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Rod Dreher said a friend texted him the following about Covid-19:
When you have lived for several generations in a powerful and wealthy country untouched by deep tragedy and awash in the deep-seated belief that you are both the Chosen Land and Master of Nature, the belief that everything is manageable becomes the biggest article of faith. And the biggest blind spot.
I do not believe that everything is manageable. But part of the social bargain you make when you have “vastly more liberty as a middle-class citizen of a free-market democracy” is to treat everything as manageable, even when it’s not. Not because you truly believe everything is manageable, but because you’re obliged, for others’ sake, to at least act as if it is: to do otherwise would be irresponsible, untrustworthy, a betrayal of all those other striving citizens of the marketplace who depend, in one way or another, on you.
American Christianity is frustratingly Martha-oriented. Martha is the archetypal manager, managing, managing… all the sundry details which must be managed, not just for her own life to run smoothly, but for others’ lives to run smoothly, too. Contemplatives like Mary only exist while Marthas bustle about in the background to sustain them. In that sense, contemplation is a luxury good. The American way teaches us that, even in our suffering, choosing contemplation over management is a luxury. Our first duty is to manage our suffering to minimize the burden on all the other good folk around us, meaning it’s no mere hedonism to minimize our suffering when we can: It really is a duty. A duty to maximize our productivity under the constraints we’re given; a duty to minimize our burden. A duty to manage ourselves the best we can, and woe to the sufferer who seems to be shirking that duty!
Those of us who lead medically-interesting lives are well acquainted with this duty. Many ailments can’t be cured, only managed, and as much as folks complain about “the American mentality” of “just wanting a pill for it” so we don’t have to manage, anyone who’s been an American patient long enough knows that, in order to earn the privilege of being considered a good, trustworthy, deserving patient, one must sustain an eagerness to manage oneself to the best of one’s ability.
Since pregnancy is a medically-interesting condition where another’s life intimately depends on our management of our own, every middle-class pregnant woman must know this especially well. The virtuous pregnant American runs a nine-month marathon of management, down to every little last bite of food she swallows, if the American managerial class’s “new ethic of ‘total motherhood’” is to be believed:
Mothers these days are expected to “optimize every dimension of children’s lives,” she writes. Choices are often presented as the mother’s selfish desires versus the baby’s needs. As an example, Wolf quotes What to Expect When You’re Expecting, from a section called the “Best-Odds Diet,” which I remember quite well: “Every bite counts. You’ve got only nine months of meals and snacks with which to give your baby the best possible start in life … Before you close your mouth on a forkful of food, consider, ‘Is this the best bite I can give my baby?’ If it will benefit your baby, chew away. If it’ll only benefit your sweet tooth or appease your appetite put your fork down.”
Actually, the marathon doesn’t stop at birth, as the article I’m quoting from – about breastfeeding – emphasizes. To become a good mother in America is to become a manager.
In any culture, it’s only to be expected that motherhood and family ties will call on the Martha, rather than the Mary, within each woman (whether said woman believes she has an inner Martha or not!). But the ideal of American motherhood is particularly managerial, as are all American ideals. If we’re not always doing our best to manage our risks and resources, we’re doing it wrong – because this is America, dammit, and America means we’re free to do better!
As someone still relatively new to motherhood, I therefore confess a little irritation at Dreher’s advice, “This is why repentance — of the kind Timo’s saints led me to this afternoon — is one of the best things any of us can do to prepare for the struggle ahead” of enduring Covid-19. The old me, the not-a-mom me, could have effortlessly had agreed with Dreher. But then, the old me seemed to have more leisure to repent; more freedom to simply suffer, if need be. Even before becoming a parent, I observed that unmanaged suffering, no matter how spiritually fruitful, falls under suspicion of moral failing in America. Now, as a parent, I wonder how I’m supposed to do anything with suffering but manage it.
All pregnancies are medically interesting, but mine are somewhat more so than most. Mothers like me with pre-existing conditions know they’ll likely sacrifice some of the self-management aids they came to rely on while not pregnant for the good of their unborn, particularly pharmaceutical aids (all drugs are, in a sense, performance-enhancing drugs, best resorted to only when patients aren’t managing well without them). That mothers are expected to suffer for their children is nothing new; still, they’re expected to manage, even while forgoing managerial help. In this framework, unmanageable suffering simply isn’t allowed, even while it’s occurring.
Well, for a while now, my health hasn’t been manageable – or, at least, it hasn’t been managed, and perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect my management to be much better than it has been, given other constraints. Unreasonable to expect better management; nonetheless, I still expect it: Somehow, I should have found a way to do better, right? Especially when the consequences are putting a pregnant body (ergo a baby!) at extra risk of pneumonia while the world faces a contagion which seems to pose little risk to denizens of an advanced society, unless they’re already at risk.
As I told a friend,
My lungs have already gotten pretty chewed up this pregnancy, and while I suspect the most likely outcome of my getting Covid-19 would be just another infection no worse than ones I’ve recently had, I am a pneumonia risk and I’d rather not deal with the guilt of not being prepared if I somehow got a worse-than-average case of the bug :-(
I can’t be arsed to worry about getting particularly sick from Covid-19, much less dying from it. Instead, I worry about a case of Covid-19 meaning even more months wasted falling behind on Middle-Class Mom Things. I worry about the added hassle of checking my pulse ox – I mean, I’m grateful to live in a time and place that makes it very easy for at-risk patients to check pulse ox at home, thereby taking responsibility for this aspect of their health. Still, it’s another responsibility to manage while I doubt I’m managing the ones I already have: First-world problems!
