Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Being a Parent

I often avoid reading comments to posts because, frankly, I get depressed. I get depressed because of poor grammar and syntax; I get depressed because of people's perpetual misreading (intentional or otherwise) of the text on which they are commenting; I get depressed because you can tell that only a "certain kind" of reader visits a site (for example, lots of lefties read the Atlantic blogs and leave comments that would lead you to believe that there isn't a conservative soul left on the planet); I get depressed because, rather than engage each other, people spew venom (in part because, it seems, people are incapable of the kind of good-faith reading and listening that comes with honest debate).

Sometimes, though, I get depressed because it seems like there is such a wide gulf between what I believe and think and what other believe and think.

Like about being a parent. I read this post, which comments on a study suggesting that the childless are "happier" than parents.

Now, I'm a parent of two. I put "happier" in quotes above not because I disbelieve the results of the study so much as because it's not clear to me what the "happiness" is that we are measuring. Aristotle commented in his Nichomachean Ethics that we can talk about happiness in different senses; in one sense, happiness can consist of pleasure, as opposed to pain; in another, it can consist of a kind of state-of-being, in which momentary pleasures and pains are far less important than one's attitude in approaching the world. (This is an admitted gloss.)

I have no idea whether the average childless person is really happier than the average parent. I wonder, for example, whether the 27-year-old childless person living in Manhattan and doing the things that young people do might be more immediately happier than the 27-year old living in Manhattan who's married and has a couple of small kids. No doubt the former gets to enjoy the city a lot more; the latter spends his Sundays changing diapers and trying for hours to either get his kids in the car or to have them take naps.

But what about the 77 year old grandfather, compared to the 77-year old childless person? How do we compare this? How do we quantify the different levels of happiness? Aren't there profound questions of loneliness, perhaps regret, that we have to discuss?

In any event, the really sad thing is to read some of the comments in this post, such as commenters claiming that parents are really somehow rationalizing their happiness, because childless people are so happy and they don't have to deal with the stress and anxiety that comes with children.

There is certainly stress and anxiety that comes with having children; no parent will deny this. But there's also a profound love that a parent has for his child that cannot be mimicked or replaced with anything else that life has to offer. I can't describe it except to say that it is beautiful in a way nothing else is. In that way -- to come back to Aristotle -- the day-to-day stress and anxiety that comes from having kids is far less meaningful that the all-encompassing love that permeates your life.

A childless person will never understand this -- which is not a criticism, but an observation. It would be nice, however, if those who are childless thought for a second about being in a parents' shoes before commenting on the value of raising children -- a subject about which they know nothing.

1 comment:

Donna B. said...

No kidding. I read that post too and immediately thought happy as compared to what?

Please don't hate me because of my grammar or typing. I'm a fairly decent speller. Sometimes.

The way I describe the love for a child is that almost immediately after the birth it gets extremely difficult to imagine life before them.

At least that's the way it was for me. I entered a new world where a more intense happiness was available. There's also a possibility of more intense sadness.

As the childless cannot imagine being parents, I cannot imagine being childless.