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Artillery Row

Have hope, have kids

How parenthood can steel us against stress and despair

Hope struck me on a recent evening of exhaustion and frustration. At 12 weeks pregnant, I’d just managed to put away the last of the refrigerated items from a Costco trip (the pantry items would have to wait until my brief energy supplies returned) and my husband walked in the door from a long day at work with the mail. “Don’t look at these, they’ll only annoy you,” he said, trying to push past me a couple of long, I-mean-business envelopes. 

One was a speeding ticket from a camera somewhere in Washington, DC (clearly, I didn’t know where) and the other was a parking ticket claiming my car wasn’t properly zoned to park outside our apartment building (it was, but this would mean a tedious fight with DC Parking Enforcement). These frustrations were, as I knew, part and parcel of living in the city. 

Over the past seven years of living and working around Washington, I’d become familiar with the sense of wear and exhaustion that can so often radiate from the place.  I moved here in 2017 and it seemed as though it was a cascade shortly thereafter — the pandemic, then riots, then a tense presidential election, and most recently, more riots. As a young married couple of only a few months, we’d already experienced attempted break-ins and disturbing reports of violent crime in the midst of our supposedly up-and-coming downtown neighbourhood. The night we returned from our honeymoon, we found our car sideswiped with its mirror torn off, the second time in only a few months. 

In an instant, all these thoughts flashed through my mind as I stood in front of our kitchen island, now covered in oversized boxes, bags, and containers. What was the point of budgeting and shopping at Costco anyways? Or the point of my husband’s many long hours at the office this month? The two tickets in my hand spiraled outwards into the weight of the world — World War III, an anemic economy, forever plastics, suicide rates. I wrestled for a little but then said to my husband, “I want to be the person who’s calm in all situations. And besides, we can deal with this. It’s not the end of world.” It was a small response but a very different one than what I had prepared only moments before. The reason for my calm, I knew, was that I was preparing to be a mother. And that little thought spiralled out, blooming, against all the tangled frustrations tucked into the envelopes in the mail. 

Since becoming pregnant, the world has looked more hopeful. It wasn’t something I expected. I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, the fifth of six kids, but never felt a particular fondness for children or babies. My parents had a marriage of ups and downs, with the downs sticking painfully in my memory. We went through difficult times as a family — financial troubles and sickness. Marriage and family life were not clear paths for me, nor clearly hopeful ways of living. When I began to study my faith more deeply in graduate school, I thought marriage seemed like the more intimidating vocation over religious life. But I made it a focus to try to live in a spirit of adventure and trust in God. That disposition resulted in marriage to a gentle and loving man and becoming an expectant mother shortly afterwards. 

Now, having a mysterious and curious little being inside me feels like a secret weapon against the stressors of modern living. Each day it seems as though there is another thing that slips away from my control but I care less than I did. This little baby is new and full of unknowns. I can’t perfectly direct his development, his health, or his disposition. I can’t know when or even if my husband and I will ever hold him. I can’t know how my delivery will go or when I will stop feeling morning sickness. I certainly can’t know what foods he’ll like, where he’ll go to school, and what he might do with his life. 

These unknowns, so commonly cast as sources of anxiety in my generation, have become potential adventures. They will all ask something of me and all offer things to me. These are no longer things to hide from but opportunities to develop as a person, to give more of myself, and to experience more of the intangibles that give life meaning. 

To form a family could be a radical act in the face of the common despair of our times

I suspect that this is something that I never would have known if I hadn’t taken the leap of getting married and being open to having kids. After all, you can’t easily try such things on for size. So many young people have closed off this possibility or only engage with it through laboratory-like specificity. The U.S. birth rate is well below replacement level and dropping. Millennials like myself are, in many cases, choosing against having children — or at least delaying the pursuit of the conditions from which children might emerge. The industry surrounding pregnancy and motherhood often cultivates less of a spirit of hope and adventure and more a spirit of anxiety and defence. To form a family could be a radical act in the face of the common despair of our times. After all, the future belongs to those who are there to live it. What more could most of us do to contribute to the future than to form the next generation? 

This little baby and all that he might mean and be in the world, is the source of astounding hope for me. This is our first baby.  We are very early on in the process of family life. The learning curve is steep. We know that the baby is delicate and there are many more days to travel before we meet him. We know that family life will demand much of us and continue to humble us. Yet, to live out this life is to dare to hope, to reject false promises of perfect knowledge and infallible planning, and to reject the idea that the highest form of living is in quiet, timid comfort. In the slow walk towards marriage and now motherhood, hope asked much of me. But the longer I hoped, the more I learned that hope does not disappoint.

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