// you’re reading...


Parenthood and meaning

parent_child200Many people have children without consciously choosing to do so. That can turn out well, but life usually goes much better for all when people first decide, then reproduce (or not, as the case may be). So the modern, educated couple talks about having babies. “When?” and “How many?” they may ask, but sometimes there is also a much harder question: “Why?”

For the children’s sake? Though I think children are lucky to be born, there’s something odd about making kids for their own benefit. Once they are born, parents will do a great deal entirely for them. But when we decide whether to have children, we’re seeking something for ourselves.

Clearly some parental aims get the parent-child relationship started on the wrong foot. It’s not OK to have a child so you’ll later have a tennis partner. It is OK to want responsibility, focus, bonding with a partner, the pleasures of daily life with children, and pride. Parenthood can make your own life better by boosting necessary life ingredients like happiness, selfhood, and growth over time – I discuss the necessities for a good life in my book The Weight of Things. But perhaps there’s something more rarefied to be gained by having children. We don’t just seek “the good life” by having children, but rather – to use a murky phrase – a more meaningful life.

Philosophers have tended to ignore the connection between parenthood and meaning. In his book How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, Peter Singer describes the sense of emptiness that people suffer if they invest all their energy in such things as making money, getting promoted, sports, and shopping. Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are people like animal activist Henry Spira and Paul Farmer, the extraordinary doctor and global-health leader so fascinatingly described in Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Self-transcendence involves a shift from one’s small world to the world at large. The person who achieves it does good for thousands or even millions – and feels deeply fulfilled as a result. Singer doesn’t acknowledge the ordinary, small-scale self-transcending of a parent as a source of meaning.

Thomas Nagel also ignores the meaning-boosting potential of parenthood. In his well-known essay “The Absurd” he identifies two ways of looking at ourselves and our activities. We can take the “inside” view, and feel engaged, absorbed, and committed to our undertakings. From that standpoint, just about anything can be taken seriously. We can also step back and take the “outside” view and find any of our activities transitory and pointless. The absurdity of life, says Nagel, lies in the fact that any activity is always open to both interpretations. Any engaged moment can be disrupted by a painful sense of meaninglessness or (best case scenario) a moment of laughter about how ridiculous it all is. We can’t escape the oscillation between the two standpoints.

Isn’t anything doubt-proof? No, says Nagel. Even if we dedicated ourselves to grand things like God, science, truth, or saving lives, we could always ask, “What’s the point?” If I’m making scientific discoveries, why does it matter … really? If I’m saving lives, my efforts are just a drop in the ocean – there are millions more to be saved. Even someone who thinks she’s glorifying God can always wonder why it’s important for God to be glorified.

Maybe … but what’s most striking to me is that Nagel overlooks the activity that’s most compelling to most human beings: raising their children. In fact, we don’t oscillate between Nagel’s inside and outside views when we’re sitting up with a sick child, taking his temperature, mopping his brow, and cheering him up with silly nothings. At such times, who even fleetingly wonders “what’s the point?”? Caring for a beloved child is utterly doubt-proof.

At least, that’s what all my informants tell me. When my kids were babies, my circle of friends frequently talked about how raising children gave them a sense of purpose they had never found as clearly in anything else. They felt enlarged and expanded and fulfilled. I heard the same thing from my husband and other fathers I knew. It could be that the parents I know are especially enthusiastic because most of them came to parenthood relatively late, by choice, and either concurrently with or after a satisfying career. But self-transcendence and satisfaction have been recurrent themes whenever I’ve heard parents talking about the experience of having children.

