More on Parenthood and Selfishness

I seem to have become somewhat easily baffled. I was going to do a simple list-style post about “conversations I don’t know how to have anymore”, filled with references to people from whom I expect more missing the basic points of feminism/anti-oppression/acceptance, but the list just keeps getting longer in my head.

I’ve often written about the idea that not having children is a selfish act, about the equation of motherhood with selflessness, and about my own decision to likely remain childless for my lifetime. Despite never having had children, I do try – hard – to sympathize with the position that it changes your perspective on a lot of things, and to allow for kinds of emotions, opinions and attitudes I just can’t understand. I really struggle, however, with the fact that I think that on the whole, having children in our culture tends to make people more selfish. Certainly, parents in general – and often, mothers in particular – are required/called upon to make certain kinds of sacrifices in their personal lives in order to meet their children’s needs. Incredible amounts of time, money, and energy go into ensuring that other people are clothed, housed, fed, and I know that a lot of what I do with my life would instantly become impossible if I were to have children.

When I say we encourage an increase in selfishness with parenthood, it’s largely because of way so many parents are inclined to fight for their own children at the expense of anything else. I’ve written before about how the self-sacrificing mother myth can be destructive because it creates a conflation of the mother with her children, making their actions inherently “all about her” because she has no other self left. This is somewhat similar, in that the children, or the family unit, become an extension of the self, and the “other” expands a little further into the “out there”.

A lot of this current thought is connected to some of those conversations I just don’t know how to have anymore, which are pretty good examples of what I’m talking about. There’s a woman I love very much, who I consider in many ways to be an extremely generous spirit, and who works extremely hard to take care of her family. When her children have health problems, if she isn’t able to get an appointment with an appropriate doctor, or even able to get answers to their test results, in a timely manner – say, within a couple of weeks – she gets extremely upset. More than once, I’ve heard her ask in frustration “Are we suddenly living in a third world country?”. The most upsetting of conversations with her, for me, revolve around a young girl who was sort of becoming friends with her older daughter (age 11) last year. The other little girl (also 11) has developed already, tends to wear revealing clothes, and, I think, will talk in sexual language. My friend doesn’t really want her daughter hanging out with this other young girl, and I can respect that. What I can’t respect is the way the other girl is talked about – the word ‘slut’ is studiously avoided in the presence of the local feminist, but the meaning is clear, and it goes without saying that she is ‘bad news’, a ‘bad influence’, ‘inappropriate’ etc. There’s not even any consideration of what the other girl may be thinking or feeling, she is not only marked as immoral, that immorality is automatically assumed to start and end with her.

I kind of go silent in these conversations – which, from me, fortunately, is in itself a statement, since I’m so rarely quiet. But how do I say, in response to the former comment, that really? You really refuse to recognize the privilege you’re working with, even compared to a lot of people in this country? The last time she said it, it was shortly after I had been listening to Stephen Lewis talk about the impact of the “brain drain” on HIV/AIDS in Africa, referencing the fact that in Namibia (I believe), a country of several million people, the exodus of locally born and educated doctors and health care professionals in search of better employment elsewhere has left the entire country served by only 93 doctors, including only 2 pediatricians.

If I do say something, not just with this one individual but with most parents, the response is generally that yes, it’s exaggerated, but the expectation is that I should understand how that desire to protect one’s children emerges. And on some level, I do, but I can’t help but notice how open-mindedness and tolerance, or a general belief in equal access to such human rights as health care in principle is much easier to throw out the window when children enter the equation than when only adults (one’s self and perhaps a partner) are at stake. Being a big skeptic about biological determinism and a quase-cultural anthropologist type, I don’t honestly know how much of this behaviour is “natural” and how much reflects the cultural prioritization of one’s own children as extensions of the self.

As usual, I want to be clear that I’m talking about what I perceive to be tendecies or pressures. I’m not universalizing this behaviour, I’m not criticizing all parents and I’m certainly not dismissing parenthood. My main suggestion is that there is a cultural push toward increased “selfishness” that is attached to parenting, one that is actually supported by the idea of “sacrifice” that creates a superficial mask of selflessness.

Because apparently I feel like being controversial in the morning.


