CHILD OF MINE

Having a child of one’s own is not a simple matter of sharing genes: our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, all share our genes to some degree, but "my child” resonates in a way that "my nephew” or even "my brother” doesn’t. More central to being ours is the fact that a child simply comes from us, the parents. The fact that they come from us tends to make our children self-like: not exactly self, but also not entirely other. So says Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, one of the seminal works of Western philosophy. Nearly 2,400 years ago he wrote, "A parent, then, loves his children as he loves himself. For what has come from him is a sort of other self.” The sheer fact of coming from us elicits a set of attitudes that we rarely have toward anyone but ourselves: identification, pride, shame, inflated concern, noncompetitiveness. (I discuss these attitudes more in chapter 7.)

It goes without saying that children come from us in a particular way—not as a present comes from a box or a sculpture comes from an artist. A child comes from a parent in such a way as to share a certain amount of matter and form with the parent, as Aristotle might have put it. And of course a child is a whole person who shares matter and form with us, not some insignificant fragment of a person.

The reproductive way of coming from us—according to Aristotle— tends to make a child "a sort of other self” and make a parent "love his children as he loves himself”

It’s not that Aristotle thinks nobody can ever see someone as a second self on any other basis. He’s well known for saying that a friend is like a second self. But children becomes second selves more readily than other people do, and also for different reasons, and more persistently. We start seeing them that way quickly, before we could possibly learn that we are compatible and share values. By contrast, Aristotle thinks friendship has a basis in two people sharing a virtuous way of life. We don’t have to know anything at all about our newborn baby to feel profoundly identified with him or her, and the identification lasts through thick and thin, for years and years. For most people, having a child is the surest way they have of getting into a relationship in which another person is permanently self-like to them.

Jump forward to the present, from ancient Athens to modern America, and you find parents expressing themselves in much the way Aristotle does. Elizabeth Stone, a professor, author, and mother, once said that to have a child is "to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Most parents know exactly what she means (and she’s been endlessly quoted). The late philosopher Robert Nozick is just as poetic in his book The Examined Life: "Children themselves form part of one’s substance,” he writes. They "form part of a wider identity you have.”

There’s both a terror to be found in having a "sort of other self” and a great pleasure. One of the pleasures is that focusing on your second self takes the focus offyour first self. It might be hard to figure out what to do next, career-wise, or how to solve whatever problems in living beset you, as a twenty-five-year-old or thirty-five-year-old.

Often what a small child needs is obvious by comparison: food, water, a nap, a medical check-up. It’s easy to be clear-minded and wholehearted about baby-oriented tasks.

On a grander existential level, parents often find their own mortality easier to accept because of the thought that their children will live on after they’re gone. That’s akin to personal survival (i.e., my own survival) thanks to the felt quasi-identity of my child with my self, at the back of our minds and amorphous, but still an important aspect of what it is to have a child. Having children gives us a kind of afterlife—more life after this life, right here on earth, not in some gauzy, ill-defined heaven.

When children are not other selves to anyone, we’ve often entered some imaginary dystopia. The earliest known author of a reproductive dystopia was Aristotle’s teacher, Plato. At least to our modern eyes, there’s something ghastly about the system of reproduction Plato proposes for the leaders, or Guardians, of The Republic. Guardian men and women are required to copulate with one another, and when they produce children, the babies are taken away to be raised in groups by well-trained nurses. This disconnection between parent and child is supposed to make the next generation of Guardians perfectly concerned with the city as a whole, instead of partial to their biological parents and relatives. Likewise, collective child-raising guarantees that nobody will be partial to these children—for no caregiver are they "a sort of other self,” as Aristotle puts it.

We also see reproduction devoid of special connections between parent and child in science fiction. The babies in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are concocted in laboratories and brought up in institutional nurseries and schools. The whole idea of each person having a special "mommy” or "daddy” is seen in this society as primitive, sentimental, or even disgusting. Adults don’t view any child in particular as their very own. In sharp contrast with these fictional worlds, it’s a deep-seated part of our understanding of parenthood that a child is someone’s own child; we think it matters which children come from which parents; and we welcome the thought that our children are akin to our very own selves.

We want to have our own child, but of course that’s not all. We also want to play a role in the child’s evolution from tiny newborn to young adult, and beyond. And we want to share a life with our child, which will initially mean sharing our own particular life. Over time we will give a child the food we love, the books we love, the music we love. If we love soccer, we’ll try to get the child to play soccer. If we love ballet, we’ll try to get the child involved in ballet. Over time, though, it may be the child who’s sharing his or her loves with us. His fondness for politics may get us more interested in politics. Her interest in medicine may get us interested in medicine. But all along the way, the fact that a child is a sort of other self will mean a level of sharing that’s distinctive.

Of course, what we have, in having parenthood, will become much more clear to us in the fullness of time. But choosing parenthood isn’t a leap into the complete unknown. We don’t choose parenthood as if it were hidden behind Door Number Three (on the old TV show Truth or Consequences). One of the things we do foresee is the feeling of a child being "our own.” The fantasies of the would-be parent are about shared times—hiking with your child if you like to hike, baking with your child if you like to bake. Or just blissfully holding a newborn baby. We have premonitions of the exceptional level of identification we will have with a child of our own. That’s at least one of the things that motivates us, making us persevere if we find out that making a child isn’t going to be easy.

 
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