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The Purpose of Parenting

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A recent article in New York Magazine entitled "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting," examines the relationship between child-rearing and happiness.  Citing numerous studies indicating that having children negatively impacts one's day-to-day feelings of happiness, the article essentially asks whether the long-term, overall rewards of parenting outweigh, in the end, the years of frustration, sacrifice, and struggle of raising children.  Near the beginning of the piece, the author points out that an immense paradigm shift has occurred in the American family over the past century or so – one that has forever changed how we conceive of the idea of parenthood:


"Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents.  If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store.  But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity.  As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed.  (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child's value in five ruthless words: "Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.")  Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses."

In other words, children have gone from being mere products of economic necessity to the ultimate lifestyle accessories – features of the contemporary American "success story" not unlike the SUV and luxury automobile parked in the driveway.  These amenities don't come easy and they don't come cheap, and often, the work and stress involved in maintaining them makes one wonder if they are more trouble than they are worth.  All the more reason why the decision to have children is one that more and more couples (or, I suppose I should say "more and more individuals" since it is no longer assumed that one needs to be in a committed relationship, let alone married, in order to exercise his or her right to have a child) are struggling with, and why more and more parents admit resenting the loss of freedom and autonomy that comes with assuming the mantle of parenthood.


The issue is an interesting one to consider, and the article is careful to parse out a variety of elements at play in this uniquely modern conundrum.  What's truly fascinating – and not just a little troubling – however, is that our society has reached the point where we are using a "balance sheet approach" to assess the value of children (net worth equals assets minus liabilities) and a gain/strain ratio to evaluate the benefits of parenting.  We now live in a world where the decision to procreate has become a "lifestyle choice" to be weighed against the benefits of remaining free to devote ourselves and our lives to, well, ourselves.  The best educated, most affluent, socially progressive among us have in large part concluded that the age-old impulse to "be fruitful and multiply" can be explained by a combination of evolution and economics, neither of which applies to them.

From the conservative perspective, and certainly the Christian one, this self-centered idea of home and family represents the very nadir of human society.  For centuries, the Judeo-Christian tradition has taught that procreation is not only part of the divine directive God issued for the perpetuation of the human race (Gen. 1:28), but it is also one of God's greatest gifts to mankind, providing compelling evidence not only of God's existence, but of His very nature.  Each time a man and woman conceive a child, they are participating in God's larger creative plan for the world.  As parents, we are called to consider something greater than ourselves; we are called to sacrifice for another in a way unparalleled by any other human relationship save that of the marriage covenant.  For these reasons, Christians can see in parenthood, as in marriage, a reflection of the relationship between Christ and His Church as well as between Christ and His Holy Father.  

Of course, for those who deny that our world is a created one and that there is a divine plan for mankind, none of these constructions mean anything at all.  If we are merely isolated products of random chance and raging hormones rather than immortal souls, then our decision to have or not have children is inconsequential.  If death is the grand finale, then why should I care if my name lives on, why should I care if I live a life that honors the legacy of my ancestors, and why should I view procreation as humanity's greatest and most profound vocation?  In such a bleak – or some would say liberating – scenario, all that matters is self-fulfillment as defined and determined by... self.

Hence the modern conflict between the family and the self, between parenthood and happiness.  Probably the closest the article comes to a satisfying rebuttal against modern society's petulant complaints about the challenges of parenthood is found in an appeal to the wisdom of the Ancients:

"[F]or many of us, purpose is happiness?particularly those of us who find moment-to-moment happiness a bit elusive to begin with.  Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life.  And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn't by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.  (Seligman has seven children.)"

The ancient ideal of the good life was realized once and for all in the story of Christ and the Cross.  It is this spirit that infuses the classic tales of heroism that make the best bedtime stories and biggest blockbuster hits.  The cynicism and selfishness of the modern anti-hero appeals to our baser instincts – they tell us that we're alright just the way we are, that we shouldn't have to compromise our wants and needs for anyone or anything outside of ourselves.  The selflessness and sacrifice of the great heroes however (of which Christ is the ultimate example) challenges us to step up to the noble purposes designed for us before the beginning of time.  

According to such a worldview, procreation is not about happiness; it is about purpose.  The question we should be asking ourselves today is not whether children are worth it or whether they will make us happy,  but whether our society still possesses the character needed to rediscover the power of human purpose.


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