Steps toward a larger, if alien view of what parenting involves
By William Eaton
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Few parents, and only occasionally, allow themselves to think, It is because of me that my child must suffer. Rather we sometimes think of all the many others and other things—rapists, wars, car accidents, bad teachers, infections—that (though we hope not!) may be our children’s lot. We wish we could save our children from some one pain and from all pains, from the aggression, egoism, and savagery of other children and, later, from that of coaches, bosses, mentors, colleagues, lovers. Some of our saving efforts may help our children, and some may make them less prepared to fend for themselves. Freud wisely observed in Civilization and Its Discontents that the modern approach to education does not well prepare children
for the aggressiveness of which they are destined to become the objects. In sending the young out into life with such a false psychological orientation, education is behaving as though one were to equip people starting on a Polar expedition with summer clothing and maps of the Italian Lakes.
A Freudian might also wonder if children need to be better prepared to recognize and channel the aggression coming from within themselves, of which those around them are destined to become objects? (Or are human beings more effectively aggressive when they ignore this aspect of their behavior and perhaps make much of how nice they are?) As regards the parents—the primary focus of the present text—it seems that the more we absorb ourselves in defending our children poorly or perfectly against external threats, the more we distance ourselves from the fact that it is we who got our children into this mess in the first place.
The summer before Jonah, my only child, was to turn 2, he, Louise (his mother) and I lived in an apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia. Between our apartment and the street were four flights of ancient stone stairs. One afternoon I was carrying Jonah down the stairs and he began playing with a sunglass clip that I had tucked over the top button of my shirt. I was wearing clogs, which do not offer the most secure footing. As I was walking down the stairs, I tried to get Jonah to stop playing with the clip. I was trying, as I walked and held him, to separate his hands from the clip.
When I returned to the scene several years later, I realized that at the bottom of the stairwell there was no light; a few of the stairs were dilapidated—in places where one would reasonably expect stone there was none. I lost my balance and Jonah fell out of my arms. There was a long moment during which I understood that a terrible thing was about to happen: this very little child—my son—was going to smash his head. There was nothing I could do. The word “death” did not then occur to me, but I felt the horror and helplessness.
Touch wood: As often, my worst fears were not realized. Jonah’s skull did not crack open; he has lived on. There was a little blood, a bad bruise, he cried a long time. And—touch wood again—to date this is the most physically (if not psychologically) traumatic accident he has had, or that we have had.
It is of course possible to entertain the gruesome thought that a child who dies young is thereby saved from years of struggle and suffering. Perhaps this thought at times provides meager consolation to parents of children who do indeed die young. Very few of us parents, however, can think or feel in this way about our children while they are alive. I once heard of a child who had a terrible illness, a cancer I believe it was, and the attempts to prolong his life involved numerous painful operations. Eventually he was begging his mother to allow him to die, but she could not allow her child to die while there might still be some way to save him.
We feel for the child and the mother. And, escaping into theory, we can see the mother’s feelings and struggles from a Darwinian perspective, as being useful for or essential to the survival of the species. And we can note that in bringing a child into this world, the one thing we guarantee is her eventual death. We may otherwise be awash in uncertainty, but of mortality we can be sure.
In the weeks after the St. Petersburg accident, Jonah woke up two or three times with nightmares, his first as far as Louise and I could tell. When I heard my son crying I ran to him and took him in my arms much as I had before we had started down the stairway. And now I also urged him to tell me what had happened, what he had been dreaming about. Recollection of trauma is said to be extremely difficult, practically impossible, for young children, but one time Jonah pointed fearfully to the wall behind his bed—as if, I imagined, he had imagined the wall was about to fall on his head. “Ba-boom” and “Papa,” he said.
Or this is what I heard him saying. It has been pointed out to me that perhaps Jonah did not in fact say “Ba-boom”; perhaps what he said was “baboon.” Being the “helicopter” type of parent—not only too present in my son’s life but also imagining that I am more present than I in fact am—I like this “baboon” suggestion and its hint that this stairway accident and this nightmare could have quickly disappeared even from Jonah’s subconscious, his dreams.
You might say that the stairway accident woke me up into a kind of nightmare. I realized that it was not simply my fault that Jonah fell on the steps. (Or would you say that it was “our” fault, Jonah’s and mine?) Such accidents and worse, frightening as they are and disastrous as they can be, are the lot of many if not all parents and children. But what I now began thinking about was how, if it were not for Louise and me, Jonah would never have had any nightmares. Giving birth to a child, I realized, has sadistic features. While failing to solve the large unsolvable problem or problems of life (e.g. mortality, and the clash of self-interest and dependence, and our flickering consciousness of such things and at times uncontrollable reactions to them) you have a child and you do—what?—all you can to help her solve the unsolvable problems of life? You bring a child into the world, and when he suffers as a result you comfort him. You love him not only because he begins life absolutely dependent on you (and thus, among other things, embodies your feelings of helplessness). You love him not only because he shares your genes and is such a miracle and a marvel. There is also the irresistible pleasure of loving, a feeling that is often felt most strongly when a loved one is suffering or when you realize that he or she must suffer.
One of the ways I have visualized this text is as a kind of alien spaceship which has landed in some stretch of overgrown marshland, a stretch of wet thinking overgrown generation after generation. In such a landscape a hard-edged, reflective, alien object may indeed catch the eye and have an allure, and yet we approach it gingerly, not at all sure, for example, that it does not carry disease or enemy soldiers. One might think of this text as a series of tentative approaches toward its central, alien idea: that the responsibility we have to a child we have created is of such an immeasurable extent that it cannot possibly be fulfilled, and this notwithstanding that we may be extraordinarily devoted or talented parents. With intimate if not entirely conscious knowledge of our predicament—of our mortality, of the clashes of interdependence and self-interest; the weight of consciousness; the confusions of our attempts at communication—we have conceived yet another person to confront all this. I do not imagine that this “infinite responsibility” idea will transform the ecology of the landscape in which it is touching down, but certainly this landscape does not look the same for those who see or can imagine the spaceship on it.
