The purpose of parenthood

Cover of "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, an...

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We’ve lost the art of democratic debate, says Michael Sandel. He gives a wonderful talk during TED about moral philosophy and justice — and how to reintroduce them into our politics. He paraphrases Aristole’s theory of justice: “Justice means giving people what they deserve.” He says the real questions begin when we consider who deserves what and why, that we have to reason about the purpose of the thing or the activity, to fully provide justice to all.

So, this of course has me thinking. I have thought about the Mommy Myth, which demystified the current state of motherhood, deconstructing the societal forces which prompt women to give everything they have to motherhood, and devote their entire being to supporting their children.

I’ve been thinking about Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf, which describes a very hetero-normative, upper class view of childbirth and the immediate postpartum experience — but it also talks about that which is concealed from women, in (from her view) a very strange vow of social silence. (And, I might argue, if choices are limited for the rich people — it’s got to be much worse for those in poverty.)

I’ve been thinking about a book I read in college, which I no longer own but was thinking about retrieving via the library system called “The Failed Century of the Child” — a book about the policies that were put into place during the 20th century which attempted, and failed, to remove children from poverty, and to make education a democratic thing.

I’m reading Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, who explores this question in her book: “As children — and just as important, their mothers — prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society, is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home? the answers to the question have in turn reflected the long-running debate over whether nature or nurture counts most in shaping children’s destinies, which parenting experts across the spectrum and the decades have presumed are decisively cast in early childhood (7).”

So, to go back to the beginning of this post: What is the essential role of motherhood? What is the role of the mother to a child as an infant, a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, etc.? What is the role of the mother to herself during those same time periods? To her partner? To her family, and friends? The “common sense” wisdom seems to be that of primary care giver, and more than that, to be romantically (like “Leaves of Grass” romantic) obsessed with your child, watching their every coo and gurgle.

And, the flip question. What is the role of a father? I think that one is much more cut and dry to the “common sense” — the role of the father seems to be that of helper and bread-winner, and possibly the laughably un-knowledgeable one, as offered to us by sitcoms and commercials.

But is this really the purpose of mothers and fathers? What do you all think?


8 thoughts on “The purpose of parenthood

  1. And let’s take a step back and think about how heteronormative this entire dilemma is, as phrased this way. Do you think your questions change when the parents under consideration are two mothers, or two fathers?

    • And this is why I love you. Yes and no.

      The “common sense” understanding of motherhood is that of primary care giver, and the understanding of fatherhood is that of wage earner. The question about the purpose of these roles is perhaps more gendered than heteronormative — because if a family is to have two parents (non-gender specific) and a child (or children), then the division of labor amongst the adults will need to somehow divide the work of care-giving, chores, and wage work somehow. There are gendered expectations of how these roles are divided; but my purpose in asking the question about purpose is to find (in my opinion) that there is no reason why women cannot earn wages and men cannot diaper children.

      I think there is a purpose for parents, plural and non-gender specific. I think that the reason there are two parents is so that they can take turns — that they can tag team care-giving to peruse other roles or identities. In this case, it would not matter if there was a mommy/daddy or two mommies or two daddies.

  2. In my view, the purpose of parenthood is threefold:

    1) To provide a structure within which, the child (or children) is supported and can understand the world and how to function in it.

    2) To teach the child / children how to communicate and live with and love people who are different from you.

    3) To show the child how to deal with, handle, and rise above the everyday problems that happen to every person.

    I used to include ‘to show the child / children how a loving relationship looks’, i.e. the relationship of the parents; but this is not always the case, especially for single parents or for parents who are together but have a loveless relationship. So I didn’t include it.

    • Do you think that you might include “to show the children how to participate in reciprocal relationships and in a larger community” might take the place of modeling the relationship of the parents?

      • Yes, actually, I like how you put that.

        In a (more) perfect world, the parental relationship would model those things: reciprocal relationships, and the way those relate to the interconnectedness of the larger community.

        In the world we have, I believe that there are other ways to model those two things for our children. Being involved in a social community in a real and tangible way is, from my perspective, the best option to pursue.

        • I really like your list, because it seems to avoid the extremes of attachment parenting (everything being child directed) and the extremes of “babywise” or whatever the opposite of attachment parenting is (which is everything being adult directed). It seems to allow for children to grow and make their own mistakes, and to allow parents to still be adults. Somewhere between the ideas of if you put your child down, they’re never going to learn to love… and if you pick up your child too much they’re never going to be independent.

          Don’t have to read anymore books, Rachel had all the answers! ❤

          Anyway, far warning that I might quote you directly as I continue to explore this topic.

          • Well gosh. That’s just awesome. 🙂

            Thanks for facilitating a really interesting discussion! I’ve very much enjoyed your perspective and your exploration of this topic. 😀

    • While your fourth topic has been expanded into “model reciprocal relationships” etc, I wanted to pick it up again from the starting point of “especially for single parents or for parents who are together but have a loveless relationship.”

      My partner and I both grew up with parents in loveless relationships. We’ve both agreed that while it didn’t model what we feel is a beneficial model of relationships, it did illustrate how relationships can fail to function. We’ve also both had enough experience in relationships to know how, despite our mental models, we can fall into traps of behavior.

      Children will learn behaviors from their parents. At some point, unless the child is desperately averse to it, the child will eventually “try on” whatever behaviors it is shown. Most people think about it in terms of “teaching my children values” but it’s much simpler than that: show them. Do what you believe is right, and live up to the rules you give them.

      A famous story about Mahatma Gandhi was when a parent brought their child to see him, and asked him to tell the child that eating sugary things was bad for him/her and that the child should stop. Gandhi listened to the parent and then simply asked them to return in one week. When the parent and child returned a week later, Gandhi explained to the child that sugar was bad for him/her and that they should stop eating so much. The parent asked Gandhi why he didn’t just say that the first time, to which Gandhi replied “Because a week ago, I myself was eating sugary things.”

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