Barrenness was considered a curse for most of human history. Even after Christ, and the birth of his church, when fruitfulness transcended the fertile womb, it has been understood as a matter of pain, of something not as it should be. Yet today, barrenness is a condition that is often deliberately chosen, through the use of contraception.
The word for womb in Arabic is al rhm. From this term we get the Arabic words raheem (one who is merciful, generous, benevolent, magnanimous); irhum (forgive); rahmee (mercy); and so on. In Arabic, the womb, as name and notion, is related to the concept of mercy, generosity, benevolence, and the like. We can think of having a fertile womb as having an abundance of mercy, generosity, and benevolence—all characteristics of God, and overflow from God. They are the qualities of all life-givers—including those who are physically barren.
Fecundity and barrenness contend—in each of us. God often puts this choice before his people: “I have set before you life and death . . . therefore choose life.” But what does life mean? How do we choose life, and whose life? I don’t mean this in the abstract. And I certainly don’t mean the wars waged over these questions on the second-tier intellectual public square known as Twitter.
I became a nana recently, and these questions that I’ve thought about for most of my life loom once again. I attempt to think and write about them, but mothering and grandmothering press in. As Christians we talk, write, and advocate for life—physical and spiritual. That’s good, it’s as it should be. But those of us who have a secret desire for barrenness are ashamed of it. We avoid talking about it. We’re afraid of being misunderstood and scolded; accused of being against motherhood—or at least not as committed to it; worse, we’re afraid of being cast out as radical feminists who reject femininity and all that is good and beautiful about it. Often, we don’t understand it ourselves. It’s secret because we don’t want the stigma.
Those of us who have a secret desire for barrenness are ashamed of it.
While many little girls love dolls, dress-up, and playing mommy, my mother tells me that I never wanted to play with dolls. When I ask, “What did I play?” She looks blankly and responds, “You didn’t really play.” But I did play. I have memories of playing outside, mostly. My spliced memory from Iraq, Greece, and America contains one constant: a complete lack of desire for motherhood. I come from a culture that identifies children by whose son or daughter they are, and identifies parents as the firstborn male’s mother or father. It was just me and my sister; I was the oldest. So my mom was called “Um Luma” (mother of Luma), and my father was “Abbu Luma” (father of Luma). I was “Binnet Issam” (daughter of Issam). I guess I felt that I was the “son.” In college I worked full time—to pay for tuition, and to help the family. My maternal grandmother—the only surviving grandparent—didn’t come to America until I was in my early twenties; but every time she saw me come through the front door carrying groceries she sang, “Here comes our son, here comes our provider.”
My father raised me as a son. In a libertine culture that corrupts family life, a culture where men easily divorce their wives, he raised me to be the breadwinner so that I would never be destitute. I was meek, but he taught me to be courageous. He always told me that the most important gift I had was my mind, and encouraged me to use it. I continued in this vein for a while—working, studying, helping the family.
This seemed right to me: the life of the mind, the life of study. But over time I made a succession of decisions that put me further and further away from that role, and the responsibilities that came with it. My internal desire to pursue knowledge, to be fruitful in that role, continued unabated. But I was always making decisions that undermined it. One of these decisions was to get married.
Eventually, pregnant, I found myself headed in the exact opposite direction. A few times I attempted to remedy the situation, to get back onto that path I unwittingly abandoned. But by that time there were too many obstacles—and I could not overcome them. But that desire—that gnawing unrelenting desire to labor with my mind—created an unceasing struggle between the part of me that wanted to be physically barren so that I could be intellectually and spiritually fruitful, and the physical fruit of the womb standing before me. I loved my children. I did not wish them gone. But I wondered how I could still feel and think that way.
I didn’t understand myself, or how it all happened. Why was the fruit of the womb not enough?
For months we have been under quarantine; fear of the coronavirus shut everything down. We’re told to stay away from family and friends. The well isolate from the ill, the quick from the dead. Those who are able work from home—in isolation. Those who can’t are jobless, isolated by their poverty. All isolate from all. Barrenness, we are told, is the only route to life.
