A Selfless Parent Is a Bad Parent

My colleague Michael van der Galien directed our attention to a story out of Germany not so long ago about a 65-year-old woman pregnant with quadruplets. Her condition sparked controversy, posing the question: is getting pregnant at that age “amazingly beautiful or extremely egotistical“?

That’s a provocative question. But perhaps we should back up a bit and ask a more fundamental one. Why can’t it be both? From where does this dichotomy between beauty and ego emerge?

The conventional notion of ego suggests an irrational self-worship or whim-fulfillment. However, an alternative school of thought exists wherein ego proceeds from rationality. From this point of view, getting pregnant at 25 proves no less egotistical than getting pregnant at 65. The choice to procreate, by its nature as a choice, fulfills an egoistic desire. In that context, the question becomes not whether pregnancy is egoistic, but whether it proves rationally egoistic beyond a certain age.

Calling this German mother “extremely egotistical” suggests that she places her desire to have children above the wellbeing of those children. If that’s the case, if she wants children in the way that children want toys, then her decision to procreate proves irrational. In that case, she doesn’t want children as such, but a kind of maternal fantasy-fulfillment wherein the children become victims of her irrational pursuit.

However, if her decision to have children has been well-considered in the context of reality, if she has made arrangements by which her children will be cared for in her absence, or if she has good reason to believe she will remain healthy and capable enough to care for them, then her decision may be entirely rational. It all depends on context and intention.

The story provides a launching point for a consideration of the role ego plays in parenting. In his commentary, Michael confesses his desire for a big family and states that he would not want to deny another person such fulfillment on account of her age. In this way, he acknowledges something rarely articulated with clarity. We have children because we want to, not for them, but for ourselves. Procreation is an expression of ego.

But wait, you might say, what’s all this “we” stuff? People don’t all have children for the same reason. Some people don’t choose. Sometimes, there’s an oops. Sometimes, you become saddled with a child unintentionally. That can’t be an expression of ego, can it?

Sure it can. First, since we’re considering ego as a rational phenomenon in the context of reality, let’s not pretend that unintended pregnancies are unchosen. With few exceptions, people know that pregnancy remains a probable consequence of sex. To the extent people are having sex outside circumstances where they can deal with a potential pregnancy, that’s a separate issue which does not excuse one from the responsibility of procreation.

But let’s say you become pregnant unintentionally. Now you have a choice to make. You can have the child, or relinquish it in some way. If you choose to have the child and raise it, hopefully it’s because you actually want the child. Hopefully, regardless of the intention or circumstances which led to the pregnancy, your decision to keep a baby emerges from a desire to raise it.

Certainly, we can predict the consequences of a parent raising an unwanted child. A parent-child relationship based on obligation or duty will not foster either love or happiness. Imagine a birthday where your mom said “another year down” rather than “I love you.” Children want to be wanted. They want to be a fulfilling presence in their parents’ lives. They want to be a source of – gasp – pride.

Indeed, it can be properly said that a selfless parent – a parent who regards her child as a burden to be weathered or an alter upon which to sacrifice – is a bad parent. A child who grew up cognizant of his parent’s reluctance, obligation, and resentment would no doubt prove disturbed. On the contrary, a selfish parent – a parent who regards their child as a fulfilling investment – is a good parent. A child who grows up cognizant of his parent’s valuation and pride will tend to tackle the world with confidence.

Recognize how this analysis defies the conventional wisdom regarding selfishness. While we might regard a selfish parent as one who neglects her children, rational selfishness requires the opposite. The parent who truly desires a child, and recognizes all which that implies, will seek the best for her child in fulfillment of that desire. I want my son to succeed. I want my son to be happy. I want what proves best for my son. The fact that my son benefits does not diminish the fact that I want it. Further, it is my wanting his success and acting on that desire which makes his success possible. If I did not want his success, his life would undoubtedly be diminished.

In discussing this perspective with the PJM team behind the scenes, a lot of pushback has been informed by appeals to religion. Shouldn’t parents have children, not as fulfillment of ego, but as fulfillment of commandment?

Consider whether reluctant or begrudging obedience is obedience at all. Are we to give resentfully from a sense of duty, or joyfully from a desire to glorify God? Indeed, why glorify God? Why seek Him? Why care what He thinks or wants? In the end, shouldn’t our obedience proceed from a recognition of his nature as the source of our life? Is not his glory our redemption? Is that not the Good News?