This text also reflects thoughts and feelings that came from my subconscious into my consciousness as the result of my relationship with one infant: my son, Jonah. I am mixing assertions and scholarship with anecdote, and I would leave a door open to quite other thoughts and feelings of other parents, and to such thoughts and feelings as I might have had raising another child at another time, and with a different partner than Louise.
To explain more fully what I am proposing, let me offer a more generic example. A child wakes up crying, perhaps having had a nightmare, perhaps simply feeling her aloneness and vulnerability, a hunger for protection, companionship, or warm, sweet milk. A parent comes in and comforts the child, saying something like, “Don’t worry, Mommy’s here,” or “Don’t worry, Daddy’s here.” As the child cries and clings the parent feels her (or his) own love arcing to her child. She, too, may cling and her eyes may tear up. Perhaps she thinks how close she feels to this child, how happy she is to have had her. The parent may also, for better or worse, feel noble and benevolent, for having gotten up in the middle of the night to comfort a helpless child. And if the child often cries at night, the parent may feel some annoyance, at being deprived of sleep.
Among other things it may seem—and my sense is that middle-class American parents in the early twenty-first century often make something like this claim—that there is a kind of negotiation going on: between the needs of “the other” (or of a semi-if-also-whole other), my child, and my own needs (the needs of the adult, the parent). And thus we parents may feel pleasure when we feel that we are putting aside our own needs to focus on those of our children.
That there is pleasure here, and annoyance, I do not wish to deny. Nor would I ignore the narcissistic aspect of the pleasure, of taking care of a human being who may seem to be an extension of “myself”; we are not too far from an idea of pampering ourselves. And we can take this a step farther: in addressing another’s helplessness we may be addressing our own feelings of helplessness, both those experienced in childhood and those experienced more recently (e.g. working in large organizations or for more self-involved than wise or productive bosses). If we can help someone else be a more ideal boss are we not strong and wonderful?
All this notwithstanding, my sense is that such feelings are also based on a conceit, if not several conceits, of parenting. I have in mind in particular an implicit assumption that there is a rough equality in the rights and responsibilities of parents and children vis-à-vis one another. I am also thinking about how parenting seems often to be considered as one of several large, rewarding activities an adult might engage in. It can seem more or less on a par with getting married, pursuing a career, buying and maintaining a house and garden, taking up a demanding hobby like scuba diving or painting.
Of course parents will divide their time between parenting tasks (and parenting pleasures!) and the rest of their lives—spouse, work, home, hobbies, sleep, etc. But, I am proposing, there is a sense in which, no matter how much we do for our children—to include what we do by leaving them alone, and at times even when they are suffering—there is a sense in which as parents we can never do enough. Again, I am urging greater recognition of the extent to which parenting involves infinite responsibility. And I would also say that feeling this aspect of our relationship to our children—feeling our breathtaking and at times tragic insufficiency—is a part of living the lives we are living. As opposed to living with blinkers on or intoxicated by denial (or denying with the help of intoxication, the intoxications of love included).
From a Darwinian perspective, we may imagine that many adults are necessarily driven to have children in order to perpetuate the species, our gene pools, and we may think that any excuses we give for having, or not having, children are quite secondary. We are responding instinctually or counter-instinctually (instinct’s mirror image). From philosophical and emotional perspectives we can also appreciate the selfishness of bringing a child into the world. We can understand that we must want to keep our children as safe and protected and happy as possible, and we may feel a kind of wonderful resonance with our biological destiny as we try to do all this, and perhaps especially when the task is not easy. And a few of us at least may be able to appreciate the irony, let’s softly call it, that the wonderful feelings come at some cost to these other beings, our children.
We can note one of the implicit assumptions of this text. I do not want to dwell on this assumption or to advocate for it. That would require another text. But the assumption should not go unrecognized.
I think of this assumption as a recasting of Plato’s Socrates’s famous proposition that a life unexamined is not worth living. The recasting is: A life dedicated in some part to trying to fully appreciate the life one is living would be a life well lived. This appreciating, or savoring, would take in not only the harder moments of life, the moments of pain and suffering, and of unwanted reflections and assertions, but also the moments of beauty and joy and those ecstatic moments when we feel that the rules do not apply to us, that we have escaped from our insufficiency and interdependency. It may well be that the present text underestimates what a challenge appreciating these bons moments can be; how hard it can be to savor our moments of joy, or to recognize our good fortune and for what it is or seems to be: good fortune. Personally, I have long been more focused on the challenge of not denying or ignoring harder aspects of life.
Some may say that life and parenting are hard enough without dwelling on (or having to read about) how we inevitably come up short. And please note further that I do not think that more aware parents are necessarily better parents. My sense is that some of the best parents are simply naturally gifted at parenting; they have some one of a number of wonderful mixes of empathy, strength, patience, playfulness, and flexibility, and they are fortunate to have the time and mental space to be able to give their best hours and the best of themselves to the task (and to the playing!). They have no need to reflect on infinite responsibility in order to give their young children their undivided attention, a sense of security, and love, and without giving too much either. And if these parents are extremely gifted and fortunate, as their children age and begin seeking greater autonomy, the parents are also able to make room for this, to increase their own autonomy, without getting confused and thinking they’re supposed to let go entirely. (And without thinking that they know, or could know, whether extraordinary generosity will produce a successful or happy child—since, among other things, our understandings of what success or happiness is are shadowy at best.)
