More than adding happiness, both mountain climbers and parents add something nebulous but highly valued to their lives: they add more meaning. But philosophers have tended not to notice how having children adds meaning to life. When they talk about the meaning of life—if they talk about it at all—they usually talk about grander things, like God and eternity and large-scale benevolence. Or they despair that nothing can eliminate the meaninglessness, or the absurdity, of life.
The meaning of life has become a respected topic in philosophy only fairly recently. Before the nineteenth century it wasn’t a topic at all, surprisingly enough, and it was a fairly marginal topic in the eyes of academic philosophers until as recently as the 1970s. Most philosophers even today see the humor in the question "What is the meaning of life?”—somehow it’s just too big and unanswerable. But a literature has blossomed in the past several decades, thanks partly to an essay entitled "The Absurd,” which the influential philosopher Thomas Nagel published in 1971. Does Nagel affirm the notion that parenthood can give our lives meaning?
Well, actually, no. Nagel identifies two ways of looking at ourselves and our activities. We can take the "inside” view, and feel engaged, absorbed, and committed to our undertakings. From that standpoint, just about anything can be taken seriously. We can also step back and take the "outside” view and find any of our activities transitory and pointless. The absurdity of life, writes Nagel, lies in the fact that any activity is always open to both interpretations. Any engaged moment can be disrupted by a painful sense of meaninglessness, or (best-case scenario) a moment of laughter about how ridiculous it all is. We can’t escape the oscillation between the two standpoints.
Isn’t anything doubt-proof? No, says Nagel. Even if we dedicated ourselves to grand things like God, science, truth, or saving lives, we could always ask "What’s the point?” If I’m making scientific discoveries, why does it matter, really? If I’m saving lives, my efforts are just a drop in the ocean—there are millions more to be saved. Even someone who thinks she’s glorifying God can always wonder why it’s important for God to be glorified. All that may be true, but what’s striking is that Nagel overlooks the activity that’s most selfevidently worthwhile to most people: raising their children. In fact, we don’t oscillate between Nagel’s inside and outside views when we’re sitting with a sick child, taking his temperature, mopping his brow, and cheering him up with silly nothings. At such times, who even fleetingly wonders "What’s the point?” Caring for a beloved child—at least for most parents—is utterly doubt-proof.
Peter Singer is another influential ethicist who is willing to tackle questions about meaningfulness, but he also doesn’t notice the meaning-giving potential of parenthood. In his 1995 book How Are
We to Live?, he describes the sense of emptiness that people suffer if they invest all their energy in making money, getting promoted, watching sports, or going shopping. Parenthood comes into the picture, but only adds to its bleakness. Singer relies on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to capture the plight of the "suburban housewife”: “Her only role is to bring up a family, and her children soon spend all day at school, and most of the rest of their time watching television. Nothing else seems worth achieving.” Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are people like animal activist Henry Spira. Self-transcendence, he says, involves a shift from one’s small, personal world to the world at large. The person who achieves this shift does good for thousands or even millions, and feels deeply fulfilled as a result. There is no recognition of the ordinary, small-scale self- transcending of a parent who develops an extended identity that includes his or her children.
Parenthood has a more positive valence in one of Singer’s more recent books, The Life You Can Save, which includes a chapter on the conflict between caring for one’s own children, and making large-scale contributions to the good of others. The dilemma is illustrated with a profile of Paul Farmer, the extraordinary doctor and global health leader so fascinatingly described in the beautiful book Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. At the time that he was interviewed by Kidder, Farmer had a young daughter who lived in Paris with her mother, but Farmer seldom saw her, opting instead to spend most of his time in Haiti providing much-needed healthcare to the poor. Singer frames the family-philanthropy conflict in a revealing way. There is admittedly a duty associated with family, and there is a special love we feel toward family members, but the opportunities for meaning lie in large-scale philanthropy. He promises that “taking part in a collective effort to help the world’s poorest people”—not taking care of your own children—"would give your life greater meaning and fulfillment.”
Yes, that might very well be true for some people; in fact, I hope it’s true. But is there no meaning to be found in the simple business of having and raising children?