The cover of Harper's Magazine's August edition was intriguing: a lovely portrait of a mother and sleeping infant with the caption "How To Be a Parent." I remain fascinated with the topic, though my children are grown and even my older grandchildren are becoming young adults. So, I eagerly read each of the 10 entries by various poets, novelists and journalists, wondering what wisdom the current generation of mothers and fathers had to offer. Sadly, some of the entries left me worried that our culture has become so self-centered that we seem on the verge of losing that essential element of what it means to be a mother or father: selflessness.
Becoming a parent was once just a natural part of most adults' lives, something that happened without a great deal of thought or planning. Now parenthood has become a choice -- and increasingly one that has more to do with parents' desires, hopes and fulfillment than it does with the children who are born of that choice. That is not to say there isn't a great deal of love bestowed, perhaps more than in the past. But the love seems increasingly self-referential, even self-indulgent.
Two of the Harper's entries were written by lesbian mothers, a category that is tiny but growing in the population. Michelle Tea is the author of "How To Grow Up," a memoir whose Amazon blurb describes Tea as an aspiring young writer in San Francisco "who lived in a scuzzy communal house; she drank, smoked, snorted anything she got her hands on; she toiled for the minimum wage; and she dated men and women, and sometimes both at once. But between hangovers and dead-end jobs, she scrawled in notebooks and organized dive bar poetry readings, working to make her literary dreams real."
Perhaps she has indeed grown up and her choice to become a mother, thanks to the implantation in her womb of an embryo created from her wife's egg and a donor's sperm, will turn out well for the child. But Tea's essay, "Part Neither, Part Both," though touching, is really all about her.
The same can be said of several other entries, by fathers as well as mothers. One father, A. Balkan, writes compellingly in "Self-Portrait with Daughters" of the amputation of his leg after a reckless speedboat driver capsized the small boat he was in, throwing Balkan into the path of the engine that nearly severed his leg. His twin daughters were 8 months old and safely ashore with their mother at the time, and they are minor characters in the story. Another, "The Grand Shattering" by Sarah Manguso, is all about the author's fears that motherhood would ruin her writing career -- a fear she turns into a strength once her child is born. "Those who have not passed through the gauntlet of motherhood cannot be equal in experience to those who have," she says. Motherhood, it seems, is the way to make her a better writer.
Only Harper's editor Ellen Rosenbush contributed an essay, "On Being a Stepparent," that actually focuses exclusively on being a parent. The shortest in the collection, Rosenbush nonetheless describes her role helping her two stepsons as confidant and friend as "a privileged one." She shares short anecdotes about one son wanting to drop out of school and the other son wanting to hide from his father that he'd received a driving ticket. In both cases, she guided them to make the right choices.
Parenthood entails sacrifice. It isn't about realizing your own ambitions through your progeny. It isn't about seeing your own reflection in your child's face or creating someone to love, who will in turn love you. Being a parent requires enormous responsibility not just to love the child, but also to teach him or her how to become a good, contributing member of society. Becoming a parent is a commitment we make not to ourselves or even just to our children, but one that binds us to all humanity.
Too bad Harper's didn't choose more writers and thinkers who might have shed some meaningful light on those responsibilities and commitments. One thing I've learned after almost 47 years is that the job of parent isn't one from which you ever retire.