Recently a colleague, a woman in her fifties, sent me a particular e-mail message. Our department was going through yet another worse-than-pointless reorganization. As usual it had been designed to get certain individuals promotions while giving our governing board and the public the impression that we were reforming ourselves, becoming more efficient, cost-effective, cutting edge. And the proposed changes were in fact going to make it more difficult for our best staff to be productive and deliver useful services. In the midst of all this my colleague’s father had died, and I had sent her a few words of sympathy. Her response: “Life is hard.”
I had to smile because this was a phrase I used to offer Jonah when he—injured, upset, or at the end of his rope—was crying. “Life is hard” (or “La vie est dure”; Louise being from la Wallonie in Belgium, French has been the dominant language in our home). I first stumbled on this idea one afternoon when Jonah was about 2. I was putting him down for his nap, and, tired yet resisting, he cried as he sometimes would before his nap. The “presenting problem,” as psychologists say, was that I was making him go to sleep rather than letting him play with a certain toy. As in the past I tried to comfort him by saying that I was with him; not to worry, he was just tired, after his nap he would feel better and we could play with the toy. He kept crying. And so I tried “La vie est dure,” not because I thought this would calm Jonah (though it did!), but because this was the thought that came to mind. Life is hard, sometimes there’s nothing to do but cry. One way or another a certain quantity of tears needs to be shed, or swallowed, repressed.
Is it possible that a child who cries freely as an infant—and who is not shushed, shunned, or belittled for crying—will have less need of tears later? I have had that hope. But also—perhaps it was months or even years later—I found myself wondering about this person (me) who, even as he appreciated that life was indeed hard, was trying to comfort the child to whom he had given life. Who was this supposed co-conspirator, sharing life’s pain with his son? It was one of the two people who having known this pain, knowing it, had brought a child—this boy—into the world. It was a person for whom the pain of life and a strong feeling of impotence—perhaps on a sexual level, but certainly on a political and existential one—had been briefly relieved by his son’s suffering that afternoon in his bedroom. Unable to get what he wanted, in touch with his helplessness, Jonah had cried, and I had felt warmed, comforting a smaller, younger, weaker, less experienced, less knowledgeable other—my son.
Das Leben, wie es uns auferlegt ist, ist zu schwer für uns, es bringt uns zuviel Schmerzen, Enttäuschungen, unlösbare Aufgaben. Um es zu ertragen, können wir Linderungsmittel nicht entbehren. . . . Solcher Mittel gibt es vielleicht dreierlei: mächtige Ablenkungen, die uns unser Elend geringschätzen lassen, Ersatzbefriedigungen, die es verringern, Rauschstoffe, die uns für dasselbe unempfindlich machen.
Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures. . . . There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.
From this perspective, the perspective of Civilization and Its Discontents, taking care of children might offer some mix of substitutive satisfactions and the intoxicating substances (happy hormones) related to love. But, again, it is our children who are doing the heavy lifting.
Another of the texts waiting in the wings would be on a subject that has been taken up by family therapists, sociologists, and analysts of groups, as well as by Melanie Klein in her writing on projective identification. This is the idea that within families and groups, and as writers and artists, we play roles for one another.
One man—or clown—acts confused, relieving others of the need to feel that their troubling feelings of confusion are indeed their own. Someone else may be an expert, her certainties and science reassuring us that we do know (and that we want to know), our problems can be solved—by identifying problems and solutions we can make progress (a tired word?), reducing the extent and significance of our predicament! Similarly, we hold and express feelings for one another, or for families or other groups as a whole. There is the child who always cries when the family gets together for the holidays. Her tears may seem excessive to the others, and indeed they are, as she is expressing and releasing a whole family’s sadness, and thus leaving it to the other relatives to enjoy the food, good cheer, and the game on the television sets. Now 13, Jonah likes to tell me of little risks he has taken. As a worried look comes over my face, tension tightening my features and voice, his anxieties cross the narrow space between us and become only mine. We were recently involved in a scary incident on a subway, and it so unnerved me and set to worrying about what might have happened to him that Jonah became positively delighted by the memory. A great adventure! If only I had not fought my way through the crowd and yanked him out of the car. He would have liked to have seen what was going to happen next.
The power of the dynamic—or human role-playing and feeling-holding—also struck me years ago when Jonah was younger, and when Bush, Cheney, Rove and Rumsfeld had taken over the White House, and their own savagery, avarice, and corruption seemed to mirror a general attitude in the country, a particular sense of what success (or getting ahead) was and of what it would involve, where it should get you. (The United States at its worst, I—of ancient Puritan and Old Testament stock—will call this.) At the time I was also having “relationship problems,” and all these things combined to make me feel a despondence and, again, an impotence that I had never quite felt before. How lonely the world was growing, as Emily Dickinson once put it. “[S]omething so desolate creeps over the spirit and we don’t know its name, and it wont go away.” To me it came to seem that there was but one light (or life buoy) in my life: Jonah, not 5 years old.
All the people remarking to Louise and me about how happy Jonah seemed, and him singing in the bath, as he did in those years, “Why am I so byoo-ti-ful?”—
It is worth noting how he often got into that warm water: kicking and protesting that he did not want to take a bath. Unlike some parents’ approach, mine did not involve much discussion or negotiation. Rather soon after he began objecting, I would simply pick him up, and perhaps tell him, as I carried him into the bathroom, that I understood that he did not want to take a bath, but the fact was that he was going to take one anyway. His euphoria would last for hours, long after he was dry.
It did not take me long to decide (rightly or wrongly) that my authoritarianism might have played a key role in his feeling so content. And after some time, years perhaps—many baths and much despondency—it also occurred to me that his joy might be playing a role in my feeling so bad.
