The Abundant Womb

Yesterday I wrote about what people do in case of emergency, and most particularly about what I do when my survival seems threatened. I mentioned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, and also that others, such as Arizona State University psychology professor Douglas Kenrick, have taken issue with Maslow’s pyramid and revised it (or even dismissed it).

Kendrick is an interesting person whose work I respect because it has added a great deal to the psychological literature and is also thought provoking. His bio on the Psychology Today web site illustrates how a person can weave his misbegotten past into a presently successful life. Those of us who have college transcripts (or even rap sheets) to live down can take note, as his humor is self-effacing but artful at the same time. He’s a sharp fellow.

Have a look at Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs pyramid and compare it with Kenrick’s theoretical model below:

The article I referenced notes that many disagree with Kenrick’s assertion that parenting, not self-actualization, is at the pinnacle of human psychological development. One thinker went so far as to suggest that grandparenting might be at the pinnacle–an idea I liked, being a grandmother myself and calling to mind a proverb that says, “a children’s children are a crown to the aged” (Proverbs 17:6).

What interested me about Kenrick’s revised pyramid is the idea that mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting would supplant self-realization as the pre-eminent evolutionary goals of the human being. Certainly, from an evolutionary standpoint one has to agree that producing offspring is demanded of anyone who hopes in a genetic future. Still, the pyramid stands here like a gate swinging open into a walled garden, beckoning “come in, come in.”

Four Things That Never Say ‘Enough’

During my work in the child welfare and adoption field, I had occasion to work with many couples who found themselves unable to have children. I can’t even estimate how many thousands of women I’ve talked to, corresponded or consulted with, or counseled who were anguished over their inability to produce a child. The abuses I’ve encountered in adoption work almost always stemmed from greed, perhaps equally arising from the agency or attorney greed for money and the adoptive parent greed for a child. Thus it is that another proverb says there are four things that are never satisfied and can never say ‘enough’: the grave, the barren womb, parched earth, and fire (Proverbs 30:16). The only satisfaction for the barren womb, the psalmist says, is a child. I have known many infertile adoptive mothers whose wombs were forever dissatisfied even after they adopted a child, whose wombs continued to wail.

Is Kenrick correct, then? Is parenthood the epitome of human success? I don’t think so. From the perspective of biological evolution, one might argue that he is correct, and the most developed human beings are those who are able to acquire, retain, and reproduce with a mate. I’m not so sure why mate retention is necessary, though, considering that having babies will ensure genetic advancement and therefore the most psychologically advanced among us must be those people who are having more children more quickly and often than anyone else. This puts Niger at the top of the list worldwide as the place to go for evolutionary enlightenment.

The Wandering Waif

What gave me pause yesterday when I looked at Kenrick’s pyramid was the rightness of it from the perspective of a person who has no mate or no children and feels these lacks as a personal failure. There certainly is an undeniable prejudice in most cultures against the single, childless person. The single parent has at least proved that s/he can mate and produce a child; the married but childless couple has at least proved that they can mate. But the single, childless person is often looked upon with pity or even disdain in our culture. Get to age 40 and be childless and without a spouse, and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Being alone in any culture makes a person feel like a failure, and tends to cause others to judge one as a failure. A childless person without a mate had better be a mystic, priest, poet, artist, or other inspired type to ward off societal judgments.

This state of affairs suggests just how shallow we can be. We put so much store in biological advancement and so little on spiritual that we will applaud a person for marrying and having a child while judging another for doing neither. We will judge the car mechanic for his shoddy work, but not the bad parents for theirs. Every kind of mediocrity and benign neglect are supported as long as one has a spouse or partner and is producing children.

It is quite clear to anyone who has been married and raised children to adulthood that neither marriage nor childrearing will save you. Spouses and children do not satisfy the need for spiritual and psychological advancement, and often times we realize later that all the love we lavished upon our children was as much about us as it was about them. I know few enlightened parents, but many selfish ones, and the reason why counseling continues to be a booming profession is because people who have no business becoming parents have children anyway, and these children grow up and need fixing. Such fixing is very hard to come by.

