The discussion over at FMH on Ana’s excellent day-in-the-life-of-a-working-mom post got me thinking again about the complexities of leading a secondary life. For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, it’s becoming more and more likely that my husband and I will never have children. (The complexities of infertility merit their own post, and perhaps someday I’ll post about them, but it remains a painful subject, and at the moment I manage the pain mostly by trying not to think about it.) Here, though, I want to consider the contradictions of what I will call, for lack of a better term, a secondary life.
It will come as news to no one that the Church teaches a life founded on marriage and family as the ideal. I wholeheartedly support with that ideal; one of the things I love about that Church is that relationships are considered more important than money or things or satisfying work or intellectual stimulation or the development of one’s talents or the exploration of the world, worthy as those possessions and pursuits are in their spheres. But my life has offered me only part of that ideal, and I know that life offers many women and men considerably less. So here’s the problem: given my acceptance of an ideal that may never define my life, how do I understand my own life as meaningful?
There are many ways this problem can play out, of course: in my life, the particular form it takes is that I find myself engaged in an intellectual life which I love (most of the time ), but which I might never have pursued had I had children. I love what I do, and I find my work is meaningful and valuable. But there’s no question that I think raising children is infinitely more meaningful and valuable, and if I had to choose between the two activities–as so many women do have to choose–I would give up my formal education and raise children. Some days I can hardly believe my own incredible good fortune. I get to study what I love, and teach what I love, and to a large extent, I get to make my own days and exercise considerable control over my own time. I’m sometimes painfully aware of how few people on this planet ever get even some few of the educational opportunities spread out before me like a feast, of how many, many people have to labor at exhausting, backbreaking, miserable jobs of one kind or another just to live and provide for their families. I’m dizzy at the riches with which I’ve been blessed. But the hard fact remains that I do not think that my life is the most meaningful life I could possibly be living; there is an undeniable hollowness at its core.
On the FMH life-of-a-working-mom thread, Sonnet responded to my confession of laziness by asking me this excellent question:
“Do you really mean that? …especially the last bit about doing/meaning nothing in comparison to mothers?”
In thinking about it, I have to admit that while I realize that while I don’t think my own life is “nothing,” I do think my life is less meaningful than a mother’s or father’s life. I don’t see any easy way around this; it seems an inevitable conclusion of the beliefs I hold.
I’m not trying to say that my life is terrible (it’s clearly not, in any sense) or meaningless (that’s clearly up to me); I’m just trying to think through this contradiction between serene acceptance of what cannot be altered and commitment to relationship ideals. As I mentioned on the same thread in somewhat different terms, I’ve long thought it vital that I not perpetually recast my life in terms of some imagined future (even an eternal future) in which I will have the children I now lack. While there’s comfort in considering eternity, at the same time I have to accept and live this life, now; I have to resist the temptation to waste time and energy and tears over other lives I might have had. I want to embrace my life wholeheartedly. But I don’t want to lose my grip on the ideals that would seem, inevitably, to make my life a lesser one.
How do I lead a secondary life?