Planning for Parenthood

Elizabeth Hanna Pham

In this age of delayed and prolonged childbearing, it is expected that every expectant mother be completely “prepared” for her child. She should know the ins and outs of everything there is to know. She and her husband should have done all the things and travelled the world in all the ways they could ever want so as to ensure they’ve gotten all their other interests and desires out of the way before the baby comes. She should be in charge of her fertility. She should have completely planned such an occurrence and timed it perfectly. (Before long, she may be expected to have planned the baby’s gender or the color of her hair.) The nursery should be painted and furnished and the nanny already selected. Schools should be lined up, with the tuition allotted for them in a savings account. But most of all, in this age of planned parenthood, it is expected that, because she “planned” and “chose” it all, every expectant mother should be completely unafraid.

I don’t have everything completely “prepared” for my baby. And I know I won’t by the day he comes. After all, are we ever truly prepared for anything in life? We do our best. We use our prudential judgment and we definitely should plan as much as we can. We try our hardest and love our deepest. But there will always be delays and unexpected changes. There will always be something to mess up our plans. And if we waited on doing anything until absolutely everything was “ready” we might never experience anything at all.

One of the nice things about having a baby young is that people know I’m not completely prepared. They know there’s no way my husband and I have the nursery painted when, ten months after our wedding, we only now just painted the kitchen. They know we’re new to this. They know we’re going to struggle. They know we’re going to be exhausted. They know we’re going to be even, at least a little, afraid. And that’s okay. Because we’re young. And so we’re excused for such feelings. People want to help us and they do help us. Because they know that we need it.

But it seems like the older you get, the less mercy you’re given for any shortcomings, fears, or needs. After all, if you are the type of woman who did “take charge of her fertility,” (or even if you didn’t, but were unable to have children at a younger age,) then you are assumed to be an independent woman. That is part of this whole concept, is it not? Our modern mentality of being on the pill, of being sexually available, of planning everything, of having the freedom to end an unwanted pregnancy—so much of it is about independence. And it necessarily transfers over to parenting. We expect the older parent to be independent. Oftentimes, they inevitably are forced to be independent due to family members growing older themselves or moving away. You read now of parents throwing their own baby showers because no one offers to throw one for them. And how sad this is! How sad it is that we force so many parents into such complete and cold independence. Because such independence is actually a lie. It doesn’t work. It isn’t human. No parent is ever fully prepared. And every parent needs help.

And we understood this years ago. We understood this in the days when grandparents, extended family members, and neighbors and friends were an integral part of a child’s growing up. We didn’t expect expectant parents to know everything there was to expect. And in many ways, children were better off because of it. In general, I imagine, our children are better off the more we admit our shortcomings—children are better off the humbler we are as parents. Because when our children know that we know we aren’t perfect (but that we do our best,) and that the world isn’t perfect (but that people will be there to love and help them,) they learn to forgive. They learn to forgive us, and they learn to forgive the other people in their lives.

But a child will never learn forgiveness from a parent who is not allowed to be imperfect. A child will never learn forgiveness from a mother who is not allowed to admit she is at least a little afraid of labor pains or postpartum depression—of a mother who is not allowed to admit she’s genuinely concerned that she may gag each and every time she changes a diaper– but is ready and willing to try her best and love her hardest and ask for help when she needs it. A child will never learn forgiveness from parents who are supposed to be completely prepared– because no parent is completely prepared. We must teach our children forgiveness by first admitting that we will fail and that we cannot do it alone. And we absolutely must teach our children forgiveness. For if a child cannot forgive, how will they ever love a child of their own?

And so as a young expectant mother, blessed to have many people ready and happy to help me and forgive me my lack of experience and my shortcomings, I ask the world to do the same for the older “more prepared” mothers and fathers. The truth about planned parenthood is that it doesn’t work. The unplanned may be as significant as the baby himself or as insignificant as a diaper leak—but either way, planned parenthood is an impossibility. We can only do our best and ask for forgiveness and help and for friends and family to laugh with along the way. So let us do so. Let us learn to embrace unplanned parenthood (which is every case of parenthood) at any age and let it teach us better how to love.