16 thoughts on “More on Parenthood and Selfishness

  1. Sarah J says:

    Like you, I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how it feels. But I do see what you mean about the tendency to prioritize one’s own children and to see them as an extension of the self.

    I see an interesting connection to the obsession with Sarah Palin and Barack Obama’s young children. There were a lot of reasons to criticize Sarah Palin, but the idea that she would somehow be neglecting her duties as a mother by becoming vice-president bugged the crap out of me. And the long 60 Minutes conversation about the kids with the Obamas…well, I can see how yes, you don’t want to neglect your own family to help millions (it’s where the utilitarian argument fails, no?) but…

    So I don’t think you’re being controversial. Or at least, not deliberately. I think it’s worth thinking about the way we construct parenthood and family–and especially motherhood, since it tends to be the mother more than the father conflated with the children and expected to give up her self for the kids.

  2. Dw3t-Hthr says:

    Heh — me I’m perfectly aware that my desire to have children is selfish, and I can’t figure out how it wouldn’t be. I’m making people without ascertaining their consent first, after all; the fact that it’s impossible to do so doesn’t change the fact.

    I think a lot of people hide their own stuff behind their children — thwarted ambition, wish fulfillment, whatever else. It gets ugly in practice.

  3. purtek says:

    Sarah J – thanks, and I’m certainly not being controversial just for the hell of it. I think this shit is *true*, and I think it’s ugly.

    Dw3t-Hthr, that “hiding of self” side of the “mother as self-sacrificing” trope was, I think, the thing that got me started on really deconstructing these cultural conventions. It’s the theme of my first post on it, anyway, which I would dig up if I were less lazy.

    I never really got so far as thinking of it as “making people without their consent”, however. That both impresses and amuses me. 🙂

  4. I do not think that it is possible to survive in the world without a degree of selfishness. Whatever we decide to do – to have children or not to have them – will depend on many factors and foremost among these will be a degree of self-gratification.
    I don’t think this really matters. We are all human and our motivations are never unmixed – selfishness and altruism are more often companions than we care to admit.

  5. purtek says:

    Brian – I take your point about the inevitable presence of selfishness in human decision-making, though I’m maybe a bit reluctant to dismiss the idea that it’s worth interrogating and being critical about the level and impact of self interest in our actions. There’s a tone of resignation to the idea/role of selfishness in human motivations in your comment that I’m not quite willing to concede, I guess. It’s one of those assumptions of “conventional wisdom” that I worry can become inherently self-fulfilling…if we’re operating under the assumption that some degree of selfishness, even in altruism, is natural/human, it’s easy to slip into never bothering to really explore the possibility of unselfishness.

  6. I fully take your point about the danger of a self fulfilling prophecy leading to some sort of death of altruism but am more worried about the other conventional wisdom of saints and sinners, sheep and goats etc. In your post you make very valid points about the selfishness of parents. There is also, however, a selfishness in not parenting and thereby being able to enjoy many things unavailable to those who are looking after children.

    Which is not to say that either decision is selfish in and of itself, but simply that a degree of selfishness is present in all human decision making. As is a degree of altruism. The balance, of course, will vary from individual to individual and, in some, one of these contraries will appear to be dominant. Without some way of examining the human heart, however, it is generally impossible to determine for certain in any given individual what their true motivations are.

    I am not dismissing the worth of interrogating the level of self interest in decision-making – on the contrary, I am stressing its necessity for any individual. But such self- examinations must start, surely, from the recognition that what appears from the outside to be altruistic behaviour may be very gratifying to the self -image of the person who does it. Which does not mean that the act itself is unworthy, nor the actor, but just that she/he is human. There is huge danger to the individual and society when any such individual believes that they are acting from purely unselfish and altruistic motives. The twentieth century has provided many such examples but they stretch way back into the past.

  7. purtek says:

    Thanks, Brian – I definitely agree with what you’re saying in your response, and would never want to suggest that there’s some kind of simplistic rule by which “non-parent” can automatically be assumed to be “non-selfish” any more than “parent” can be. The need for examination of one’s level of self-interest on a case-by-case and highly personal basis is basically why I think it’s important to talk about our cultural conceptions of parenthood (and more particularly motherhood) as unselfish. As you say:

    There is huge danger to the individual and society when any such individual believes that they are acting from purely unselfish and altruistic motives.