Spouses and children are millstones around the necks of those who seek enlightenment, and so it is that the world’s greatest religious leaders, teachers, gurus, and saints were, by and large, single and childless. Saint Paul said that it is better to remain unmarried, because the married have the cares of the world on their mind–how to please the spouse, how to provide, how to raise the children. The person who chooses to remain single and childless can devote him- or herself to God.

We all know people who should never have become parents but did, and whose only gift to the world was to send a neurotic, unhappy child out into it. This adult child wanders the world, forever searching for a new mother and father in every other person or community, only to be rejected and disappointed and to therefore repeat the psychological wound. Our world is full of such people, raised by wolves, unparented, unwanted, and unloved, inflicting themselves on others and producing babies who are well dressed and perhaps even well-educated, but merely higher functioning facsimiles of their own orphan-hearted parents. This is exactly why the middle- and upper-middle class families who look so good on the outside inevitably produce an addict or disordered person of some kind, for there is always a truth bearer who testifies of the truth through intransigent symptoms.

The Abundant Womb

The abundant womb is the spirit producing love and light. It nurtures, contains, and sustains life. A person who can stand in the face of cultural judgments and choose a simple, single, childless life, or consciously choose childlessness in favor of an evolution of the self, or even selfless service, is a great person. Every person among us is destined for death and each of us dies alone. Our two possessions are our own births and deaths, and no matter what we tell ourelves or how we are received on either side of life, we go it alone. One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to begin with the end in mind. If each of us began every day with the idea of our own deaths in the front of our minds, I wonder how different the world would be? Just as medieval nuns attached carved skulls to their rosaries and meditated hourly on death, so too we ought to consider reality.

I spoke a few weeks ago with a long-time friend who is a fine mother and grandmother. Her mothering and grandmothering are so fine, in fact, that none of her children know that sometimes her mothering and grandmothering wear her to the bone. We talked at length about how the ‘Good Mother’ is an icon we sacrifice to but loathe at times, for she demands everything and gives nothing in return. Every conscious grandmother I know has expressed a similar feeling to me, namely that we do our duties with love and often joy, but that we all long to be alone and quiet and still and rarely get to be these, because we are always serving and caretaking someone. We can never escape from being wives and mothers and grandmothers, sisters and daughters. We caretake the world and often have gone into professions as caretakers, too, in service to the Good Mother. Many women never get to be alone until they are on their death beds, and the lack of aloneness all their previous lives has made them ill equipped to grow old and die.

Men, too, serve an idol. In my household, we call this archetypal figure “Mr. Fix-It.” He is the handyman, the honeydew, who does everything. He gets up and goes to work every day and comes home and mows the lawn. He changes the oil and drives the kids to the park. He pleases his boss and tries to please his wife and then has to put up with hearing about what a failure he is in spite of his efforts. He is like a pack mule at times, and other times like the handyman one hires for ten bucks an hour. When he was young, he longed for adventure and had a daring gleam in his eye, but the fire has given way to duty and before he knows it he’s old and his life is over. “I never really even lived my life!” he says with bewilderment.

For all these reasons and more, I think that those of us who have mates and children and grandchildren ought to be as honest about the difficulties and demands of these relationships as we are eager to update our Facebook pages with brags and photos about this so-called great life we lead. The fact is, this great life is exhausting, but we can throw ourselves into carpooling, school programs, volunteerism, and back-to-school shopping with abandon because these do not demand real selves or enlightenment or any kind of personal development of us. We can be the succubi and incubi of the universe, or we can be life-givers like Eve, but we can’t be both. When people confuse life-giving with childbirth, they are sorely misguided and in danger of doing the rest of us a terrible disservice by producing more unfit children in a world already teeming with unfit human beings and all too few enlightened communities.

I hope that we will honor and cherish those among us who are single by choice and childless by choice. I hope we’ll thank them for being conscious human beings and for having the courage to say, “I will not have children.” I admire Oprah Winfrey because she knew she could only be excellent at her career or at mothering, but not both. She was called to be who she is and she fulfilled her calling, and in my book that makes for a great woman. Few of us are called to entertain or improve the world on the Oprah scale, but each of us is called to do what Maslow suggested, which is to be the best we can be at who we are–with or without spouses or children, and many times in spite of them.

