For the first six hours of my daughter’s life, I felt no love for her. I smiled for my camera and I smiled for my wife, but what else was I going to do? My principal feeling was relief—relief that the whole thing was over, relief that the last part in particular was over, relief, basically, that the two of them had survived. There was also pride in my wife for getting through what seemed like an unusually long process (two days of prodromal labor followed by twelve hours of early labor and then twelve hours of active labor). There was exhaustion from pretending to be calm and confident whenever I felt most helpless and panicked. There was shock at the blood, shit and tears, as well as the sheer strangeness of the situation. What there was not, though, was love. Babies had always repulsed me—talk of their beauty felt like a collective conspiracy—but friends had assured me I would feel differently about my own. So as I lay awake that night I told myself not to worry, it might take a few weeks. A couple of hours later I was woken by a series of bizarre farmyard sounds—“congested whimpers” is the best I can do—and found my chest tightening with a rushing sensation that somehow combined mortal fear and adolescent romance. Was she dying already? Before, my daughter had been alien to me, her cries paining me no differently from those of any other baby. Now they hurt me from within.
The philosopher L. A. Paul thinks of having children as so transformative that you can’t rationally decide to do it: the fact that it’s going to thoroughly change your preferences and values means you can’t ask whether you would like it, since if you do have children you won’t be you anymore. I don’t know whether that’s actually true, but just the thought of it scared me. Certainly I had watched a succession of friends become more tiresome after having children. Social events started to take place right after my afternoon nap. Bedtime rituals were accorded the solemn respect of evening vespers. Conversations became broken and fragmented—“Daddy, look at me!”—and when they did maintain a focus it was usually because the subject was how to raise a kid. New parents were the worst: “Behold the miracle, a child is born!” Delusions of uniqueness might be constitutive of new love, but they’re also constitutive of cults. If Paul is right, then none of this gives you a reason not to join the cult yourself, since once you’re on the inside it’ll all seem perfectly normal. But my own reason for not weighing up the pros and cons had nothing to do with the epistemics of personal transformation (or, for that matter, of aggregate utility). It had more to do with the way my wife and I live within a certain narrative of our love. “Unsrer Liebe Kinder schenken!” as the Mozart duet we chose for our wedding implores—“Send children to our love!” Perhaps I was already in a neighboring cult, then.
Not everyone who wants children can have them, of course, and we had started to consult doctors by the time we got lucky. At that point a new set of anxieties arose, some generic and others genetic, but again we got lucky. After a few months I started to become more worried about having a baby than losing one. How would I cope with all the shit? Where would I get my nine hours of sleep? Would I ever find the time and energy to write? By that point it was too late, of course. I kept thinking of a roller coaster—not the “fun” bit, which I normally get through by closing my eyes and reminding myself that nothing lasts forever, but the excruciatingly slow ride to the top, where you have all the time in the world for second thoughts but absolutely no capacity to execute them.
Now that we’re five months in I can say that my values have indeed changed. I still find most babies monstrous, but there’s one that I adore. Mostly it’s the obvious things, like the way she babbles to herself when she wakes up or smiles with her whole body when we come to fetch her. But if I’m honest, I also like the stuff that’s objectively bad, like when she ruins my naps by wailing like a maniac or when she slowly narrows her mouth and lowers her bottom lip in preparation for said wailing. We’ve actually recorded her crying because we know we’ll miss it. Developmental stages are themselves a thing of wonder: after a few months she discovers she has feet; soon she learns to put them in her mouth; and finally, I’m told, she’ll realize how useful they can be for locomotion. From an impartial perspective it’s as banal as could be—every single one of us went through the same stages—but to parents it’s a series of miracles.
As on that first night, though, the flipside of all that joy seems to be fear. Four days after the birth I had to pull out of a philosophy reading group when the little one revealed herself incapable of sucking properly and over the next six weeks the Philadelphia-area highways became a second home as we went in search of normality. She tends to attract attention from strangers, being both tiny (in the second percentile for weight by WHO standards) and hairy (the subject of two shearings in her first five months), and on a road trip to Charleston an elderly lady told us to watch out because people steal babies like that. So now we both have nightmares—literally: the kind that wake you up—about her being stolen, to go along with the ones we were already having about smothering her in bed or leaving her in the car. Aristotle says you can’t know whether someone lived well unless you also know whether their children lived well. I understood the conceptual point beforehand: once you have children, your flourishing is dependent on theirs. But it was only on that first night that I understood how physical this vulnerability really is. Those congested whimpers were like sensations from a phantom limb.
