MY MOTHER, MYSELF

Children are self-like to us because they come from us. The reverse is true too: to some degree, and at least in the fullness of time, parents are self-like to their children. There are asymmetries, though. We are more comfortable with seeing our children as second selves than with seeing our parents as second selves. Aristotle also touches on this, making an attempt to explain the difference: he says that people typically relish being a child’s parent more than being a parent’s child because parents have more certainty about the connection and know about it over more time.

There are probably many reasons for the asymmetry, but one is that knowing your children come from you creates a sense of power and fecundity; it’s natural for this to be a matter of pride. To see yourself as coming from your parents also has the potential to be a matter of pride, but the feeling could instead be one of dependence and powerlessness. Starting as adolescents, it’s understandable that most of us would like to be like the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. We would like to think we are completely the author of our own selves and in full control of our own lives.

To accommodate this natural wish, parenthood must evolve. We start off with a powerful sense of our children as our own, as having come from us, and as second selves, but parents must let go over time. Not only do children insist on it, but in fact the continuities between parent and child gradually decrease over time. As other influences on them make them come from other people as well— friends, peers, teachers, the surrounding culture—percentage-wise, they will come from us less. And they will start to be inventors of their own lives too, striking out on their own in many ways.

At that point it becomes a fortunate thing that it takes only so many connections for a child to seem like a second self. Continuity can decrease as children go their own way religiously, or politically, or musically, or in myriad other ways, without parents feeling any less connected to them. If my son grows up to be hugely different from me, he will be my own son no less than before. The pleasure of having your own child continues for the rest of your life (usually) and continues even when the gap between parent and child gradually widens, for a whole range of different reasons.

 
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