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Elizabeth Grace MatthewFebruary 28, 2023
Chelsea Handler at the 2012 Time 100 gala (Wikimedia Commons)

The comedian Chelsea Handler recently set the internet ablaze with her monologue on “The Daily Show” about being “childless by choice” and her subsequent, satirical video titled “Day in the Life of a Childless Woman.” Ms. Handler states that “children don’t respect [me]” and “the feeling is mutual.” She addresses head-on the claim that it must be miserable being single and childless at 47. “There I am miserable on the beach…scuba diving…climbing a mountain…smoking weed in a hot tub…,” Ms. Handler quips as a photo reel of her wide-ranging adventures plays on the screen. To the same end, Ms. Handler’s hyperbolic “Day in the Life of a Childless Woman” video glories in the boundless freedom to sleep in, take last-minute trips and pursue whatever is pleasurable without worrying about the limitations or responsibilities of motherhood.

“I have infinite respect for moms,” Ms. Handler says in the monologue, “but motherhood is hard,” explaining in part why she chose to be childfree. Still, many parents reacted with disdain and disgust to what they perceived as Ms. Handler’s broader denigration of motherhood. Ms. Handler’s seeming to value what many consider transient pleasures at best and vices at worst (schedule-free living, casual sex, recreational drug use and so on) over the deeper joys of parenthood (holding a newborn, watching a baby smile, hearing a preschooler master counting and so on) clearly touched a cultural nerve.

Ms. Handler’s seeming to value what many consider transient pleasures at best and vices at worst over the deeper joys of parenthood clearly touched a cultural nerve.

Thus, many of the reactions to Ms. Handler’s declaration of child-free happiness made one of two points. First, that the joys of motherhood trump those of child-free life. And second, that Ms. Handler and other childless women will eventually face the sadness of mortality without the companionship of children and grandchildren.

The pro-life activist Abby Johnson emphasized the first point, tweeting: “I wouldn’t trade my husband and beautiful kids for a life of meaningless hookups with strangers, alcohol, and loneliness. Good luck finding a mom who would.” This common response to Ms. Handler’s child-free preening has been around since the anti-family subtext of some extreme iterations of second-wave feminism stoked backlash. The desire for a family—no less than the question of whether men and women can be friends—forms the basis for the storyline in the classic 1989 romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally.” Sally is sure that she wants to forego motherhood in favor of jetting off to Europe whenever she fancies. But one day, she is out with her niece when the little girl points to a man and a woman with a child, saying, “I spy a family.” And Sally realizes that this is what she needs to be happy after all.

Meanwhile, The Blaze’s Sarah Gonzales articulated the second point (albeit cruelly), stating, “This self-serving, hedonistic, narcissistic woman will wonder when she’s 70 why she didn’t make better choices when nobody wants her and she eventually dies alone.” This specter of children unbegotten that many argue will haunt an older Ms. Handler is presently visiting “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell. Now 60, Ms. Bushnell recently stated that she “started to see the impact of not having children and of being truly alone. I do see that people with children have an anchor in a way that people who have no kids don’t.” This concern rightly has broad purchase in today’s culture at a moment when a larger percentage of women than ever before are childless in their mid-40s.

For Ms. Handler, parenthood is best understood as an all-consuming hobby.

Nevertheless, I fear that countering Ms. Handler’s hedonism with explications of joy in motherhood or visions of eventual grandmotherhood (or lack thereof) is ultimately a losing cultural strategy that is built on a woefully underbaked understanding of parental vocation.

For Ms. Handler, parenthood is best understood as an all-consuming hobby based on commodification, where children—who take up an enormous number of resources and an even more enormous amount of time—are just another belonging for which to be responsible. Her own decision to opt out of this popular pastime is, she believes, a joyful one. It preserves her emotional, logistical and financial freedom.

When we parents (I have three children) attempt to counter Ms. Handler’s video by arguing that the joys of parenthood are greater than those of personal freedom, we are unintentionally accepting Ms. Handler’s framing of parenthood as essentially a high-stakes lifestyle choice. Our only difference with her seems to be our conviction that we are happier as parents than we would be if we were not parents.

This misses the broader point that I think many of us actually want to make. For Catholics, parenthood is not simply a lifestyle choice and has less to do with happiness than with purpose. Parenthood is a vocation based on intentional stewardship, in which children’s as well as parents’ lives ultimately belong to God.

The vast majority of people without children, after all, would find it both financially impossible and personally undesirable to live lives of unrestrained nihilism.

So, rightly understood, children do not exist to bring us happiness or to anchor us. Instead, we exist to cultivate in them the understanding that some things (like stewardship of the next generation) are more important than happiness and to anchor them in this and other holy beliefs.

Moreover, a Catholic understanding of parental vocation that is predicated on purposeful stewardship (rather than on happiness or on the avoidance of loneliness) also makes room for the experiences of non-parents who live purposeful lives. The vast majority of people without children, after all, would find it both financially impossible and personally undesirable to live lives of unrestrained nihilism.

Priests and nuns do not beget their own children; but, those that honor their vows serve the children of others as though they were their own. This is also true of unmarried and married people without children who live lives of service to others—whether through a profession or otherwise—in which personal happiness is subordinate to other-regarding purpose.

The recognition of a purpose that renders us as willing to embrace suffering as we are to receive happiness is the basis for parents’ deepest vocational joy.

And that is how those of us that are parents should strive to make parenthood look to others: not a personal, private lifestyle choice, but the most beautifully common approximation that most humans can muster of God’s generous and generative love.

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