    I think a lot of our discourse allows parents to believe that they are, in fact, doing this whenever they do anything for their children, and it can have incredibly destructive results. That said, it could be equally true of philanthropists, church-goers, volunteers, or any number of other categories that are supposedly characterized by altruism.

  8. Amber Rhea says:

    This is a great post and addresses some issues I’ve been thinking about and trying to articulate for a while now. I feel like since in a lot of cases I can’t quite find the right words, that I should just shut up and not write anything about it on my blog, because I will get attacked as being anti-mother or anti-child or something.

    I think you raise good points that show how we need a better analysis of what the words “selfish” and “selfless” mean. I’ll be linking!

  9. Amber Rhea says:

    I also agree w/ Brian that selfishness is necessary. I think far too many people use that word as an insult and really mean something else entirely. I do not think selfishness is a bad thing. You HAVE TO take care of yourself first.

  10. purtek says:

    Thanks Amber – link away! Like I said, I often find it challenging to emphasize that this isn’t about any kind of “anti child” or “anti parent” attitude for me, but something much more broad.

    Personally, I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say selfishness is not a bad thing. I agree with you that a certain amount of self-protectiveness and independence is necessary, but I’m more than a little reluctant to totally lose the value of “selfishness” as a word describing a problematic personality trait. With respect to “taking care of yourself first”, I don’t think we place enough emphasis in our culture on the way that community-based living *can be* a major component of “taking care of yourself”, so I’m cautious there, too.

  11. Amber Rhea says:

    Maybe it’s just because I have a lot of bad experience from my past where I was verbally abused and one of the words used against me most often was “selfish” – so I am verrrrry reluctant to accept the common definition of selfish as a bad thing. I have dealt with the effects of *not* taking care of myself for so long that, as a former therapist of mine put it, “You need to be a little selfish.”

  12. Amber Rhea says:

    …so, when someone uses “selfish” as an accusation, let’s just say a little red flag goes up for me.

  13. purtek says:

    Amber – actually, I can relate to *exactly* that experience, and I would say that it’s not rare for a therapist/support group to say those words to women who are trying to come to terms with recent/historical abuse. So I can appreciate your red flag, believe me. I just think those therapists are maybe misplacing their emphasis – the abusive use of the terms tends to insist that existing is an act of selfishness for women, that any attempt to be fully human is equated with the word. Personally, I think it’s more productive in the long run to talk about how actually, that’s just not selfish at all. In other words, while respecting the altogether too common need for women to be *allowed* to see themselves as valuable enough and deserving enough of self-care, I think that the better strategy is to emphasize what the real meaning of selfishness is and how it is not synonymous with self-care. Because in addition to being – to me – more accurate, as I’ve said before, I think there’s a need to retain an ability to call out legitimate selfishness as a destructive act.

  14. Amber Rhea says:

    I think we are talking about the same thing but just with different words. To me this is why it’s important to come to a common understanding of the definition of “selfish,” so when that word is used as an accusation everyone understands what exactly that means.

  15. I do not think selfishness is a bad thing. You HAVE TO take care of yourself first.

    To me this is why it’s important to come to a common understanding of the definition of “selfish,” so when that word is used as an accusation everyone understands what exactly that means.

    I think from me, the accusation of selfishness comes not when people look out for their own needs first (keeping oneself alive and sane is not selfish), but when they fail to recognise anyone (someone) else’s right to do the same. For example, the tendency to want only the “nice” versions of LGBT to be visible, and to suggest that the more “freaky” folks should just sit down and shut up so the rest can have what they want.

    And I think that (some) parents do behave in this way – their own children’s rights and existence are given greater value than anyone else’s.

  16. purtek says:

    SnowdropExplodes – well put, and total agreement over here. On the parenthood line of thinking, the selfish parent model would also extend to that thing I keep talking about whereby children are expected/pressured to be extensions of their parents’ wishes for their own lives, rather than actually autonomous human beings.

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