Friday, January 31, 2014
Thoughts on Being a Parent
You may have heard about a recent study that purported to show that having children does not make people happier. Besides the usual reservations I might have about the validity of the "knowledge" that is supposedly delivered to us by studies of this sort, I have some especially strong reasons to be skeptical of this particular study's conclusions.
One reason is the subject: happiness. Philosophers have debated the nature of happiness for centuries, and there is no universally accepted definition of what it even is. The authors of this study, therefore, had to define "happiness" in some particular way. In other words, they had to start out with an assumption about what "happiness" is, and therefore their results are, from the very start, colored by their chosen definition. (Either that or they had no definition, which is a different sort of problem.)
Another reason for skepticism is the rather obvious fact that what makes one person happy does not necessarily make another person happy. This is why we have common expressions like "to each his own".
Even more importantly, however, there is an unexamined presupposition underlying the idea that "parenthood does not make people happy": namely, the assumption that "happiness" (however defined) is the reason that people choose to become parents. This is a gross oversimplification at best, a straw man at worst.
I will address that more later, but first I want to give the most important reason of all why I do not place any stock in such conclusions: my own personal experience of being a parent.
I did not become a parent until I was 40. For most of my life up until then, I had little if any desire to have children of my own. It was not until after I married, at the age of 34, that I even began to contemplate, with any seriousness, the idea of becoming a father.
It is hard to say why, exactly, I became open to the idea, or why I eventually chose to take that step. As a single man, I had always liked children, but did not particularly care if I ever had any of my own. However, even though parenthood had been a rather low priority for me for most of my adult life, something about the idea of having a child had, at the same time, always been appealing. I sometimes imagined, in particular, having a daughter, but it was more in the realm of a passing fancy than a wholehearted dream.
In any case, the reason I eventually chose to become a parent is not something I could reduce to "I wanted to be happy (or happier)". I had no doubt, based on what I knew of other parents' experience and feelings, that it would most likely create a great deal of happiness, as well as a great deal of heartache. But I was under no illusion that parenthood was a path to unalloyed happiness. And that was certainly not the reason, the deciding factor, that caused me to make my decision.
Ultimately, as with many important life choices, it is difficult to explain or understand our reasons for desiring or choosing what we do. We may have a rational explanation, but more often than not, however true that explanation may be, it is only partial, and perhaps not even the greater part of the truth. Our motives are often obscure even to ourselves, driven as we are by deep and mysterious forces of biology and psychology. (For this reason alone, I should point out, the notion that we choose parenthood--or anything else--in order to be "happy" is highly suspect.)
Whatever my motives or reasons, exactly two weeks after hitting forty, I greeted a new human being, a human being that had never before existed and would never come into being again, which I had somehow helped bring into existence. (Yes, of course I know how... but only from a physical point of view. From a metaphysical and experiential point of view, it remains, to all of us, utterly mysterious.)
I did indeed feel blissfully happy upon the arrival of my daughter. Even though she was so new and so small, she was very much a real, particular, unique human being to me. She was someone. Someone that I, as immediately and mysteriously as her sudden appearance from nothing, deeply and profoundly loved.
My daughter is now three and splits her time between two homes. As a single father who works full time and spends a great deal of his off time living with and taking care of a small child, I can assure you that it can be draining. It can be frustrating to the point of infuriating. It can be anything but conducive to an unfettered life of seeking one's own pleasure. And yes, sometimes it can feel like an act of (not entirely willed) self-sacrifice.
But I can also tell you this: I wouldn't trade it for anything. What makes any effort, any sacrifice, worth it is the thing for which one is exerting that effort or making that sacrifice. It is entirely a question of worth. And the worth in question, in the case of parenthood, is decidedly not one's own happiness.
