LIKE A SELF

So what does it mean for a particular child to be a sort of second self, to me? What is self-like about this child here, and not self-like (to me) about that child there?

One thing is striking, especially in the fullness of time: parental generosity. We don’t hesitate to pay for our children’s diapers, food, medical care, clothes, toys, school fees, and so on. Of course there are pathological and atypical cases—abusive and neglectful parents who do much less for their kids than for themselves. But it’s fair to say that the typical parent does for the child what he would do for himself. I say "or more” because some children need more. This is abundantly clear in Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, a well-researched and comprehensive book about parents with special-needs children. The devotion of these parents is captured in hundreds of vignettes involving children with autism, blindness, deafness, and many other differences.

When I do things for my child, there is no quality of altruism—I don’t glow with the satisfaction of giving to others. I vividly recall one afternoon helping to load a Salvation Army truck with used clothing after Hurricane Katrina (the truck would take supplies from Dallas to New Orleans). It’s another thing altogether to spend the afternoon buying badly needed supplies for one’s own child, which feels barely more altruistic than spending the afternoon buying supplies for oneself.

I expect that readers with children will agree. I even suspect that the hard-working, unbelievably devoted parents in Solomon’s book will agree that they are not engaged in self-sacrifice when they care for their children. It’s true that they give up a great deal—money, sometimes careers, sometimes personal happiness, sometimes their marriages. But from the way they talk about their children, I surmise that they experience their devotion as not so different from devotion to self; it’s not like devotion to a complete other. Caring for one’s own child with autism is not at all like being a hard-working volunteer at a school for children with autism. The volunteer is altruistic, but that is not the right way to characterize the parent.

Another part of the parental state of mind is that I am anxious about the survival of my child in much the way I am anxious about my own survival. It is common wisdom that nothing is so devastating as the death of our own child. We fear losing a child in at least roughly the same way we fear losing our own lives. I say “roughly” because of course there are differences. I once had a close encounter with a bear—a very large brown bear—deep in the woods of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. I was closest to the bear, my husband was further up the trail, and furthest away were my two children. The primitive fear of being attacked was, in the first instance, a fear of me being attacked (I cannot tell a lie!), but all the effort I put into avoiding that fate was an effort to protect the four of us.

The flip side of being anxious about a child’s death is being gratified by a child’s life. My child’s continuing to live after me makes my own death easier to face, giving me something of the feeling I would have upon learning I will have another several decades myself. Again, this is not a neat equation. Facing a terminal illness and eventual death, it’s not true that all the terror is erased by the thought that your children will survive you. Not by a long shot. But knowing your children will go on living has some power to make you think you will not be entirely absent from the world. And this has to mean that a child has a sort of self-like significance, from his or her parents’ perspective.

And then there is the fact that we feel our children’s feelings. Anyone who has watched their child stumble in a school performance will know how close to true it can be that “I feel your pain.” I say close to true, because the contagion isn’t 100 percent, and it varies depending on the emotion. If she’s the one in the dentist chair, getting a shot of Novocain, you may catch her anxiety, but you won’t feel a painful prick in your jaw muscle. Then again, you will probably have all of the higher-order thoughts she has—the thoughts about that pain. You want it to end, you want it not to be repeated— and you can feel those desires as intensely as your child does. By the same token, we feel our children’s happiness and excitement. A child’s excitement over newly fallen snow quickly becomes our excitement. A child’s enjoyment of a good storybook becomes our enjoyment.

The next central facet of the parental mindset is that, with the passage of time, it becomes striking how little we compete with our kids. If my daughter is prettier than me and scores higher on the SATs, I’m delighted! A man playing tennis with his son will take pleasure in the points he scores and the points his son scores. No doubt there are exceptions and degrees, but it seems for the most part true that we are noncompetitive with our children. This makes children self-like, because of course we are completely noncompetitive with ourselves, and at least competitive to some degree with most other people.

And then there is the parent’s experience of pride and shame. Logically, we can only take pride in what is owing to our own efforts, or at least has a close connection our own selves. I can be proud of my lovely ears—they’re my ears! I can be proud of how fast or long I ran this morning—it was my effort. Pride is in what is “self,” not “other.” That makes it something of a puzzle why parents are proud of their children—in fact, pride being one of the most sustained and pleasant parts of parenthood—even when their accomplishments are completely independent of parental effort. Why, for example, am I proud of my daughter’s singing ability, given that I did nothing deliberate to create it and not even much to encourage it? It solves that puzzle to recognize that children are self-like, or part of our “extended self.” Pride in our children indicates that the parental state of mind is an attitude toward a sort of second self. And in just the opposite way, we are ashamed of our children’s failures in a particularly acute way. A child’s “F” in math isn’t just an “F,” it’s in some sense our “F.”

Finally, there is the parental experience of inflation. Everyone thinks their own children are unusually attractive and remarkably gifted, in some way or another. This is one of the things that keeps us going through all the stresses and strains of parenthood—we are doing all this for such a marvelous five- or ten- or fifteen-year-old! Here we have something like the excessive love we feel for ourselves, but squared or cubed. Parents seem to inflate the virtues of their children even more than the virtues of themselves. Maybe egotism is at the root of it, but ordinary egotism—about oneself—i s balanced by self-criticism. Egotism extended outward, to one’s children, is mostly appreciative. “My child is amazing!”

All these feelings make the response to one’s own child unique. We don’t feel parental toward everything we love—our cars and plants, our dogs and cats, or even toward our friends and siblings. Notably, we are more competitive with a sibling and less proud; we feel a sibling’s feelings less; we are generous with a sibling, but not usually as generous as we are with our own child or children. Doing something for a sister or brother does have a bit of the flavor of altruism, or at least more so than doing something for a child.

The parental state of mind is aimed at our offspring because children come from us in such a way that there are many kinds of continuity linking parent and child. No doubt it’s also central to development of the parental state of mind that children come from us at a point in their development and ours when they are utterly dependent and we are capable of taking care of them. And it’s central, as well, that the age difference between parents and children makes it highly likely that children will survive parents by several decades. Given the basic biology of parenthood—reproductive “coming from,” dependence, and age difference—a parental state of mind is likely to develop. At least, this is the case in humans; I make no claims here about other species.

When a parent lacks the parental state of mind, there is often a specific reason why it’s missing. In societies with high infant mortality rates, people may delay allowing themselves the attitudes I’ve just sketched. In societies that are sexist, parents may have these attitudes toward boys more than toward girls. Among the very poor in some societies, there’s a tendency to exploit children for labor. Statistics show that in the United States, very low-income parents are vastly more prone to neglecting and abusing their children than low-income parents. Single parents are at greater risk of neglecting and abusing their children, and so are parents with many, many kids. Contraception is a factor too. Cultures that practice child abandonment, like ancient Rome, are cultures without reliable contraception. There is also more abandonment when it’s considered a travesty to have children outside of marriage; famously, Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned five children he had with his mistress.

In all these settings where the parental state of mind doesn’t fully form, it is nevertheless not altogether absent. Bad mothers are intermittently also good mothers. Rousseau had later regrets about his children, writing in Emile, "He who cannot fulfill the duties of a father has no right to become one.” The Romans, who had no compunction about abandoning their children, loved plays and stories about parents being reunited with their children.

 
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