THE ULTIMATE

The case for parenthood as a source of meaning certainly doesn’t turn on judging that nothing else makes life as meaningful, or that finding meaning in other ways can’t make people just as happy. In fact, everything I have said about why parenting can make life meaningful supports meaning-pluralism. Some people get the restfulness of love from other pursuits—from loving music, or loving a partner, or loving sports, or loving endless study and debate. There are other big projects that can give structure to life, generate wholeheartedness, and survive reflection. There are meaning-boosters of many kinds.

But is parenthood preeminent? A team of psychologists led by Douglas Kenrick recently proposed a revision to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which pictures self-actualization at the top of a pyramid. Maslow, the influential twentieth-century inventor of humanistic psychology, thought the consummately mature human being found his or her calling, whether it be art or music or poetry (his examples), after taking care of more basic needs (for food and sex, safety, love, and esteem). The ultimate activity, the end of the line, was creative self-expression. In that pyramid, parenthood doesn’t have its own specific level. It’s part sex, part love, but lower in importance than finding your personal calling. In Kenrick’s revised pyramid, parenthood is at the top, with mate selection and retention right below. What happened to art, music, and poetry? They have become a means to mate selection and mate retention. The old pyramid favored a creative elite, while the new makes parenting "the ultimate.”

The elevation of parenthood to the pinnacle of the pyramid creates a far less elitist pyramid than the old one. Most people become parents, but most people don’t create art, music, and poetry. But the truth is even more inclusive. Voluntarily childless people can have consummate meaning and can claim full and complete development too. What Kenrick and his collaborators have missed is what parenthood and finding one’s calling (artistic or otherwise) have in common. Both give people long-l asting and life-structuring goals, wholeheartedness, and projects that survive reflection. In fact, there’s even a felt similarity: people talk about their books, their businesses, their pets—whatever absorbs them, long-term—as their children.

We don’t all have to make procreation a part of our life plan to live meaningful lives, but what about a weaker thesis? Perhaps, to live meaningfully, you don’t have to have your own children, but somebody needs to be having children. Without somebody having them, childless people would eventually find themselves in a world solely populated by the elderly. At the most basic level, they would be deprived of all sorts of products and services they need to survive, but looking ahead now to a childless future world, they would also have an existential problem. As Samuel Scheffler points out in the book Death and the Afterlife, some of our current pursuits would be drained of significance if we were all going to die without being outlived by the next generation. The afterlife we need, for meaningful existence—Scheffler claims—is not a heavenly afterlife for us personally, but simply the continuation of life as we know it, with a new cast of characters. It’s only with new people continuing to be created that I can think the seeds I sow today—in the course of my various projects and activities—will keep making at least some difference in the far future.

If Scheffler is right, we don’t all have to be parents for our lives to be meaningful, but we do all need there to be parenthood for life to be meaningful. And parents need other parents too. The continuity we have with our own children will not carry us into the far, far future. For that degree of continuity, parents and nonparents alike need parenthood as an ongoing practice. We also need the ability to identify not only with our own children (which is easy), but with other people’s children. We could even try to identify equally with our own child and other people’s, present and future, avoiding partiality and selective identification. Wouldn’t that give us equanimity in the face of possible loss and maximize our sense of survival into the far future?

It sounds good, and this strategy for coping with finitude has support from some quarters—see Mark Johnston’s book Surviving Death—but I’ve argued throughout this book that we do in fact identify in a special way with people who come from us directly, and doing this makes parenthood more fulfilling and makes us better parents. The identification parents almost always feel with their own children is something far more vivid, complete, certain, and animating. That identification is something to aspire to, when it comes to neighbors, friends, colleagues, students, and others, but something we can almost certainly have just by being parents.

Parents are necessary because children need them in order to grow up safely, happily, and well-prepared for the future. But having children also benefits the parents. It creates continuities that enlarge us, so that we completely identify with others instead of seeing our own solitary selves as uniquely important. It also defeats the skeptic inside each of us—the person who wakes up in the middle of the night thinking "What’s the point?” At a blog I once wrote for, a new mother once commented that she would lay in bed after a tiring day of dealing with work and caring for her new baby, and feel—no, not a sense of the absurdity of life—but waves of euphoric love for her child. Whatever the payoff in terms of total satisfaction, parenthood does give us such moments of perfect meaningfulness and certainty, and those are awfully precious.

 
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