8/12/09

The Philosophical Parent: Choosing Children


My series continues.

I'm trying to think about the decision to get with child. There seem to be two aspects to the decision-making. You have thoughts about "why?" And you have thoughts about "why not?"

It seems like these two categories of thought are very different, though I'd love to get some feedback on this. The "why?" thoughts are barely even thoughts. You just have a desire to be "with child." Women talk about "baby lust." Babies start to look scrumptious. You want your own. You have images in your head--red-headed 5 year old, whatever. A kid that's yours. That's an important element. But it's all very formless.

In other words, the thought about wanting a baby isn't analytical or instrumental. You don't think I want a baby that has these attributes, and will do this and that for me. Baby-desire is much more crude than that.

And then there's the "why not?" phase of deciding whether to have a baby. Now things get analytical. Now there are tangled, vexing issues about whether this baby's life is going to benefit or harm him, and us, and...it can get complicated when there are issues about the child's genes or the circumstances he or she will be born into. To what extent should those "why not?" be given veto power? But first...

What I am wondering about is the "why?" thoughts. Is it true that they are so primitive and formless? I'm not looking for theories about this, but personal experience--yours, your friends', your partner's...whatever.

28 comments:

Faust said...

Well this is a question that treads on pretty personal ground...but that's a good thing.

Some observations:

Women and men are very different in this "why?" area I suspect. Is this cultural? Biological? I don't know. But it's seems pronounced. My wife just "wanted a baby" and once she decided she was "all in." Without going into details pregnancy was very difficult for her and she was very determined to see a very difficult process through. For my own part, the decision to have a baby was purely "selfish" in the sense that I thought it would produce a set of experiences and commitments that would be good to have, but which I was not attached to having--not having a child was a wide open option for me. Of course those "selfish" thoughts involved me becoming a stay at home dad for several years, suffering through a baby that had 3 months of colic, getting almost zero sleep for 6 months, and a number of other sacrifices that are ongoing.

I do think having a baby is instrumental for many people, in the same sense lots of cultural activities are instrumental for lots of people. People want boys or girls, they want them to like sports or be academic, they have all sorts of ideas that they use to guide the raising of the child to turn them into such and such type of human being. I want my daughter to love books for example, just because I do. So I'm going to work to make that happen if it's at all in her nature. I assume that your duaghter becoming an animal rights person probably has something to do with your interests as well. In other words one major instrumental reason for having children is to populate the world with someone who shares your values.

On the other hand NOT having children can be "selfish" too. For example, one can say "I don't want to have children because that would require too many sacrifices...I'm not interested in those kinds of sacrifices." So it can be flipped either way. This is also a kind of instrumental thinking, though it is framed in terms of negative utility.

Of course you are also interested in the question of "ethical duties towards one not yet existent." But I wonder if this question is open to someone who eschews potentiality arguments.

Chris said...

I've been a lurker for a while but this topic is really interesting to me.

Your description of "baby lust" seem right. It fits my experience and my wife reports something similar, but we come at it from a different "baby orientation." We're in our late 30's, been together for years, and having children has never been interesting to us.

My lack of interest is similar to what you call "baby-desire." It doesn't matter if the kid was like me, was amazingly successful,or was mine, I'm just not interested. It's not hostility or selfishness. It's more like when people talk about a sport I'm not interested in. I can fake it. I can see how someone might care, but I don't.

Occasionally, analytical/instrumental concerns enter in. These aren't all anti-procreation either. We worry about who will take care of us when we're older, but even those instrumental reasons that support our choice have the feel of a rationalization. They wouldn't matter if we wanted kids. At root, we don't want kids and we're planning for our later years accordingly. So, yeah, "primitive and formless" describe my starting point pretty well.

amos said...

