THE CALL OF DUTY
It used to be commonly thought that mothers—and only mothers— had a duty to be full-time stay-at-home caregivers for their young children. One could have that view out of the belief that once a woman has a child, the child’s life matters and the mother’s doesn’t. In essence, the mother’s old life comes to an end, and she must become nothing but a self-sacrificing nursemaid to her child. But no, this never made any sense. While I have described children as second selves to their parents, parents remain their own first selves. Of course they may go on caring about their lives apart from baby, at the same time that they also care about their new baby.
Some once thought (and still think) that mothers’ own lives do matter, but that it takes a mother’s care for children to turn out well. Today that’s a minority opinion among experts on child care. It’s only in the rare and exceptional case that it really seems mandatory for a parent, whether mother or father, to be the child’s full-time caregiver. Granted, it’s possible to imagine a case involving some combination of a child’s special needs, a mother’s or father’s special abilities, and the absence of appropriate child care. But in the usual case, the evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis that all the hour-to-hour work of caregiving must be performed by mothers or fathers. Studies of children in day care don’t show they become very different from children raised by stay-at-home parents.
“Heroic” also seems like the wrong assessment of full-time parents, despite the popular adage that motherhood is “the hardest job in the world.” Perhaps there is an occasional stay-at-home mother or father who really is a hero. A seriously disabled child will sometimes be better off with a full-time parent; there are cases in which a parent who gives up the pleasures of work deserves special admiration. On the whole, though, it doesn’t make sense to super-valorize caring for children, especially on the account of the parent-child relationship I have developed in this book. However challenging it may be, parenting is not, at least in the usual case, a self-sacrificing activity, because children are so self-like to their parents. Making a child better off makes parents feel better off too.
It’s also only in rare cases that we should consider it wrong for a mother to care for her kids full-time. We reserve that sort of full- throttle condemnation primarily for acts and ways of life that are harmful to others, and caring for your children is rarely that. Again, though, you can imagine disapproving in the occasional case— maybe a particular stay-at-home mother is the only obstetrician in the entire region and patients desperately need her skills. Maybe a mother is liable to become abusive if she spends long hours alone with an infant, so she really shouldn’t do so.
We’re not going to be able to make any generalizations to the effect that hands-on parenting is always required, or always wrong, or always heroic, but some additional types of cases do seem worth mentioning. The dramatic climax of the book Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, is an account of one of the expedition guides—New Zealander Rob Hall—summiting Everest, and dying in the process, while his heavily pregnant wife remains at home, thousands of miles away. She is patched through to him on a satellite phone in his final moments for one last excruciating conversation. Considering that 20 percent of climbers die in the attempt to climb Everest, the father-to-be took a 20 percent chance of becoming a completely hands-off father—in fact, leaving his child fatherless. Do parents have a responsibility to live relatively cautious lives, so they can play some role in raising their children? What about people who reduce their role in their children’s lives by ending their marriage, or by living far from their child’s primary home, or by putting their children in boarding school, or by working seventy hours a week? What about soldier-parents who accept a tour-of-duty in a dangerous country? If we can agree that parents ought to have considerable hands-on involvement with their children, how much is enough?
While such questions are discussable, I’m not sure they’re crisply answerable. So let’s shift to a different, slightly more manageable set of questions. Our goal as parents is to help our children live good lives; so I said in chapter 9. But we aim to live good lives ourselves as well, and (if we are healthy and self-respecting) that will remain among our goals, after we’ve become parents. What of the person who does choose parenthood as a full-time occupation, whether for her own fulfillment, or because her entire income was going to be used to cover child-care costs? Is that a suitable way for an adult to fill her time? Can we leave work for full-time parenting and still live what ancient philosophy called "the good life”?
The impulse to be home with children—in those who wind up at home out of a preference, and not for economic reasons—can come as a huge surprise, even to the parent herself (or himself). To use the phrase of the philosopher L. A. Paul, having a child is a "transformative experience”—an experience that creates new and unpredictable ways of thinking and feeling. After a baby is born you can find yourself with new desires and priorities, ones that you didn’t expect and others didn’t expect from you. The situation is all the more awkward because there is an ineffable character to the new perspective. To the rest of the world a new baby is just a new baby, but to you, your new baby is your beloved, and your concern for him or her is profound. Some new parents feel inseparable from their newborns, or at least cannot imagine the long separations that would be required by a demanding, inflexible job.
Shifting to part-time teaching after my twins were born (for a multitude of reasons) was in fact transformative for me. Since work and achievement had been such a huge part of my life, I was fascinated by the rhythms of parenting and the very different way of life they create. Is this a good way of life? Is it enough? It was certainly a new thing for me that it did seem like enough; I had assumed it wouldn’t be, from the external standpoint I had on the subject before becoming a parent. In fact, I had thought "couldn’t possibly be enough!” many times, over many years.