Essay Preview: Parenting
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There are some grounds to assume that a cognitive dissonance is involved in feeling that children are more a satisfaction than a nuisance. Why do people bother with parenting? It is time consuming, exhausting, strains otherwise pleasurable and tranquil relationships to their limits. Still, humanity keeps at it: breeding.
It is the easiest to resort to Nature. After all, all living species breed and most of them parent. We are, all taken into consideration, animals and, therefore, subject to the same instinctive behaviour patterns. There is no point in looking for a reason: survival itself (whether of the gene pool or, on a higher level, of the species) is at stake. Breeding is a transport mechanism: handing the precious cargo of genetics down generations of “organic containers”.
But this is a reductionist view, which both ignores epistemological and emotional realities – and is tautological, thereby explaining something in terms of itself. Calling something by a different name or describing the mechanisms involved in minute detail does not an explanation make.
First hypothesis: we bring children to the world in order to “circumvent” death. We attain immortality (genetically and psychologically – though in both cases it is imaginary) by propagating our genetic material through the medium of our offspring.
This is a highly dubious claim. Any analysis, however shallow, will reveal its weaknesses. Our genetic material gets diluted beyond reconstruction with time. It constitutes 50% of the first generation, 25% of the second and so on. If this were the paramount concern – incest should have been the norm, being a behaviour better able to preserve a specific set of genes (especially today, when genetic screening can effectively guard against the birth of defective babies). Moreover, progeny is a dubious way of perpetuating ones self. No one remembers ones great great grandfathers. Ones memory is better preserved by intellectual feats or architectural monuments. The latter are much better conduits than children and grandchildren.
Still, this indoctrinated misconception is so strong that a baby boom characterizes post war periods. Having been existentially threatened, people multiply in the vain belief that they thus best protect their genetic heritage and fixate their memory.
In the better-educated, higher income, low infant mortality part of the world – the number of children has decreased dramatically – but those who still bring them to the world do so partly because they believe in these factually erroneous assumptions.
Second hypothesis: we bring children to the world in order to preserve the cohesiveness of the family nucleus. This claim can more plausibly be reversed: the cohesiveness of the social cell of the family encourages bringing children to the world. In both cases, if true, we would have expected more children to be born into stable families (ante or post facto) than into abnormal or dysfunctional ones. The facts absolutely contradict this expectation: more children are born to single parent families (between one third and one half of them) and to other “abnormal” (non-traditional) families than to the mother-father classic configuration. Dysfunctional families have more children than any other type of family arrangement. Children are an abject failure at preserving family cohesiveness. It would seem that the number of children, or even their very existence, is not correlated to the stability of the family. Under special circumstances, (Narcissistic parents, working mothers) they may even be a destabilizing factor.
Hypothesis number three: children are mostly born unwanted. They are the results of accidents and mishaps, wrong fertility planning, wrong decisions and misguided turns of events. The more sex people engage in and the less preventive measures they adopt – the greater the likelihood of having a child. While this might be factually true (family planning is all but defunct in most parts of the world), it neglects the simple fact that people want children and love them. Children are still economic assets in many parts of the world. They plough fields and do menial jobs very effectively. This still does not begin to explain the attachment between parents and their offspring and the grief experienced by parents when children die or are sick. It seems that people derive enormous emotional fulfilment from being parents. This is true even when the children were unwanted in the first place or are the results of lacking planning and sexual accidents. That children ARE the results of sexual ignorance, bad timing, the vigorousness of the sexual drive (higher frequency of sexual encounters) – can be proven using birth statistics among teenagers, the less educated and the young (ages 20 to 30).
People derive great happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction from their children. Is not this, in itself, a sufficient explanation? The pleasure principle seems to be at work: people have children because it gives them great pleasure. Children are sources of emotional sustenance. As parents grow old, they become sources of economic support, as well. Unfortunately, these assertions are not sustained by the facts. Increasing mobility breaks families apart at an early stage. Children become ever more dependent on the economic reserves of their parents (during their studies and the formation of a new family). It is not uncommon today for a child to live with and off his parents until the age of 30. Increasing individualism leaves parents to cope with the empty nest syndrome. Communication between parents and children has rarefied in the 20th century.
It is possible to think of children as habit forming (see: “The Habit of Identity”). In this hypothesis, parents – especially mothers – form a habit. Nine months of pregnancy and a host of social reactions condition the parents. They get used to the presence of an “abstract” baby. It is a case of a getting used to a concept. This is not very convincing. Entertaining a notion, a concept, a thought, an idea, a mental image, or a symbol very rarely leads to the formation of a habit. Moreover, the living baby is very different to its pre-natal image. It cries, it soils, it smells, it severely disrupts the lives of its parents. It is much easier to reject it then to transform it to a habit. Moreover, a child is a bad emotional investment. So many things can and do go wrong with it as it grows. So many expectations and dreams are frustrated. The child leaves home and rarely reciprocates. The emotional “returns” on an investment in a child are rarely commensurate with the magnitude of the investment.
This is not to say that people do NOT derive pleasure and fulfilment