Having children turns every parent and parent-to-be into a philosopher. The philosophical questions are right there in the many perplexing situations we confront in the process of bringing new people into the world and then raising them. Fortunately, we’re also in a position to spend some time thinking about these questions. Becoming and being a parent is full of waiting, which means we have time to muse, grapple, wonder, and discuss.
There’s waiting to get pregnant—why is it so important to become a parent? Waiting for morning sickness to end—why does nausea make all of life seem so dismal? Waiting for lab results—are there any problems that would make termination of a pregnancy a reasonable choice? And waiting for a fetus to become a baby—at what point has your child come into existence?
Later, there’s waiting for the crying to stop so you can leave for work—i s it okay that you’re going to work? Waiting at the park while your child plays—why is your child so beautiful and brilliant in your eyes, and should you try to be more objective? Waiting in doctors’ offices—must you vaccinate, even if there’s a tiny risk of a bad reaction? Waiting for one phase to end and another to begin— does your child remain the same child, through all the changes? And waiting for college admissions decisions—why do you care so much? And many other reasons to wait and to wonder.
One of my favorite occasions for thought, over the nineteen years since my twins were born, has been The Performance, whether a talent show, a play, or a recital. Your kid is somewhere in the line-up, and there are twenty other acts to watch and applaud. Every child is charmingly gawky and innocent, and there are patches of true talent here and there. But these things can drag, so there’s time to think. And also something interesting to think about. Can I go home after my own child performs? Or do I owe it to the parents who watched my child to stay and watch theirs? What social obligations do I incur by being a parent in a community?
There’s time to wonder and reflect, but not long stretches of time. The baby will wake up, the exercise class will end. You only have ten minutes to read at bedtime, before your eyes are going to close. So the chapters of this book are fairly short. Big problems are broken up into chewable morsels. Long stages of life for parents are broken up into series of shorter stages.
The questions are arranged in chronological order, starting with three about why we want children and whether we’re being good, bad, or neither by having them. Next is a question about controlling the sort of child we have—whether to be selective, or to accept whatever child comes our way. And then there are questions about pregnancy, the fetus, and birth. At long last, a child has been born, and there are some hard questions to ask about the basis for saying the child belongs to one prospective parent or another.
Halfway through the book, we turn from questions about becoming parents to questions about being parents. Chapter 9 considers just what, precisely, parents do for their children—what the parenting job consists of. After that, I tackle numerous questions about how we ought to treat our children: whether to circumcise a boy; when we may lie to children; how much to care about a child’s gender; and to what extent we should pass on our own values and beliefs. There are also questions about what it means to be a socially responsible parent. Must we get involved with the PTA at our child’s school? Do we have to go along with collective projects like vaccination?
Finally, what do we get out of being parents? Happiness? Meaning? Or in fact a reduction in well-being, especially if we’re not only parents but primary caregivers? And what should children give back to us, in return for being cared for over many years?
We’ll begin at the beginning. We affiliate with other people in all sorts of ways—friend to friend, spouse to spouse, brother to sister, teacher to student. What’s so special about parent to child? And in the first place, what is it for another person to be my child?