I worry about absurdities like the one I’m living out now. After waiting perhaps too long, supposedly for the good of the baby, to see whether my lungs would clear without extra treatment, I forwent the usual cheap, reliable standby against lung inflammation for a much more targeted – and expensive – drug: if I must add medication to a pregnancy, Expensive Targeted Drug seemed less likely to affect the unborn than Old Standby. Expensive Targeted Drug also should help avoid other nasties, like fungal infections – except, sometimes, in one place: the voice box.
Mold is grody, and I never expected to blow so many bucks on losing my voice. Expensive Targeted Drug also failed to clear my lungs quickly. The doc recommends antibiotics if my lungs don’t clear soon, though the antibiotics worsen fungal infections. At a time of life (pregnancy) when I’m socially obligated to make extra sacrifices to avoid “unnecessary” medication, I could end up adding three, the third solely to manage the side-effect of the first two!
Some might scoff at feeling “socially obligated” to do anything in a free country – surely medical decisions take place between patient and doctor, not among wider society, not even during pregnancy – but as parents humorously note all over the interwebs, just because the buttinskis of a free country don’t (or shouldn’t) have much legal standing to butt in doesn’t keep them from butting a whole lot more once you’re a parent – whether it’s over obstetrics or buckling car seats.
Breathing trumps voice, of course, but it’s surprisingly hard to mom without a voice, especially while already too short of breath for normal levels of physical activity. Children go undisciplined. Phone calls go unreturned. Husbands (OK, there’s only one of these) feel unanswered, since the answers are inaudible. Still, until I find a way to manage my lung function better, even cooking fumes are enough to tank my productivity for hours – and my family clearly needs me more productive, not less. How did I get myself into this bind? Where did I go wrong?
When you wake up with a calf cramp, you’re supposed to flex your foot – and whatever you do, don’t point your toes, else you’ll make it worse and have only yourself to blame. When you wake up with a shin cramp, you’re supposed to point your toes – and whatever you do, don’t flex your foot, else you’ll make it worse and have only yourself to blame. So, how do you manage when you wake up with both?
Such binds are hardly crises – even most lung trouble is barely dangerous these days, with the right equipment and training. They’re just, I want to say… sometimes a bit… unmanageable. Or is any attempt to plead “unmanageable” really just an attempt to worm our way off the hook, to shirk our duty to stay on it?
Ogden Nash wryly observed that the sins of omission dogging modern Americans aren’t so much failures to pursue The Good as failures to pursue managerial goods:
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up
the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you
haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every
time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round
of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the
unsuitable things you did.
As luck would have it, whatever suitable things I didn’t do to maintain better health have now left a pregnant woman (ergo an innocent baby!) more-than-usually vulnerable to pneumonia-causing bugs just right when a new one becomes a public-health concern.
I don’t worry I’d suffer from Covid-19 – suffering is, in some sense, the easy part. I worry that if I suffered, my suffering would spill over onto others and it’d be my fault. Death scares me less than the thought that, if I did die, I will have in some obscure sense deserved it, as the final consequence of not having been more responsible in some respect or another; my final managerial failure.
I hardly need die for my suffering to cause suffering in others: That’s already happened plenty, and doubtless will continue happening. That I’m suffering, too, seems rather beside the point from this perspective. That I have much to repent of often increasingly seems beside the point: of course I do, but how do I justify diverting resources to something as non-managerial as repentance when my poor management is already letting others down?
Not all is manageable. But in a land of free, responsible people, all must be managed, nonetheless.
I can’t play Martha forever. I’m a Mary by temperament if anyone is, and sooner or later my nature reasserts itself despite my best efforts to “be good” (somehow, “be good” = “be Martha”). The Good News may tell us, from Christ’s own lips, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her,” but choosing this better portion increasingly seems like a guilty pleasure – one which may not be taken away from me, but which perhaps ought to be, if I’m to manage.
Perhaps it’s a sign of spiritual health, not shameful weakness, that I’ll eventually flip Martha and all her Martha-guilt the bird again. I have plenty to repent of without even trying to repent of what ought to be an inclination toward “what is better”. Still, I find it interesting I often guiltily feel as if I should try to repent of the inclination, especially as I take on more domestic responsibilities.
It can be tempting to suppose family values and liquid modernity are opposites, that the managerial mentality is a symptom of taking focus off family and onto individuals as productive units. This supposition seems to miss, though, what so many Americans feel obligated to be productive for: family. Others. If we were merely ends in ourselves, our managerial failures would only let ourselves down, and wouldn’t seem nearly so irresponsible. But we know they let others down, too.
We may be ends in ourselves, but we’re also means by which others thrive – or not. Indeed, how could family ties, especially parenthood (I’ll add, especially motherhood), avoid being our most powerful natural reminder that we are means as well as ends?
Martha was not as managerial as she was because she was content to let herself – or perhaps any woman (she saw Mary as a means, too: “Tell her to help me!”) – be an end in herself. No, Mary had that contentment, while Martha did not. No other duty may vie with encountering God, but it’s hard not to wonder, sometimes, if one reason many feel freer to encounter God during suffering is because suffering often buys the sufferer some moral permission to be excused from ordinary social obligations.
So, what of suffering that does not excuse you from ordinary obligations? What of a society where no suffering really excuses you from the duty of management? Where, at the very least, anyone with minimal mental competence cannot be exempted from the duty of managing his own suffering, lest he unduly burden others?
What happens when a Christian society believes Martha, not Mary, has chosen the better portion?Published in