Friday, July 9th, 2010
Jennifer Senior, who writes for New York, has a piece on “why parents hate parenting,” titled, “All Joy and No Fun.”
In it, she reprises some of the popular data that is circulated to suggest parenting is more likely to make people miserable than happy.
And yet people continue to have children.
One of her main theses is that the nature of parenting has changed dramatically. And while her thoughts are interesting, the meat of her idea can be reduced to a complaint of ego-transfer – children are no longer about the parents, rather, parents are about the children.
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.
Senior’s article is devoted to figuring out the seeming contradiction between the natural impulsion to bear and raise children… and the suffocating effects she describes. Her reflections, therefore, are not without contradiction.
A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.
That being recognized, Senior begins to tack in a way that could lead to the right kinds of answers and insights.
The answer to that may hinge on how we define “good.” Or more to the point, “happy.” Is happiness something you experience? Or is it something you think?
She’s close, in distinguishing between feeling and meaning, but the modern perspective is irreducibly subjective and solipsistic: It reduces reality to what one experiences or thinks.
The better questions are, Is happiness qualitative or constitutive? Is happiness transcendent of individual perception?
Although she means it in a way different than would the classical philosopher and Christian, she appropriately avers that, for many of us, purpose is happiness.
Indeed, our end is God and living according to His plan, and with it can come a happiness that is in fact felt and meant… as well as everlasting.