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Elsa Walsh’s Journey to Marriage and Motherhood

In a speech that was turned into a Washington Post op-ed, the journalist Elsa Walsh speaks about how she’s “come to question many of the truths I once held dear.” In Walsh’s words, “The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38—not even close—and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.”

The issues at hand are feminism, parenthood, and family, with Ms. Walsh once having held three truths she took to be self-evident: “I would never marry. I would never have a child. And I would have an interesting job, as a writer or a lawyer. I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.” She believed “Marriage was a patriarchal system, and I wanted none of it.” But she later came to discover she did want a part of it—and “Instead of feeling trapped, I felt liberated and secure and protected—not by patriarchy but by love.”

After seven years of marriage, Walsh and her husband had a child—and that, too, changed her. According to Walsh:

When my daughter was 4, she came up to my home office one evening around 6:30. I was on a deadline and had been for days. She had two big bags filled with her stuff, her pajamas tucked in her backpack. She declared that she was not leaving the room until I came downstairs and played with her. I was frustrated and told her I was never going to be able to finish unless she left, and then I marched her down to her father.

The next morning I wrote a letter to myself. I recently found the note, dated Feb. 8, 2001: “Today is the day I decided to change my life.” My solutions weren’t perfect, but I tried to rearrange my work life so that I would be available when she came home from school. (I knew I had it better than most women. I had full-time help and could afford the changes, too, a luxury not available to all.) I had been in such a hurry for such a long time that “no” had become my default answer to her. Now it would be “yes.” I wrote less and cut back on traveling for stories. I turned down assignments and job offers. I adopted a slower pace. It was not always easy, but it was the right choice. It did not matter much to the greater world when my next article appeared, but it did matter to my daughter that I was nearby. And it mattered to me.

Ms. Walsh concludes her testimony this way: “Motherhood is not a job. It is a joy.”

The same can be said about fatherhood, even if the experiences can obviously differ. And of course even something that is a joy can also entail hardship. The point, though, is that marriage and parenthood often reshape what St. Augustine called the ordo amoris (“the order of love”), by which he meant, according to C.S. Lewis, “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it.”

What Ms. Walsh is saying, I think, is that as we look back at our lives, our most intimate relationships are the things that matter most. That devotion to our children is deeper than we ever imagine. That if we’re fortunate, with the passage of time comes perspective and wisdom. And that the ideologies of our youth often shift as a result of human experience. To be able to give an honest account of such things is something of a gift, and this particular ones comes to us courtesy of Elsa Walsh. 



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