The Good, the Beautiful, the True — and the Family

We must never let our modern sensibilities rob us of the beauty, usefulness, and hope of achieving our ideals

Cesare Vianello (1803-1894), “The Family”
Cesare Vianello (1803-1894), “The Family” (photo: Public Domain)

Back when I was young and engaged to be married, when my now-husband and I were both still college students, I spent a lot of time dreaming and thinking about ideals. (I probably should have been studying for my upper-division Family Systems Theory final, which I believe I all but failed, but much preferred the wedding planning and domestic goal setting. Who wouldn’t? It was a dry textbook.) How was our marriage going to look, what did I want to spend my life doing, and where would our journey together eventually take us?

My fiancé and I also discussed these things, and regularly joked about our occasional “business meetings.” Even prior to his romantic beach-side proposal, we’d talked through general marriage principles: we both wanted children, felt it unwise to marry if neither of us were prepared to welcome a child with joy should our birth control method fail (this was before we were Catholic, by the way), and we both wanted to be in a marriage where the mother was home full-time with the kids. Old-fashioned, certainly, and nothing a feminist would appreciate, but those were our ideals.

All these years later, I’d like to think we’re a little bit wiser than we were back then (I can attest, at the very least, that we’re eating less ramen) — and I know for a fact that we’re far more experienced in what makes a marriage work. Real life sets in at some point, when you’re busy having babies and keeping a home, and you become fairly consumed with the day-to-day workings of running a family — the diapers, the mortgage payments, and now ushering children into and through the teen years. (While you continue having babies. Which, by the way, I highly recommend.) You discover, along the way, just how young and naive you really were. But the funny thing is, all told, that I would still absolutely stand by those original ideals we’d come up with over frozen pizza and cheap soda. They’ve worked incredibly well for us and, if anything, we’ve just added more to them. Nothing in life is ever perfect, of course, but I’m still a big believer in discerning, and then attempting, to implement ideals.

Lately, the conversation in our house has been about ideals as they relate to education. We have a daughter entering high school next year, and our couples group at church is reading Tony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes. (Have you read it? If you’re interested in the subject of our present cultural crisis, and how we might begin to rebuild, I can’t recommend it highly enough.) I’ve personally been reading about educational philosophy for the past nine years, because my ideals-loving self wanted to understand what the best option for our children would be, once they started school. This has manifested itself in different ways over the years, from traditional schooling to home education, but it was clear to me from the beginning that at the very least, there IS an ideal way to approach education. Both from a practical and philosophical standpoint. I believe there is an objective purpose to what education ought to be, and best practices to follow in terms of achieving it. The great books, pretty much zero technology, and training in virtue — things like that.

Does it make you uncomfortable when I say there’s an ideal way to raise or educate a child? Because it also signals my simultaneous belief that there must also be a less-ideal, or wrong, way, right? If so, you’re not alone — in our present cultural climate, the very notion of an ideal (or best) way of doing something is highly unpopular. Anyone putting forth an ideal is immediately written off as judgmental, narrow-minded and unreasonable. Too rigid, too naive and oh-so privileged. No matter that it’s generally agreed upon that an ideal can look differently for different people — to use the education example, if I believe that a classical education is the ideal (which I do), I can procure that for my children whether they are taught at home, or at a private or charter school (which I have). Ideals are useful, because they inspire optimism, serve as a guide, and help us stay focused. But our culture, at some point, began sacrificing ideals on the altar of relativism — and now we’re seeing the fruits. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the consequences, no longer can one suggest that marriage is, ideally, for life, that abstinence until marriage is best, or that children have no business owning smart phones. (That last one is a personal soap-box of mine. But I digress.)

Alarmingly increasing rates of teen suicide, a society marked by multitudes of abortions and divorces, and a stubborn, pervasive refusal to acknowledge that marriage is naturally ordered toward children are all results of our cultural doctrines of, “to each his own,” and “do whatever you want.” 

Once upon a time, it wasn’t so controversial to believe that a good education really ought to look like this or that, or that a child would, ideally, be raised by her biological father and mother. It wasn’t stepping in a landmine to ask if perhaps some of the things done in the name of feminism and gender equality have wrought some negative consequences, particularly as they relate to the sexual revolution. But, no longer. Personal choice is the highest good now, even among very good, well-intentioned people. Few are willing to say that some things are better than others, or that some things are, simply, not good enough. In spite of the fact that all of us more or less live that way.

I’ve honestly never regretted my decision to stay home with my children. I’m not sorry for having taken them out of a school that was not meeting their academic, social or spiritual needs. I’m quite glad I stopped using the birth control pill once upon a time, I’m beyond grateful to have converted to Catholicism and come into the fullness of the faith, and I’ve just recently resolved to spend less time browsing social media, and more time reading good books. I often evaluate how we spend our time, and what things add value to our family. I hope I never give up on seeking after the good, the beautiful, and the true — the ideals — imperfect and clumsy as I am.

Last month, my husband and I were in a social setting where a fellow mother asked me pointedly, in a somewhat mocking tone of voice, what my “secret” is. (The secret, that is, to having survived being a mother to so many wretched children. She herself did not seem to enjoy being a mom, based on a number of remarks she made, and was fairly proud of it. Mostly she saw her young children as an inconvenience.) And so I fumbled around for an answer, which I confess wound up being fairly benign — something about figuring out what works, and how it gets a little easier as kids get older, and how sibling relationships are really so sweet. But even as the words were nervously spilling out of my mouth, I knew I wasn’t really touching on the deeper, more important question there. I knew that she and I were coming from two very different places, with two very different life trajectories.

And as I thought more about it later, I realized I should have ultimately replied that there is no secret, really, beyond an openness to embracing the vocation to marriage. Yes, there are practical things you can do to make life a little easier — those were the things I mentioned. And they’re important! But at the end of the day, I’ve found that the overarching key to enjoying motherhood is understanding the call to motherhood, which includes accepting that marriage is ordered toward procreation. It is seeing the dignity in the small and seemingly unseen things we mothers do. Marriage is this, and necessitates that, because God designed it so.

And it is this belief that animates what I do, and how I decide upon my ideals.

I’m reminded of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, where she writes of marriage and motherhood:

The household happiness did not come all at once, but John and Meg had found the key to it, and each year of married life taught them how to use it, unlocking the treasuries of real home-love and mutual helpfulness, which the poorest may possess, and the richest cannot buy. This is the sort of shelf on which young wives and mothers may consent to be laid, safe from the restless fever and fret of the world, finding loyal lovers in the little sons and daughters who cling to them, undaunted by sorrow, poverty or age; walking side by side, through fair and stormy weather, with a faithful friend, who in the true sense of the good old Saxon word, the house-band, and learning, as Meg learned, that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it — not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.

It’s a lovely picture of the quaint simpleness of domesticity, isn’t it? You can easily imagine Mr. and Mrs. Brooke going through life together, happy and fulfilled in the small things, resolute in the acceptance of their respective vocations. Someone reading this passage today will be tempted to discount it — surely Alcott’s view of women is oppressive and patriarchal, backward and completely outdated. To suggest that a woman’s devotion to hearth and home is important is, well, patently offensive.

But while real life is far from perfect, and may not so closely resemble motherhood in New England in 1869, we would do well to resist this tyranny of relativism, which compels us to deconstruct even the most beautifully poignant of literary moments. We would do well, instead, to take the author’s words for what they are: a stunning example of marriage and motherhood, worthy of imitating in some way or another. Because at the end of the day, we must not let our modern sensibilities rob us of the beauty, usefulness, and hope of achieving our ideals — whatever they may be.