One of the philosophy professors at The Catholic University of America is fond of surmising that the works of the late British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe are sometimes difficult to understand because Anscombe had seven children, and they were probably constantly distracting her as she wrote.
The joke used to amuse me–mostly because we know the real reason Anscombe seems obscure is that most of us just aren’t bright enough to follow her even on our best days–but lately the joke has stopped being funny and become more of a meditation piece for me. For even this blog post was interrupted. I had just started when my 2 year old climbed into my lap. I have since retreated upstairs, but he will find me. Right now he is eating Spaghetti-O’s. But soon I will hear him ask his mother, “Dad-dy?” She will tell him that I am upstairs. Then I will hear him start up the stairs, either making a “choo-choo” noise or a ferocious tiger sound, depending on what toy he has opted to bring with him. I will desperately try to hit “Save Draft” before he arrives at a full sprint and attempts to slam said toy down onto my laptop.
Along with the joke-that-is-no-longer-funny from my philosophy professor, I also think often of the words of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes on marriage: “Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves.” I can understand the “supreme gift” part without too much trouble. Aristotle is famous for saying that in contemplation man lives more like a god than a man (Nicomachean Ethics Bk. X, ch. 7), but people often forget that Aristotle had some high praise for good old procreation as well: “the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. (On the Soul Bk. II, ch. 4; translation by J. A. Smith).
I can readily see how my participation in something eternal and divine could constitute a “supreme gift.” Strangely, it is the humbler claim that children “contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves” that often gives me pause. Is it “good” that it becomes increasingly difficult to do my job due to constant interruptions and emergencies, small and large? Or don’t even think of it in terms of work–is it good that even the simplest task can no longer be completed in any sort of continuous way? Going to get a drink of water, are you? You will be called upon to share it, or get him some gummy vitamins, or rescue his car from where he himself pushed it under the fridge. Let me put it bluntly: even trips to the bathroom tend to be interrupted by a two-year old boy bursting through the door, or urgently pounding upon the door when he finds it locked.
But from a theological perspective, there is one way in which this aspect of being a parent is clearly a good: it provides you with the opportunity to cultivate, through repeated actions, a habit of humility. Dealing patiently with constant interruptions breaks down your pride. Not pride in the “big” theological sense of a stubborn, Satanic rejection of God, but pride in the smaller sense of wanting things to go the way you have planned: “I’m getting a drink of water,” or “I’m going to sleep now,” or “I’m going to check my email while I drink this cup of coffee.” This sort of pride may indeed be smaller, but because it is endemic to what we are as creatures it is far harder to conquer.
So, my advice in a nutshell: have babies. You will do your part to overcome the looming demographic collapse of Western Civilization–think of it as the ultimate form of Lenten almsgiving. And you will have secured for yourself a daily penitential practice far more meaningful–and effective, and cuter–than whatever it is you are currently doing this Lent. Not that your abstinence from ice cream and cussing out the other drivers isn’t impressive. I’m just sayin’.