When my children were babies, my circle of friends frequently talked about how raising children gave them a sense of purpose they had never found as clearly in anything else. They felt enlarged and expanded and fulfilled. I heard the same thing from my husband and other fathers I knew. It could be that the parents I know are especially enthusiastic because most of them came to parenthood relatively late, or because they are relatively affluent (compared to the women in the Kahneman survey). But certainty has been a recurrent theme whenever I’ve heard parents talking about the experience of having children. It’s puzzling that philosophers have been slow to make a connection between parenthood and meaning.

Part of the explanation, no doubt, is that throughout the Western tradition, children have always been on the other side of the house—t hat is, far from the (male) philosopher’s study—i f they were in the house at all (some of the most famous philosophers were childless). One of the first in-depth treatments of questions about the meaning of life was written by Leo Tolstoy in 1879. Though an acclaimed novelist and essayist, and a very wealthy man, he had sunk to the depths of despair, finding a complete absence of meaning in his life, until he had a religious conversion. It has always struck me as astonishing that he went through this crisis when he was living on his estate not alone, but with a wife who loved him, and with their nine children. Presumably the children were off in the distance, under the care of his wife and the servants, and not a focal point for Tolstoy himself.

But there is more behind the tendency for philosophers not to think of parenthood when they think about what makes life meaningful. For many thinkers in the Western tradition, a source of meaning must be unchanging—there always, and impossible to lose. Meaning isn’t supposed to be “fragile” (to use Martha Nussbaum’s perfect term). But what we get by having children is fragile. There are good days and bad days. Our kids can turn out badly, or—a parent’s worst fear—die. If all goes as well as possible, children grow up and become independent, and parenting can no longer be a mother’s or father’s primary focus in life.

Not only is meaning supposed to be “forever,” and impossible to lose, but it’s supposed to be available to all, and always available. You get to have it whoever you are, and at every stage of life. Everyone who succeeds in living meaningfully is expected to converge on the meaning of life, for some one meaning. Parenthood isn’t a meaning- maker like that, so (it’s been assumed) it can’t be a source of meaning at all. But arguably, an activity can be meaningful, yet not permanently or universally available.

The meaning-of-life literature has blossomed since the publication of Nagel’s 1971 article, and there is certainly more reference to parenthood in that literature than before. There has also been a considerable effort to articulate specific conditions under which life, or at least parts of life, can be meaningful. Borrowing elements from a number of different authors, but especially from Susan Wolf’s book Meaning in Life and Why it Matters, I suggest that to have meaning in your life, first of all you have to have overarching goals that organize your time and energy, so that life is not just one damned day after another. When activities have this sort of larger significance, they point beyond themselves. In fact, they point beyond themselves like words do (the squiggle “DOG” points to dogs). Thus, the talk of “meaning,” for both lives and words, is not coincidental. To have meaning in your life, your activities must point beyond themselves to larger goals, but (second) you also need to be wholeheartedly committed to those goals—durably, and without constant doubt. To avoid doubt (and this is the third condition), those goals have to be well enough grounded in reality to survive reflection.

Obviously, meaning in life is not the same thing as the meaning of life—some cosmic purpose possessed by life itself. If all of life points beyond to some grand goal, perhaps the goal of a deity, then life is not just meaningful, but transcendently meaningful. Having meaning in one’s life is also not exactly the same thing as living a good life. A life could be very good, overall—amply endowed with necessities like happiness and autonomy—even if it was devoid of overarching goals. That would not make it bad overall—just lacking a certain virtue that most of us (at least after obtaining the basic elements of a good life) strive for.

So much for what meaning is (roughly and briefly). Can parenthood really supply it? It’s obvious that parenthood structures our days, months, and years. It takes a long time to usher a child from infancy to adulthood, and there are lots of goals and plans involved. Parenthood also gives us wholeheartedness, as Harry Frankfurt explains eloquently in his book The Reasons of Love. Frankfurt makes a surprising comparison. Love gives us something comparable to mathematical certainty, he claims.

Mathematical certainty, like other modes of certainty that are grounded in logically or conceptually necessary truths, is restful because it relieves us from having to contend with disparate tendencies in ourselves concerning what to believe. The issue is settled. We need no longer struggle to make up our minds... . Similarly, the necessity with which love binds the will puts an end to indecisiveness concerning what to care about.

Love for anything produces restful certainty, but Frankfurt sees (rightly, I think) that love of one’s own children is especially pure and constant.

Why do we feel such unalloyed love for our children? Here also, Frankfurt is helpful. It’s not a response to their intrinsic value—as real and enormous as that may be. It’s love itself that makes the child seem to us so extremely valuable, not independently existing value that makes us love a child so deeply.

But what is the nature of that love? Where does it come from? At different points in his book, Frankfurt calls the love we feel for our children the purest form of love, and also calls self-love the purest form of love. Is there a reason why both types of love seem so similar in their certainty, clarity, and constancy and come in for highest praise? He doesn’t offer an explanation, but we have one ready to hand: if children are "second selves but separate,” it’s no wonder that love for children shares many features with self-love.

For some, that assimilation will seem like a curse, putting parental love in a bad light. What narcissists we are! But Frankfurt wisely says otherwise:

When all is said and done, what is so embarrassing or so unfortunate about our propensity to love ourselves? Why should we regard it with any sort of righteous sorrow or distaste, or presume that it is somehow a dreadful obstacle to the attainment of our most proper goals? Why should we think of self-love as being at all an impediment to the sort of life at which we ought reasonably to aim?

As Frankfurt sees it, self-love turns out to be a sort of wholeheartedness about our own cares, concerns, and interests, and not a matter of selfishness or indifference to the rest of the world, beyond ourselves. The wholeheartedness of self-love makes our lives meaningful, Frankfurt claims. When we have more selves to love—because we have children—it stands to reason that we have even more access to meaning.

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