For the ancient Hebrews, fertility, pregnancy and birth were not first and foremost biological events; they were theological metaphors.
“And the two shall become one flesh” is how they said it in the creation stories of Genesis. “One flesh” in the obvious sense of oneness, closeness and intimacy. But, on another level of meaning, “one flesh” also points to the likelihood of that squalling, needy, intruding, all-consuming armful of actual flesh otherwise known as a baby. Or, as the tongue-in-cheek poster in my college dorm room said: “Familiarity breeds contempt. Also children.”
It was consequential for the ancients not to be able to make a baby. It tempted couples to a sense of shame. At least an emptiness. A sense of loss.
These same symbols remain lodged in our modern, collective psyche, too. Yet, typical of modern people, the dynamic is most often banished to the not-quite-conscious, or buried under an onslaught of ego-defenses disguised as self-congratulatory cultural norms.
The tendency of modern times is to downplay or even marginalize the wonder, the mystery, the importance of female reproductive anatomy. The uterus is incidental. The fact that women can, when called upon, produce from the breast this miraculous, perfect Super Food for infants is reduced to afterthought. Well-acculturated denizens of the modern world would consider it reductionist, old-fashioned, even disrespectful and sexist to place inordinate emphasis (or much emphasis at all) on the obvious fact that women are designed to conceive, gestate and bring forth children.
We forge and wield an attitude toward procreation that is, well, cavalier. Assumptive and presumptuous. Like we’re in charge of it. Like it can be entirely planned and decided upon.
Yes, occasionally I meet a woman who, from an early age, knew she never wanted to have children. This view was always integrated, clear and consistent in the woman’s psychic makeup.
But this is not the norm. Much, much more common is that women who decide against childbearing — for whatever felt motive and rational — need to move through a time of grief. The denied archetypal longing must be faced consciously as loss. And there is the irony, too, of the woman who spends years insisting upon her freedom and preference not to become a mother, only to find her preferences jolted and reconsidered when she stumbles upon great love.
Ah, great love. Here’s something you can carve into stone: Great love affairs are generative … or they atrophy and die. I’m saying the last thing you want to do with the gift of great love is retreat selfishly into narcissistic entitlement.
It is the nature of great love to long for creation. To generate. This is obvious in couples during childbearing years, but no less obvious to me when I meet couples who stumble upon the gift of great love in midlife. In our world of divorce-as-cliche, it’s common to meet parents and even grandparents who find great love in their 40s, 50s or later. And, even though it feels foolish, silly, even irrational, these couples commonly find their growing love spilling out over the edges of common sense and into wistful, tearful conversations about an alternative past in which they had made babies together.
And they cannot. So they make conscious this emptiness. This loss. They indulge the picture of “what if” fantasies. And then, if they know what’s good for them, they shift their efforts to “vicarious conception.” Their love conceives, gestates and gives birth to other kinds of progeny. Step-parenting, for example. Or the joy of grandparenting. Or volunteering together. Aiming their gift of great love into some cause or otherwise contribution to the world. Touching the lives of those around them with the strength and joy of their love together.
Because, if you retreat with great love into some private, selfish, two-person castle whose gate is always barricaded to the world, well, love will grow, yes. It will grow until the weight of it will collapse onto and into itself like the nova of a dying star.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@