Even activities that are frivolous to others are meaningful from the perspective of parents. Yes, I confess, we did hire a magician one year for our twins’ birthday party, and that was actually one of the simple years. Here’s New York Times writer Michael Winerip wistfully remembering the grand birthday parties he threw for his four kids, now all grown up:

“What parties. We’d invite two dozen of their closest friends and do pirate scavenger hunts full of hidden clues where they got to use actual shovels to dig up buried treasure at the beach at the end of our street. I’d run relay races until they collapsed. For the Big Cookie Relay, I’d have the local bakery make two chocolate chip cookies as big as Frisbees. The kids had to take a bite, show me they’d swallowed, then run carrying the five-pound cookie and hand it off to a teammate. We’d finish up with the How Fast Can I Run in Dad’s Clothes Relay.”

In the middle of all that crazy fun, parents have no doubts.

Throughout the western tradition, children have always been (metaphorically) on the other side of the house – far from the philosopher’s study. But there is more behind the tendency for philosophers not to think of parenthood when they think about what makes life meaningful. For many thinkers in the western tradition, a source of meaning must be unchanging, there always, and impossible to lose. Meaning isn’t supposed to be “fragile”, to use Martha Nussbaum’s perfect term. But what we get by having children surely is. There are good days and bad days. Our kids can go bad on us, or (a parent’s worst fear) die. If all goes as well as possible, children grow up, become independent, and parenting can no longer be a mother’s or father’s focal point.

Not only is meaning supposed to be “forever”, and impossible to lose, but it’s supposed to be available to all … and always available. You get to have it whoever you are, and at every stage of life. Everyone is to converge on the meaning of life, for some one meaning. Parenthood isn’t a meaning-maker like that, so (it’s been assumed) it can’t be a source of meaning at all.

It’s about time I gave “meaning” more definition. I suggest that to have meaning in one’s life is (1) to have overarching goals that organise one’s time and energy, making life not just one damned day after another; and (2) to be wholeheartedly committed to those goals – durably, and without constant doubt; and (3) for those goals to be well enough grounded in reality to survive reflection.

Obviously, meaning “in” life isn’t the same thing as “the meaning of life” – some cosmic purpose possessed by life itself. Having meaning in one’s life is also not exactly the same thing as living a good life. A life could be very good, overall – amply endowed with necessities like happiness, autonomy, and morality – even if it was devoid of overarching goals. That would not make it bad overall – just lacking a certain virtue most of us (at least after obtaining the basic elements of a good life) strive for.

So much for what meaning is (roughly and briefly); can parenthood really supply it? The wholeheartedness of parents is strikingly captured in Harry Frankfurt’s book The Reasons of Love. Frankfurt makes a surprising comparison. Love gives us something comparable to mathematical certainty.

“Mathematical certainty, like other modes of certainty that are grounded in logically or conceptually necessary truths, is restful because it relieves us from having to contend with disparate tendencies in ourselves concerning what to believe. The issue is settled. We need no longer struggle to make up our minds. Similarly, the necessity with which love binds the will puts an end to indecisiveness concerning what to care about.”

Love for anything produces restful certainty, but Frankfurt sees – rightly, I think – that love of one’s own children is especially pure and constant.

Why do we feel such unalloyed love for our children? Here also, Frankfurt is helpful. It’s not a response to their intrinsic value – as real and enormous as that may be. It’s love itself that makes the child seem to us so extremely valuable, not independently existing value that makes us love a child so deeply.

Love of children makes for structuring of our days and years, plus wholeheartedness, but does it blind us – making us commit to goals that don’t survive reflection? Peter Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are not focused on their own children, but on all children – ideally, on all people and sentient beings. They deliberately limit their focus on their own children, at least striving to live by the notion that “each counts for one, none for more than one”. This is the real life practice of Paul Farmer. As Kidder tells it, he devotes most of his time to saving the lives of poor patients in Haiti and around the world, seldom even visiting his own daughter, who lives in Paris with her mother. Ordinary parents, by comparison, treat their own children like they matter more than a million of anyone else’s children. If this gives them a sense of meaningfulness, is that built on a mistake – the mistake of overvaluing one’s own child?

