"Another sell-out," I couldn't help thinking as I listened to an interview of author Mary Karr by Alec Baldwin on a recent NPR segment. Karr is the scathingly honest, ironic author of three classic memoirs; "The Liars Club", "Cherry" and "Lit," the latter the chronicle of her path from alcoholism to the Catholic Church.
I was dismayed to hear her tell Baldwin the impetus for her conversion was her young son. Baldwin asked her why, after years of unanswered prayers for salvation from addiction, she finally found God and subsequent recovery. She claims the only reason she went to church was because her 6-year old son wanted to see if "God lives there."
Wonderful that Karr found some relief through spirituality, but the blunt statement that her child was the catalyst for recovery rang false. (She just finished saying she'd been searching for a connection to a god for years.) Worse, the interview began to sound horribly familiar - Karr's words like so many of the superficial, self-righteous, smug statements by celebrities - claims that children are the sole key to happiness and spirituality.
I enjoyed watching David Letterman for more years than I care to count, but quit when every show began with a self-satisfied manifesto extolling the healing powers of his fatherhood experience - how it made him a healthier person: more spiritual, more caring, less selfish. Yet, during all those months he was pursuing secret liaisons with co-workers. Apparently, home, hearth and baby - combined - couldn't cure a sexual addiction.
Whether the kids-cure-all comments come from gifted authors or self-promoting celebrities, the message is the same - only parents can experience spiritual connection - only through having children can anyone experience "real" love.
This current pop culture chatter makes me long for the babble of an earlier decade - the co-dependency movement of the 1980's. At it's best the co-dependency movement sought to help spouses of addicts find a way out of enabling behavior that exacerbates problems. Unfortunately, the movement began to label any caring relationship as "co-dependent" and the movement was dismissed, baby with bathwater, as a radical and isolating form of pop psychology.
Yet I think, at its core, the co-dependency movement promoted a simple, healthful idea: that individuals are responsible for their own mental health, their spiritual quests, their own happiness.
There is danger in the statements made by Karr, and other celebrities, extolling parenthood as the only path to spiritual connectedness. The co-dependency movement recognized that danger - it's hard on another person to feel responsible for creating another person's happiness - and especially hard on a child.
I know this personally. My mother suffered for years from anxiety and depression. She had children because she didn't like to be alone. She did feel happier when my siblings and I were around. But, that joy was never the deep, silent, heart-felt kind that could sustain her when we were absent. We all felt the pressure. As the youngest, when my brothers and sister left the nest, I was felt I was left holding my mother together - literally keeping her from falling into pieces.
It's hard to articulate the fear such a responsibility creates in an 8-year old kid. I knew my mother needed something from me - lots of things from me - but I didn't know how to give those things or what exactly they were. When my father left for work he'd say, "Take good care of your mother today, and don't give her a hard time."
I didn't know how best to take care of my mother, but I knew "giving her a hard time," meant having a difference of opinion resulting in an argument. My mother needed her children so badly - we were all united, all fighting the war against her depression - any difference of opinion was treated as treason.
I still struggle with my mother's dependency issues, and I worry when I hear well-known and respected author Karr suggesting that it is fine to allow her 6-year old son be the catalyst to recovery from years of addiction. How long can a little kid sustain his healing powers? If Karr hasn't dug deep and found her own individual will to get better, how long can an interpersonal relationship sustain recovery? Her kid might, like I, begin to worry that his own personal growth and individuality is a threat to his mother's fragile stability.
Obviously, the current pro-parenthood movement seeks to deny that recovery, true self-discovery, and spiritual growth exist outside the domain of relationships with children. Yet, we as childfree people know this is a myth. And, many of us are annoyed at the dogged persistence of this myth in today's kid-centric culture.
I value my childfree friends because they know how to find love with a special partner, friends, and community. If childfree people seek spirituality, they know it comes through self-knowledge and confronting the universe on individual terms - not via a vulnerable and dependent being.
A book I find particularly wise on this subject is another self-help classic of the 1980's - Anthony Storr's "Solitude." Storr argues that people who immerse themselves in other people are depressed, or become depressed, seeking to avoid the really hard work - the solitary and silent quest to confront and understand the self in relation to community and the universe - that leads to lasting peace of mind.