The “not enough!” view of full-time parenting is explicitly defended by Linda Hirshman—a philosopher, lawyer, and writer—in her book Get to Work, a manifesto that openly derides stay-at-home mothers and advises them to stay in the workforce. In her view, the full-time mother’s life is the bad life, not the good life, because there isn’t room for reason to flourish in the trenches of parenthood. This is the standard she considers the right one—a standard she draws from Aristotle and Plato. Hirshman writes, boldly, “Childcare and housekeeping have satisfying moments but are not occupations likely to produce a flourishing life.” So what is the flourishing life, on her view? She says that a human life can’t go well if we live like horses or dogs. We have speech and reason and must use them both to live good lives. We’re not using those capacities if we devote our hours to vacuuming, repetitive childcare tasks, and talking baby- talk. Hirshman writes,
Although child rearing, unlike housework, is important and can be difficult, it does not take well-developed political skills to rule over creatures smaller than you are, weaker than you are, and completely dependent upon you for survival or thriving. Certainly, it's not using your reason to do repetitive, physical tasks, whether it's cleaning or driving the car pool.
Somebody has to do these repetitive tasks. If you’re not taking care of your own children and your partner can’t or won’t either, then a nanny or babysitter or child-care worker is doing the job and not living the very best human life (Hirshman implies). But—the message seems to be—if you could keep working as a lawyer, teacher, or entrepreneur, because you have honed those skills and established one of those careers, then you would be harming yourself by shifting to full-time parenting. You would be making a bad choice. (I’m not sure what she thinks about women who leave menial, repetitive jobs to stay home with their kids; the objection to that, if she has one, must be quite different.)
But it’s your choice! Hirshman isn’t impressed with that response. Choice "doesn’t remove decisions to a special realm where they can’t be judged,” she writes. Fair enough. If choices were shielded from judgment, then how on earth would we reflect beforehand on what we ought to choose? It’s got to be legitimate to think about the case for and against a particular choice, and can’t be out of the question for others, and not just the decider, to have those thoughts. There’s also some question whether the choice to stay home is a free rather than a forced one, considering the options from which new parents have to choose. So yes, we should be willing to ask whether a full-time parent’s life is stunted.
As for reason, or its absence, parenting certainly does use the brain differently than many an occupation. My full-time mother friends, when my kids were very young, were all refugees from challenging occupations. Roberta had been a math major in college and did statistical work for a phone company before her daughter was born. Now at home caring for her child, her days were certainly spent in a less brainy fashion. But what would ancient accounts of the good life really say about Roberta? Not exactly what Hirshman wants them to say. What they admire most is not the brainy competence of a professional. For both Plato and Aristotle, the consummate use of reason involves not just some peculiarly human endeavor, but the contemplation of timeless realities. The life of a leisured philosopher is the very best life. Roberta did nothing like that at the phone company and nothing like that at home.
The ancients did regard reason as having practical application: for Aristotle, reason makes us brave instead of overwrought or timid; truthful instead of boastful or self-effacing; liberal spenders, instead of spendthrifts or misers. Generally, reason enables a person to find the virtuous mean between extremes of feeling and behavior. Those virtues are best exercised on the battlefield and by political leaders, Aristotle believes—certainly not at home and not at the office either.
Mothers, or the workers who take care of children, certainly do important work, in the ancients’ eyes, since they see the education of young children as critical to their development and needing to be done properly; but as a way of life, taking care of children isn’t especially desirable. When Aristotle lists the virtues that are the critical ingredients of the good life, he leaves out some of those most needed in the course of childcare—virtues like empathy, patience, and compassion. And a parent’s existence certainly lacks the sort of freedom and leisure that Aristotle sees as crucial for the very best life. But then, working for wages does too.
Rejecting the ancients’ obsession with leisure and their exaltation of the virtues of philosophers, politicians, and soldiers, there’s still something left that we might use to build an updated account of the good life: the idea that we live best when reason and virtue flower. But perhaps this can be a more inclusive theory, a theory more respectful of modern occupations. Ancient biases aside, reason and virtue actually can flower in the modern workplace. Roberta had use for a number ofAristotelian virtues on the job; for example, she had to interact temperately with managers and coworkers. But reason and virtue can flower at home as well. Once Roberta was caring for her daughter full-time, there were plenty of chances to be courageous, truthful, liberal, and the rest; to find a rational middle course; to keep appetites and passions in their place. And why not add more virtues to the list, including the ones most vital at home? Parenthood is actually a positively good arena in which to hone many of the virtues, especially if we judge by an enriched list.
In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, reason at first gets its preeminent position from a supposed difference between humans and animals. Humans have reason, animals do not. Later on in the Ethics, Aristotle acknowledges that the things we strive for needn’t be unique to human beings. The gods, he admits, have reason too. He writes, "We ought not to follow the makers of proverbs and 'Think human, since you are human.’ ... Rather as far as we can, we ought to be pro-immortal, and go to all lengths to live a life in accord with our supreme element" Reason is one of these supreme elements, but there are surely others. It’s fair to say that the best in some of us is a work-related skill: being a great veterinarian, a competent receptionist, an effective teacher. But can the best also be found at home?
Another one of my friends in the early days of motherhood was Christine. She was a Stanford graduate and had nearly completed a PhD in philosophy, but now her delightful little girl took up most of her time. Despite continual effort, her dissertation on the emotions never got done. But was Christine really not achieving her best? What, after all, is best? When we have worked extremely hard over many years to acquire a skill or a body of knowledge, it’s natural for this to seem like the best thing in us. Looked at in this manner, the best thing in Christine was her expertise in philosophy. On the other hand, if what is best is her ability to be j oyous, caring, committed, responsible, and nurturing, then she was living her life in accord with her "supreme element” in the years when she mainly cared for her daughter (and then two more children).
The ancients see the best life as one in which reason and virtue flourish, in which we reach for the best in ourselves. There are other things to aspire to, as I argue in my book on the good life, The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life. Besides reaching for the best, we want to fulfill the paradoxical-sounding Nietzschean adage "Become who you are.” For many parents, the workplace is where they most fully develop and express an identity. Being home full-time would be a terrible loss for them. But there’s no reason to think that nobody becomes who they are by doing the work of raising their children.
Sally was another woman in my circle of mother friends. Before her second baby was born, she had worked for a plumbers’ association where she organized and ran conventions. As long as she had just one child, Sally was able to keep going full-time, with a nanny helping out. After having her second child, she left her job. Sally lost some kinds of autonomy when she quit working, but there was also a gain. Instead of spending her day doing someone else’s bidding, she was spending her time as queen of her own castle. She was also discovering new things about her own identity and coming into a more complete sense of self. There had been growth at work, but also, in new ways, at home: she was discovering all sorts of new abilities in herself and becoming an expert on her children’s medical and educational needs (which were sometimes complex).
Spending our time taking care of young children doesn’t have to be a step down relative to whatever we were doing before. A year of caregiving may be a worse year of life than a year of college teaching, or lawyering, or working in a bank, or whatever it might be, but it also may be a better year. But a year is just a year. Now we must think about the bigger picture—the impact of caregiving on the rest of a mother’s life.