Experiences. I've had 3 children, with 3 different women. The first got pregnant while taking birth-control pills (she said), but I think that she wanted to force a marriage, a marriage which failed. In the second case we were wildly in love, and just didn't think much about the consequences. In the third, it was a relationship going downhill, and maybe we both wanted to save the relationship by having a child, although having one didn't save the relationship.
The prospective child was always a pawn in the game of the relationship between my woman companion and myself. That is very common, from my experience.

rtk said...

I wanted to wear a maternity outfit. I draped one on my very skinny self at six weeks. I am now powerful. I possess the ultimate mystery. Baby? I didn't really think that far down the line. I was totally happy and didn't need more. It was easy, fast, unproblematic and I wanted to do it 6 times. Changed that to 5 once I got the understanding that a real baby was part of the picture. 2 babies convinced me 4 would be enough. 3 and I shouted No More! I have a puppy now and would like more.

rtk said...

A few words about child's fulfilling parent's ambitions. The reality quickly overwhelms any vague dreams. Baby pees in dad's face. Oh delightful, so cute and funny. Baby farts: even better. Smiles. Catches ball. Whatever. It's your kid. Brilliant, gorgeous, talented, superior altogether. Even their badness has a certain charm. All this for a while, anyhow.

Tea Logar said...

I never wanted simply to "have a baby" - I don't really understand that desire, similarly as I don't understand the desire of some women to simply "get married" long before they have any idea of who they want to get married TO.

But now I want to have children *with my boyfriend*. I want to raise little people with him, I want there to be a being that is made by both of us into a single entity, I want the moments when the kid asks us clever questions we don't know how to answer, I want the silliness, the cuddling, the whole new experience of loving another person as much as I love him, and of basically "creating" a whole new person who is so full of wonder and excitement. But I don't won't to think about the time when they'll become teenagers... at least not yet :)

Tea Logar said...

Oh no, I wrote "little people". Is that offensive, or just silly? I just meant "tiny persons" or something like that :)

And I also wanted to say "I don't want", not "I don't won't", in that last sentence. Oh well, I guess you can tell it's getting late over here...

Jean Kazez said...

I'm really enjoying all these answers. Thank you so much, keep 'em coming.

Chris, Your comment raises an interesting question. If you could make the world a better place by having a baby with your utterly fantastic genes (if I may assume...), why is it that you have no moral obligation whatever to do so? I certainly think you don't, but it puzzles me...

Tea, Sounds like you have more than formless, primitive "baby lust"...and actually have a reason to want to make a baby with a specific person. Yeah, the teenaged years. Don't even talk about it. My kids are now 12 and not quite as slavishly devoted to me as before. I think "little people" is OK, despite its other meaning!

Chris said...

I'm not sure what to say about any obligation to have children. Since I suspect that analytic thinking has little to do with having children, I guess that's not surprising.

Let's start with the extremes. To my mind, the extremes (usually) require implausible assumptions. If I knew that my child would grow up to stop a fascist movement, then I'll concede that I have an obligation to have that child. Of course, people with baby lust would probably concede that they shouldn't have a child if they knew the kid would grow up to lead the fascist movement. So we've found a couple of obligations.

What about a world where we don't know what we'll get when we have kids? In most cases, that's the world we live in. Should we gamble that our children will contribute more to the world than they consume? Will I do more good for the world by focusing my energy on having children and hoping they contribute or by leaving the remainder of my estate to charity?

I don't know. To me, these questions seem off somehow. People answer them but their answers always seem like rationalizations. They usually claim a certainty about facts they just can't know. Having kids is a risk. Same for not having kids. I don't see anything tilting the balance decisively.

Even worse for analytic thinking, I suspect that people with baby lust count things as "making the world better" that people without baby lust wouldn't count. Tea mentioned how much she'd enjoy " "creating" a whole new person who is so full of wonder and excitement." That makes sense. I can see how someone might feel that way, but I don't, and, most importantly, I don't think I'm a better or worse person than Tea for it.