Of course it is hardly unusual for the middle-aged to feel a sense of doom, the downward slope; nor is it unusual for parents to feel trapped. And such feelings are not relieved by reflections either on loved ones’ much greater youth or on how the people one loves will likely also arrive at the “wisdom” and dilapidation of middle-age. And if by looking out on the infinite responsibility of parenthood a parent is indeed—as if magically—able to lift some of the weight from a child’s shoulders, this seems only appropriate. (There comes a time too—around the time we start asking our children to help with the dishes?—when the fuller experience is not only to be shared; it cannot be avoided.)
I would not lose track of the fact that in the midst of all this we parents strive to raise healthy children, to help our children flourish in one or more of the ways that seem like flourishing to us and to them. Nor would I ignore that the problems of existence are more desperate for the millions of the world’s children who lack for basic medicines, food, and water, or who find themselves caught up in one of the armed conflicts that are outgrowths of humans’ lust for this or that—oil, diamonds, water, and so forth. And once we start dwelling on problems, there is the potential for nuclear accidents or attacks, environmental disaster, . . .
I would stress, though, that—as daunting as these problems are, as horrific as some of them are—they are incidental. They are products of the individual times, places, and social situations various parents and children find themselves in, and that we as a species now find ourselves in collectively. Again, in many cases these situations are cruel. But while not overlooking this cruelty, I would call attention to more fundamental phenomena:
(a) Human beings suffer (and exult) in many different ways, and some suffer much more than others and seem to have done precious little to bring on their suffering (or exultations). For example, a child’s ancestors may have lived for centuries, and relatively peacefully, in a particular area that, in the twenty-first century A.D., became a war zone because somewhere in its subsoil coltan—a rare metal used to make electronic equipment—could be found.
(b) It is not given to even the most fortunate of human beings not to suffer. What varies is the specific ways in which we are confronted and grapple with our mortality, and with the clash of self-interest and dependence, and the ability/inability of our psyches to take note of or turn away from our predicament.
We have many, many definitions of tragedy, but one of them is: a terrible thing happening to an innocent person. We use the word “innocence” in this case to indicate that the person, however morally compromised she or he may otherwise be, has not done anything that should have caused him, say, to get cancer when he was still young, to get hit by a drunk driver, or raped by a band of soldiers, etc. In other contexts we use the word “innocence” to refer to a lack of awareness—the innocence of childhood. However self-interested, aggressive, conniving, or whathaveyou a small child may or may not be, s/he is far from realizing, on a conscious level, that s/he has come into a world that has such oppressive and anxiety-provoking features (along with more enjoyable ones). It is this “innocence” that adults have in mind when we speak of how the innocence of childhood cannot last.
In the case, say, of a middle-class American child who is not egregiously mistreated or a victim of a terrible accident or disease, what is involved in the loss of this innocence? We might point to this or that detail. The worst day of an American’s life, it is said, is his first day at work. His childhood experiences, his parents and teachers leave him unprepared for the work world’s structures, hierarchies, and disinterest in fairness. But these are just details. The loss of innocence is an inexorable internal process for which external phenomena—be they banal or searingly violent, unexpected, unfair—serve as backdrop and catalyst. There is a time when a child does not distinguish herself from her mother, and a time where there are no nightmares and panic is almost immediately forgotten, and a child does not have to live very long for these times to come to an end.
All the changes these years with Jonah have seen—and the once beloved toys and games abandoned, forgotten by him, and not me, along the way. I have come to see that one of the challenges for parents and children, and perhaps particularly with older parents such as myself, is dealing with the variable rates of change—and with change tout court. While my own life, however fulfilling or pointless it may be, keeps ploughing the same blue-green waters, this other being, who ostensibly shares a two-bedroom apartment with me, has been moving—transferred by will and biology—across continents. Now when we leave for school in the morning, he goes out into the hallway first and presses the button for the elevator, and then—for all his voice has deepened and he now cringes at my kisses and takes the subway by himself—he hides in the far corridor, as if to trick his old Papa. This seems at times like the one thing that has not changed in the past many years, and I therefore delight in its repetition, and my sense is that Jonah does too. In this way he reassures himself (and inadvertently reassures me) that the little boy we once knew and loved, while certainly in hiding, has not been left entirely behind.
When Jonah was 3, he got a severe case of gastroenteritis. He could drink only the smallest sips of water because of the gas blocking his gastrointestinal tract, and he could not stop an acrid liquid from flowing from his bowels onto his clothes and mine. The smell and the evident painfulness of his bottom reminded me of quite another time: In 1983 traveling to Vienna with my first wife to visit one of our old friends, a man from South America, a former modern dancer dying of AIDS, and who had chosen to do his dying in a studio apartment in a cold, gray city where he knew no one but his boyfriend, who was doing his best to earn a living for the two of them and to take care of his friend. It may have been this memory that helped me to appreciate (however rightly or wrongly) a look that appeared briefly on Jonah’s face. It wasn’t so much a look of pain, suffering or fear, as of astonishment.
I have often thought Jonah benefited greatly from having two parents who earned their livings as bureaucrats, who worked limited, set hours and were able and eager to devote themselves to something—someone—so obviously more important than adding a little ballast (and hot air) to the misguided and patched-together social order. Previously Jonah had only been this sick once before, and this was another trauma that had occurred too early in life for him to retain any conscious memory of it. But now, consumed by physical illness and discomfort, he seemed to be realizing for the very first time there was a whole ’nother side to life: feeling this bad. And if I did not know of this—if no one ever told me about this—what else might there be?