Searching for Family

Jennifer Lahl

Several months back, a donor-conceived friend of mine challenged me to undergo DNA testing as part of my ongoing advocacy in the space of anonymous egg and sperm donation.  It was a sort of ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ challenge; see what it’s like to go and search for your family.  I balked at the cost of the testing (although the pricing has really come down) so my friend even footed the bill.

In about a weeks’ time, my home test arrived.  I opened up the package in my kitchen and followed the step-by-step instructions.  Swab the inside of my cheeks.  Carefully put the swaps back in the vials, label them, sign everything and drop the package right back in the mail.  My children were curious and wanted to do the test too.  I told them they could do it if they bought their own kits.  Their curiosity ended then and there.

Then I waited.  And wondered.  I wondered what I would find out about my family tree.  Would there be anyone famous I could now claim as kin?  My maiden name is Chenoweth, so I was sure I would find out that I am related to Kristen Chenoweth!  I had grown up being told that Don Knotts (you know, Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith show) was a distant cousin. I wondered if I would uncover any ugly family secrets I might not want exposed.  I wondered if people had been looking for me, realizing this is a two-way street and that I not only had the ability to find others, but they could find me too.  Maybe I wouldn’t want them to find me.

Soon the day came when my testing was complete and the details were posted on the Family Tree website.  I first contacted the benefactor of my testing kit and got filled in on how to navigate the website, what to look for, and how to make contact with those who came up as ‘connections.’  Then I began the daunting task of slogging through pages and pages of names, names that were listed along with a possibility of related kinship: distant cousin, 3rd-5th cousin.  These were the names of total strangers who shared geographical connections with my relatives, and some even the same surnames.

I began emailing a few, asking how we might be connected.  And I answered emails from others who reached out to me, saying things like:

I received your match request and am wondering how we may be connected.
I’m Chenoweth and Neal on my father’s side and Baker and McKittrick on my
mother’s side. 

I’m still in the process of discovering  my full Family Tree, but I have come to an even greater appreciation for what those in the adoption community and in the donor-conceived population must struggle with every day in their search for family and identity, and the meaning these can bring their lives.  I have the much taken for granted luxury of knowing who my mother and father are, and of knowing my siblings and my extended family.

I can see how, with modern DNA testing, one could spend hours, weeks, months, and even years combing through endless pages of data, looking for that missing link to biological ties.  Each day, with more people being added to the DNA databanks, this search could be never ending—and quite exhausting.

I can’t even begin to imagine the feelings they experience with each passing day, nor the toll this must take on a donor-conceived person’s life and family.  What it must feel like when you’ve found a match—terribly complicated feelings like, should I contact this person?  Will they respond to my inquiry or ignore me?  And then that long dreamed about meeting day.  What will they be like?  Will I look like them?  Will we like each other? I just can’t imagine living each day with so much a part of me being a mystery.


Henry Karlson

C. S. Lewis’s popular satire, The Screwtape Letters, showed us the way our mind often thinks things through in a way that justifies activity which we know we should not do. This book brought Lewis into the limelight and helped launch his literary career, even though the unique style used a devilish mentor explaining how to convince people to turn away from a path of righteousness, Lewis was not the first, nor would he be the last, to investigate the psychology of justifying ourselves. We can find this theme, for example, within The Book of the Rewards of Life by St. Hildegard von Bingen.

Throughout her book, Hildegard gives various erroneous dispositions, the way they tempt us to follow them, and the proper responses needed to overcome them. For example, she began her work with a vision of seven sins and seven responses to them: Worldly Love, Impudence, Jesting, Hard-Heartedness, Slothfulness, Anger, and Foolish Joy. In each, we are shown elements of truth which attract us:  there is always some good which is abused and leads us to evil. Examining how Hildegard portrayed Worldly Love and Slothfulness offers far-reaching implications for how we should view ourselves in the world today.

First, St. Hildegard had a vision of “Worldly Love:” an Ethiopian, full of youthful vitality, has his hands around a tree with branches containing a large variety of flowers.  The figure then speaks, “I hold all the world’s kingdoms with their greatness in my hands. Why should I be withered when I have all this greenness in my hands? Why should I be old when I could be young? Why should I lose my sight to blindness? If this happened, I would be embarrassed. I would hang onto the beauty of this world as long as I can. I do not understand words spoken about another life when have never seen it.” After the Ethiopian speaks, the tree withers and falls and everything becomes dark.

