Finally, I should address the most critical question: Is it worth it? If so, why? Certainly, there are cultural changes that could make the plunge into parenthood less daunting. It would be possible, too, for parents to feel less stressed and more affirmed. Still, child-rearing will always be miserable and magical, for more or less the same reasons. It’s a “happy pig or unhappy Socrates” sort of conundrum. Parenthood makes life harder, but also richer. It’s less pleasant but more meaningful. That’s because love fundamentally changes us as human beings. Like the dissatisfied Socrates, we can look on the unburdened (including our own former selves) with a certain amount of wistful envy, but it isn’t in our nature to want to stuff love back into its Pandora’s box.She ends with:
These thoughts are seconded by Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. In her interview on Fresh Air, she documents the "no fun" part then gets to the joy, and like Lu, she knows what we all know, that the joy is worth it, even if it can't be numerically verified:
And, you know, the studies don't focus on (the joy) so much. I have to sort of go to philosophy and novels in order to discuss the joy. The problem with these studies is that if you're feeling good about something, you know, you rank it a five. So that moment that I was describing with my baby looking at me and cooing at me - which was, like, just like this transcendent moment in my life - would rate the same if I'm doing everything on a scale of one to five, as, like, a dinner with a friend, if I had a really great time at that dinner. In the same way that, like, you know, on Amazon, you know, a John Grisham novel and, you know, and Charles Dickens like kind of get fives, you know, but they're not necessarily the same experience, you know.
And also, I can't remember who said this to me - I think it was George Vaillant, a psychiatrist who is kind of a poet-philosopher, too - he pointed out that, like, it's kind of like using a number to describe a taste. You know, how do you do that? So I think that social science misses a lot of the joy.
And, you know, one of the remarkable things about joy is that it is sort of predicated on this idea of being very connected to somebody. I think Christopher Hitchens described, you know, having kids as, you know, your heart running around in somebody else's body. And that feeling is so powerful, it's almost scary, because there's almost, like, an implied sense of loss about it.
It's, like, you love somebody so much, that you are almost automatically afraid of losing them, like, that this connection is so deep, that you can't think of that connection without thinking of that connection being broken. So joy, in some ways, is almost a harder feeling to tolerate than sadness, in some ways, because it's so powerful and makes us so vulnerable. But it's why it is also so profoundly special and what makes parenting, to so many of us, so huge and incomparable.So, a hearty amen to both from this papa across the pond. Both women (with an assist from Maria Popova) reminded me of C.S. Lewis' famous reflection in The Four Loves: "To love is to be vulnerable. To love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it in tact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it up carefully with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is hell."
Choosing lasting, difficult joy over immediate happiness is an ancient problem, and the fact that children are more of an economic burden than necessity thrusts today's (Western) family into the center of this choice. I've no special insight into this, but I'm encouraged: the fact that we're talking about it means this joy is not dead, and I wonder if paradoxically, we comfortable westerners are taking the joys of entangled love more seriously. This reminded me of something I noticed in that other great love entanglement: marriage. When I first came to Germany, I was told that Germans, consistent with the trends of most of Western Europe, were marrying later than Americans. I assumed that this meant they no longer took marriage seriously, that in a post-religious age they had deconstructed a ritual of religion and state enough to render it meaningless, or at least with much less meaning. Maybe at some point they'll muddle through the ritual and smile for the camera like distracted teenagers in a confirmation class, but more important is a fuzzy concept of love independent of the things our ancients had passed down.
It didn't take long to realize my assumption was wrong, at least among the students, young academics, and young professionals I interacted with. Sure, I'd hear people deconstruct marriage to justify premarital sex, but at the end of the day, marriage was a damn serious thing for most people, particularly for those in relationships. I found those living together didn't see their lifestyles as an alternative to marriage, but they saw marital commitment as something they couldn't lightly go into without a lot of practice and growth together. They were avoiding a complete entanglement, taking tentative steps into the rosebush, keeping the exit available, because they weren't about to make a commitment they didn't think they could keep. From this position, marriage was wonderful but overwhelming. They wanted it as much as the Bible-belt American standing before them, but with a deliberate slowness. I can imagine approaching child-rearing the same way, and it looks like more and more westerners are following in this path. The general seriousness about the topic impressed me, and it still does.
I sympathize. I had always wanted to be married, and yet the act of getting married cost me more courage than I could carry myself. Then our daughter came along, and she flooded our lives with love and joy but also with so many worldly worries that without the help of some god-fearing friends and family members, well, who knows how far we would have sunk. And still, both steps are the steps in my life where I can most clearly look at them and pronounce them good. I say this from a position of privilege - both my wife and I come from great families where martial promises were honored and children were viewed as gifts from the Lord. Not everyone grew up in such luxury, and I can understand how those without it might find the promises of love and joy of children much less believable, and all the "honest" parenting blogs could be a stumbling block for anybody. Entangling yourself in love is more and more a heroic, deeply serious step, the risks are no longer hidden behind smiles, closed doors, and rigorous cultural standards. It's serious stuff, and it's good we're all still talking about it.
Honest talking and writing doesn't hide the mess, the failures, or the heartbreak, but neither does it stay there, and I'm glad Lu and Senior reminded us how to write about the sort of things that don't fit on clever charts or Buzzfeed lists, but fit into philosophy, novels, poetry, and prose. The seriousness with which we're taking the commitments that irreversibly entangle our hearts to others mean that there's a hunger for it. And those of us who are presumptuous enough to tape our thoughts to the Internet should remember that writing about love and joy are worth the effort.