There is a quite alternate view, and it is a view that, interestingly, my son may well share: Parents give children the gift of life. (I don’t think this is the main reason parents expect their children to be grateful and to repay their parents in one way or another, but this is certainly one of the justifications for such expectations.)
Relativist that I am, I am prepared to embrace this alternative view, and to embrace it here because it adds another dimension to this text’s view of parenting. The present, “infinite responsibility” view is but one of a large, unfinalizable number of views of parenting. It is being presented because it seems to be a little recognized (if hardly unfelt!) view. A goal is to expand the conversation about parenting and about escape and awareness.
All that said, I would also note that when someone alludes to the gift of life or protests, “But I am happy to be alive!”—these are responses of mortal beings ignoring the perspective of an unfertilized ova for whom happiness and desire, we can only suppose, has no meaning. We know that people who feel quite despondent, adrift, may say that they regret their existence—“I wish I had not been born.” But we cannot come to such wishing and unhappiness, any more than we can come to happiness, or to our longings for immortality, absent birth. Arguments about genes seeking to perpetuate themselves notwithstanding, it is but figuratively, metaphorically, that we might say of an unfertilized ova that it wished to be born. Wishing requires a wisher, a being that can wish. Anxiety and the desire to censor and block certain stimuli require a being that can feel anxious, helpless, insufficiently powerful. This being is what, or who, we parents create.
It may be asked: Is this text saying that we should not have children? Is it lauding those who have decided not to have children? Such questions ask this text to go where it would not—to take a problem-and-solution approach to life and to argue that if we think we have found a solution to some problem then there is an obligation to adopt this solution. This text seeks rather to encourage a greater recognition, a more sophisticated view, of the lives we are living, and this without any expectation that this will make problems go away or otherwise diminish our predicament. Again, mortality is not a problem; it’s the given.
Approaching across the swamp, the lonely, alien ship, let us pause to consider for a second time the corollary idea that a child has no responsibility to his or her parents. This is, inter alia, a signal that this text is very much a twenty-first century, reasonably well-to-do Western adult’s text. We are far here from the idea of having children to work on the farm or to take care of their parents in their old age, or even to pay into a social-security fund.Indeed, I assume that, as with any intellectual, my ideas are to a large extent responses to my particular circumstances, to include my economic ones. But, at the same time, like other intellectuals I assume that these particular circumstances have allowed me to stumble upon or to finally give voice to ideas that have a more universal validity. Thus, for example, I would propose that other societies have, for economic reasons and in parents’ interests, imposed upon children this idea that children have a responsibility—a very large responsibility—to their parents or to their elders more generally. And we can understand this imposition (or brainwashing) from an economic perspective and as a morality that has contributed to the survival of homo sapiens and even to the current level of over population. But a point of this text is to call attention to the extent to which this ancient idea is a political one; it serves certain interests, and if one steps back from those interests and takes a larger view, the idea may seem artificial or, at least, and increasingly, outmoded. Like hydroelectric dams, our demands on children may deform a less contrived landscape in order to achieve the economic and social goals of certain interests, creating a new ecosystem and set of ideologies in the process.
It should be kept in mind, too, that the present text is not an article by a child development specialist on how to be a good parent. It does not seek to tell parents, for example, that they should, or should not, rush to their children every time they cry or should comfort them in way “x”—e.g. “Don’t worry, Mommy’s here”—or way “y”—e.g. “La vie est dure.” (And nor can appreciating that parenting involves infinite responsibility in any way diminish that responsibility.) The text also embodies one of my most basic beliefs about philosophy: it is only tangentially a way of thinking about answers or solutions; its greatest, most wonderful and most off-putting task is to call our attention to the unanswerability in which we live. This includes calling attention to the contingent and “political” nature of our beliefs and ethics, how they seek to advance the interests of specific groups in specific circumstances.
I feel a need to return briefly (and this will not be for the last time) to the “gift of life” theme, but here taking a less religious tack. I have a sense of readers, American readers particularly, objecting—“The view of life being presented in this paper is a downer, the view of a killjoy. It ignores how much fun life can be!” Thanks to modern technology we can be sitting with our kids at a sporting event, take pictures with a smartphone, and send the images instantly to Mom, kayaking in Maui in the midst of an all-expenses-paid, tax-deductible medical conference. We can write essays (!), and alone and naked with another human being we can touch and be taken to special places. We can feel as close and as understood as Jonah and I have felt.
Yes, I would say, all this is possible. There is no question life includes bons moments, and delicious solace, balms. And the highs we feel at such times—and may they be many and frequent!—are linked to a sense that in these moments the limits do not apply to us. We have broken out or slipped away, we are “special people.” As Oedipus and Don Juan imagined (each in his own way), we, too, can feel ourselves stronger than any social order or fate. It can be a dizzying feeling.
There have been and there remain economic and political reasons to have children—for their labor and loyalty and for the alliances that can be formed through marrying them off and through their friendships and business relationships. Children are also produced out of a desire or compulsion to reproduce, to make a life together with another human being, to keep a marriage together, because reproduction is the conventional thing to do, because a condom broke, because of a need for companionship. There are parents who were looking for someone to teach, and others who needed someone else to take up the task of chasing their dreams, to try to become the athlete, lawyer, or artist that they have not become. There are parents eager to have a small, cute, growing, achieving child who can make them, the parents, again a center of conversation or win them praise and admiration. (What is that bumper sticker I used to see on cars—“My daughter is an honor student at Some High School”?) There are parents, too, who imagine that they can raise a child to avoid many of the pains and shortcomings that they (or we)—first as children and then as adults—have endured. And we may imagine that because we are indeed so raising a child, it is as if some of our own scars are being removed.
