William Faulkner once said, “Writing a novel is like a one-armed man trying to hammer together a chicken coop in a hurricane.”
Raising children is something like that. No experienced parent can deny the challenges of being a mom or dad. Yet the Second Vatican Council taught, “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”
Blessed Paul VI emphasized this teaching explicitly in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. The goodness of the procreation of children is not just Catholic teaching, but has biblical roots going all the way back to God’s words to Adam and Eve in the Garden, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).
Can the same thing be both challenging and a gift? The connection between the difficulties of raising children and the flourishing of parents is found in friendship.
In his best-selling book The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, the psychologist John Gottman wrote that the determining factor in whether a wife or husband feels satisfied with the sex, romance and passion of their relationship is the quality of the couple’s friendship.
Friendship could be defined in terms of mutual goodwill, shared activity and shared emotional life. Having children together fosters marital friendship because shared children give the parents an extra reason to have goodwill for each other: This person is not just my wife; she is also the mother of my children.
In virtue of loving the children, I have an extra reason for loving her. When difficulties arise, as they inevitably do, children provide an extra motivation to make things work. Couples who know that the children will suffer if a marriage falls apart have an extra reason to seek reconciliation.
The activity of raising children, as well as accompanying them as adults, gives the couple a shared emotional life. Mother and father are united in joy at first Holy Communion, graduation from high school, celebration of a wedding or the birth of a grandchild.
Mother and father are united in sorrow at schoolyard bullying, high-school hazing, an arrest of a child for drunken driving or the unemployment of an adult son or daughter. A child inevitably brings to his or her parents times of frustration and desolation and at other times elation and exhilaration.
The rollercoaster ride of parenthood goes from panic, rage and stress to serenity, tranquility and exhilaration and then back again. Whatever their emotional ups and downs, children benefit parents by providing them resources for a shared emotional life, enhancing their friendship.
Aristotle famously distinguished between friendships of pleasure, utility and virtue. We love in friends what is pleasurable, useful or excellent, and so, from a focus on these three things, different kinds of friendships arise. Children do not aid a friendship of pleasure, that which is based on having fun and hedonistic experiences; friendships of pleasure, however, tend not to last anyway. Children also do not much aid a friendship of utility, since children usually need our help rather than offer it.
Our spouse, moreover, is less likely to be useful to us if he or she is focused on helping the children. But a friendship of utility is, by its nature, a second-rate kind of friendship.
In a friendship of utility, I don’t really care about my friend as much as the benefits that friend gives to me. But what about a friendship of virtue? In this friendship, friends care about each other not simply because they give one another pleasure or utility, but because of the excellence of the other person.
How do we gain virtue? At least for the acquired virtues, we gain an excellent character by repeatedly doing excellent acts. When a couple has a child, that vulnerable baby needs round-the-clock help. In performing caring, gentle, kind and loving acts for their baby, their toddler, their grade-schooler, their teenager and their young-adult child, parents grow into more caring, gentle, kind and loving people. Inasmuch as the couple have more children, they have further opportunity for growth in virtue. Inasmuch as they grow in virtue, they establish or strengthen the basis for a friendship of virtue.
Of course, raising children does not automatically make a person virtuous. To become virtuous requires a difficult task, but not one that completely overwhelms. For this reason, the Church encourages responsible parenthood rather than maximal reproduction.
Responsible parenthood involves practical wisdom about the strengths and weaknesses of the couple, their economic situation and all the relevant circumstances. To have children contrary to what practical wisdom would warrant is not conducive to virtue.
All people are called to be generous to the poor in giving donations, but it would, for most people, be contrary to practical wisdom to give away 90% of the family’s income. So, too, married couples are called to be generous in giving life, but it would be contrary to practical wisdom, for most people, to have as many children as biologically possible — this is where the Church’s teaching on natural family planning comes into play.
So, where does that leave us? The most rewarding and meaningful things in life are also the most difficult. To become a black belt in judo, to graduate with honors, to write a novel or to raise a family fall in this category. When we look back on our lives, the black belt, the honor roll and the novel will pale in comparison to raising a family. Even if we become president of the United States, we would almost certainly say to our children, as one president did, “Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad.”
To be a mom or to be a dad is to participate, however imperfectly, in the action of the Divine, the friendship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Christopher Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University
and the author of The Seven Big Myths About the Catholic Church.