20 responses to “The Abundant Womb”

  1. blahblahblah Avatar

    I think it means more than parenting, although that is as close as I could describe. There is something intrinsically healing, full circle-ish, reflection of you as a child/grown into an adult that comes from parenting.

    I don’t think people need to do that with offspring. I can think of many folks who have had that similar type of thing with a close friend, perhaps one in real need/crisis/problem where you have to rise to the occassion-maybe take one for the team, stand up and protect or give of yourself when its the last thing you want to do.

    I think of Kant, more than Maslow. Everyone has a list, some things on your list and my list maybe be the same, corresponding rank in our heads/hearts. I think our lists shift around, as we experience things but the fundamental things remain, like love, like compassion, like sharing, like belonging.

    Parenting gives you the easy way into sharing in something greater than yourself. Like instant coffee. The real search, the real pinnacle, imo-is being able to do that all inside yourself. Children make it almost impossible to not be introspective and soul searching.

  2. Jaliya Avatar

    Oh, my … where to start. Eve, this is my first visit to your blog … This post and its coversation are lush with food for thought …

    I’ve come to think that ethical, mindful and merciful being-in-relation might be “the top of the pyramid” … but then this quality lies at the foundation — *is* the foundation — of all the good we humans can do. So, in a sense, I agree with the proposition that parenting can be an apex of human experience and accomplishment –IF it is conducted from that foundation. Mostly we do the best we can with what we’ve got … we survive what we survive … and we go on in one way or another. The pivotal matter is what we do with what’s been handed down/on to us … how we conduct ourselves now, every day …

    I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak from that experience. I am an Auntie to three; an elder / mentor / goofy grownup to several young adults … and I’ve seen feats of parenting that stagger me — I mean *excellent* parenting amidst (seemingly) quotidian chaos (and much worse). Ditto *devoted* sustained and intimate caregiving. Come to think of it, all my personal heroes are people for whom relation comes first.

    It’s true that any fertile person can breed … and those whom I consider “enlightened” are all people who have survived, or are surviving, relentless stress with a certain gritty love and humour (parents or not). They’re smack in the middle of “ordinary life” (whatever that happens to be for them), and they conduct themselves with generosity, grace, and practical kindness. They also blow their stacks on occasion — as mindfully as possible (one person vents steam through housework — as she says, “It’s a great outlet ’cause it’s *always there*!”).

    Being a parent or primary caregiver provides relentless stress — and demands our presence in a way that few of us, as you write, are willing to acknowledge or address (at least outside a small circle of intimates).

    Who’s to say, though, that parenthood can’t be a vocation or that being a parent negates the possibility of also being an artist or a mystic? Perhaps a new life brought into being and cultivated with great care can become an artist of loving …?

  3. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar


    Thank you, though I am not sure exactly what I have done; I could use the hug though.

    I only meant to lump the crazy, insane, delusional, touched, punks, anarchists, and the marginal with the artists, poets, and/or dreamers because, from the point of view of the sane, those who choose to sink back into a deeper unconsciousness and forget—a gross underestimation at some 98% of the population of this country I’d say— there is no difference and anyone who chooses the middle path is seen in those terms. You are right in that we don’t teach, nor often learn, how to sit with suffering and discomfort; not needlessly, but because it is a part of life—everyone wants to summit Everest, yet few feel like actually making the climb.

    Hesse describes it all rather well in “Steppenwolf”:

    “Now, it is between the two, in the middle of the road, that the bourgeois seeks to walk. He will never surrender himself either to lust or to asceticism. He will never be a martyr or agree to his own destruction. On the contrary, his ideal is not to give up but to maintain his own identity. He strives neither for the saintly nor its opposite. The absolute is his abhorrence. He may be ready to serve God, but not by giving up the fleshpots. He is ready to be virtuous, but likes to be easy and comfortable in this world as well. In short, his aim it to make a home in a temperate zone without violent storms and tempests; and in this he succeeds though it be at the cost of that intensity of life and feeling which an extreme life affords. A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self. Now the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self (rudimentary as his might be). And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security. His harvest is a quiet mind which he prefers to being possessed by God, as he does comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty, and pleasant temperature to that deathly inner consuming fire. The bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule. Therefore he has substituted majority for power, law for force, and the polling booth for responsibility.”