In the late twentieth century in the United States, middle-class parents liked to talk about how much children cost, the implication being that a child was a very expensive, if also most wonderful product or pastime. I knew of a father, a businessman, who, disgusted with his adolescent son, presented him with an accounting: cost to date. Most of us parents are more graceful, but can be no less insistent that our children acknowledge their obligation to us for all our gifts, assistance, time, and patience. I have heard of a modern mother who, in asking her daughter to rub her shoulders, or while eating all the good chunks out of her daughter’s bowl of ice cream, would speak, light-heartedly, of a “Parent Tax.” It is a common reaction to adolescent rebellion to tell children that they are not sufficiently appreciative of something—or of all—their parents have done for them. “I never asked to be born,” children have been known to reply. This is incontrovertible.
In difficult times adolescents and children-become-adults blame their parents for setbacks in school, love, careers. As if a parent’s shortcomings could be limited to his narrow-mindedness, lack of warmth, or lack or excess of professional success; his old-fashioned ways, drunkenness, timidity, or what have you. As if the richest, most goodly, wisest parent could spare his child the pain and problems of existence.
None of this is to deny that parenting is very hard work, and that even to simply be “good enough,” as the popular idea would have it, is often a stretch. As Louise once remarked, “Le problème n’est pas qu’on va mourir, c’est qu’on doit vivre avant.” The problem, from this perspective, is not dying, but living, to include trying to help the people you love, trying to get lunch bags filled, get to school and work on time, patch a crack or two in a spouse’s ego. In the midst of all this, philosophical arguments about infinite responsibilities and reminders of the extent to which we inevitably come up short are, first and foremost, not much help.
Although I am not religious in the traditional sense of this adjective, God’s creation of the world in Genesis comes to mind. It might be said that with this act, God took on a responsibility (to His children, His creations) that only God could live up to. And certainly at many moments in the Bible one has the sense that even God is not up to the task. And we can also note that an omniscient being, or our fantasies of such a being, may, like an ideal father, offer strength and security, but such a being would also be able to see clearly and feel fully the suffering (and joys) of His creations. (And would He impose limits or expectations on them, or have the strength—or lack of self-confidence?—to just let his children be?) Such ruminations might lead us to think that, ideally, even for we mortals, mortal parents: with the power of creation should come a capacity to perceive and feel what we are caught up in.
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Notes for Avid Readers
The father who presented the accounting to his son (as mentioned in the main text) did this around 1970, to a child of my own generation. Thus again I would note that our views of parenting, or middle-class American views of parenting, seem to have been changing steadily and dramatically over the past century or so, and this certainly in part as middle-class women have come to work outside the home and to earn their own paychecks, and as payroll taxes have come to be used to provide some measure of economic support to the elderly. In my own, Baby Boomer case, I feel that I was conceived and raised by parents who saw parenting, and being good parents, as a kind of wonderful duty (to bring more Americans into the world and to help them to become great Americans), and my parents’ generation assumed that this task more or less came to an end when the children went to college. Subsequently I myself became a parent at a time when childrearing served as an escape from the coldness and emptiness of work selling consumer goods and services or in large bureaucracies, or of engaging in the various forms of deception and thievery that now fall under the headings of marketing, finance, and pharmaceuticals. We have the phenomena of divorced or single parents who expect a child to be, or serve as, their best friend (and perhaps, when they are young, to sleep in their bed). Many parents expect their children—even if they are adolescents or much older—to be texting or phoning them several times in the course of a day, and such parents may be working hard to ensure that their children remain attached, remain their friends, throughout their lives. It might be said that this desire for ongoing attachment, for what might in the past have been called a lack of separation, is born of the lack of reliable, long-lasting attachments in our lives, and is being facilitated, at least temporarily, by the current economy, in which it is hard for students just out of high school or college to find work that pays a living wage, and particularly for those children who would not work as waiters and the like.
Twenty-first century parenting
Demographers have called our attention to the fact that people in wealthier societies have fewer children than people in poorer societies, and clearly along with this come different expectations for our children and different ideas of the roles and responsibilities of children and of parents. It would not be hard to place the present idea of “infinite responsibility” in this context, nor to show how it fits with a host of other ideas about parenting that have been emerging in “developed” countries in recent decades. Three samples to give a suggestion of some of the other ideas now on offer.
- Margaret Nelson, in Parenting Out of Control,offers an explanation of how social class impacts parenting strategies and how these parenting strategies, in turn, affect children’s sense of themselves:
[P]rofessional middle-class parents delight in the thought that they will be parents—having dependent children who have not yet made up their minds about what it is they want to do; having children who might need coaching and advice about the best choices—far longer. These elite parents actively encourage their children to remain open to a wide range of possibilities; from both joy and duty, they remain willing to extend the time during which they will be called on for guidance and material support. The less privileged parents also find pleasures in raising children; however, they are readier at an earlier moment to move on to the next stage of their lives.
- The Hedgehog Review’s Fall 2013 issue, which was devoted to parenting, included “Holding Them Closer,” an overview of the subject by Carl Desportes Bowman, Project Director of the Culture of American Families Project at the University of Virginia. Among many other riches, he offered this:
The quest for long-term connection with children has taken central stage. Parenting is still about formation, but its overriding concern has pivoted from formation to connection. . . . Almost three-quarters of today’s parents of school-age children . . . agree that they eventually want to be their children’s best friends; . . . The successful formation and launching of children still matters; it is just that parents don’t want to launch them very far.
- The British essayist and child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes in “Children Behaving Badly”: “Children, I think, suffer in a way that adults don’t always realize—under the pressure their parents put on them not to make their parents unhappy, or more unhappy than they already are.”