This is not to say--not by a long shot--that my daughter does not bring me happiness. On the contrary, she is one of the greatest sources of joy, and one of the deepest sources of satisfaction and fulfillment, that I have ever had the fortune to be graced with. The happiness she brings me does include abundant amounts of fun and laughter and play and affection, but it is far more than just that. It is much deeper than that. It would be very difficult to explain just what that happiness is, but it is very real, and very deep.
And sometimes that happiness hurts. That may sound very strange, self-contradictory, but not if you take a deeper view of what happiness is. As I mentioned at the beginning, philosophers have speculated about the nature of happiness for centuries; and, although they have not come to any universal agreement about what constitutes it, or the best path by which to attain it, a philosophical view of happiness is not a superficial view. It goes well beyond feelings of pleasure or "happy" emotions. It is, if anything, a state of being. You might say it is a state of being right (not in the sense of argument, but in the sense of, "yes, this is right").
And yet... even if my daughter brought me none of these joys... even if she caused me great woe... I would not regret having brought her into the world. And that points to what is perhaps the most profound reason why studies purporting to show that "parenthood does not equal happiness" are entirely irrelevant. It is not so much because they provide spurious answers as because they ask the wrong questions.
As I said, our reasons for making life choices are ultimately shrouded in the mysteries of our unconscious. Anyone's reason for choosing to have children can surely be traced, at least to a very large degree, simply to Mother Nature and her imperative to her creatures to keep making more of themselves. We may think of ourselves as rationally acting individuals as much as we like, but the truth remains that we are also, and perhaps to a much more significant degree, determined by forces greater than ourselves.
This idea may sound threatening to our modern Western ears, to we who have been trained to embrace the idea of personal freedom above all else, but it need not. It is merely to assert that we are part of nature, part of the universe. We are not separate, completely self-determined atoms but intimately and intricately interconnected parts of a great, magnificent, and mysterious Whole. We did not determine our own being and our own existence, and can only exercise feeble and faltering control over our ultimate fate.
But despite these rather humbling circumstances, we also have the great honor of participating in the grand project of life. We can do this in many ways, of course, not limited to creating more life; we can, for instance, work to improve the lives of others by various means, from social work that alleviates material suffering to making art that enriches spiritual existence, as well as a host of other worthy activities.
And it is precisely this identification with, this commitment to, the larger whole--this expansion of one's interest outside of oneself--that (most philosophers and religions would agree in teaching us) constitute the good life... the life worth living... true happiness.
Because, when it comes down to it, our happiness does not consist in seeking our own happiness (which tends to be, ironically, a self-defeating pursuit), but in realizing that we are members of a larger world, and that we are fulfilled, not by self-seeking separation from, but by self-contributing connection to, the larger whole of which we are small but significant parts.
And that is why questions about any particular activity making one "happy" are completely beside the point, at least if we are considering happiness in anything other than a fleeting and superficial emotional context. If we are, on the other hand, considering happiness from a philosophical perspective, we must look at a whole life, well lived--what constitutes it, and how we might best attain it. Philosophers may disagree on the specific answer, but they tend to ask the same general question.
Ultimately, I do not know why I opened myself up to having a child. It is, on the surface of it, one of the scariest things a human being can possibly choose to do. It is one of the most tremendous risks a human heart can take on. It is, on one level, from the perspective of individual happiness, entirely irrational.
But billions of people have done it, and continue to do it, and will continue to do it (we can only hope; if they stop, then we stop too). And most of them appear to sail with sublime serenity into what is undoubtedly a tremendously fraught and terrifying project for anyone with a soul to undertake. Despite the extraordinary risks, challenges, and costs of being a parent, it cannot be said that there is anything particularly heroic about choosing to become one. As I have stated, it is largely the dictates of Mother Nature, directing us at our deepest biological levels (something that goes well beyond mere sex drive) to Keep Making More Like You.
But parenthood, at least for the vast majority of parents, does help to expand us beyond ourselves. This does not mean it makes us morally better than non-parents. It is more often than not a self-expansion that is forced ever so painfully upon us rather than something we magnanimously and cheerfully choose to endure. And it is certainly not the only way that human beings may experience self-expansion. But it is certainly, usually, one of them.
