Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On parenthood (and more)

Via bookforum, Ronald Bailey writes about why people are having fewer kids, and the relationship between happiness and having kids. Bailey finds data to suggest raising children doesn't increase one's "happiness."

Certainly, raising children is difficult and often boring. And yet I find it deeply fulfilling. I don't say that because I think it's what I'm expected to say: I say that because when I think about my son I feel deeply fulfilled, and feel horror at imagining life without him.

But that brings us to the definition of "happiness." If my primary focus in life was "happiness," I probably wouldn't do much all day besides watch TV shows on DVD. But I live with the belief that there is greater meaning than my own temporary pleasure. I read--because it fulfills and challenges me. I don't eat meat--because I believe an animal's life is worth more than my instant pleasure or "happiness."

Raising children is not about fulfilling my momentary pleasure, and to a certain extent it's not about fulfilling any empty concept like "happiness." It requires sacrifices (I've been to one movie in a theater in the past year). It requires a lot of additional work. Instant gratification doesn't take to concepts like "sacrifice," but with sacrifice can come a deeper sense of happiness, a deeper sense of joy, a deeper sense of meaning.

Bailey includes one passage that of course my very being rails against:

"So, modernity essentially transforms children from capital goods that produce family income into consumption items to be enjoyed for their own sakes, more akin to sculptures, paintings, or theatre."

Human beings are not commodities, to be defined entirely in terms of their usefulness. We're not "capital goods" or "consumption items." We have a dignity that goes beyond our usefulness, and even when used ironically, I bristle at such a reduction of human beings.

This is one way in which I recognize myself as a "Christian Humanist." Much of my religious feeling focuses on how we treat and consider other human beings. I wish to recognize the inherent dignity and holiness of every living creature, and to treat each living creature accordingly. My inspirations in my religious feelings are people like Milton, like Dostoevsky, like Yoder. When human beings are reduced to commodities and defined according to their usefulness (to whom?), the Christian Humanist in me balks in frustration.

Another note: in writing about this article, Ann at Feministing distorts an episode of The Simpsons, and as this blog is as much about TV as anything else, I can't let that pass. It is not accurate to say that in that episode, "Marge starts a crusade against 'Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays.'" Actually, it was Lindsey Naegle that started a crusade to remove children from public life, and Marge was just responding to it.

I'm not writing this with judgment of people who choose not to have children. It is your choice (of course!), it's not for everybody, and I'm certainly not trying to imply the only way to find deeper fulfillment in life is through parenthood. I'm mostly questioning how we define "happiness" and and the assumption that "happiness" is the primary goal.

Is happiness defined as "pleasure"? As "fulfillment"? Because those are often two different things.

Consider a monk that finds fulfillment in the denial of pleasure--is he "happy"?

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