It might seem difficult to understand how, exactly, this represents “worldly love.” Yet, what is presented is the transitory nature of worldly goods.  What we love is only the world in a particular state of its history. We can be attracted to the good things in the world. They truly represent something great when they are at their peak. This is how we feel when we are young, when we think we can go out into the world and make it our own.

Yet, contained within this vision is its own undermining. What beauty, what strength, what vitality we have shall, one day, no longer be there with us. If all we have is this world and its impermanent beauty, then we have nothing: we will end up being depressed. We will not even be able to appreciate ourselves and our bodies as they age and become weaker and in need of care and attention. We might like who we are in our youth but it is fleeting.  Can we find the beauty and joy in the world when we are weak and infirm? Can we accept our bodily state when it is imperfect? Worldly love, with its affection for impermanent moments, makes us momentarily happy when we meet these sham standards of glory, but it will not allow us to appreciate ourselves once these favored moments pass. We should enjoy the gift of life – as Heavenly Love says in response to Worldly Love – but how can we enjoy it if we only accept a small portion of it and judge everything according to it? We will push for a state which we cannot always have. We will try to grow in self-glory only to find our very bodies keeping us away from such infantile glory. We will find, even though we claim to love the world, we really hate it, because we have no ground to understand it, to accept it for what it is.  Worldly love in this fashion leads to worldly hate as soon as that which we try to love is shown to be false to us. The one who can accept weakness, the one who can accept the not-so-glorious state and transformation of their bodies, those who can accept that they might need the help of others, to stand with others in order to thrive, will be those most capable of appreciating the world, and truly loving it for what it is, instead of the shallow vision of what we want it to be.

Slothfulness presents to us different goods and different temptations. St. Hildegard saw it as a man with the body of a worm and a head where its left ear was like a rabbit’s, so big it covered the whole head. Sloth is shown as self-justifying because sloth does nothing; therefore, sloth does nothing which will make anyone hurt or angry. Is that not a good thing? “I do not want to injure anyone by rushing [….] I will not pay any attention to the holy and the poor since they cannot benefit me in any way. I want to be pleasant to everyone so that I do not suffer. For if I fight with someone, they might hit back with force. And if I injure someone, they might injure me more. As long as I am alike I will remain quiet. Likewise, it is sometimes better to lie and deceive than it is to speak the truth. It is also better for me to gather possessions than to do away with them. It is better to run away from the strong than to fight them.”

Here, as “Divine Victory” points out, “good intentions” are being used to justify inactivity, but if one looks closely at oneself, those good-intentions are lies, self-deceptions seeking to pacify the conscience when one looks at injustice in the world. “I don’t want to harm anyone,” while a good intention, is false because if we let injustices in the world continue without speaking up, we let people be harmed. Sloth is about “looking out for number one,” while claiming it is about looking out for others. It is very easy for us to fall into this trap. We lie to others out of it. “We don’t want to hurt them.” But the truth is if we are dishonest, we are hurting them and ourselves. Sloth only does that which is necessary for relaxation, for “enjoyment” in life, and anything which would trouble us, must be pushed aside, and left for someone else, someone who is stronger, more capable than us. Or so we let ourselves think. After all, the opposition is too great.  Who are we to do anything? But justice demands we try.  Even if we fail, we help more by trying than when we stand idly and let injustice thrive unopposed.

Self-deception always borrows from the good, where it feeds off of the good like a parasite, using only a small portion of the “good” to discourage us from proper attitudes and ways of living in the world. It is such sloth, for example, which led to the accumulation of injustices towards women throughout the centuries, and it is such sloth which can now be seen in the reverse, when some radical feminists show slothfulness despite acknowledging demonstrable injustices toward men.  This is how, even when injustice is recognized, we find excuses not to care – to let someone else care – sighing with a righteous resignation that echoes through the world.