    Beginning again makes me think of Kipling’s poem “If”. And it strikes me that what looks like “beginning again” may very well actually be the authentic initial beginning, because this time, whatever comes, you will be dreaming with your eyes open; and anything that’s not created from that place, no matter how touching or beautiful it is, is only the gossamer stuff of sleeping dreams.

    1. Anne Avatar

      Librarian, what have you done? You’ve been yourself and it makes me want to hug you or tell me how much I enjoy you, that’s what.

      I love what you wrote about beginning again perhaps being an authentic initial beginning! Wonderful! “Dreaming with your eyes open”–! Yes, yes, yes.

  4. davidrochester Avatar

    This was quite fascinating … as someone who is childless by choice, and who has known from my own early childhood that I would be childless by choice, I have a far broader definition of “parenting” than the literal perspective that perhaps the pyramid is intended to convey. I would put p[arenting at the top of the pyramid as well … but then, I put all kinds of things into the category of “parenting” that most people might categorize differently.

    I think, for example, that a lot of creative endeavor is a form of giving birth/nurturing. I think that my partner and I are parenting each other in learning to respond lovingly to one another’s defining wounds as they manifest in our relationship. I think I’m parenting my friend Elissa’s child when I babysit. And I also think that all of these things are the most satisfying parts of my life, and require me to be the best version of myself I can be … that these are the things that challenge me to evolve and choose to be loving rather than responding from those lower-pyramid needs of literal safety.

    Similarly, I consider self-actualization to be giving birth to the evolving self, and that really, in a very profound way, the highest goal I have is to accept and nurture and draw loving boundaries with myself, as I would if I were my own well-loved child. This is a journey with no end except (hopefully) the transfiguration of death. So I’m OK with parenting at the top of the pyramid, even though I’m never going to create another person with my DNA.

    1. Anne Avatar

      David, I admire you for many reasons, not the least of which is that you have consciously chosen to remain childless, which takes more than a little courage in our world.

      I very much like what you wrote about parenting; it is nurturing and teaching, isn’t it? How beautiful that you wrote that you are “learning to respond lovingly to one another’s defining wounds.” Defining wounds! Oh, my, this is very good. You have such a way with words.

      I would like to see “nurturing” on the top of the pyramid, not parenting. Perhaps it’s part of my past indoctrination in mental health fields, but one thing that stays with me is the idea of the inherently superior/inferior relationship. When there are power imbalances, it’s easy for each party to be blind to what such imbalances do. Parenting requires a superior of some sort and an inferior, whereas nurturing simply involves care and love and empathy. It is harder to love a peer than an inferior, I think. These are just preliminary thoughts, my sudden reaction to your very good ideas.

      I’ll think about them some more, but something about ‘parenting’ at the top of the pyramid rubs me the wrong way in spite of my substantial contributions to both the parenting and DNA contribution fields.

  5. Mona Roberts Avatar
    Mona Roberts

    Interesting. I wasn’t aware that it was an option to begin again.
    How…simple…and yet it never occurred to me I could. It honestly seemed to me that suicide or diving deeper into unconsciousness were the only two options.

    For me…the later being insanity and the former much too violent….”for me”.

    Why not begin again? What else is there to do with the days and weeks and months and years?

    Eve: “Begin again. Begin again.

    Begin again.

    Begin again.”

    Now the only question remains is how.

    1. Anne Avatar

      My dear Mona, your heart calls out to mine. I ‘get’ you in some ways that resonate very deeply within me.

      How do we begin again? This is such a good question. It gives rise to the flutter of wings, a gasp of surprise. I may have to write about this, for you have provoked me now in the best way, because I suddenly realize that beginning again is a mystery and a challenge, a sacred responsibility and opportunity and wish fulfilled. I know something about it, and I know very little about it. Let’s see what we can find out.

