Oct 7, 2022

small s, big s

[In thinking about advising a young professional woman on the verge of motherhood]:

I would not have chafed against it so, if I had the chance to start over. When my children were very young, I was caught between the incitement to over-think it, over-perform the verb of “parenting,” and my desperate need to work, like oxygen — to live for breaks from the repetitive entropy. It took me too long to find a good babysitter, the first time around. And then by the time I went back to grad school, when the youngest was 16 months or so, I was so starved for work that I was determined to do it all, all at once. In the footage from my graduation ceremony, there are three kids under age 6 around my feet, and the circles under my eyes are deep purple.

But the key thing missing from those early years was this question: Is the family a formative institution for character, by means of sacrifice? In no small way, it is — and that’s to the good of all humans involved. This is a truly ancient understanding of the family. But I had only been sold the small-s version, see? That mothers were caught up in double standards, and no-win situations, and that the sacrifice required is mostly ours to take up, unless we resisted strenuously. I still reject that raw deal for moms only. I married a person committed to shared parenting. And I’ll keep lobbying for affordable childcare, and good public green space, and the strong structural basics of communities organizing around children as citizens.

But in rejecting the distorted and gendered version of small-s sacrifice, I threw out also the big-s Sacrifice that is one crucial way of becoming more than selfhood. I lost sight of the generalized way that parenting is a bid to join the human race: to participate in the long story of formation by subtraction. To be made more free by the shearing of ego and the loss of autonomy. I was conscripted into this process, of course. There is no parenting without it. But if I could have seen at least a little bit more of its universality! Its invitation. Nothing would have made those years easy. But I missed the chance to see — in real time, as it unfolded — my self being Formed in a metaphysical way.