Indo col 67 –
The American film director Richard Linklater seems to like making films that take place in a single day. Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight all spanned a single 24 hours, and told various tales from the suburbs about the existential crises of the American middle class.
Curiously, despite the critical acclaim heaped on his one-day wonders, his biggest success came from a film that spanned more than a decade, cinematically and in real-time. Filmed at different periods from 2002 to 2013, Boyhood follows a young man through his childhood until the point where he leaves home for college. The film won many awards, but one of its highest accolades went to Patricia Arquette, who took the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as the struggling single mother trying to coax her son from boyhood to manhood. In one of the film’s best scenes, as her son gets ready to leave for college, she breaks down and asks what it’s all about – if all those moments we have as parents are just milestones along our own path to oblivion. “I just thought there’d be more,” she sobs in a moment of crushing honesty.
It’s a scene I think of often. I ask myself – is this all we are meant to be as parents, a chrysalis for our children as they grow, before they depart and we are left a dried out husk? My wife and I both threw ourselves into parenting believing that this was who we were now – our job was to parent, and everything else came second to that – it was selfish to want time for us, to have hopes and dreams beyond the kids, everything had to be for them. The end result of this strategy came a year or so ago when I was finally able to admit that while I love my children very much, there are times when I don’t especially like being a parent. I felt ashamed at this revelation, as though I was akin to Eva Khatchadourian, the selfish monster of a mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. However, in our particular circumstances, part of the challenge is the number of children we have, and it is at this point that we need to talk about another Kevin – Kevin Doran, the Catholic Bishop of Elphin.
Hearing the thoughts of a childless, unmarried member of the clergy on how to enjoy a happy marriage and raise a family is always special. At least when the tut-tutting seniors in the queue behind you in Tesco chime in with some parenting tips about how to manage a screaming child, it comes from their personal experience. The Bishop, speaking about Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – a treatise on sexuality which today reads like something you would find posted in the darker corners of Reddit – said that the Pope’s work ‘teaches us that every act of intercourse should be open in principle to the gift of life, but also that it’s perfectly legitimate for married people to make use of the married cycle both to achieve pregnancy and to avoid it’. While not exactly at the Fifty Shades standard of erotica, it’s easy to see that he speaks here of good old unprotected sex. Much of the media focus was placed on what else he said – that the contraceptive mindset somehow leads to gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia and women being unable to avoid ‘unwanted sex’ – it was his resurrection of the rhythm method as a concept that caught my eye.
Wherever you live in Ireland, you will know at least one family who have too many children. That measurement will vary from case to case, be it economics, emotional capacity, or just seeing them all crammed into the back of a Fiat Punto, faces pressed against the glass like General Zod in his single-pane prison from Superman II. My wife and I have too many children – four to be precise. I love them all very much, but I can see the impact of our choices on them – each little person we created took up a bit more space, a bit more time, and a bit more love that the others could have had, because all of these resources are finite. For me it seems a strange notion that we can just randomly generate love, like a dog does with Vitamin C.
My family are comfortable, in that we don’t live in debt, but it is the time and love that is hardest to spread around. You measure out your life with coffee spoons and broken sleep, endlessly worrying about your kids, slouching towards Gehenna as your unresolved problems become their unresolved problems. Part of my mistake was to believe that being a parent was all that mattered – that, like Patricia Arquette’s character in Boyhood, that this is all there is. To worry about anything else was selfish, and if you don’t think of yourself as blessed, you were an ungrateful monster – after all, we were the ones who decided to have four children, and the oft-ridiculed rhythm method had nothing to do with that. I neglected many things – my friendships, my marriage and my own personal development. I got to the point where I felt guilty going to the gym, because it was time I should spend with my family, despite the sheer joy of just being alone.
Bishop Doran topped off his talk by adding that it was lopsided to think of marriage as a loving relationship where procreation was ‘an optional extra’. I would suggest the opposite – any newlywed will tell you of the expectant questions they get asked about when they are going to start a family, as this is how it works – the expectation is that you mate, you spawn and you die. Procreation should be an optional extra, one where you take a long hard look at yourself and ask; am I ready, are we ready? I never stopped to ask myself if I was the best person I could possibly be and so I just went ahead and became a parent instead. I am better for it, but it is a long transformative process that may happen too slowly for my children. My best hope is that in whatever secular dystopia awaits us all, my children forgive me for my failings, or that they at least send me to a half decent euthanasia clinic.