Plato famously abolishes the family for the ruling class of his ideal city—or rather he collectivizes it. “All these women are to belong to all these men in common, and no woman is to live privately with any man,” Socrates says. “And the children, in their turn, will be in common, and neither will a parent know his offspring, nor a child his parent.” Guardians are to call each other fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, depending on their age, and to act piously toward their “parents” and protectively toward their “siblings” and “children.” Everyone will feel pride in each other’s achievements and pain at each other’s wounds. It will be as if the entire class were a single family and so, Plato suggests, a single body.
This no longer seems as mad to me as it used to. Obviously it would be impractical on various levels, but we’re not talking about a report from the Brookings Institution—as with much political philosophy, the Republic is better read as a critique of the status quo than as a straightforward policy proposal. The fundamental claim is that collective well-being depends on the readiness of individuals to act for the common good. Nowadays we tend to see such actions in a moralistic frame that pitches saintly altruism against tawdry egoism, but for the pre-Christian Greeks altruism in the sense of impartiality between one’s own well-being and that of others was pretty much unthinkable: loosely stated, the main thesis of the Republic is that working for the common good is necessary for your own happiness. There are some contexts where it seems totally natural to consider your own well-being as bound up with that of others. Parenting seems like a prime example: when you change a diaper, you’re clearly acting for the sake of someone other than yourself, and so not being egoistic, but at the same time you’re not exactly being altruistic—the fact that it’s your own child means that you have those phantom-limb experiences where another being’s pleasures and pains become your own, so there’s a sense in which you’re relieving your own discomfort. Such expansion of the self can also occur between members of a team: esprit de corps literally means having the spirit of one body. If that spirit could be extended to the whole community, Plato thought, we could speak of a genuine body politic. Many have questioned whether it is possible to extend the notion of “one’s own” that far, but it seems obvious that patriotic feeling has sometimes led to acts of non-altruistic self-sacrifice. Whether such patriotism can be maintained in the absence of existential emergencies or local rivalries is another matter, but for Plato the more important question is whether it can be maintained in the presence of private family ties.
To Plato it seems obvious that family life can conflict with civic duties. One way of being a bad citizen, according to the Republic, is to be what Socrates calls a “moneymaker,” someone whose activities are guided not by social needs but by profit. But the average moneymaker is not a miser who thrills at the sight of silver—most take themselves to be guaranteeing the security of their families. The Republic actually begins with such a figure, Cephalus, a real-life individual who made a fortune selling military hardware during the Peloponnesian War and who tells Socrates that his principal goal as a businessman was to leave his sons “a little more than [he] inherited.” Later on, we see that the ideal society declines when the guardian class becomes infiltrated by moneymakers who set up private households. For Plato, then, family and moneymaking go together—like Catholic priests, the guardians are to be denied both, and for much the same reason: to encourage them to better serve their flocks.
As a junior academic, a lack of opportunity keeps me relatively insulated from the temptation of moneymaking, even if the cost of good childcare has recently led me to wonder how a philosopher might go about that kind of thing. But moneymaking isn’t the only way that family life can turn you away from the common good. The more typical route for academics, I suspect, is the slow descent into quietism: not giving a shit about things going to shit. Academia encourages abstraction from the wider world at the best of times, partly because intellectual pursuits sometimes demand it and partly because each college or university forms a micro-community that can seem like a political world unto itself—hence the strange spectacle of students and professors protesting the imperfections of liberal deans and provosts while the Trump era rages all around them. The family unit may not redirect political energies in quite that way, but it contains enough pleasure and pain by itself that it can feel natural to bracket the fate of society just the same. Who cares about Trump when you’re off camping? Who has time for fools on Twitter when your newborn’s not feeding properly? Epicurus thought you should stay away from politics in the interests of achieving peace of mind. I don’t believe that, but I do believe that parents should avoid bringing stress into the house, and fatherhood seems to have brought with it a new capacity for zoning things out.
