But love's obligations are what make life full and sweet.
On the Feast of the Assumption, we took our three boys to an evening Mass, just before dinnertime. It was the only one we could manage, but the time was not optimal for our young children. When the youngest started to fuss, I slipped to the back of the chapel so that my soporific dance wouldn’t disturb anyone. The baby nodded off to the soundtrack of (appropriately enough) an uplifting homily on the value of maternity.
I wanted to hear what the priest was saying, so I kept swaying even though I was tired. I was moved by his discussion of the intimate bond between mothers and infants, and the relationship between physical and spiritual motherhood. But then came a jarring note: he started to lament the follies of a world in which “children are regarded as a burden." And I almost laughed out loud. I had been holding that baby so long, it felt like my arms might fall off.
Children are a burden. Spouses are a burden. Faith is a burden. There is a central theme here that can be generalized: love is a burden.
Charitably, we might suppose that this thoughtful priest was really making the point that children are more than just a burden. Certainly, we do live in a world in which children are undervalued. I also think it’s important to emphasize to prospective parents that parenting can be not merely joyful, but also fun! All the pleasures of one’s own childhood can be relived through the eyes of one’s offspring. Despite that, I think there is an important point here which is sometimes overlooked at great cost. Love is by its nature burdensome. We should expect it to be so, and even welcome those burdens so far as we are able. The blessed burden of love helps us to grow in charity and virtue.
This truth cannot easily be communicated to people who know no moral language except that of individual rights. Rights-talk enables us to assert ourselves, and also sometimes to limit our demands out of respect for others. The concept of “rights” can be understood even by the hedonist or utilitarian, at least to some degree. It aims at a kind of mutual survival, in which everyone gets his fair chance.
Love aims at something higher. In love, we recognize the value and tremendous potential of another human being, and through that realization, we come to desire his good. Love draws us out of ourselves. It invests us in another person’s moral development. This intensely personal project is simultaneously the most authentic form of self-assertion, and also the most complete recognition of another’s worth. It uncovers our own humanity, and also feeds and nourishes the humanity of those we love.
Given that love really is good for us, why should we dwell on the burdens? Because selflessness can be punishingly difficult in the shorter term, and modern people have trouble understanding this. In our modern parlance, “love” means little more than “a strong preference, the satisfaction of which is particularly important to one’s personal happiness.” We understand that love can be sweet, but we don’t want to accept the attendant burdens.
So obsessed are we with the language of rights that we allow love itself to be co-opted into that world. People of the same sex, we are told, have a right to love one another as spouses, in a way exactly equivalent to heterosexual love. Anyone who experiences maternal or paternal yearnings has a right to a child, which is why we must enable all interested parties to acquire children, through adoption, artificial insemination or surrogacy. The welfare of the children is very much a secondary concern. Anyone who desires parenthood (and has the resources to finance the physiological process) is entitled to offspring, regardless of their other personal circumstances.
Of course, all people want to love and be loved. This longing is fundamental to human nature. It’s hardly surprising, then, that people yearn for relationships that are not appropriate for them, given their personal circumstances. We should regard these kinds of frustrations with compassion, and where possible help to fill the breach. But we should never allow ourselves to forget that love cannot be an entitlement. It begins with the assumption of burdens, and only later yields its bountiful rewards.
Parenthood may be the single best relationship for illustrating how burdensome love can be. Parenting involves massive responsibility and expense, and enormous amounts of unpaid, menial labor. In the modern era, it brings few material or practical upsides. Children may do a few chores here or there, but their help is sure to be minimal in comparison with the efforts required to raise them. They may supply some support in old age, but from a financial perspective, most people would be better off saving on the diapers and dental bills, and stashing the money in their 401K instead. That’s especially true given that parenthood involves a substantial opportunity cost. Careers are built or destroyed in precisely those years when biology decrees that children should be conceived and born.
It’s a burden. Why pretend otherwise? There’s a reason why people have fewer children nowadays; they correctly perceive that their lives will be easier and more comfortable without the pitter-patter of tiny feet.
The easy life isn’t necessarily good, however. Having kids is “worth it” for the same reason that all love is worth it. It makes life less empty and more meaningful. Kids gives us excellent reasons to get out of bed in the morning. They fill our days with aggravation, but also with laughter and hugs and rich, beautiful memories that will forever be filed away in the scrapbook of our minds. The burden is the blessing, or at least, the two are too closely intertwined to be distinguished from one another.
Let’s teach our kids to look forward to the burdens of love. Maybe that will help them to forge the kinds of lasting relationships that their hearts most fervently desire.
Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.