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The Misery of the Modern Parent

My old friend (and antagonist on gay marriage) Rod Dreher has a new blog at the outstanding new web-magazine of the John Templeton Foundation, which goes by the supremely Templetonian title of Big Questions Online (BQO). I recommend a visit.

While you’re there, I urge you to take a look at Rod’s inaugural post from last week, in which he responds to an artfully executed and deeply troubling cover story in a recent issue of New York magazine about (to quote the article’s subtitle) “why parents hate parenting.” The article’s author Jennifer Senior proposes, first, that parents hate parenting because it gets in the way of their pursuit of happiness and, second, that this means that today’s parents need to develop a richer understanding of happiness—one that is compatible with the struggles and sacrifices involved in parenting and that conceives of fulfillment in terms of leading a “productive, purposeful life.” (The quotation comes from Martin Seligman, the founder of “positive psychology”—and father of seven children.)

In response, Rod takes the suggestion for reform a step further to distinguish between happiness and joy: “Happiness is a superficial and fragile thing; joy is happiness that has been deepened and refined by tragedy. Joy is happiness with dimension. Joy is what you have that tells you that the burden is light, the yoke is freedom.”

There’s certainly truth in that. Though I fear that Rod is staying within the conceptual universe that leads so many parents—or rather, so many of the early twenty-first-century, upper-middle-class, professional, secular, American parents highlighted in the New York magazine article—to view parenting as such an unhappy burden.

That conceptual universe is a Kantian one in which individuals find themselves torn between fundamentally incompatible, antagonistic ways of living. On one side are selfish inclinations: the pursuit of one’s own good; physical, emotional, sensual, and intellectual pleasure-seeking; financial rewards; satisfaction and fulfillment of personal ambition in a successful career. On the other side are selfless moral duties—very much including obligations to the good of others, including one’s children. We pursue the first kinds of actions because we directly benefit from them; we pursue the second because we feel obliged to do so, regardless of whether they benefit us, and even if they are likely to injure or harm us. Life’s delights flow from the first group, its moral gravity grows out of the second.

The parents interviewed in the New York article invariably view the world and their lives in these starkly divided, Kantian terms—and that’s a major source of their misery. As Nietzsche so memorably explained, this outlook (which ultimately derives from Protestant Christianity) divides us against ourselves. We can’t help but want to be happy, but pursuing happiness to the exclusion of our parental duties makes us feel worthless. Fulfilling our duties, by contrast, gives us a sense of self-worth, but it also feels like endless drudgery—a marathon of miserable chores—that keeps us from what we’d rather be doing, which is selfishly pursuing happiness. So we become grumpy, testy, irritable with our children, who can seem like a burden custom-made to inhibit our enjoyment of life. And that, in turn, inspires bouts of guilt as we berate ourselves for our selfishness—and end up consumed by envy and resentment of childless friends and colleagues, all the while working to convince ourselves that our noble sacrifices make us better people.

Round and round we go, careening between the poles of happiness and anger, pride and self-loathing. Rod (like Jennifer Senior) is right to pine for a different, less psychologically immiserating model of parenting. But is “joy” enough? I’m afraid not—at least if all it means is that parents begin to view the “yoke” of raising children as “freedom.” To my ear that sounds like a typically Kantian (and Protestant) attempt to avoid the problem by inverting it with a healthy dose of sophistry: Obedience is autonomy! Slavery is freedom! Death is life! If parenting is a yoke, then no matter how much we try to prettify it, it will be a heavy, uncomfortable constraint. It will be a burden—and avoiding it or leaving it behind will be a benefit.

Better are passages of Rod’s post and the original article that gesture toward a radically different view of human happiness—one that takes its cue not from Kant but from Aristotle. In the Aristotelian tradition of moral thinking, human beings don’t face a zero-sum choice between fulfillment and moral righteousness. They strive, instead, to fulfill a holistic vision of human flourishing that includes both happiness and nobility. Or rather, this vision of human flourishing treats happiness as inseparable from nobility. This is what Martin Seligman and the best of his colleagues in the positive psychology movement have in mind when they speak of the importance of “purpose” in a fulfilling human life. A life spent in endless pursuit of egoistic self-satisfaction (Kant’s vision of corruption) would end in wretched desolation, but so would a life devoted purely to acts of exalted self-sacrifice (Kant’s moral ideal). A genuinely purposeful life, by contrast, is one in which an individual strives to become a good human being in the fullest sense—contented as much by work, career, and material reward as by devoting oneself to the flourishing of one’s children.

(A philosophical footnote: As he worked to refine his moral theory, Kant became increasingly aware of the need to supplement it with an account of purposefulness. The result was The Critique of Judgment, the last and most obscure of his three monumental “Critiques” [which followed the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason]. Though there is much of interest in the book, nearly everyone considers it a disappointment. The effort to rectify its defects among Kant’s contemporaries led very quickly to the philosophical systems of the German Idealists [Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel]. That I have turned back to Aristotle instead of toward the various solutions proposed by Kant’s successors in this tradition should be taken as an indication that I consider their systems to be glorious failures. For two very different accounts of how German Idealism grows out of Kant’s third Critique, see the work of Susan Shell and Robert Pippin.)

How could Aristotelian purposiveness be cultivated in practice? It’s a difficult question—one I can’t hope to answer in a blog post. Though I will say that I suspect that conservative Aristotelians such as Alasdair McIntyre are wrong to assume that a vision of happiness as human flourishing needs to be grounded in biblical religion. After all, Aristotle himself developed his account of morality without reference to biblical revelation, simply by sorting through and refining the contradictory moral opinions of his fellow Greek pagans. If it worked for him, why couldn’t it be adapted for the early twenty-first-century, upper-middle-class, professional, secular, American pagans who find themselves trapped in a degraded moral landscape bequeathed to them by Protestant Christianity and a prudish professor of philosophy from eighteenth-century Prussia?

Stranger things have happened.