In The Washington Post last week, Gillian E. St. Lawrence wrote about her and her husband's decision to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) and have the resulting embryos frozen for later use, essentially donating their embryos to themselves. The Washington, D.C., natives chose this path not because they are infertile, but because, at 30 and 32 years old respectively, St. Lawrence and her husband do not feel ready to become parents.
Aware that fertility rates decline precipitously after a woman reaches age 35, they decided to undergo what St. Lawrence dubs "Preservation IVF" (as opposed to "Desperation IVF"). The couple felt it is vital that, before having kids, they "first be financially stable enough to support them and give them plenty of parenting time."
We want so badly to control the outcome of our procreation—not a new impulse, but one that has become more powerful and ubiquitous thanks to ever-expanding information about human health and well-being, reproductive technologies, as well as an online culture that allows us to discuss the intricacies of our parenting decisions. From our focus on well-timed pregnancies, optimal pregnancy nutrition, and detailed birth plans to anxious reliance on sunscreen, organic food, and brain-stimulating, body-strengthening leisure activities, we are a culture of parents who think that if we plan everything properly, then everyone will turn out okay. Not just okay, but terrific—happy, healthy, capable, productive, and self-sufficient.
St. Lawrence's decision may be extreme, but we are all caught up in a culture that expects parents to exercise meticulous planning and control over their children, and fosters a poisonous climate of judgment surrounding every decision parents make.
Trying to orchestrate family life is not only futile (despite all our technology, having children is still a process fundamentally out of our control), but also keeps us from fully embracing the gift of children. Christians should understand this better than anyone, given that we worship a God who became incarnate in the most unpredictable, unexpected way possible—not as a triumphant king but first as a helpless newborn. Jesus was not what anyone expected or planned for, and that's how he changed the world.
If a friend were considering "Preservation IVF" and asked my opinion about it, here is what I would say:
Whether you have babies now or later, your well-planned life will be relegated to the corner of your closet, along with your size 4 jeans.
You will be so tired of little people's hands all over you and voices constantly in your ear that many nights, you will prefer the company of HGTV to your husband's.
Your kids will ignore their baby dolls, train sets, and educational puzzles to cut holes in cardboard boxes and decorate them using every art supply you own. And at the end of the day, they will suddenly be too tired to clean it up.
Just when your bank account is looking slightly healthy, you will need to pay for swim lessons, summer camp, orthodontia, and a replacement carpet for the one that got ruined by said spilled art supplies.
On the way to the summer camp you could barely afford, your child will announce he doesn't really want to go after all. Your daughter will throw up all over dinner at the Disney restaurant where you had to make a reservation months ahead. Your toddler will break your nose when his head collides with yours in the pool one lovely summer day.
You will learn that the best-laid plans can fall apart in ways you could never anticipate, much less prepare for.
You will call your mother the first time your baby smiles at you, and she will understand why you're so happy you can barely string the words together.
You will realize that true love has nothing to do with roses and diamonds. True love is when your husband takes the baby for a car ride at 3 a.m. so that you can get some sleep.
You will stare at your babies for hours, rub your cheek against their downy heads, and breathe in the scent of milky breath mixed with wet diaper and new skin. When they become too old to tolerate staring, you will go into their rooms after they are asleep and pull back the covers to memorize their dirty-soled feet, their scraped knees, and the way their elbows and cheekbones reveal themselves as their baby fat melts away.
You will discover parts of yourself that would have remained hidden had you never became a mother. (For me, motherhood gave me my voice as a writer, and revealed that my disabled, fragile body is actually capable of miracles.)
You will understand that your children's best qualities—her unending curiosity, the genuine laugh that arises from the loveliest corner of his spirit, her extravagant joy in the company of friends—have little to do with your "parenting style," and everything to do with grace.
All of this—the disorder and exasperation, the revelations and gratitude—will come whether you have a baby at age 24 or 42, and whether you have a bank balance of $37 or a fully funded college account. You will never be ready for what your children require of you, or what they give.