"Motherhood Isn't Sacrifice, It's Selfishness"

This New York Times op-ed by Karen Rinaldi has generated a huge number of comments, a lot of them negative. Goes to show that the way you say something is all important. Here's one of the more provocative paragraphs:
Motherhood is not a sacrifice, but a privilege — one that many of us choose selfishly. At its most atavistic, procreating ensures that our genes survive into the next generation. You could call this selfishness as biological imperative. On a personal level, when we bring into the world a being that is of us, someone we will protect and love and for whom we will do everything we can to help thrive and flourish, it begets the question, How is this selfless? Selflessness implies that we have no skin in the game. In motherhood, we’re all in.
Privilege? I have no idea why she says this. It's not as if we have to apply to become parents.  Everyone gets to become parents, if they're capable.  But "not a sacrifice" makes more sense to me and "selfish" makes some sense, but it's the wrong word. I think what she was really after, as a contrast with "selfless," is "self-interested." When we have a child "we bring into the world a being that is of us." Yes. Because my child is part of my extended identity, so to speak, when my child is better off, I'm better off. When my child is worse off, I'm worse off.  It's because we've enlarged ourself, thereby including our child as part of our extended identity, that caring for my child is self-interested.  But that doesn't mean it's "selfish." Selfish people don't enlarge themselves.

Since the self-interestedness of parenthood is really built in, and not just a feature of bad parents, she's off track when she writes that motherhood is a privilege (again, why a privilege?!) "that many of us choose selfishly."  But she gets back on track at the end of the op-ed.
If we start referring to motherhood as the beautiful, messy privilege that it is, and to tending to our children as the most loving yet selfish thing we do, perhaps we can change the biased language my mother used. Only when we stop talking about motherhood as sacrifice can we start talking about mothers the way that we deserve.
Again, there's the privilege talk, which I find bewildering.  But now the selfishness (no, self-interestedness!) is portrayed as built in.  It's not the bad mother who's selfish (no, self-interested), it's motherhood itself.  Much better!


Rhys said...

I wrote about the self interested ness of parenthood a couple of years ago. I'd be interested in your take if you have a chance to read it:


Jean Kazez said...

Great essay, and I also enjoyed the EA blogposts that you linked to. I especially liked your nuanced discussion of how it adds meaning to a parent's life to have children, but it can be burdensome to a child (well, an adult child) to be a meaning-adder. That didn't occur to me when I was writing the last chapter of my book, which is about parenthood and meaning.

Alan said...

The word "privilege" has at least two aspects. One is the external objective fact of being some level of advantage that is either rare or undeserved as seen by others, but another is an internal sense of having more than expected or deserved benefit and pleasure. It is in the latter sense that I think parenthood is often seen as a privelege - as perhaps should be every moment of life itself.

With regard to "selfishness" I am among those who strongly suspect that the state of the world would be better if the human population was smaller, and so I do consider having children to be selfish. But this doesn't preclude it being also a sacrifice for those who feel obligated or compelled to undertake it.

s. wallerstein said...

Being a parent isn't selfish. Selfish is when it's a hot day and you don't share your water with others: it's not thinking of others.

What do I care about my genes? I have absolutely no conscious selfish interest in perpetuating them, although there may be some unconscious drive to do so, but unconscious selfishness isn't selfishness in the way the word is normally used.

Is being a parent self-interested? Not even that, because while small kids are generally loving and wonderful to be with, your teenager can turn into someone who is hostile or indifferent to you, who treats you as hopelessly "out of it" or as a loser, who mocks you in front of their or even your peers. And there's nothing much you can do about that: you have to keep paying the dentist's bills for them. That's certainly not selfish behavior or even self-interested behavior in my book. Being a parent is often a test of your generosity and your often disinterested concern for another human being.