Of Habits and Hassles: The Sign Value of Chaotic Family Life

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The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs.
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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The Health Benefits of Not Getting Pregnant

babies I guess you can’t argue with science.

In case you haven’t heard, various studies claim that not having a baby is considerably safer than having a baby. Epidemiologically and statistically, they argue, the risks of pregnancy and childbirth are greater than the risks of contraception, or even abortion. But people keep having babies, so what’s the deal? Obviously, family planning advocates have done a lousy job getting the word out.

From a public health perspective, I suppose, it’s a simple “do the math” thing: Too many kids already strain the resources of our healthcare system, our government, and the environment, and now we have scientific proof that not having babies is actually healthier and safer than having them. So just stop already! It’s for your own good!

That got me thinking.

There must be plenty of other common human activities that are fraught with statistical risk which aren’t receiving the attention they deserve. I’m musing about all this while munching on a bagel, with a cup of coffee at the ready, and then it dawns on me: Eating! Now there’s a risky activity!

Think of all the choking hazards involved in swallowing, or the possibility of inhaling your latte as you laugh at a Vine on your tablet. What’s more, think of all those folks scalded by their hot beverages, probably daily. AND IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW BIG YOU MAKE THE WARNING ON THE CUP, ordinary folks, caught up in the rush of daily existence, will still disregard how hot their coffee is and spill it in their laps.hot

Plus, there’s our obesity epidemic – people just eat too damn much! We’re reminded of this by the First Lady and a host of celebrities all the time via PSAs on every conceivable platform. And we don’t even need their reminders – the magazine covers in the grocery store checkout lines do a pretty good job already, with their svelte models and headlines about the latest celebrity diets.

So, with apologies to Jonathan Swift, I’d like to modestly propose a new public health campaign. I’m calling it: EATNOT!

It’s simple, catchy, and very green –  think of all the plant life that will be spared if we simply halted harvesting. I’m counting on environmentalists – and PETA activists, of course – to be among the first to take up the EATNOT! cause.

And consider the public health advantages! No more aspiration pneumonia, no more choking – the Heimlich Maneuver will go the way of the rotary phone. And, like last summer’s tan, obesity will simply fade away, along with the associated higher risks of cardiac problems and diabetes. This a no-brainer – why haven’t we thought of it before?!

“Ah,” you say. “You’re forgetting that our bodies require nutrients and fluids to function. How will the EATNOT! campaign address that significant drawback?”cop_content_386883

I’ve got three words for you: Total Parenteral Nutritionor TPN as we call it in the healthcare biz. It’s a fairly common treatment in which all the nutrients and fluids you need are administered directly into your veins. Eating and digestion are bypassed completely, and the doc (with help from the pharmacist) steps in to totally take over your metabolic equilibrium needs.

Usually, TPN is reserved for the very sick – those enduring cancer or other ailments which prevent them from taking in oral nutrients at all, or simply not enough. The risks are low – mainly the possibility of infection to the catheter inserted in the blood vessels – and occasional lab work allows tweaking of the TPN formula to optimize nutrition and health.

So, obesity issues? No prob! Just reduce the calories in the next few bags, and watch the weight fall away. And how about other medical advantages – like diabetes management, for example. Blood sugars all over the map? Simply adjust the carb and insulin components in the formula, and you’ll have smooth sailing, endocrinologically speaking.

As you can imagine, TPN is pretty expensive, but once you factor in the cost savings – no more obesity alone means considerably less spent on heart disease, stroke, hip and knee surgery, etc. – then I think you’d agree that this is a campaign that deserves serious consideration.

Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843On the other hand, getting a bag full of nutrients run into my vein isn’t quite the same as enjoying a bagel and a cup of joe – especially if I’m fortunate enough to be sharing them with a friend. True, it would be so much more efficient to have the intravenous treatment, but not nearly as pleasant, nor as conducive to conversation. Could it be that meals are more than the delivery of nutrients, and nutrients themselves are more than simply nourishment? Darwin would tell us that we have taste buds and appetite primarily for survival, yet can it be simultaneously acknowledged that those human features have a purely sensual value as well, not to mention a communal one?

I’m envisioning a big family dinner. As everyone enjoys the food, they talk. They laugh, they cry; they celebrate and mourn; they nourish themselves while they nourish relationships. Perhaps God gave us hunger and taste not just to get us to eat, but also to enable us to feast, and to feast is to join with others in eating extravagantly – something hard to accomplish via an IV drip.

