A few years ago, when I was living in Scotland, I went to a psychic for a tarot card reading. Actually, I went twice, because the first attempt was a total flop. After staring deeply into my soul across a dingy card table for five solid minutes, the psychic told me she couldn’t see anything. I was blank. There was some sort of cosmic blockage.
She gave me my money back, suggested we reschedule, and I walked around for the rest of the day convinced that I was about to be hit by a bus – which, in the UK, is a very real possibility at any moment. Pedestrians beware.
I was in grad school at the time, in the throes of PhD research, and pretty much constantly plagued with doubt about whether or not I would ever score a tenure-track gig in a completely glutted job market. I was also working part-time in a little shop full of new age wonders, like enormous quartz phalluses and kitschy little books about angels by someone named Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.
It was in the tiny back room of this shop where I had the reading, from a local psychic who came in on Saturdays. I loosened up a bit on the second visit. I let my guard down, played along, and, unsurprisingly, she was full of insights into The Future. Not so much MY future, though; she mainly went on about my husband, how he would get a good job, be successful, how we would travel a lot (not a shocking leap, considering I was obviously an American living abroad). I kept waiting for her to get to the juicy details about my career prospects, but all that I can remember her saying about me is that:
1) I was an Egyptian man in a former life.
2) I was going to have three kids.
I’ll spare you the obvious commentary about how annoying it was that she assumed I was primarily concerned about Michael’s career. (Apparently she was not able to intuit the huge feminist chip on my shoulder.) I want to write about that last thing, her one prediction that’s stuck with me, the one about me having three kids.
You see, the truth is, I’ve always wanted to have three kids.
Remember, O fellow children of the 80s, that charmingly heteronormative game MASH? In elementary school, when I played MASH at the back of the school bus with friends, I was thrilled whenever I managed to dodge the nightmarish scenario of having twenty children and living in a shack with someone TOTALLY GROSS, instead landing the utopian vision of marrying my cute crush-of-the-moment, living in a nice house, driving a jeep Cherokee (the dream car of my pubescent self), and having three children.
Three: the perfect number. A holy number. Or so it has seemed to me, the youngest of two, who always wished for another sibling below me on the totem pole.
Since having Julian, and discovering that I actually love being a mother most of the time, and I might even be sort of good at it, this Trinitarian vision of procreation has resurfaced. I daydream about us as a family of five, Julian as the caring older brother to two younger siblings. I picture a noisy dinner table, a house full of chaos and love.
Unfortunately, my reproductive plan has a slight hitch.
Maybe you also remember that movie 12 Monkeys? Where David Morse plays a scientist who attempts to purge the earth of human beings, because we’re pretty much just a bunch of parasites, sucking the life out of our planet? Well, there are some days when it’s not too much of a stretch for me to imagine that Michael could one day be that guy.
Michael loves the earth. Maybe a little too much. He feels guilty every time he gets into a car. He is the reason we have a trash can that is a fraction of the size of our neighbors’ and yet never seems to get full. He is the reason we recycle. He is the reason we compost. I eat the organic vegetables he grows and the eggs from the chicks he raised, all on our little suburban plot. He weatherizes our house every winter; he installed a timer on our water heater; he programmed our thermostat to conserve energy. He convinced me to go with cloth diapers. While I love to take long, indulgent showers, Michael does that thing where he lathers up with the water off and only turns it on to rinse. Compared to the average American, he is Captain Planet (thankfully sans green mullet).
How does this relate to my baby dreams? Well, Michael is worried about overpopulation. Like, really worried. To the point where he feels that choosing to have more than two children would be morally wrong.
I have to admit that, although I understand his concerns on an intellectual level, I have a hard time not feeling exasperated at his dogged environmentalist principles – because, let’s be honest, whether we have one, two, or three children is not going to have any real cosmic impact. It’s only when you spiral things outward and say, “well, if everyone takes that approach…!” that you maybe get planetary doom and destruction.
Of course, this post isn’t really about tarot cards, or overpopulation. There’s another half-formed question lurking underneath all that, a question about how to live a simple, ordinary life as a finite being in a world that can swallow you whole with its brokenness.
Maybe you’ve heard of “disaster fatigue,” how people can only observe so much suffering before they experience a sense of paralysis or numbness, before they cope by not caring. I’m a master at this, particularly since becoming a mother. I shut things out. I disengage. I’ve written before about how I consciously avoid the news, even though that probably makes me a bad Citizen of the World. But I often feel a strong sense of moral obligation to dive back in, to educate myself on all the tragedies assailing humankind. Last week, I kept trying to force myself to read about Gosnell, thinking I need to know this. But I wonder: do I really? Do I need to be informed of every horror with front page potential?
And this question leads to another question: should the ills of the wider world always dictate our life choices? Should I curb my desire to have three children because of fears about climate change or overpopulation?
I like to watch Michael while he cooks. He moves around the kitchen easily, adeptly, despite our baby being strapped to his chest and the weight of the world resting on his shoulders. I want to tell him: care less. Be selfish, like me. Shut out the world. But of course, I love that roomy, guilt-ridden heart of his. I love that he gets mad at me when I throw a yogurt container away instead of putting it in the recycling. I love that he is someone who values the needs of humankind above his own. We need more people like him. That’s partly why I want to make babies with him, to grow a little tribe of humans who will choose, like their father, to live with intention and compassion — but hopefully without being crippled by apocalyptic guilt.
I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t care about the world, or the species, or humanity writ large. Caring is good. What I’m wondering is how that concern can and should translate into action. It’s hard to be a global citizen. It’s expensive, inconvenient, and perhaps, for Americans, nearly impossible to avoid being a human parasite on the globe. So what does “the good life” look like for us?
