By Sam Keyes
Like as the arrows in the hand of the giant, *
even so are the young children.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; *
they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.
— Psalm 127:5-6
It’s not uncommon at my house, in those many moments of frustration that occur with the small humans, to find an adult muttering with a bittersweet tone, “children are a blessing from the Lord.” And, of course, they are. The fruits of the womb “are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord,” as Psalm 127:4 has it in the 1928 Psalter. The psalmist continues the theme in the next psalm, with a set of lines used as the gradual at many a nuptial Mass over the centuries:
Thy wife shall be as the fruitful vine * upon the walls of thine house;
Thy children like the olive-branches * round about thy table. (Ps. 128:3-4)
The arrows of Psalm 127 always get me, though. What is this supposed to mean? Are sons and daughters weapons? Are we supposed to use them to defend our village from invaders?
Why will these little creatures, whose main goals seem to be digging large holes in my yard, dumping out containers in the middle of the hallway, and wasting food whenever possible while at the same time attacking their siblings — why will these creatures make me not ashamed, again?
I know, I know, ancient city gates are the place of business and negotiation and confrontation. They’re like the Facebook of the ancient world. Or something like that. So a man in the second century B.C. has a great social media profile because he prowls about the city gate with half a dozen sons. Is that it? Or is it more a basic security measure? I know that at least one of my many children will take care of me when I’m old and keep running the family farm; I know that they will defend our family when attacked; I know that they’ll go to bat for me when my neighbor cheats me out of the fair price of a goat.
The thing is, I don’t know any of those things. In 21st-century America it seems pretty clear that children are a liability. When we got pregnant with our first, some nine years ago, a certain relative said to my wife, “There are ways of preventing that, you know.” Because, I mean, why would you go through with it? Or in our case, why not stick with one dog, one cat, and one baby? Having five babies seems like overkill, like you’re trying to prove something. (To be fair, five is still below average among the Catholics that we hang out with!)
As I wrote back in 2015, children get in the way of all sorts of good, even while they open the door to other goods. At least that’s the natural order of things. But every time I hear Psalm 127 — which is pretty often, as it’s one of the psalms in the office of None — I find myself wondering what the heck the psalmist is on about. Or rather, more accurately, I remember anew the frustration that in our situation this psalm is just almost unimaginable. We can talk all we want about the objective goodness of children and their natural connection to the Christian doctrine of marriage; we can talk about our love for them, how they enrich our lives, how they provoke us to holiness. But none of this really deals with what I see as one of the fundamental tragedies of modernity: our society’s antagonism towards children and families.
This antagonism is perhaps most clearly seen when we contrast policy standards with some of the broader teaching of the Catholic social tradition. (To avoid an excessive rehearsal of details, it might suffice to look at John Paul II’s “Charter of Family Rights” in paragraph 46 of his 1981 exhortation Familiaris Consortio). The papal social tradition of the last century is quite clear that both Church and state have a universal obligation to promote the conditions in which families can flourish. All people have a definite “right” to have a family and children, regardless of their economic status. Conservative Christians can be very good at defending this principle in theory, especially when regarding questions of abortion and illicit family planning methods, but it’s still relatively easy to find a kind of consumerist snobbery when it comes to the poor. We might see a poorer family with a lot of kids and lament their decision to have so many when they clearly “cannot afford it.”
In short, whatever we say about families and children, in practice — and I certainly include both “conservative” and “progressive” policy-makers in this — we treat childbirth as a consumer choice. The progressive march of “equality,” which seeks to flatten all distinctions between men and women, has a hard time seeking just conditions for pregnant and nursing women because it simultaneously wants to insist that pregnancy must be defined purely in the realm of “choice” (read: fundamentally no different from getting a tattoo or buying a certain brand of cinnamon). The conservative emphasis on personal responsibility frets about social mechanisms to support families, because, if the government supports mothers and children, they might become lazy and dependent.
As usual, there’s probably something true in both of these “sides.” I’m not a policy activist, or an economist, so I’ll keep my remarks to a predictably ivory-tower critique-from-a-distance. What I’d like to see is more of an attempt at a common vision, even if we’re not sure how to get there. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were the sort of society where children were a source of social joy rather than stress? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to the grocery store — another “gate” analogy — and feel like I was going to a place that valued my family, that would celebrate my children, rather than worrying that I will be judged for being “irresponsible”? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if mom or dad could devote themselves to raising the children at home without being branded as a stunted individual denying their true potential? As David Brooks suggested just last year, the conservative reaction to liberal progressivism has often been an artificial calcification of a “nuclear” ideal, to the detriment of the more traditional multi-generational and multi-family forms of community that are required to actually support the raising of children.
I’m not ashamed at the gate. Having kids is hard, but it’s what I signed up for in marriage. I’m proud of them and of the lives that they will lead. At the same time, I wouldn’t want a world in which one has to be ashamed for not having children at the gate. We can’t have that world if we speak and think in a way that treats people as a choice rather than a gift.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Keyes serves as professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.