G.K. Chesterton asserted something along these lines when he wrote about Omar Khayyam’s practical approach to drinking wine:

It is bad, and very bad, because it is medical wine-bibbing. It is the drinking of a man who drinks because he is not happy. His is the wine that shuts out the universe, not the wine that reveals it. It is not poetical drinking, which is joyous and instinctive; it is rational drinking, which is as prosaic as an investment, as unsavoury as a dose of camomile.

Are there risks involved with actual eating? Dangers and downsides? Temptations even? Yes, but I’m thinking that focusing on the risks misses the point – i.e., that feasts are more about the feasters than the food, and more about the stuff of living than the stuff of health. Maybe my EATNOT! campaign isn’t such a good idea after all.

The same goes for avoiding babies for health reasons. “All birth control methods are safer than childbirth,” Planned Parenthood informs us. I’m no statistician, so I won’t try to rebut that. Even so, like the image of someone choosing TPN over eating to avoid risk, there’s something downright silly – even ridiculous – about contrasting the risks of childbirth with the benefits of having another baby.

And for those not convinced, I offer this as supporting evidence in favor of risking childbirth: A Coke commercial from Argentina that went viral late last year. It’s hawking cola, I know, but it also tells a beautiful story of real family life in a mere 60 seconds.

Those of us with children know these emotions very well. Sure, having a baby can be a challenge. Sure, parenting is hard, and life with kids is bumpy. And, sure, there are plenty of risks involved with all of this, even dangers. But is it worth it? Should we take the risk?

I say: Feast!

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A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

Of Cars, Yards, and Record Keeping

To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important.
~ G.K. Chesterton

Cece and I were driving along in my ancient Honda Accord (1989 – older than virtually all of my nursing students for several years now), and she looked around for a place to stow her candy wrapper. “Just toss it on the floor,” I said. “It’ll add to the ground cover.”

HondaShe laughed, followed my advice, and remarked, “That’s what nice about having an old car like this: You don’t have to worry about how it looks so much.”

True enough. My kids all know that our vehicles are about getting around, period. If they run, great. If they’re banged up and noisy and a mess, that’s par for the course – and so much the better. As Cecilia said, you don’t have to worry about its appearance when it serves an exclusively utilitarian purpose, and, among other things, that means a candy wrapper or two on the floor is no big deal.

Same with the yard. Sure, we mow, but that’s about it these days – or at least it will be, once the Arctic Vortex is just an unpleasant memory. When we were new parents in our first home, we spent a lot of time sprucing up the property: Trimming and watering, weed-pulling and fertilizing, we had all the time in the world. Ben, our first, was in diapers and pretty stationery, and weekends were wide open! The yard was a canvas, and seeds, our palette. Art for art’s sake, we declared, lawnwise at least.

Now, six more kids later, plus a dog, the “art for art’s sake” approach to lawn maintenance has given way to more practical considerations: A yard is place for children to tear around and play and careen lawnand chase, and for dogs to do all that plus, well, what dogs do.

Then there’s our filing system. The comment about “ground cover” in the Honda shifted my conversation with Cecilia from layers of trash to our family records and documents. I mentioned that, in the old days, I kept up a very elaborate scheme for keeping all our papers and financial information organized. I had folders and cabinet drawers, all neatly labeled, and whenever a bill or important paper crossed my desk, I immediately gave it a home in the scheme. We’d have no worries about tax audits in my family – that is, once we earned enough to have to pay taxes.

Right along with the yard, the elaborate filing system began to deteriorate rapidly as God continued to bless us with additional children. Now I have piles of documents stowed away in boxes here and there, and our approach to retrieving them when necessary is twofold: First, we hope and pray that we won’t have to retrieve anything ever,bright ideas paper and, when that fails, the backup plan involves judging approximate locations by estimating how many documents would likely have piled up in the elapsed time. It’s akin to gauging the age of a geological formation by counting layers of rock.

This is what having kids does to you. You lose your grip on what you think is important, and something new takes its place. Time remains a precious and scarce commodity, but you reserve much more of it for others, especially little others. Appearances and tidiness still matter, but not nearly as much as before. And yards become places to play primarily. And cars? Just the way we get from point A to point B – oh, and receptacles for “layered record keeping” of sorts.