In response to this last question, I tend to zoom in until the faces in my immediate circle spring into clarity and the rest of the world is a distant blur. Michael zooms out – way out – trying to gather the whole human species in his scope. I know that if I weren’t married to Michael, my carbon footprint would be exponentially larger. I likely wouldn’t make intentional, ethical choices about food and energy consumption on my own. I would not be a Planeteer. But maybe being married to me is what will keep Michael from turning into the deranged scientist from 12 Monkeys.
I pretend I’m wise sometimes, that I have things figured out, but I don’t. I might not be an angsty grad student anymore, looking for reassuring answers from a back-room psychic; instead I’m an angsty mommy blogger, jonesing for more babies, with an environmentalist husband who wants to save the world.
Maybe Captain Planet has an answer for us. Maybe we can clear some middle ground between my pragmatism and Michael’s idealism and build our home there. Maybe – WITH OUR POWERS COMBINED!!! – we can figure out how to keep loving the earth, while also allowing ourselves to fully live on it.
…with three kids.
My son just turned four months old yesterday, and I’m already wondering how I am going to talk to him about sex. To be perfectly honest, this is something I’ve been thinking about for years, long before becoming a mother.
Yes, I have a problem with “future tripping,” as a friend of mine recently phrased it. One of my many neuroses is the inability to stop planning for and fantasizing about things that are years down the road – like the sex education of my children, for example, of whom only one has been born yet.
I’m still working on the finer details of the “sex talk,” which I imagine will be an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-time super-awkward chat about “what happens when mommies and daddies love each other.”
I do know one thing, though:
I’m not going to talk about virginity.
I’m done with virginity. Done and dusted. Yeah, no big surprise, you say: I’ve been married for seven years and have a baby – of course virginity and I have long since parted ways. And that’s true. In fact, we parted ways quite awhile ago. Before I got married. Yes, I was one of those 80% of evangelical Christian youth who pledge to save sex for marriage and don’t actually make it. But that’s not what I mean by being done with virginity. I mean that I’m done with the concept itself.
There’s been some buzz on the blogosphere lately about the damaging impact of “purity culture” within Christianity, and I feel compelled to throw my hat into that ring, because I’ve got some serious wounds from growing up in that culture, wounds that keep splitting open just when I think they’ve finally healed. [Check out these other posts on the topic by Emily Maynard – no, not the Bachelorette – Jamie Wright, and Elizabeth Esther.]
I won’t get into the finer, messier details of my story here. (I tried to reassure my mom the other day that I do have SOME boundaries when it comes to blogging – which doesn’t mean I won’t eventually share my full story; after all, it is mine to tell. But I don’t feel ready yet. Probably because of those wounds I mentioned earlier…)
Instead, let’s have some fun with bulleted lists!
This is what the virginity narrative taught me:
- Sex is dirty and shameful — until you’re married, and then it’s suddenly AWESOME! AND BEAUTIFUL! AND FROM GOD!!!
- There are two classes of Christians: those who waited, and those who failed. You now belong to the second class.
- Your sexual history is the most important thing about you.
- As a woman, your moral worth is rooted in your body and sexuality.
- “Virtue” is just another code-word for “virginity,” which you lost…
- …And, since you are no longer a virgin:
- You have less to bring to a marriage. (If anyone actually decides you’re worth marrying, that is.)
- You’ve lost a part of yourself that can never be regained.
- You are damaged goods.
- You can never be “pure” again.
- Your marital sex life will be haunted by the ghosts of your former partners.
You are a creature of shame.
That last one is the cruelest. The last one is a fishhook to the soul. I’m not talking guilt here. Guilt implies a fault in one’s behavior, and I think guilt can sometimes be helpful for us to experience, when we’ve been naughty and it’s warranted.
Shame, however, is a different animal altogether. Shame isn’t about what you’ve done. Shame implies a flaw in one’s being. “Purity culture” isn’t just about policing behavior; it’s in the business of ontology. And that’s dangerous.
It is this narrative of flawed being that broke me. Even years later, despite much time and healing, I can still abruptly stumble into deep wells of pain when I hear “purity talk.” Suddenly the shame I thought I’d managed to peel away from my skin reappears, burning like ice, and I feel sick. I want to hide.
Some might say that I’m just another anecdote about why sex before marriage is so damaging. But I know that what really damaged me was being told that I was damaged. We desperately need a new Christian narrative about sexuality, one not fueled by shame and fear, but a narrative of wholeness and health and grace.
So that’s why I’m writing this, even though I’m feeling anxious and exposed as I type this out. I’m writing this post for the girl I used to be, for the 17 year-old non-virgin who showed up at a college (ostensibly) full of Christian virgins and learned to devalue herself, learned to see herself as unworthy of love and respect. The girl whose classmates gave her all sorts of new ways to think about herself — as a piece of candy that had already been sucked on, or a bride in a wedding dress covered in red handprints, her shame for all the world to see.
I want to tell that girl that those are lies. I want to tell her that she cannot be reduced to her history, that she is valued for her mind and her fierce heart, that she has a life of fullness and love ahead of her.
I want to tell that girl within me – because she’s still there, still aching – that one day she’ll meet a boy who couldn’t care less about her non-virginity, and after years of great marital romping (which, it turns out, is NOT haunted by the ghosts of past lovers) they’ll have a cute baby, and then maybe a couple more babies, and she’ll somehow figure out how to talk to those babies about all this sex stuff without shame.
More than anything, I want to tell that girl, and others like her, this:
You are whole and holy.
You are immeasurably loved.
And that’s not something you can lose.