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” is one of those apocryphal quotations that gets attributed to a famous figure (Trotsky, in this case) on the basis that, even if they never quite said it, they almost certainly thought it and in any case it rings true. In the first few months I couldn’t even bring myself to read political philosophy. One skipped session of the reading group on R. Jay Wallace’s The Moral Nexus and I couldn’t face going back. Plato and Aristotle I had to teach, along with Rawls, Walzer and Okin, but I was going through the motions. Exhaustion was part of it, especially during the period when we were napping and waking so often that we entered that cognitive twilight zone you fall into on long plane journeys, awake but incapable of thought. But it was also that I had developed new interests, since like many an academic my response to parenthood had been to compile a bibliography and binge on the mountain of homework.
To me this meant a newfound addiction to books like The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource for Your Child’s First Four Years and Debunking the Bump: What the Data Really Say About Pregnancy’s 165 Biggest Risks and Myths, in which every paragraph sits atop a thicket of footnotes pointing to this or that googleable study. The fact that my wife is French allowed me to add three books on bilingual development to the pile, along with one on how children are raised in France, and I even decided to vaccinate myself by reading a couple from the attachment-parenting cult. The most immediately useful books were probably those on infant sleep—I doubt I’d have mustered the strength to write this essay if it weren’t for Precious Little Sleep or Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child—but the ones I liked best were the ones that told me not to worry so much. The Wonder Weeks gives you a calendar of developmental stages and their associated “fussy periods” so that you don’t feel too bad when your baby suddenly starts wailing more than before. Simplicity Parenting tells you to keep things simple. The Gardener and the Carpenter warns against thinking you have much control. But if these books already suggested the pointlessness of obsessing over being a parent, it took two more to rekindle my interest in politics.
The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids and The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing up Children the Dutch Way are ostensibly in the same “calm down” genre as the guides I’ve already mentioned, but personally I found them deeply disturbing. As far as I can remember—I can’t face rereading them—these books largely echoed the others in terms of decrying the tendency to put pressure on kids by viewing them as pet projects whose every achievement reflects parental success, advocating instead the simple rhythms of families that devote time to unstructured play, home-cooked meals, camping trips and so on. What set the Danish and Dutch books apart was that they were written by British or American women whose real goal seemed to be to boast about how great their adoptive countries were—how utterly free of competitive parenting!—and to insinuate that truly loving parents would follow their lead in moving there themselves. (Hence the obnoxious titles.) And the annoying thing was that I found myself agreeing. I mean, if the goal is to provide an environment in which kids are allowed to grow up without pressure, presumably it does help to live in a society where there’s a strong social safety net, part-time work is prevalent and inequality is low enough that relatively little hangs on getting into a good college. If such places exist, shouldn’t you do your best to raise your children in them?
As European transplants not yet fully integrated into American life, this sometimes seems like a genuine possibility—hence the existential crisis we underwent a few weeks ago when a prospective nanny asked where we kept our weapons. But if we left the States we would almost certainly go back to England or France to be near our families. Like most people, we can’t simply pack our bags and head for the country with the happiest people or the happiest kids. Nor can we insulate our micro-communities from the wider cultural environment. Our only option, it seems to me, is to try to change that environment in some respect and to some degree. The most well-known image of the quietist in the Republic is that of the philosopher in the bad city who, having “seen the insanity of the masses and realized that there is nothing healthy, so to speak, in public affairs … keeps quiet and does his own work, like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind.” But this strategy, optimal though it may be in certain circumstances, solves nothing in the end. The quietist shows up later in the Republic, only this time he is depicted as a father incapable of transmitting virtue to his son in a society obsessed with winning honor. Although the father scrupulously “avoids honors, political office, lawsuits, and all such meddling in other people’s affairs,” his son ends up “a proud and honor-loving man.” If the ship of state goes down, we all go down with it.
I don’t mean to suggest that doing your utmost to foster a culture it would be good to grow up in is the rational choice in the game-theory sense; the expected probability of success is far too low for that. Nor would I see it merely as a moral obligation that you incur when you bring children into existence. It’s more direct than that. When you look down at your wide-eyed little one squirming in your arms and your mind turns to the idea of her doing the same with her own little one, the generations coming and going like leaves on a tree, striving to improve society seems no more optional than changing a diaper in the middle of the night—to be vulnerable to the fate of your child just is to be vulnerable to the fate of your society. The only real question is how to help.
Art credit: Robert Gober, Matthew Marks Gallery