But then, is it really a mistake? Love is bound up with overvaluing, but love is good for children. It would be good, not bad, if every child were the object of overvaluing, and that certainly wouldn’t be impossible. The problem – as Farmer (and Singer) would no doubt explain – is that some children aren’t loved, and that love isn’t everything. People need food and medicine and other resources, and vast numbers of people don’t have them. If I distributed my energies more widely, neglected children could get their basic needs met. But what does that show me? At most that I shouldn’t really have hired the magician, not that there’s a problem with doing my best for my children. The basic value of rearing children survives reflection, even if (with vigorous prodding) we can start to wonder about some of the bells and whistles.

If parenthood is a meaning-maker, you might say it’s not the best meaning-maker, even from a strictly self-interested point of view. Some meaning-makers are also happiness-boosters: empirical evidence shows that people receive a happiness boost from giving, for example. Religion – a meaning-booster if it survives reflection – increases happiness too. In fact, there’s a “dose-response” effect: the more often you go to your preferred house of worship, the happier you will be. Parenthood, by contrast, does not (on average) make people happier. At least, so a fair amount of research in positive psychology suggests. For example, subjects who rate the enjoyableness of activities at random moments (using a “hedometer” they carry around with them) don’t seem to enjoy caring for their children compared to other activities like watching TV and shopping.

At first that will come as a surprise, especially to parents who think of their children as their greatest joy, but is it really so surprising? Parenthood doesn’t always come about in the same voluntary and deliberate manner that church-attendance and doing good come about. People can land in parenthood when they were looking for sex, or maybe a relationship. To see whether parenthood boosts happiness in the way that doing good and church-going do, we’d have to look at the sub-group that chooses parenthood, instead of the whole class of people with children. And I’m not aware of any research on that sub-group.

I don’t want to be too sanguine about what research would reveal, but based on first-person experience and anecdotal evidence, I’d say a parent is a bit like a mountain climber. The view from all the look-out points is thrilling, but some of the climb is tedious or even excruciating. There are high highs, but total cheer (counting every minute of every day) may not be vast. Avid mountain climbers can find other areas of their lives going less well: spouses get resentful, professional responsibilities can be neglected, the sport is expensive. Ditto avid parents. Parenthood has a tendency to crowd out other powerful sources of life-satisfaction – like career advancement (especially for women) and marital harmony. Still, mountain climbers are glad to be mountain climbers and parents are glad to be parents. This is partly an assessment of meaning and value, but partly based on the felt highs – however intermittent and costly they may be.

The case for parenthood as a source of meaning certainly doesn’t turn on judging that nothing else makes life as meaningful, or that finding meaning in other ways can’t make people just as happy. In fact, everything I’ve said about why parenting can make life meaningful supports meaning-pluralism. Some people get the restfulness of love from other pursuits – from loving music, or loving a partner, or loving endless study and debate. There are other big projects that can give structure to life, generate wholeheartedness, and survive reflection.

But is parenthood pre-eminent? A team led by psychologist Douglas Kenrick recently proposed a revision to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which pictures self-actualization at the top of a pyramid. Maslow thought the consummately mature human being found his calling, whether it be art or music or poetry (his examples), after taking care of more basic needs (for food and sex, safety, love, and esteem). The ultimate activity, the end of the line, was creative self-expression. In that pyramid, parenthood doesn’t have its own specific level. It’s part sex, part love, but lower in importance than finding your personal calling. In the revised pyramid, parenthood is at the top, with mate selection and retention right below.

The elevation of parenthood to the pinnacle of the pyramid creates a far less elitist pyramid than the old one. But can’t childless people have consummate meaning and claim full and complete development too? Surely they can. What Kenrick and his collaborators have missed is what parenthood and finding one’s calling (artistic or otherwise) have in common. Both give people long-lasting, life-structuring goals, wholeheartedness, and projects that survive reflection. In some important sense parents and people ensconced in other long-term projects have wound up in the same psychological place.

Philosophers have often thought of meaning as something Big, maybe up in the sky, available to all, and available throughout life. But meaning turns out to be something much more mundane. One way, perhaps the most common way, to add more meaning to life is just to have children.

Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life (Wiley-Blackwell 2007) and is currently working on a book about parenthood. She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.


7 comments for “Parenthood and meaning”

  1. I think this is exactly right, and I think that the absence of child-rearing from many philosophical discussions of life’s meaning is troubling. You can’t discount the influence of traditional moral theory, here: contractarianism, kantianism and RM Hare’s universalist theory all reduce morality to a kind of rationally negotiated agreement between adult agents. The value of child-rearing simply doesn’t factor into these theories, because it involves unmitigated care for a being who cannot offer rational reciprocation and who begins life without any clear perception that it is a distinct person at all. Under these blinkered theoretical lights, child-rearing is morally insignificant.

    Which, you know, is almost as troubling as Singer’s theory. Under his lights, the energy devoted to child-rearing can be downright pernicious, because it is too personal, too insular, too unconcerned with goodness in general.

    All in all, moral philosophy has not been kind to the parent-child relationship.

    Posted by Nick Smyth | April 26, 2011, 4:12 am
  2. I would say that the neglect of parenting in philosophy has historical reasons, that until fairly recently philosophy was a wholly male field, that until fairly recently fathers delegated the work of caring for children to mothers (or to women in general) and thus, a typical male philosopher, say, only 40 years ago, probably did not have much concrete experience of parenting, besides asking his wife, “honey, how are the kids?”, when he arrived home, loaded down with papers to read.

    Posted by s. wallerstein | April 26, 2011, 1:45 pm
  3. Some of the deepest comments I’ve read on the issue come from Nozick’s “The exhamined life”. He does talk about parenthood and its connection to meaning.

    I think it makes sense that we’re programmed to find value and meaning in parenthood, not because this is rationally valid, but because such feeling give a reproductive advantage to those who have them.

    But that addresses only the self-interest issue from the parents’ point of view.

    If want to see disentangle it from the issue of creating a new life, you should take a look at the value and meaning of adopting an abandoned child.

    Why should we create a new life, instead of adopting one that already exists and whose future will (with all likelihood) be much improved by our decision?

    That is question that I’ve never seen tackled by philosophers.

    Posted by ʏɞɕʬɲʚʣɻɐʇʦʃɿʤɻʈʮʎɚʌ | April 26, 2011, 6:51 pm
  4. Posted by Weekly Links April 22nd-29th 2011 « WhatIBelieveIn | April 29, 2011, 7:17 pm
  5. [...] the current issue of TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine, Jean Kazez, who teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University, calls raising children “the [...]

    Posted by In Defense of Motherhood: Why We Keep Having Kids When They’re So Clearly Bad for Us – TIME Healthland | May 6, 2011, 1:32 pm
  6. Great piece. I’ve often thought about how incredibly fulfilling being a father is. And, at times when I’ve felt somewhat selfish because of the relatively good life I have, I’ve reminded myself that I’ve put a tremendous amount of time and energy into being a good father, husband etc. Not out of a sense of obligation or “correctness”, but out of a sense of love for family. Hardly rational, but emotional wellbeing and meaningful life seem to correlate a bit :)

    Posted by Vaughan Hunter | May 8, 2011, 4:56 pm
  7. Well, to me making babies to find meaning is like giving money to a charity to feel good: plain nonsense.
    Meaning in that sense of the word is something inner, and spontaneous; one cannot provoke it by any external means. If I genuinely want or desire to do something, then it is full of meaning — and fun, and involvement, and more. Else, no way. Studies show kids lose fun and involvment at school just by beeing constantly forced to do things — even things they would have loved to do: they are deprived of meaning.
    The source of meaning is autonomy; its killer is coercion. Whatever the violence, including plain social pressure and persuasion.
    One true point in the essay, in this sense, is parents should make babies because they want it. This is the right reason, and hopefully a good start for the kid.

    Posted by Denis Derman | July 5, 2011, 6:44 pm