“Self-Love” Is Not The Highest Good In Marriage And Motherhood
I came of age in the milieu of articles like The Atlantic’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which wrestles with the sacrifices women make in their career to be a good mother and raise successful, well-adjusted children.
Today, however, a shift seems to have taken place in our cultural narrative that views marriage and children as secondary to a woman’s purpose and value in life. This is the case with Lara Bazelon's New York Times article "Divorce Can Be an Act of Radical Self-Love."
The most concerning part is her relentless commitment to self, at the expense of her marriage, family, and even her own ability to grow. Indeed, this isn't "self-love." It’s a fear of change that fuels self-glorified behavior. Refusal to change, to grow, or to be formed through the relationships around you is what the dead do. Radical “self-love” philosophies have more in common with a graveyard than a living person. Think of the beloved stuffed animals we held as children or the oft-read books we love today. Even these material objects bear the marks of our affection. How much more does that of a living human being? To be alive means that your relationships, your responsibilities, and your environment necessarily change you and require something of you.
In marriage or motherhood, “self-love” can’t be the highest good. The covenant a person makes in marriage and the dual responsibility to raise children is meant to challenge and change mothers and fathers for the better through self-sacrificial love as each places the interests of another before their own.
Ultimately, to whom does a woman owe the greatest self-sacrificial care and responsibility? Is it to the husband she weds “until death do they part” and the children she bears from her own flesh and blood, or is it to her career and the life-enhancing work she hopes to accomplish through it? While both are admirable pursuits, the question of how to prioritize the good things in your life is an ongoing struggle. For many women today, this question chiefly manifests itself in the seeming dilemma between family and career.
Divorce Is a Radical Act of ‘Self,’ Not Love
Divorce – when adultery, abuse, or high levels of conflict are absent – harms a child’s sense of self-worth, belief in marriage and love, happiness, educational outcomes, emotional wellbeing, financial stability, and more. While some couples may have the means to alleviate financial concerns, study after study shows that the emotional and psychological impact is far worse for children of divorce than if their parents had stayed together.
Women initiate nearly 70 percent of all divorces in the United States.
The idea that divorce and parental separation are good or desirable for children is a lie. Any woman who is the product of a “good” divorce can testify to the ongoing negative impact it has on her wellbeing. Yet interestingly, women initiate nearly 70 percent of all divorces in the United States, with infidelity and abuse in the minority as to the reason(s) why.
Articles like Ms. Bazelon’s convey an elite privilege that can seemingly “afford” divorce when marriage no longer suits personal career goals or brings a high enough sense of self-fulfillment. The claim that children are happy with the arrangement because of the greater good – mom’s personal happiness – rejects the immense amount of research and personal experience to the contrary. Divorce in this light is not “self-love.” It’s simply selfishness as one puts their own interests ahead of what is good for children and family.
Marriage and Motherhood Don't Make You Lose Yourself
One of the greatest fears I have faced, a lie pervasive in our culture today, is that I need to protect myself (my career goals, my time, my personal identity) from the corrosive demands of marriage and motherhood.
To prioritize marriage over the demands of a career doesn’t mean that a woman “loses” herself or that she can’t have a career or interests outside of her family. In fact, I would argue it’s good to have your own pursuits outside of marriage and motherhood. Instead, it’s about embracing the unique responsibilities that come with each season.
Instead of “self-love” that places your immediate, individual interests first, the beauty of womanhood may be understood through the progression of maiden, mother, and matriarch. Each aspect of this lifelong journey means the loss of something in return for something far greater.
The beauty of womanhood may be understood through the progression of maiden, mother, and matriarch.
Helen Roy, in her article “Maiden, Mother, Matriarch,” writes, “When the maiden becomes a mother, loss of innocence becomes new life. As a mother becomes a matriarch, the loss of physical beauty is leavened by the acquisition of wisdom. In the wake of a matriarch’s death, there remains a legacy, a guiding example for generations to come. Each phase is dignified in its own right; each phase passes.”
Change has always been scary. But marriage and children are meant to change you – for the better. A wholesome life is characterized by this graceful growth and acceptance that forms us into women we could never become on our own. As Ms. Bazelon’s article reminds us, this change is not guaranteed. It only occurs if we embrace the new challenges, joys, losses, and gifts of each season.
A truly empowered woman doesn’t construct a fragile identity that’s rooted only in her career or professional success such that it can be shattered at the slightest failure or sacrifice for family. When Ms. Bazelon says she chose “self-love,” it really means that she traded self-sacrificial love for her family for self-sacrificial love for her job. Again, both are good things, but one is far greater. As C.S. Lewis said, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”
“Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” – C.S. Lewis
In the same way, when we rightly prioritize our relationship with our husband and children first, we can find a deeper sense of satisfaction and joy in our careers or pursuits. It’s through self-sacrifice that we find the self-fulfillment we long for most. This doesn’t mean that a mother must forfeit careers, part-time jobs, or her interests, but it does mean that she must prioritize them rightly, or risk losing the greater thing for something that will never truly satisfy her.
“Self-love” narratives cause us to prioritize what we selfishly want now, over what we may want most. In those moments, I find it helpful to think of my life like a movie or my favorite book. What is the story I want to tell? What is the life I want to look back on and read? This helps me make hard decisions in the moment with a spirit of expectation for what is to come. In particularly demanding seasons, another helpful motto is “no for now, not forever.” It reminds me that while I may not be able to pursue a certain interest right now, it doesn’t mean that this will always be the case.
Ultimately, radical commitment to “self” is not empowerment but a form of fear and enslavement. An unwillingness to change or sacrifice is the sign that something is frozen and dying; it’s not the mark of a vivacious woman who is pursuing her best life. Motherhood and marriage require the highest form of self-sacrifice and love a person can give. Yet it’s through this that we also gain the deepest meaning, understanding of self, joy, and purpose that fuels our efforts in the rest of our life.
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