I recently heard a good Catholic refer to children as a “burden.” She was trying to illustrate that children represent a drain on parents’ resources, primarily financial. Providing for children when they’re small takes away resources from parents they need to provide for themselves when they’re older. That doesn’t necessarily translate to a “loss” but represents a clear risk to self-direction and self-sufficiency.
To borrow from economics, she probably meant to describe the financial and other expenditures of raising children as opportunity cost. Adults with children generally forego other benefits and experiences in order to provide for their little ones. My neighbor’s daughter, just this weekend, came over from the city with a new white utility van. She and her husband were stripping it out to convert it into a homemade camper. “That’s the stuff people without kids do,” I remarked to my wife.
Still, opportunity cost isn’t that simple. Economics is descriptive not normative. And opportunity cost represents a foregone opportunity, but wrapped in the logic of choice. Once children make their first arrival, long before the birthing room, the die is cast. The reality is parents should and have to provide for their well-being.
Perhaps “burden” is too strong a word. While many parents certainly feel children wearing them down and taxing them, burdens are things you want to get rid of. The woman I heard probably didn’t mean it that way. She probably meant to say “life is tough, deal with it; it’ll all be okay in the end.” But even adults rarely want to be reminded how tough life is.
Child-rearing isn’t a burden, an obligation of drudgery taking us away from more enjoyable things. People, especially little ones, should never be referred to as burdens. This reduces them merely to a number, something that seemingly decreases my ability to utilize my resources for more enjoyable things. “Burden” is a loaded term. An unwanted pregnancy is referred to as a burden in our culture in the same way a terminally suffering patient is a burden. And in both case, termination of the burden is the logical conclusion.
To call a child a “burden” reveals a mentality trapped inside materialism and individualism. What really only matters is how I use my resources and how I can provide for myself. Anything that takes away from that, then, requires an evaluation. I suspect Saint John Paul the Great, who embraced the language of gift and mystery, where it came to marital love would strongly object to calling children a burden. He might further point out that an attitude that sees children as a burden immediately extinguishes the possibility of solidarity. Catholics don’t speak of “I scratch your back so you scratch mine.” We speak of a love that is open to the other, precisely because they are made in the imago dei. That love comes with it an extraordinary risk that can never be hedged: those whom we love might never love us back.
I suspect this fear is in many people’s hearts. It probably finds its way into the nexus of their relationship with God, walking solely in fear with Him, diligently following His commandments, but ultimately afraid of doing something sinful and unseen that will bring His condemnation. God becomes a small, jealous lover.
It matters that we as Catholics never embrace the language of burden when it comes to others, whether our children or not. The alternative of a love without counting the cost and expecting might seem foolish. After all daily sacrifice for our children without an immediate or long-term gain seems a quixotic tradeoff. The language of love, however, focuses on the good of the other here and now, and it makes us smile even in tough moments of sacrifice. And suddenly when we do not count the cost the so-called burden becomes easy and the yoke light.