Adoptive and foster parents
Adoptive and foster parents will have remarked that their relationship to their children does not fit into the mold proposed in the above text. Their relationship might, in fact, be thought of as the inverse: these parents have saved children from the inabilities of others. This is not to say that adoptive parents do not enjoy the pleasures and relief, and challenges, of comforting and befriending a more helpless other person.
The above text has not focused on the human predicament nor on the part of it that concerns our being a social animal, dependent on our fellow humans (and on our mothers first and foremost) for our survival, and dependent, too, on many other beings, non-humans. It may be helpful, however, to briefly recall our infant state, in which we are absolutely dependent on our mothers, or on adult caregivers more generally, for food, shelter, sanitation, and security. As Adam Phillips writes in “Negative Capabilities”: “There is no position, no stage or state before helplessness; and there is no stage before what we call help is required.” And there can be few of us who never felt moments of desperation, if not panic, feeling hunger and not being fed, our feeders absent or ignoring our cries. The French analyst Serge Viderman has apparently proposed that the “hell of a narcissist is the tyranny of his need for others.” But in a sense this is a tyranny we all experienced in our most formative years and that many of us have felt in adulthood, too—for example, when unemployed.
Interestingly, and at times grotesquely, a child’s attachment to a parent (and particularly to a slightly sadistic one) may be quite directly linked to suffering—s/he is attached because s/he’s starving for/hungry for affection, security, food, money, etc. The love is born of dependence and not the dependence of love.
Anna Freud has written about how it is the painful experience of helplessness when confronted with powerful stimulation that induces the child’s ego gradually to learn to exercise and to assume the functions of the stimulus barrier. We learn to reduce the information we take in so as to feel less anxious, less unable to meet the impossible challenges of life. But this lesson of early childhood—this blocking of information and sensation—can distort or misshape our adult perceptions, to include of the roles of parents and children. More generally, it may be noted as characteristic of our species—and even or especially in this age of science, mass media, and megadata—there is a great deal we do not want to know. Our ignorance is often a product of a purposeful ignoring. Less striking than the limits of human understanding may be how hard we work not to know what we might. For example, I am struck by how many people—with powerful deflections, substitutive satisfactions, and intoxicating substances, as Freud put it—seek to limit their capacities to see and feel. They seem—often starting quite early in childhood—to have closed off large portions of their minds, limit their understanding and the range and suppleness of their emotions. In limiting their anxiety, and perhaps parents’, lovers’, and friends’ anxieties as well, they have, necessarily, distanced themselves from the lives they are living.
In “Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work,” Freud discusses Shakespeare’s Richard III, a character who, perhaps like all power-mad people, takes a sadistic pleasure in manipulating and destroying others. In the soliloquy that opens the play, he connects his vicious nature to the fact that he was sent (by his mother, or his parents) “Into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” Freud writes that the lame, deformed, neurotic Richard’s view of this terrible wrong that was done to him by his premature birth is “an enormous magnification of something we find in ourselves as well.” That is, the shock and insecurities of our birth and of early childhood experiences (e.g. of our absolute dependence on others) can engender a kind of lifelong rage that we take out on the others around us.
Phillips writes of our “having an impotence foisted upon us, and organizing a life around this fact.” Richard, in Freud’s gloss, proposes, “I may do wrong myself, since wrong has been done to me.” We can well imagine the havoc that such feelings may wreak. It is not hard in this age of дикий капитализм (savage capitalism) to appreciate that we live surrounded by people, some or all of whom (ourselves included) carry such feelings.
A Nietzchean or Republican might object that my perspective (and Freud’s) is the perspective of the weak. The strong do not feel scarce half made up to confront the challenges of life; they revel in their capacities (or in their exaggerated sense of them?)—in their excess capacity for living and thriving. I would not ignore that some are better endowed and more fortunate than others, but I would also note that, for all he was a great philosopher, Nietzsche was a person who suffered greatly. (“I suffer for everything and everywhere,” he once noted.) He proved, too, to have some several major incapacities, while the weak person of Shakespeare’s play became the King of England: Richard III. Nor would I ignore the (pre-Freudian) wisdom of Plato’s Socrates in the Gorgias: that it is perfectly possible for a human being to appear to be doing exactly what he wishes and yet to be quite ignorant of his true self-interests, to be superficially powerful and fundamentally in conflict with oneself.
Threats from without and within
This idea that we are threatened from without—e.g. by Russians, communists, Arabs, Moslems, terrorists, rapists, and child abusers who may be lurking unknown in our neighborhoods—has of course been a salient feature of political campaigning, media stories, and informal conversation in recent years. And I assume that this is an age-old practice and that it has a realistic component: in order to prolong our lives and to live with a modicum of security and comfort, we need to defend ourselves and our children, and our society, against external threats. But often this need, and a need or wish not to feel the corruption and dangers within, lead us to use fear of outsiders as a means of denial. Thus, for example, one may note that the vast majority of sexually abused children are abused by relatives, often by their closest family relatives. And whatever the vices, or virtues, of communism may be, the economic ills those of us in capitalist countries have experienced, and the psychological stresses and suffering that have accompanied those ills, have nothing to do with communism. And the first communist witch-hunts were directed against people who were first and foremost labor-union members, and conceived as a way of thwarting the unions, of assuring management the lion’s share of the revenues. A reminder of how fears of the outside world may be used to deal, dishonestly at best, with internal conflicts.
Happiness of children vs. adults
One of my editors, not raised in the United States, has commented: “When people talk about childhood in romantic terms or with nostalgia (‘Oh—there’s nothing more pleasant than being a kid!’), I strongly believe these adults have forgotten what it really is like to be a kid. Kids can often feel powerless, angry, frustrated, sad, fearful. . . . Is childhood really the best time in life?”
