Wednesday, August 22, 2007

New life - a reason to celebrate?

In response to the news that my daughter is pregnant, Peter Burnet says:

" .... it would be very interesting to hear you try to explain to the rationalist heathens around here just why this news gives you such happiness and what it means to you. I presume it goes deeper than the prospect of yet another round of cooing and changing diapers?"

I will put down some of the thoughts that came to me initially when I read Peter's comment, but I'm a ponderer, so I expect many more to develop over the next few days .... and weeks .... and years!

First let me think about the happiness my husband and I felt when we heard the news. This was different from the happiness we had expressed two days earlier on hearing that a niece was pregnant; for her, we were pleased, for our own Tanith we were overjoyed. I expect that there is an 'ological' explanation for this: biological, psychological, sociological or some such. Whatever it is, it is causing us to grin foolishly and skip around the house in a ridiculous fashion.

Yes, it does go deeper than cooing and changing diapers/nappies. I have to admit that I have never been one to coo over babies and the practical side of baby care was always a chore rather than a pleasure (undertaken with great love, of course!) So, this joy is about new life and not about baby powder and tiny bootees. As you would expect, I'll bring God into the picture at this point but I must say that my atheist husband's sense of being a part of something greater or other doesn't appear to be really very different from mine.

I can spend hours gazing in wonder at signs of life: the delicacy of a butterfly or a petal, the power and splendour of the sea, the myriad shapes and colours of a forest, the purposeful activity of bees and parent birds. To look on one's own children and recognise one's part in the creation and continuation of life is both humbling and awe-inspiring. For someone of faith, that means recognising one's role as privileged co-creator. Here, Peter, is the dimension that the 'rationalist heathens' won't understand:

"Every child coming into the world brings an affirmation from God that we are still loved, a reassurance that God has not yet given up on the human race. The innocent and unspoilt life of a newborn child is confirmation of the trust God has in us and, as any mother or father will tell, this scrap of humanity is open to an eternal range of awesome possibilities." (MPC)

It took me many years to understand that. Born at the end of WWII, growing up during the Cold War and living with the constant fear of nuclear war, I agreed with many of my generation that it would be wrong to bring children into this world. Then, eventually, Kahlil Gibran became more popular than Sylvia Plath and we all decided to leave the peace camps, get married and settle down, because life, after all, was longing for itself. My faith developed over time, along with a strong sense of hope for the future.

Has the faith dimension made any difference to my parenting or the value I put on life? Having brought up two children with my 'rationalist heathen' husband, I would say that it hasn't. He believes that the only purpose in life is life itself, I see this life as being a part or glimpse of something greater; those very different beliefs have led us to the same conclusion: that life is precious. We have always agreed on what we wanted for our children and on how to bring them up.

I know quite a lot of childless people of my age. Several friends from my student days never became sufficiently reconciled with the world to bring children into it; several have been unable to have children and yet another group have chosen to be priests or religious and to live celibate lives. It has been interesting and sometimes painful to see what being childless has meant in their lives; whatever their circumstances, I think each of them has had to deal with some degree of regret and a sense of loss, especially at times when their friends or siblings were having babies. They are going through a second period of loss now, knowing they will not be grandparents.

Whether it is God's purpose or life's own longing, it seems obvious, as we get older, that life has more meaning when it is passed on.


  1. Wow, that is great! Thank-you very much. I'll share some thoughts later, but today will be a heavy day. Besides, I'm going to a party tonight and I have to focus on being mindless.

  2. I have a personal and professional interest in this question: Why do we continue to be so happy and hopeful about marriage and childbirth for our children? The joy you are feeling is felt far and wide, even by many folks whose own experience with marriage has been disappointing. You can pass off the excitement of the young to naivite and youthful romanticism, but surely not that of their weary, experienced parents. Except for the very young and immature, few parents warn their children off marriage and family, and many hope for them openly with varying degrees of discretion. Those who do naysay it all are generally recognized as harbouring some degree of bitterness or at least an unfortunate, over-cautious hardness of character. Given what we know about the fragility of relationships today and the devastating fallout of failure, why do we keep uncorking the champagne? And why do most of those who have tasted the trauma and bitterness of divorce set out to repeat the experiment as soon as they can?

    Secular thinking offers a wide range of answers, but to me none of them, alone or together, stand up to even a few moments of serious thought, as least not as complete rationales. Biologists go on about survival and will fudge whether they are talking about genes, family, race or species depending on how tough the cross-examination, but that demands a complete objectification of our behaviour that nobody feels applies to them and implies we are driven blindly by unconscious biological imperatives. Aren't modern Darwinists the first to tell us how we can rise above all that and choose our destinies, and that we should? Aren't we encouraged (bombarded)by our culture to do so 24/7? C'mon we live in the era of self-actualization and Planned Parenthood.

    Sociologists will tell us that man is a social animal, thus making family life sound like a endless visit to a pub. Children are indeed a blessing, but they also rob us of our time, money, freedom and peace of mind. That's quite the price for some company one can have for free at the local community hall. Thanks, kids.