  6. The Librarian inPurgatory Avatar


    I wouldn’t so much say that Campbell was unfair to Maslow as he was to the people Maslow was trying to describe. However, I understand pointedness; not having achieved Buddhahood, there are people with whom spending any amount of time that doesn’t involve me consuming copious amount of tasty-adult-flavored beverage is worse than gnawing off my own limbs: I don’t care what happened on American Idol, who’s doing whom in Hollywood or DC, or anything uttered by Sarah Palin—bread and circuses.

    I completely agree with your arguing that “Maslow’s five values are not values as much as they are observations of what people actually do with their lives.”

    I think that most people reach a point in there life where they wake up, temporarily, and see the mess they’ve made of it—the string of Faustian bargains trailing out behind them, the unlived and misspent life, how cheaply they have sold or abandoned their dreams— and there, in that terrible moment, they are faced with suicide, beginning anew from where they are with what they’ve wrought, or sinking deeper into unconsciousness. The sane ones choose the latter, the brave ones the former, and as for the middle path…that is the path for the crazy, insane, delusional, touched, punks, anarchists, artists, poets, the marginal, and/or dreamers; if there’s even any difference.

    Was listening to the radio this morning, and actually paying attention for once; this little bit from Alice in Chain’s “Your Decision” jumped out:

    “Time to change has come and gone. Watched your fears become your God. It’s your decision. It’s your decision.”

    Winding up in the middle of the pyramid, is that not just another way of saying “neither hot nor cold”, the servant who buried his treasure? I’m not sure that most people would believe it but there are things worse than failing, succeeding, or dying.

    1. Eve Avatar

      Librarian, you make me sigh. You make me want to hug you: “I think that most people reach a point in there life where they wake up, temporarily, and see the mess they’ve made of it—the string of Faustian bargains trailing out behind them, the unlived and misspent life, how cheaply they have sold or abandoned their dreams— and there, in that terrible moment, they are faced with suicide, beginning anew from where they are with what they’ve wrought, or sinking deeper into unconsciousness. The sane ones choose the latter, the brave ones the former, and as for the middle path…that is the path for the crazy, insane, delusional, touched, punks, anarchists, artists, poets, the marginal, and/or dreamers; if there’s even any difference.”

      Oh, there IS a difference. The … artists, poets, … and/or dreamers” choose to begin again. I do believe in second, third, and tenth chances. I truly do. It’s never too late. I am with the poets and/or dreamers: begin again. Begin again. Begin again.

      Begin again.

      Begin again.

      I love your heart. It is so true.

  7. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar

    Reminds me of something Joseph Campbell wrote in “Pathways to Bliss”:

    “I looked at the list (Maslow’s hierarchy of values) and I wondered why it should seem so strange to me. I finally realized that it struck me as strange because these are exactly the values that mythology transcends.

    Survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, self-development—in my experience, those are exactly the values that a mythically inspired person “doesn’t” live for. They have to do with the primary biological mode as understood by human consciousness. Mythology beings where madness starts. A person who is truly gripped by a calling, by a dedication, by a belief, by a zeal, will sacrifice his security, will sacrifice even his life, will sacrifice personal relationships, will sacrifice prestige, and will think nothing of personal development; he will give himself entirely to his myth. Christ gives you a clue when he says, “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

    Maslow’s five values are the values for which people live when they have nothing to live for. Nothing has seized them, nothing has caught them, nothing has driven them spiritually mad and made them worth talking to. These are the bores. (In a marvelous footnote to an essay on “Don Quixote”, Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “A bore is one who deprives of our solitude without providing companionship.”)”

    1. Eve Avatar

      Librarian, thank you for the reminder of these marvelous ideas of Campbell’s. One can see how far down the evolutionary scale most of the Western world seems to be, when we observe that many, many people can’t make it more than halfway up the pyramid. I am reminded of Thoreau writing that we spend our lives fishing, only to find that it wasn’t fish we were after.

      I do think Campbell was a little unfair to Maslow. You’ve probably read Maslow’s book, too, and my impressions of Maslow are that he was always a seeker. At the end of his life he expanded his concepts and came to many of the same conclusions Campbell did, couched in his own terminology–namely that there is a transcendent calling of mythological proportions beckoning to each of us.