But then, I’m guessing you already know all that, because if you’ve read this far, you probably have kids of your own. Consider this a reminder, then, of how far you’ve come, and how little you miss what was left behind.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Reckless Breeders

The correlation of reckless breeding with defective and delinquent strains, has not, strangely enough, been subjected to close scientific scrutiny. This is a crying necessity of our day (Margaret Sanger).

Mrs. Sanger would classify me and my wife as reckless breeders—seven kids, and not a whiff of birth control. “Bring ’em on!” we said when we got married, and so God did—alleluia! And nary a defective nor delinquent strain in the lot. Scientific scrutiny be damned.

Margaret-Sanger-1916-620x320The funny thing is that reckless breeders are in short supply these days, and not because of scientific scrutiny, nor its nefarious twin, draconian social policy (thankfully a thing of the past). As a nation, we’re sinking demographically, but instead of rearranging deck chairs, we’ve struck up the band and we’re throwing a party! Yeah! No babies! Whooo-hooo!

A stark example of this is a recent Time Magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life.” Here’s the tagline: “The American birthrate is at a record low.” Indeed, it’s startlingly low—2.0 babies per woman at last count. Keep in mind that the replacement rate is 2.1, and the rate’s trajectory is down, not up. Bottom line: We’re going the way of Europe and Japan, where grey is all the rage.

Shrinking fertility rates and aging populations are important for a number of reasons, as William McGurn points out in his review of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Among other things, fewer kids means fewer workers to make stuff and buy stuff, and fewer taxpayers as well. More and more retiring boomers are starting to collect government benefits, and there are fewer and fewer employed taxpayers to foot the bill. Our weak economy only exacerbates all this.

McGurn also mentions a weakening of our national defense and a curtailing of innovation as the balance of our population tilts in the direction of the aged. But these are mere temporal concerns. A bigger problem has to do with our vision of what marriage and sex is for in the first place.

But don’t I know? It’s for fun, of course!

Of course. But not just for fun.

Back in 1982, The Roches released their album Keep on Doing which included a song called “Sex is for Children.” The song is a collage of sounds and words that doesn’t reveal a whole lot about the title’s meaning. But, as song titles go, it’s definitely provocative and memorable. And simply true. Physiologically, anatomically, sex is indeed “for children.”

Regardless of how enjoyable it is (and enjoyment here is meant to include both tactile pleasures and the more abstract pleasures of mutual self-giving), sex is clearly oriented to the begetting of children. In fact, when Margaret Sanger and her allies coined the phrase “birth control,” they obviously took the biology for granted—i.e., they were selling more sex with less births.

This dual meaning of sex—pleasurable union and procreation—is something the Church has always taken into account and honored. It’s an idea at the very center of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae:

[The] fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.

Yet, the Church goes much further than that, teaching us that kids really are the main point. Pope Pius XI puts it this way:

Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.”

Terribly backward by today’s standards, I know, but even Margaret Sanger seemed to admit that motherhood had its good points—even aside from merely perpetuating the species. She wrote that the “potential mother can then be shown that maternity…may be the most effective avenue to self-development and self-realization.”cheaper-by-the-dozen

But how? What is it about having kids that seems to be so vital to self-development and self-realization? I think Lauren Sandler’s Time article gives us some clues, like when she quotes New Yorker Jenna Johnson, who is partnered and happily childless: “My plans—professionally, daily, long-term, even just for vacation—are free from all the contingencies that come with children.”

Contingencies. That’s a nice way of putting it. For us parents in real-time, it’s more like “constant chaos,” where every day is a matter of survival, and coming home at night is similar to a controlled crash landing.

So why do we do it? Love. Love begets love. And, in this case, it’s not an abstract begetting, but rather a fully incarnate, enfleshed love—one that cries and laughs and poops. Being entrusted with that incarnate crying and laughing and pooping love changes us. It makes us better men and women, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors, workers, humans! Or at least it can. It should.

But it’s herculean, by all accounts—something that another childless woman featured in the Time article seems to grasp. Leah’s life with her husband is “insane already,” even without kids. She goes on: “I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents—and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”

Exactly. Leah would be a great mom. I hope she gets the chance.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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