There are many other examples of self-deception found in St. Hildegard’s work.  It’s a remarkable book with reflections that tell us much about ourselves, and how we think ourselves into error.  St. Hildegard came from a different time, and sees some things quite differently than us today – but in this way, she offers a better light to us, from a time when self-criticism was common.  While nearly forgotten today, self-examination can clearly be a fruitful endeavor in these times of heightened individualism.


Maternal Imperative

Marjorie Murphy Campbell
Book:  My Sisters The Saints
Author:  Colleen Carroll Campbell (no relation to reviewer)
Publisher:  IMAGE


Have you ever grumbled to yourself, “Is this all there is?  Why does my life feel so empty when I really ought to be grateful and happy?”  You can list your achievements and count your blessings, but, still, a nagging sense of nothingness tugs on your sense of self, and you wonder why, why am I so miserable?

Colleen Carroll Campbell’s spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, now on Virtual Book Tour, opens with the author’s own experience of “nagging discontent” and unfolds a remarkable 15 year, determined journey to find her female self, that “feminine part of me that I thought I had smothered with resumes and credentials.” (79).  My Sisters the Saints offers a ground-breaking view of the challenges facing modern, educated women in discovering their female significance in a culture intentionally designed to measure women like men, by their sexual, material and professional achievements.

Here, we have an accessible, eloquent expression of New Feminism.  Imagine a mix of Betty Freidan’s opportunity-seeking feminism and Caryll Houselander’s female-specific spirituality – utterly opposing views of the feminine and its significance in self-fulfillment.  Campbell charts a very personal, moving struggle through this dichotomy in search of an authentic significance, the sort of peaceful, internal calm which signals a life on track.  In so doing, she discovers that being female is more than biological accident.

Hers was not an easy journey. When Campbell suffered her first bout of malaise, she was already a perfect prototype, a product of the massive, concerted restructuring of female roles and expectations sparked by the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Campbell’s life was molded and cast to subordinate marriage and family to the career objectives touted and taught by 20th century progressive feminism.   A graduate of Marquette University, a member of the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at age 24, and the only woman of six speech writers to President George W. Bush, Campbell fully embraced the goals and reaped the benefits of progressive feminism. Campbell admits that “feminism . . . was simply the air I breathed as a girl growing up in the 1970s and 1980s and coming of age in the 1990s.”  (5).  Like most young women today, she knew her priority:  “I fiercely guarded my professional achievements as the core of my identity.” (82).

Campbell could not have known, could not have seen, that she came of age in a vast social experiment. Decades before Campbell was born, Friedan herself suffered a hunger for significance. Her emptiness motivated a series of surveys of other women. These women, mostly well-educated, white, suburban housewives like herself, expressed unhappiness in their lifestyle:  “Is this all?” “I feel empty somehow . . . incomplete;”  “I’m so dissatisfied.”  Friedan diagnosed a “feminine mystique” as the cause of this “Problem That Has No Name,” a cultural prison which bound women to mindless domestic roles.  She wrote:

These problems cannot be solved by medicine, or even by psychotherapy.  We need a drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity . . .  A massive attempt must be made by educators and parents – and minister, magazine editors, manipulators, guidance counselors – to stop the early-marriage movement, stop girls from growing up wanting to be “just a housewife,” stop it by insisting, with the same attention [given to] . . . boys, that girls develop the resources of self.”  (TFM, 351).

This “drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity” proceeded apace, during the years that Colleen Carroll Campbell was born, went to school and came of age as a brilliant, well-educated young woman ready to take on the world in her restructured femininity – that new image of womanhood which sees child-bearing as a biological accident and marriage and domestic interest inferior to traditional masculine measures of achievement.  Combined with the successful promotion of sexual permissiveness, birth control and abortion, progressive feminists have accomplished a massive indoctrination and “re-education” of females to a more “equal . . . image of femininity.” (TFM, 356).  Campbell was exactly the type of new woman progressive feminists sought to manufacture:  women who placed their autonomy and financial and career ambitions at the very core of their identity. 