What if that’s how some of us see barrenness: as a route to a different kind of fecundity? Is that wrong? Maybe. I’m not sure. “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” Desiring physical barrenness for the sake of greater spiritual fruitfulness—for the sake of Christ and his work—may be well and good, but what if it’s for a different vocation? At what point does the renunciation of the fruit of the womb for an apprehended good become an iniquitous desire to resist life? It is here that we apply the test of self-abandonment versus self-absorption.
The quarantine and the need to isolate in order to stop the spread of the virus can be seen as either self-absorption or self-abandonment. One fears death, and desires to preserve his own life at all costs, and so that person isolates to protect himself—his is barrenness for personal benefit. The other is willing to isolate so as to preserve the lives of others, to be barren so that others may live.
My fecund womb was an accident. When I was young I told anybody who would listen that I was not going to have babies. I wanted to work, and I needed something that could satisfy my ravenous mind. I believed, and still do, that my contribution to the world in which I was born is the fruit of my intellect, which means all of me poured out through thought and deed for the benefit of all—the gift of myself.
Radical feminism hijacked the essence of womanhood, and so in reaction, women like me, created to give themselves in a way other than, or beyond, traditional motherhood, were automatically dismissed by antifeminists, lumped in the same category as women who were attempting to emancipate themselves from themselves. Aping the worst of men, these aggressive feminists suppressed the voices and legitimate concerns of other women.
“Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II:
This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. . . . Women have contributed to that history as much as men and, more often than not, they did so in much more difficult conditions. I think particularly of those women who loved culture and art, and devoted their lives to them in spite of the fact that they were frequently at a disadvantage.
These, wrote the saint, were legitimate struggles, and it is right to seek to ameliorate them. One of the things, rife in traditionalist circles, that is an affront to a woman’s dignity is to be suspicious of her vocation and her desire to fulfill it. Such a recognition of intellectual vocation among women, however, is not a “feminist” position but a humanist one. “When the pioneers of university training for women,” wrote Dorothy Sayers in her 1938 collection Are Women Human,
demanded that women should be admitted to the universities, the cry went up at once: “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?” The answer is NOT that all women would be the better for knowing about Aristotle—still less, as Lord Tennyson seemed to think, that they would be more companionable wives for their husbands if they did know about Aristotle—but simply: “What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle. It is true that most women care nothing about him, and a great many male undergraduates turn pale and faint at the thought of him—but I, eccentric individual that I am, do want to know about Aristotle, and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent my knowing about him.”
This is true, but it is partial. As a person, I am called (I think) to an intellectual vocation. But I am also called to such a vocation as a woman. The desire for creative intellectual fruitfulness comes, too, from the feminine desire to be fruitful—it was not unfeminine of me to feel this way, and I don’t think that I experience this intellectual call exactly as a man would.
There are women who are naturally maternal, and fully satisfied by it; I am not one of them. But God has a sense of humor, and so I have five children. I wanted physical barrenness my entire life, yet my desires were persistently thwarted. I wanted to make words with my flesh. Mostly, I have made flesh with it. But with every child—and now with my granddaughter—in every smile, in the tiny fingers and toes, the coos and fists-in-the-mouth, I am filled with gratitude that fecundity won, and barrenness lost.
I wanted to make words with my flesh. Mostly, I have made flesh with it.
I still struggle, though, because I am afraid. There is part of me that fears their loss almost more than I love their existence: I fear the fire, the trials, the inevitable heartache.
When we think of babies, we think of goodness, light, blessing. When fear rushes in we think about bringing them into darkness, the darkness that can consume them. What we are afraid of losing, or surrendering to this darkness, is precisely what will diminish that darkness. It is a sign of a lack of faith and hope to think that these children will be consumed by darkness, and that they will not be able to overcome it.
St. John the Evangelist writes with the Holy Spirit that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). It is by our faith in the Word made flesh, and by our cooperative action with him, that we can lead the tiny flesh of our flesh back to him, so that the Holy Spirit can enkindle in them the fire of his love. When these children live their lives, and eventually die, resurrection day will be all the more joyful, and God the Father will welcome his children back home. This too is a creative act, and I give my children, my grandchild, to him as I give my writing to him. I struggle not to fear their loss, as I struggle not to fear the loss of my vocation, the time to study and to write, the time to contribute to the human future with my words, as I have with my body. In both cases I try to give my own fruitfulness to God. And I think of the lines of W. H. Auden:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.