      I would argue that Maslow’s five values are not values as much as they are observations of what people actually do with their lives. We can argue the philosophy of its rightness, or we can look at what people actually do. Few people transcend anything. What seizes them is fear or anxiety, and in our culture where we give a pill for everything, we don’t teach suffering, have examples of good suffering, know how to transcend anything, and so the fact that we end up somewhere in the middle of that pyramid is understandable and even forgivable.

      Just as with Jung, Maslow’s popularizable (that’s a word, right?) concepts have stuck, and what he really meant by them and believed the older and wiser he grew have been obscured. He certainly believed in being seized and caught by life’s great mystery.

  8. Lilith Avatar

    I haven’t become a grandmother yet, thank goodness. I do miss having babies but I don’t miss all the work they entail. I have pulled back considerably from my children, even the youngest, in an effort to find more balance in my life. I still haven’t found it yet.

    I also care for my mother, who is much harder to pull away from. She likes to use guilt and in truth, she is a frail, old lady who is not long for this world. But, and this sounds so awful, she will die despite what I do. I cannot stop her from dying and she has three other children who can take time out from their lives to visit her and ease her loneliness. It’s not just my job, although it feels like it.

    I’ve been grumpy these past few weeks, overwhelmed with jobs and responsibilities. So I pulled back even more and I’m leaving town for a week.

    It’s so hard to grow when I’m busy taking care of everyone else. The thought of entering a convent for a few years sounds appealing. To you too I’m guessing:)

    1. Eve Avatar

      Lilith, you made me smile. Yes, entering a convent for a few years–even one!–sounds appealing. How I would love to go through one year on my own. I’m sure we’re not alone in this once we’ve reached our 40s and 50s, and think that the longing to get into some personal version of ‘on my own’ is what accounts for the wild popularity of books such as Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve noted that ever several years, another best seller about this very issue is written: women going off to find themselves.

      I hope you take time every day for you. I know when I don’t do that, and when every day is “overwhelmed with jobs and responsibilities” (as most middle-aged women’s lives are), then all the joy and wonder goes out and I too am very very grumpy.

  9. c(h)ristine Avatar

    YES! Of course–! I replied to you on FB–I agree with your post but could not bring myself to say it. My friend (a wonderful kindhearted person who did not speak from a place of experience, to whom you responded) has been enlightened, and I am grateful!

  10. c(h)ristine Avatar

    I just want to give you a hug! For more reasons than one.

    1. Eve Avatar

      Hehe, I hope you still want to hug me after the comment I made to your reader who suggested adoption is better than IVF…! Oh my. But since I already know you will probably hug me anyway: /HUGS!

  11. c(h)ristine Avatar

    Your blog post stirred up a lot for me…so much so, that I decided to put up a blog post of my own. Thank you, Eve.

  12. c(h)ristine Avatar

    Eve, you have addressed my heartbreak and frustration about our society who stresses fulfillment thru parenting. I didn’t realize there was an actual MODEL by Kenrick that states the very thing that our society extols! From being told, “You don’t really grow up until you have a child,” to the iPhone4 facetime ad where a woman tells her husband with glee (implying that there is No Great Joy), “You’re gonna be a dad!” I feel my empty womb (empty against my will) is something horrible and unfortunate and something that sets me back. Nevermind all the FB updates from friends who are mothers (many of whom I have had to hide for my own sanity).

    Self actualization comes in many forms and comes from the SELF and not from external factors like marital bliss or parenthood. I know I’m happy even as I desire children.

    Thank you for your wisdom, again! I’m going to RT and FB this.

    1. Eve Avatar

      I certainly don’t make light of the suffering that comes through wanting a child and not being able to have one; this is one of life’s terrible heartaches. Still, I consider it worse to be a bad parent than to be a good person who isn’t a parent at all. It’s shameful, what passes for parenting. Even animals can procreate and if the preservation of individual gene pools among humans is to be lauded, then I’d prefer we recognize we’re no better than animals if procreation is all it’s about. Ugh.

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