Monday, July 31, 2006

I Could Not Disagree More

Aspazia, last week, had another post about children and work in her on-going ambivalence about having children (note to the universe: Aspazia, despite all the fretting, would be an incredibly wonderful mom and her kids, should she have any would be very lucky).

In her discussion, Aspazia refers to this article by Helen Kirwan-Taylor entitled "My Children Bore Me to Death" in which she writes,

Research tells us that mothers drink the most when they have young children. Is that because talking to anyone under the age of ten requires some sort of lobotomy?

Arabella Cant, an art director with two young children, admits that she considered jumping off a bridge in the early stages of her career in motherhood. 'Bringing up children is among the most boring and exhausting things you can do,' she says. Her solution was to avoid subjugating her own life to that of her children's. 'I'm certainly not traipsing around museums or sitting on the floor doing Lego if that's what you mean by being at home,' she explains. 'I'm loving it, but my children fit into my life and not the other way around.'

Aspazia says that all of the mothers she speaks with either echo such sentiments or seem unhappy about having to forfeit their former life of Thai food and good movies.
"I have rarely had someone tell me how profoundly it would shape my life,"
she contends.

Let me take up that side of the argument because, as a parent, I read the entire discussion with utter and complete dismay that it is a "silly idea that the child is the center of her world." When you are pregnant, every single person you talk to tells you the same thing over and over again -- "It is going to change your life." After months of hearing the same hackneyed phrase, you get jaded. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, our life will be different." And you figure, "Sure, it will have another project. Every project makes your life different." But this difference is different.

Jean-Paul Sartre argues that one of the worst things one can do is to treat a human being as an object, to treat a being-for-itself as a being-in-itself. There is a difference of kind when you are dealing with humans. When you have kids, it is completely different than any other project you could possibly have because this project is the creation of a subject, not an object. You are bringing into the world a new agent, someone who will become someone and you have the job to help him or her discover and create him or herself. It is simultaneously the most frightening, awesome, frustrating, inspiring, and belly-laugh funny thing you could ever do. When I look at the book I've written, I say I'm proud of the book and that I really love the way it turned out. But the use of "proud" and "love" there are metaphorical. When I look at my shorties, the use of terms like pride and love in the context of some words on a page seems absurd compared with the depth of pride and love I feel for them. They are not things, they are their own people with their own personalities, fears, loves, insecurities, habits. But they are people who are not fully formed and nearly everything I do has some effect on them.

In ethics, we use life and death examples all the time, silly stuff like a train is barreling down a track and you have to steer one way or the other. In one direction are twenty infants and in the other is Geraldo Rivera... We use them for pedagogical reasons, but professional philosophers roll their eyes at taking these sort of puzzles seriously. Yet, when you bring your newborn home, especially your first, you are suddenly dumbstruck by the fact that you are now in such a situation. Here is a tiny defenseless human being whose living or dying depends entirely on you. The gravity touches every single insecurity you have. As they become less fragile, they also become capable of making choices, some of which may be undesirable from a survival perspective (come down from the top of the bookshelf, do not dive head first, your shirt will not work like a, roadrunner cartoons are not documentaries). It is your job to keep these little people alive and relatively healthy.

But apart from physical survival, you also shape the way they see the world and how much of the world they see. Kids are not stupid, they are very, very smart, but they are ignorant and need you to explain things that you don't think twice about (some of which deserve a good second thinking). Watching them develop and figure out how to negotiate their way in the world is the most magical thing imaginable. When they use a new phrase or do something that they were afraid to do the day before or draw a new picture that is more detailed in a way that was nowhere in yesterday's pictures, you see the pride inside of them just burst out of every pore and you simply melt. My wife and I deeply and passionately love each other, but nothing prepared us for what we would feel towards our children. We watch them and listen to them shoot glances back and forth when they say things that are sweet or funnier than anything you would hear from a stand up comedian.

Aspazia writes,
Last night Za and I were walking around Mt. Pleasant (D.C.) and ran into this woman and her little daughter on the street. She asked us where we were headed, and we told her about this fantastic restaurant we wanted to try out. She had a sort of weepy look and said "well, we don't get a chance to eat out much," and nodded toward her daughter. Again, I found myself crestfallen by this exchange.
Yes, children will affect your professional life, your social life, your sex life, your culinary life, and every other aspect of your normal existence. But before she allowed her crest to droop, our dear Spaz should have asked this woman one question..."Knowing what you know now, if you had to do it again, would you choose the movies and the restaurants instead of the child?" I can't answer for the woman, but while I, too, miss good film and restaurants that don't hand out crayons, there is no way in hell I would have it any other way. I look back on my former, more urbane life in the same way I look at the young athletes on the beach with their six pack abs and their bronzed, defined shoulders and arms. I sigh and think about when this hairy, flabby body used to look like that, but then if I had the choice of having to go back to high school and the figuring out the whole social hierarchy and the dating thing, the college choice and life path thing,... no, thank you. Sure, there are parts of my former childless life I look back on longingly when see someone drive by with a canoe strapped to the top of their car with no child restraint seats in the back, but then I think of who goes in those seats and it's not even a question.

I have a very esteemed colleague who advised me when we had our first to not put the career ahead of the kids. He did, and while incredibly successful professionally, he has a less than satisfactory relationship with his now grown kids. He lives regretfully in his success. I no longer go to conferences that do not allow me to be home in the evening. I do a lot less work than I otherwise would. Unlike the above quoted art director, I happen to do a lot of traipsing around museums and sitting on the floor playing legos, and polly pockets, and go-fish, and building towers, and though I "should" be reading or writing philosophy, I have something more important. It is not silly to put them at the center of my life. They deserve it. It doesn't mean the rest of my life is gone, just that it exists in a different orbit. I have my kids on my office computer background, but I would never put my book cover on tee-shirts for my kids.

If Helen Kirwan-Taylor really thinks that "bringing up children is among the most boring and exhausting things you can do," then I pity her deeply. If this is more than a rhetorical excess, Ms. Kirwan-Taylor is like someone who reads the Onion and thinks she is reading a real newspaper. She doesn't get it. Yes, there are the meltdowns, the spit-ups, the dirty diapers. You have to say things more than once. You have to say things more than once. Stop. Now, what did Daddy just say? When I told you that you have to say things more than once, what do you think that means? It means that you have to say things. more. than. once. But for all the price, it is the world's most incredible bargain. A philosopher colleague of mine once said that nothing in the world affirms life like creating it. It is profound and joyful in a way that cannot be compared to any other endeavor. In giving rise to a subject, not an object, having kids is unlike anything else you can do. You may love your partner, your parents, your siblings, but nothing can prepare you for the amount of love you can feel towards your child. It will change your life in ways that you simply cannot imagine without having experienced it.