    One of the most common tropes is that people have (or had) lots of children so they would be cared for in their old age. C'mon, has anyone checked out the bank balances of childless couples lately? That is economic nonsense and, besides, old age used to be quite rare and unexpected. Do we seriously believe people spent thirty years worrying about how to placate a demanding partner and feed a brood of selfish rugrats for a moral claim on a spare room for a few years?

    The yearning for immortality is another common one. Firstly, young people worry about as much about immortality as they do about their pension savings. My own occasional yearnings extend to the living and and not much beyond. Besides, isn't that a male thing--it's pretty hard to believe women would fall for that? Who really hopes or expects they will be remembered and honoured four generations down the line and who would tie up their entire lives for the chance? Much better odds on the horses. If you want immortality, save the money and erect a statue.

    Even conservatives blow it occasionally with their emphasis on the functional. Alan Bloom once remarked that marriage was based on a trade--men got sex and housekeeping and women got security and protection. There is something to that as an explanation of how traditional duties evolved, but it doesn't explain very well why anyone would embark on the show in the first place. Are we supposed to believe that centuries of fathers never figured out they might tell their sons that there are far cheaper and less irksome ways to get all that. Are we so remote from the reality of women's history that we can't see there were plenty of alternatives for women of at least modest means and that many were less stressful and, if not more fun, as least less dangerous and exhausting?

    Where all these explanations fail is that they focus on the "return" of marriage and children to the individual, as if they has just won a lottery. But I think in many ways we are celebrating the opposite. What we are celebrating is that our children will no longer be living for themselves. Something inside tells us the richest and happiest lives are the demanding, outwardly-focussed ones and we want our kids to have a shot at that happiness despite the fact we know very well the chance of failure and disappointment is high. Eco-tours to Costa Rica are great, but we know somewhere deep down that caring for others is the mark of a rich life and that caring for one who is caring for you is the mark of a sublime one. We want them to take the risk. Dare to struggle, dare to win!

    Why we do this is a mystery, but I've yet to see it explained adequately by modern thought.

  3. Peter, I am so glad that my post offered the opportunity for your comprehensive comment. I think it deserves a far wider readership than the modest number of visitors I get here - why not transfer it to Diversely we sail?
    Thank you for giving me much more to think about. I'm so glad you ended with mystery, we can't rationalise everything.

  4. I tried to move this post to the top so that everyone would see Peter's essay but even changing the title didn't move it. If anyone can tell me how, please do.

  5. Thank-you, Monix, but relax. As David and Brit (Where is he? Surely he can put in a cameo appearance?) figured out, much of this game is best understood as writing for oneself, and I'm content with that.

    Besides, quiet please. I was just starting to be invited to parties.

  6. Peter: You have obviously got this blog writing into a proper perspective. Long may your party invitiations increase!

    Brit? Who? Don't you know it's the cricket season!

  7. Cameo appearance: just change the date of the post to some point in the future to move it to the top.

    Peter: of all the evolutionary just so stories you love to hate, explaining an instinctive love of children and grandchildren is surely the one that doesn't need much defending.

  8. Well, well, Brit, nice of you to drop by. It couldn't have anything to do with my impending visit and a possible chocolate cake?

    Thanks for the tip on moving posts.

  9. Well, well. Good to hear from you, old swot. I trust all is well. Of course you are dead wrong, but I'm not trolling your mum's blog.

    Monix, how does it feel to slave away making your ungrateful son's favourite cake for him knowing he is telling himself that you really have no choice--your genes are making you do it?

  10. Peter, I feed the selfish rugrat in the hope of a moral claim on his spare room for a few years!

  11. One of the most common tropes is that people have (or had) lots of children so they would be cared for in their old age.

    Another, possibly much more common, trope is that in where people earn their livings from the land, more children = more labor at cost of only room & board.

    Which might be a more persuasive explanation, considering that a shift from an agricultural economy to post agricultural is always marked with a demographic shift.

    Something inside tells us the richest and happiest lives are the demanding, outwardly-focussed ones and we want our kids to have a shot at that happiness despite the fact we know very well the chance of failure and disappointment is high.

    One of the most common mispprehensions among believers is that, by terming non-believers "materialists" (accurate enough in and of itself) means that to not have religious faith means deriving personal satisfaction exclusively from material things.

    This is wrong.

    Having spent a great deal of my adult life single (I married late, and was 38 when first child came along) and living a life that could have come right out of Boy's Own (IIRC, a British magazine aimed at male tweens, heavy on the adventure aspect), I can tell you with some authority that having a successful marriage and kids brings rewards unapproachable otherwise.

    I don't know that it is possible to explain, any more than gravity is.

    But there you have it, nonetheless.

  12. Skipper: I think a wise person refrains from making any kind of assumption about anyone else's beliefs. As I said, my husband and I do not share a religious faith but we hold almost identical life values. We both agree with you that a successful marriage (the result of hard work) and kids bring rewards that nothing else in life can.


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