That probably raises more questions than it answers, but I hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

I have two children, both over 30. When they were young, they were enjoyable and family outings were wonderful times in many ways. Later on, I wished I didn't have any children. With drugs, academic problems, and now job problems, my life has suffered in very negative ways. If you have great adult children who keep jobs and stay away from drugs and trouble---good for you. You are lucky. I wasn't, and I regret having them at all.

rtk said...

Anon: I don't think parenthood lasts beyond 18 or 21 years. Then they may transform into friends or not. It's a pity if one had to vacate one's self and be left with very little. It happens often. I understand feelings of regret easily.

amos said...

The most ironic thing is that I was a fairly absent, distant parent
as was my father with me, and I have a great friendship with my younger son. He makes more money than I do and pays the check.
We both enjoy each other's company and have an honest, open, non-vertical, relationship. And then there are parents who sacrifice everything for their dear little kids, and the kids spit in their faces.

Jean Kazez said...

Chris, Yes, that seems like pivotal point...you really can't predict what your offspring will be like with much confidence. If you really knew that your kid would usher in a golden age, it would be different. I agree--whatever you say about the baby urge, it can't be that people who have it are better than people who don't. That's kind of a hard thing to explain, if the urge is a a good urge (and Tea makes it sound like it is). (Scratching head...)

Anonymous, Thank you for your comment. I find it really interesting. I might need to find a place in what I am writing for "forbidden feelings." Actually (if I may say something pedantic) Aristotle says something about how happiness can be deeply marred when children turn out badly. I always think of Timothy McVeigh's parents, and the like...(but hopefully your kids will turn out better some day).

Tea Logar said...

I definitely don't want to imply that people who don't share my (recent) baby urge are in any way worse people than I am! I was, after all, one of them for my whole life until only a few years ago. I think I am extremely lucky (and thus in no way a "better" human being) to have found a person who has introduced me to a whole new world of really caring about another person - sad as it is, I didn't know that feeling before. Back then, I always thought that I better never have children, simply because I didn't believe that I'd be able to love and support them properly, and I still think that that would have been the right (and responsible) decision to make, if things haven't changed so drastically for me. And even in the situation I'm in now, I most certainly don't think it would be wrong to decide not to have children - it just so happens that we do want them.

But if there are people whom I find irresponsible (and maybe even "worse" in a sense) it's always the people who decide to have children for the wrong reason, rather than those who decide not to have them for whatever reason.

The only (realistic) scenario that I can even imagine in which one might have an obligation to create a child would be in a situation where one's existing child needs some life-saving transplant or something that only a sibling could provide. But I don't really know what I think about that. An idea for your next post, Jean?

Parrhesia said...

Why baby? Because when the + sign materialised I was giddy with joy, even though the pregnancy was unplanned and my relationship was volatile. It was completely irrational. Just pure joy. I fell in love with my baby the moment I knew she was there, nicknaming her "Sprout". Even though I knew it was not a good time for me to be having a baby, I had a sense that things would work out. Luckily, they have.

amos said...

Babies are cute and wonderfully dependent. They don't talk back; they don't crash the family car; they don't call you "stupid"; they don't cost you thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees when they get caught with drugs or driving drunk. When you produce a child, you are not just producing a cute baby, but a future adult, who will take his or her own road in life, a road influenced by peers of his or her generation, a road that may have nothing to do with yours. You may find coincidences and many things in common with the future adult: you may not. You may end up with a 35 year-old failure who blames you bitterly for his or her failure and then demands that you "loan" him or her money that you will never see again. You have may tried all you can with the child, put your best efforts and all your love into his or her education and it's unlikely that you will ever hear the phrase "thank you". In another words, after the baby stage, which is cute, you will have the same problems and the same possibilities of friendship that you have with any other human being.

Chris said...

