Monday, June 15, 2009

Parenting Without Altruism

originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle

An old friend who is interested in Objectivism asked me how I reconciled parenting with Objectivism. She said that Ayn Rand never wrote about children and that maybe it was too altruistic or have too much conflict between egos. I thought I would answer her here on my blog so that you could all see it too.

First, it's important to think of altruism and of sacrifice in the right way. Sacrifice is when you give up a higher value in favor of a lower one. If I spent lots of money on buying new clothes instead of saving it like Aaron and I planned so that I can stay home with Livy, that would be a sacrifice. My time at home with her is so much more important to me than clothes, and by choosing the clothes, I have injured my higher value for a lower one. Altruism is the moral system that says it is good to sacrifice. I should put the happiness of others (a lower value) above the happiness of me and mine (a higher value). Sacrifice is not putting off immediate pleasure in order to gain a value down the road. Some people have asked me if I make a lot of sacrifices as a parent. I don't. When I stay home from a party to take care of Livy cause she is sick, I am not sacrificing. No party is as important to me as her health and her attachment to me long term. Did I like it? No, I wanted to go to that party real bad. It is not always fun to choose a long term higher value over a short term lesser one, but it isn't a sacrifice.

With that said, I want to talk a bit about how parenting is a selfish activity for me. I want to have Livy. I want to enjoy my relationship with her now, and I look forward to knowing her as she grows into an adult. I enjoy watching the process of her unfolding rationality and her personality. But raising a child is no bed of roses. I am always a bit suspicious of parents who are too glowing in their talk about parenting. Sometimes it sucks. I don't like to clean up poop. Sometimes my child is a little snot. Sometimes she hurts my feelings. Sometimes I don't get to do the things my childless friends get to do. And in the end, she may not grow up to be like I want her to be. Free will and all that. But, just because something isn't always fun doesn't mean it isn't a rational, selfish value. I accept that getting the enormous, almost unspeakable joy of having a child comes with some downsides. That is life, not sacrifice. Most values worth having (a meaningful job, parenting, friendship, romantic love, health) come with some downsides. Delaying gratification in order to get a value I really want is a great act of selfishness.

Sometimes my parenting starts to feel like I am doing an altruistic task. I resent the things I am doing for Livy. I take every misbehavior personally. I think a lot about how Martin gets to go hiking and how when Michael and Jessica stay up late they also get to sleep in. I start to get angry faster and not enjoy our daily lives together. I think learning at home together especially puts a lot of pressure on us because there are fewer breaks from each other. I find that when I start to feel put upon and sacrificial, it is usually because I have already slipped into being sacrificial. I have probably not had enough time to myself, enough alone time with Aaron, enough exercise on my own, enough time to read grown up books. When I make sure that I get what I need, just like I make sure that she gets what she needs, our relationship is much more relaxed. When I am selfish about my values (like reading, exercise, time with adults), we are both happier.

Most of the time, I think that the things that I need align pretty well with the things that she needs. The times when this alignment doesn't happen are the times when I have to remember especially to be selfish and not sacrificial. Our biggest example was cosleeping. Livy loves to sleep in the family bed at her dad's house. She wishes she could do it with me. I truly think it would be better for her if we slept together. But, I don't enjoy it. I don't enjoy it a lot. So even though it is better for her, it isn't better for me. It would be a sacrifice if I forced myself to sleep with her against my own wishes. It is very hard for her to accept, and we talk about it often, but I can't sacrifice my need for hers. Now, I don't think this is a catch-all that parents can use anytime they don't want to do anything. Some things that children need must be given to them, and if you don't want to, you shouldn't have them. I have thought long and hard about whether I can sleep with her and what harm it might do her not to get to sleep with me. Quality sleep really is a very high value for me, not just a more minor issue.

I also wanted to let my friend know that Ayn Rand did write about children and a mom who considered her children her career in Galt's Gulch (in Atlas Shrugged). Ayn Rand herself didn't want kids, so they weren't a strong interest of hers. And honestly, I'm glad her main characters didn't have kids. She chose to write characters who were highly career focused to the near exclusion of other values. While I think that kind of person is very admirable for his focused productivity, I think kids need at least one parent who is less career focused, and if not a full time parent, at least a parent with plenty of time for the kids.

Her other concern was that conflicting egos were a problem in parenting and Objectivism. I don't want to sound flippant, but they are a problem. It's a difficult thing to balance out the needs and wants and personalities of any two people living together, but it is even harder if there are more of you and some of you are dependent and not rational all the time. This exact problem is why good parenting is seriously hard work. I would recommend my other parenting posts, the excellent parenting posts over at RationalJenn, and positive discipline. Helping children (and parents) learn to live selfishly, but kindly and considerately, is what positive discipline does best.

Those are my rambling thoughts on selfishness and parenting. I hope this will be helpful to my friend and interesting to you guys.

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