We might put this another way: an older person is not necessarily less happy than a young child. And an adult’s ability to appreciate consciously the distance between one’s self and others brings an ability to appreciate the pleasures of communion, which appreciation can be a pleasure in and of itself.
It should also be said, however, that there seems to be a great difference between the happiness/contentment/joy of an infant, and the feelings of adults for which we use the same names. For young children such feelings seem inspired by connecting both to other people and to things; for adults such feelings are often, if not always, related to escape—or, per Anna Freud, to building and maintaining the stimulus barrier. Our adult bons moments occur when—thanks to a bit of money, entertainment, intellectual stimulation; or thanks to passionate love, friendship, luck, our children—we lose sight of the terms of existence, or indeed feel that we have triumphed over them.
Colonization by language
In other works I have been exploring the idea that children may be thought of as colonized by their parents, first and foremost by having their perceptions and feelings structured by and contained within their parents’ language, and by being led to believe this language is their own.
Coltan is a mineral found particularly in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The tantalite within coltan is used in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, and computers. It has been said that the demand of European and American markets for coltan have helped provoke and finance the civil wars in central Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. See “Is There Blood on your Mobile Phone” and “Coltan, the Congo and your cell phone: The connection between your mobile phone and human rights abuses in Africa,” by Ewan Sutherland (April 11, 2011).
God (the limits of omnipotence)
The discussions of God have been aided here by the ruminations of Descartes and of medieval theologians about what we might call the limits of omnipotence. E.g. if God is omnipotent is He, or is He not, able to create a stone so heavy that He himself cannot lift it? In present terms this would be: could God be sufficiently powerful as to be able to appreciate the limits of His power, or of power tout court? Would an omniscient being feel in the thrill of creation grief? (In the main text I noted that children are changing much faster than their parents. This points to yet more questions: Can—or why would—an omnipotent, omniscient being change? Wouldn’t S/He have gotten everything perfectly right from the get-go? And if S/He was going to make a change, given the omniscience, wouldn’t there seem to be but one right way to change, and thus S/He might be said to not have any choice in the matter?)
Deciding not to have children
There are adults who say that they do not want to bring a child into today’s world with all its problems. But if life is in a large sense an irresolvable problem, then avoiding certain basic aspects of it—e.g. not having children—cannot resolve in part or in whole this problem. An irresolvable problem cannot become less irresolvable.
One of my editors adds:
I also want to say, just for the sake of reflection, that it is very annoying when people question others’ decisions not to have children. I tend to think that, if there’s anything to be ashamed about, it is people’s thoughtless determination to be parents. Who says you—they—are qualified? What allows them to assume they will be “good” parents? Having children is, to me, the one decision that should be questioned and/or put to test, rather than the “not having children” one.
The “unfinalizable” concept comes from the philosopher Dmitri Nikulin’s extension in On Dialogue (Lexington Books, 2006) of ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin. From page 173:
To be free, one has to dare to speak oneself out, i.e., to speak, and at the same time to be dialogical, daring to unravel oneself dialogically as a person with the others. Truth is thus telling the truth, which does not occur as a coherent system of mutually connected propositions but as a dialogically unfinalizable enterprise that may thus appear only as an opinion.
From page 142:
[D]ialogue’s main intention is not that of winning an argument for the sake of establishing oneself or one’s own ego—as if one’s subjectivity were only achieved once it has been imposed upon the other—but rather it is to provide the chance for opening up a conversational clearing whereby that which every interlocutor already has may appear even though he did not yet have the chance to present it, either to himself or to others, or thus to realize it.
Works Cited and Related Works
Carl Desportes Bowman. “Holding Them Closer.” The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2013.
Emily Dickinson, letter to Jane Humphrey, 1850, as quoted in Alfred Habegger. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. Random House, 2001.
William Eaton. “Science B.” Zeteo Fall 2013. Includes, among other things, a more extensive discussion of relativism.
——. “What shall I learn of parenting or parenting of me?” Proposes, among other things, that few jobs can provide either the thrills or engagement of parenting and that, ceteris paribus, young children thrive to the extent that their parents (fathers and mothers) spend a lot of time playing and just being with them, and give them their undivided attention during these times. (E.g., no cellphones.)
Anna Freud. “Comments on trauma.” In Psychic Trauma. Edited by S. S. Furst. Basic Books, 1967: 235-45.
Sigmund Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. W.W. Norton, 1961.
——. “Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work.” In On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement: Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. Translated by James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud. Hogarth Press and the Institute for Psycho-Analysis, 1957: 310-33. (This is volume XIV of the Standard Edition of Freud’s work.)
Margaret Nelson. Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times. New York University Press, 2010.
Dmitri Nikulin. On Dialogue. Lexington Books, 2006.
Adam Phillips. “Children Behaving Badly.” In Phillips, On Balance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
——. “Negative Capabilities.” In Phillips, On Balance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Includes the quotation from Serge Viderman.
Plato. Gorgias. Translated into French by Monique Canto. G.F. Flammarion, 1987. Note: This is one of the great translations of Plato; highly recommended.
Stefan Zweig. Nietzsche. Version française, traduit de l’allemand par Alzir Hella et Olivier Bournac. Stock, 1930. Includes this quotation from Nietzsche: “I am neither mind nor body, but a [tertium quid] third thing. I suffer for everything and everywhere.” I have not been able to track down the original source.
Bio & Credit
Image, “Absolute Infinity,” found via Google Images, is from a website for “Wide Photos“.
William Eaton is the Executive Editor of Zeteo. For more of his explorations of parenting and the human predicament see Montaigbaktinian.com. He thanks Caterina Gironda and Alexia Raynal for their excellent editing, without which this would be a more meager and inscrutable text.
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