"That's kind of a hard thing to explain, if the urge is a a good urge (and Tea makes it sound like it is)." Exactly! That's why this is so interesting. I think we find something similar in other areas (people who want to teach aren't necessary better) but that doesn't really explain it.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm starting to want to jump into my life raft and paddle quickly...no, not away from my kids, but away from these horrifying stories. But I guess it's good for us with younger kids to hear them.

"People who want to teach aren't necessarily better"--strange but true.

Maybe there are lots of good urges, and the person who doesn't have the baby urge has more of some of the others. I can't see any other way to explain why people who want children aren't any more admirable than anyone else.

Faust said...

"People who want to teach aren't necessarily better"

Not if you leave it there. I think one COULD say: "People who are interested in developing strong communities are better than people who dont'" because communties are, in one form or another, the foundation of human life. I take "people who teach have a special value" as being a subset of of that idea, as they are taking a low paying job (talking public education in America here not speaking to other coutnries) to help young people learn (in an optimal situation, obviously there is huge variance in how an educative process can function, I'm sure Amos will pipe in here shortly about education as Orwell 101).

I think "having babies" if valued for similar reasons: i.e. children are by definition the future of the species, and people who work to further the speicies are though of as having contriubted to the future in ways that those who don't aren't (though of course there are other ways to contribute, I'm thinking Symposium here).

That's all a bit of a facile gloss, but there is something to it I think.

amos said...

Faust: Not only Orwell 101, 201 and 301, but the major instrument of capitalism used to reproduce a docile labor force, indoctrinated with the hegemonic ideology of the dominant classes. Actually, life is complicated, and my excellent introduction to Marxism was at age 16 in a European history class, during which the teacher said that he was going to explain different modern ideologies: fascism, marxism, laissez-faire capitalism, but his explanation of marxism was excellent and so in the worst period of the cold war, a teacher, surely with a secret smile, turned at least one student on to marxism. Not that I'm a marxist, but Karl hit the nail on the head from time to time. As an ex-teacher, I wouldn't entirely dismiss the teaching profession as Orwellian.

rtk said...

It's not uncommon for Baby Urge to precede marriage. I've known a number of women who have searched for a companionable sperm donor. Their marriages have not been less durable than those I've known which were not so ass backwards, so to speak.

Parrhesia said...

Amos, I understand how fraught relationships between parents and children can be, because my relationship to my parents has been fraught. There has been mistakes on both sides. We're in a good place now. I hope I end up friends with my kids when they're adults.

amos said...

I've always thought that the most valuable human relationship is friendship. My son today emailed me, inviting me to dinner on Saturday. He doesn't do it out of obligation, thank god. Shamelessly, I'll include a link for his my-space site. It's jazz-rock, in Spanish.
http://www.myspace.com/proyectotaulis

Tea Logar said...

Your son's a hottie!

Jean Kazez said...

Great link--now I've got some clue about what you must look like... if you're lucky and you inherited your son's looks.:-)

rtk said...

re: influencing your children or letting the weeds grow. Genes play a big part, too, although they have no values. I attribute my slight techie inclinations to a card-shark grandmother. Those same genes could have produced a somewhat talented criminal a la Madoff. Then, of course, the genes can come from the other guy. I had every reason to expect 3 athletes, but got 3 thinkers instead. Sure I'm disappointed. Who wants a house full of ...sheeesh.... thinkers, but them's the breaks and I accepted it almost graciously. Yes, Amos, what they said about your son, yes.

amos said...

Thank you all very much for the cumpliments on my son's good looks, which unfortunately, I did not inherit, besides the fact that I'm 33 years older than he is and look my age.

Jean Kazez said...

rtk, What an amazing coincidence. My mother also has a house of three thinkers instead of athletes. The thing is, she frowned on spectator sports when we were growing up. We didn't "do" sports, though we did massively long bike trips and hikes. Then when she got older she got into sports--as in real sports. The type where you go to athletic facilities. "Gyms," I believe you call them. And she has the nerve to complain!

If I were as good-looking as my two kids, I'd be gorgeous.