few years, my opinions on abortion, gay marriage, foreign policy, gun rights, and real estate agency have undergone huge changes, though I’ll understand if you don’t ask me about them.

Opinions were made to be changed. The fact that certain religious, political, and social points of view run so deep as to give us our very identities does not mean those opinions should remain constant. The better parts of judgment and personal development would be to change who we are when we discover we are wrong. This is the ultimate self-improvement project, and I plan to continue it.

I’d love to have you join me. But I’ll understand if you don’t.

Sex

Do you remember the angst of being a teenager? It was a sensory overload kind of experience that is all too easy to forget. There was just too much going on to remember it clearly.

You had a mind newly capable of higher reasoning but you had very little knowledge to apply it to. If you’re a male, hormones controlled most of your day (in one way or another), negating the benefits of your newfound capacity for rational thought. If you’re a female, I honestly don’t know what you thought about but I do know that it was confused, harried, and filled with unnecessarily stressing emotions.

Adults seemed not so much stupid as clueless, detached from your sense of reality. Peers influenced your actions more than anybody else. As you would hang out with your friends there was always something in the air, that sense that–somehow, someway–sex was nearby.

My lovely bride and I were discussing teenage sex recently. Not in a sicko pervert way, mind you, but in a holy-crap-our-kids-will-be-teenagers-in-a-few-years kind of way.

You see, when we were teens, our parents and our churches and even some of our friends taught us that teen sex was bad, was evil. It was bad because God said so. You could even sorta, kinda find Bible verses that obliquely talked about premarital sex being bad, though the Good Book was awkwardly vague about it.

The point is, when we were young, we were steeped in a culture that frowned heavily on teen sex, or really any kind of premarital sex. Now, though, we’ve discarded the inconsistent and infuriatingly ham-handed faith of our youth and its attendant moral proscriptions. We are in a place that leaves us only our reason and our judgment to ascertain what is right and wrong.

This is a liberating place to be, but it’s also a bit confusing at times. Contrary to what many of the religious claim, no longer pretending to know what we don’t know–that is, no longer having faith–does not leave us in a world of “anything goes.” But we do have to rethink everything, and how to properly parent our children through puberty and beyond is one of them.

We cannot fall back on some authority like the Bible or God. We have to be proactive. We have to think. So we did. Here is a random sampling of our conversation:

  • Is it ok for teens to have sex? More generally, when is it ok to have sex? At marriage? After high school?
  • What if your son is 14 and he says he’s considering having sex with his girlfriend? Do you forbid it? Do you applaud his unheard-of openness with you? Do you take him to the store and make him buy his own condoms (the theory being that if he’s man enough to bonk he’s man enough to buy condoms out there in the open at Walgreen’s)?
  • Say your daughter is 19 and you’re sitting down at a coffee shop on her college campus and she mentions a new boy she’s been seeing. Then she tells you about the great sex they’re having. Is it a good thing that they’re having sex? Is this a conversation you’d ever want to have with your daughter? Why or why not?

These are difficult questions requiring much actual deliberation. But here’s the great part: We didn’t have to look up the relevant Bible verses. We didn’t have to consider God’s will, that bane of the Christian’s decision-making mind. All we had to do was think.

And we figured it out. No god required. What a joyous thing!

(But, no, we’re not going to tell you. You can do your own thinking.)

I Might Be Wrong

I might be wrong. About everything. Or anything.

I might be wrong about god, foreign policy, and Dave Barry. I might be wrong about me.

I’ve been wrong before. It stinks. I hate it. Not so much because it damages my ego, though there’s some of that. I hate being wrong because it usually means I’m not doing everything I can to be as happy as I can be. It sometimes means those around me aren’t as happy as they can be, either.

And if I’m wrong, please do me a favor. Tell me. Nicely, please, but tell me.

When you tell me, I kindly ask that you focus on how and why I am wrong. Give me reasons explaining why I am wrong. Feelings aren’t very convincing in most cases. But logic, evidence, and rational thought are.

I’m willing to change, by the way. To borrow a line from my favorite author, I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.

I want to be right. Do you?

What If Jesus Rose?

What if it’s true? What if  He really rose from the dead?

Let me answer that plainly. If Jesus actually rose from the dead, one of two things must be true. The first possibility is that Jesus rose from the dead miraculously, that is, via an event that is contrary to scientific laws. The second is that Jesus’ resurrection fits in nicely with scientific laws, but we just do not understand the process yet.

The Miracle Hypothesis

If the Resurrection was miraculous, the implications are enormous. Now most folks run straight to the conclusions that Jesus must be God, that He died to save us from our sins, and that the Bible must be the Word of God. I don’t.

Granting that a miracle actually happened, how could I ever coherently conclude anything? “Miraculous” means nature was violated, which means that reason (“the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic” according to Google) no longer applies, which means…what, exactly? Reason is a tool that we use to form consistent judgments of reality, translatable from one person to another. It is an objective means of obtaining knowledge.

But if a miracle happened, how can I know what to conclude from it? Reason would no longer apply to any judgment that I make, as its reliability has forever been tainted. And if it did apply, how could I ever know it? Without reason, I have no tools other than whim, emotion, and subjective experience to evaluate the world around me.

The Natural Hypothesis

If Jesus rose from the dead without miracle, then it is truly the most extraordinary event to have occurred in the history of mankind. We would do well to study it in every detail to learn what biological, chemical, and physical processes enabled such an anomaly.

Unfortunately, details are sketchy and inconsistent and evidence is sorely lacking, making such investigation nearly impossible and almost certainly futile.

What we cannot conclude, however, is that Jesus is God. Natural events require no divine agency for them to occur. The “Natural Resurrection” would not refute Jesus’ claim to be God, certainly, but it does nothing to support it.

Six of One…

The astute reader will notice that what I have presented here is a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” argument. If a miracle occurred, reason no longer applies (at least not consistently and knowably), so you cannot reasonably conclude anything at all, let alone that Jesus was God. If a miracle did not occur, you cannot reasonably conclude that Jesus was God.

And that’s the point. You ask, “What if He really rose from the dead?” with the expectation that I will reply, reasonably, that He must then be the Savior He claimed to be. But if he really rose from the dead, I cannot use reason to draw any conclusion whatsoever about his divinity, or much else.