Now, on the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Campbell – a child of the “drastic reshaping” of femininity – has published a new feminist treatise which, like The Feminine Mystique, evolved from Campbell’s own moment of utter disillusionment. In her opening chapter – Party Girl –Campbell writes of the feminist culture bequeathed her:

If the key to my fulfillment as a woman lies in maximizing my sexual allure, racking up professional accomplishments, and indulging my appetites while avoiding commitment, why has following that advice left me dissatisfied?  Why do my friends and I spend so many hours fretting that we are not thin enough, not successful enough, simply not enough?  If this is liberation, why am I so miserable? (5).

For Campbell, the progressive feminist experiment failed. True, she enjoyed its worldly opportunity and freedom to pursue “money, sex, power, and status.”  But the “problem that has no name,” the sinking feeling of insignificance which Friedan insisted would be cured by paychecks and promotions, stirred unabated in Campbell’s “liberated” heart.  She found herself adrift in an increasingly unfulfilling pursuit, without cultural icons or markers to deepen the experience of her life.  Like Wendy Shalit, Carrie Lukas and other brave young women challenging the dishonesty of progressive feminism, Campbell refused to accept the malaise and sought models for “deep-down, joyful peace.”

Where are such models to be found?  The thinning ranks of progressive feminists are disturbingly angry, like Friedan was, referring to themselves as “menopausal warriors” (N. Keenan) and their critics as “anti-feminists.” (S. Coontz).  Increasingly, women of the Baby Boomer generation, my generation, women who themselves have discovered that they are not just the people “who happen to … give birth” and that their “equality and human dignity” are not just functions of earning a paycheck (TFM, 371) are speaking up, refusing to perpetuate the myths which mislead young women like Campbell into masculinized life styles.  As Anne-Marie Slaughter dared to explain when leaving her high level State Department job to spend time with her family:

When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

But even with such public admissions, we are a long way from offering detailed guidance to young women for fashioning a workable balance between work and family, much less how to secure a sense of feminine self that feels authentic and significant.

Where can young women turn for understanding and guidance on their inner most longings as women? Campbell turns to a source that has offered a rich tapestry of the “maternal imperative” over the ages.  Whether raised Catholic, as Campbell was, or not, the treasury of the Catholic Church teems with stories of women who found, captured and deployed the “desires that [spring] from a soft, passionate, feminine part” of a woman’s being. (79).  Caryll Houselander once described this vast store of experience and wisdom as “a grandmother . . . with a fortune, indeed, and we dare not miss it; but she certainly has a lot funny old hats and shawls and beliefs and traditions, none of which seem to be fashionable or useful or even wearable.”  (RoG, 92).  It’s a fortune, nonetheless, that represents two thousand years of compiled information by and about women – a fortune amazingly disowned by Friedan feminists as patriarchal, even as they crafted strategies to capture the spoils of the patriarchy they decried.

As Campbell journeys in search of her own feminine expression, she discovers and shares the story of six women from her Catholic faith tradition, most of them not biological mothers themselves, but each a saintly expression of the abiding love for humanity so often identified as the natural genius of women. Campbell travels with these women through the small and enormous challenges of daily life:  work-family conflicts, deteriorating illness in a beloved parent, infertility and longings to control and command fulfillment of wishes. Figures like Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century “party girl with the gift of gab and no shortage of male admirers” (14) and Maria Faustina, “a mousy-looking, barely literate nun,” (65) each become role models, spiritual mentors and true beacons of hope for Campbell as she progresses in her search.

Campbell’s chronicle reminds me of my own gratitude to the women I searched out and found as spiritual guides as I wrestled years ago with my conflict between career and family goals.  Like Campbell, I seemed curiously to cross paths with women just when I most needed them, as I was frantically looking for the next stone in raging waters.  The writings of Erma Bombeck and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, for example, lifted me and stretched my thinking and spiritual life in directions I could not have found without them.

Perhaps unintentionally, in sharing this personal, beautifully written journey, Campbell now contributes herself – her pain, her challenges, her spiritual growth and her faith – to the feminist treasury, a stunningly rich treasury open to all young women wondering why, as Campbell did, with academic credentials, paychecks and careers, “why am I so miserable?”

Campbell’s feminist discoveries are worth reading repeatedly and sharing broadly.