And so, in the end, the value of parenthood cannot be reduced to the question: "Do I feel happy at this particular moment?" If that were the case, there would be quite a few moments when I would have to say: no, this is definitely not making me happy. But jobs and careers can do that too. Sexual relationships can do that. Sometimes, food can do that. But we do not forego those things just because they might cause us some pain or discomfort along the way.
Certainly, parenthood is not necessary to be a complete human being, or to be a good human being, or to be a human being who makes a valuable contribution to the world. One only need consider, for example, Mother Theresa to see that. But it is also far from the truth to say that parenthood makes people less happy.
For many, I would dare say most, of those who, for whatever inscrutable reasons, undertake this most daunting of human projects, it is--despite the pains; despite the frustrations; despite the uncertainties and worries and doubts; despite the fears and anxieties; despite the disappointments and heartaches; despite the exhaustion, the loss of free time, the million little and thousand large sacrifices--it is still, somehow, miraculously, one of the greatest sources of happiness it is possible to know.
It could only be such a source if it were something that expanded us beyond ourselves... beyond the narrow bubble of seeking one's own pleasure and comfort above all else. And parenthood, if practiced in anything resembling a healthy and proper way, is guaranteed to do just that (it will definitely take you outside the bubble of pleasure and comfort).
Don't get me wrong. Bad people become parents and remain bad people; good people choose not to have children. But parenthood has a way--a particularly annoying and painful way at very many times--of finding our hidden reserves of generosity, of patience, of forgiveness, of love--and wresting them out of us, often surprising and amazing (and yet, deeply humbling) ourselves.
No one is a perfect parent, and I certainly am not. Guilt and self-doubt are horribly familiar to any parent with even a shred of conscience. Few of us sit around admiring our fine moral standing. It is all too easy to feel that one has instead been revealed to be a depraved and cruel human being, not a noble and saintly one.
But through it all, through all the ashes of our own weaknesses and failures, the nobility that is inherent in us as human beings may sometimes shine through. We may learn that we were capable of loving another human being in ways we had not imagined ourselves to be (or even imagined at all, for that matter).
What it comes down to, ultimately, is this: the value of parenthood is not in what it does for the parent (although it does, incidentally, provide many goods for those who choose this vocation). The value of parenthood is in what it does for the child. Any good parent knows this. The question of whether it makes me happy, in this case, is entirely irrelevant.
And that is because, in the last analysis, parenthood is not pursued for one's own sake. It is pursued precisely for someone else's sake. This may sound paradoxical, considering that one cannot do something for the sake of someone who does not yet exist--and I am not claiming that aspiring parents do not choose it, at least in part, out of a belief that it will bring them a certain type of happiness and fulfillment--but it is, taken as a whole, a project that can only possibly pay off, and be worthwhile, for the sake of the child.
For a parent, the child's good, the child's fulfillment, the child's happiness--these are what matter. These are what define the worth of the parental endeavor. And, again paradoxically, in that very act of other-focused, self-sacrificing action (which is certainly not all of a parent's life, though it can sometimes feel that way), one may find a type of happiness that is far deeper and more profound than life's more ephemeral pleasures.
Yes, sometimes--at moments when I feel completely unraveled, exhausted, bewildered--it is easy to ask what I got myself into. Was it really worth all this blood? The continued, seemingly endless bleeding that somehow coexists with sweetness and light? The bleeding that you know, deep down, will never end... not for as long as you remain alive on this earth? Was it really worth it?
And then I look into my daughter's bright and hopeful and innocent eyes, or hear her sweet and tender voice. And in those moments, I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the answer to the question cannot be anything other than a quiet, humbled, and broken, yet vast, deep, and resounding: yes. It is worth every last, glorious, painful drop.