Jan.22 | The most extraordinary thing in the world
Ordinary parenting won’t make it on to the cover of TIME, but it may be the most world-changing force there is.
Elon Musk is TIME’s Person of the Year, a visionary entrepreneur—and a prophet of civilisational doom. Last month, he told the Wall Street Journal: “There are not enough people. And I think one of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birthrate and the rapidly declining birthrate. ... If people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble. Mark my words.” Musk stands upon the pinnacle of the world yet recognises that all our civilisational achievements are ultimately dependent on the entirely ordinary phenomenon of family formation. I think he’s on to something, and to explain why I want to juxtapose his comments with a line attributed to GK Chesterton: “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” None of us average parents will ever attain Musk’s level of recognition, but what if the mundane yet transcendent experience of family, and especially of parenting, is not just the most significant thing most of us will ever do but is as world-changing, as important, as those occupations that our society exalts and enriches? What if changing the world starts with ordinary family life and its effects on children, parents, and on society itself?
My first career as a commercial lawyer was brief and mundane. I expended a fair amount of time, energy, and hope in ascending the glittering heights, literally and metaphorically, to work for a large and prestigious firm in the full expectation that my manifest destiny would unfold in that field. I left three and a half years later not just because there’s only so much insolvency practice a man’s soul can take before it becomes a blasted and withered husk, but because that professional culture was obviously incompatible with the type of family life I believed in. Since then, I’ve chosen career paths that have not only allowed but encouraged me to be an active and involved father. My paid employment has been meaningful and purpose-driven—in my own way, I’ve tried to make the world a better place through it. But I’ve also been struck by how difficult and uncertain all such efforts are compared to the absolute certainty that in our families we will inevitably change multiple worlds, for good or for ill.
Recently I chatted to a community worker who helps at-risk youth and asked him what he noticed about the kids he works with. His instant answer: “They have no dads.” Parents shape their children by their absence as well as by their presence, in a few big moments but mostly in the accretion of small, daily activities, contributing to a family culture and a worldview that will be passed down through generations. And, as every parent knows, your children shape you as much as you shape them, whether by proving to you that you can do more than you thought you could on less sleep than you thought you needed, or by providing experiences of euphoria, of joy, of deep contentment.
Perhaps most extraordinarily, parenting is an extended education in what it means to love. To love is “to actively will the good of another”, said Thomas Aquinas. It means choosing to put others first, to attend to their needs and interests before your own. Parenting is an extended series of invitations to love in this way, because it’s an extended revelation of how self-centred we naturally are coupled with an inexhaustible supply of opportunities to lay aside our selfishness. This will irrevocably reshape your soul and make you a kinder, gentler, more patient and more considerate person—if you let it.
Of course, parenting isn’t all teeth-gritted self-improvement, and it’s not a one-way street. Your children become people to joke with, play Scrabble with, run with, share music with, be yourself with. You receive from your children as well as giving to them—the pleasure of shared interests and stimulating conversations, the creation of shared experiences and memories, the very fabric of a satisfying life. So why do we see a steady procession of headlines proclaiming that parents are less happy than their childless counterparts, like the this Stuff article, “The Parenting Trap: Why child-free people are happier”?
The relationship between parenting and happiness is more complicated than headlines like that one suggest. Some parents find their happiness increases. Single parents are more likely to experience a drop in happiness than a couple, and a lot depends on social circumstances and support like parental leave policies. More fundamentally, there’s a philosophical question about what happiness means. What each of us regards as happiness depends a lot on our personal desires which, in turn, are trained by the choices we make. None of us can imagine what it’s like to be a parent until it actually happens to us and while it takes everything you’ve got, you’d never go back. And then there’s deeper question about whether happiness is even the right pursuit. Contentment, satisfaction, joy, sacrifice, love—these virtues, supplied in abundance by parenting, are arguably more important for a meaningful life than shallower and ephemeral concepts of happiness.
Perhaps inevitably, there’s also a debate about whether parenting helps or hinders the pursuit of a meaningful life even if it’s conceived in these deeper terms. In a recent prominent article, “The Myth of the Man-child”, author Janan Ganesh argues for the self-actualising virtues of single life:
If you seldom have to do anything that doesn’t reflect your exact desires in the moment … you become ever less tolerant of such claims on your time. And so, inverting the usual order of things, I am more selfish at 39 than I was at 24. But self-regard is not the same as silliness. … it is often a bid for a more, not a less serious life.
Maybe the point of life is to be self-centred, rather than other-centred. (“There is no greater feat of self-control than walking away from a happy romance because it hampers other callings in life,” says Ganesh.) Elsewhere, childless men and women are opting for sterilisation in their 30s, 20s, or even their teens as part of a child-free or anti-natalist movement. A recent Pew Research survey found that nearly half of all non-parents in the US are unlikely to have children, most of them because “they just don’t want to”. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste, this question of whether to reproduce or whether to pursue maximal freedom, unencumbered autonomy. Or perhaps not.
Personal choices can have social consequences, and it’s hard to think of a better example of this than family formation and parenting. Whether it’s better to be self-centred or other-centred, or whether they’re equivalent choices, is a moral question with profound implications. It’s hard to imagine a society composed of people like Ganesh, not least because it wouldn’t be a society but a random assortment of individuals. At the heart of social questions like these is a debate about whether we are independent or interdependent. It’s a debate about whether we should act, like Ganesh, as though we owed nothing to anyone and as though our choices had consequences only for ourselves. This, I think, is fairly obviously wrong. The truth is expressed by the writer Mary Harrington: “Interdependence is a defining feature of motherhood, from gestation onward. Family life is the archetypal template for those ways in which, as humans, we thrive when we belong to one another.” There are no better schools than our families for the reality and importance of mutual dependence and this lesson, coupled with lessons in radical and sacrificial love, are aggregated and amplified into the conditions that make a good society possible. We simply cannot do without them.
But in New Zealand, as in much of the West, a declining birth rate means we’re increasingly missing out on these lessons. I’ve written previously about the figures from Stats NZ which show that our fertility rate is down to 1.61 live births per woman. This is where Musk’s concerns about our civilisation’s trajectory are particularly relevant. Although on one reading he’s focused more on labour supply issues than on moral formation, there’s a common conclusion to be drawn: if family formation and parenting are critical for our development as people and our functioning as a society, then we should be worried about the consequences of a rapidly declining birth rate and we should be asking about its causes.
One of those causes may be the contraceptive effect of children’s car seats. In a 2020 working paper, two US academics examined the effect of car seats on couples’ decisions about whether to have a third child. As you’ll know if you’ve attempted the Herculean task of installing the modern car seat, they are bulky and unwieldy; virtually no ordinary car will fit three of them across the back seat. So having a third child often would mean buying a different car and that potential outlay, say the academics, has a prophylactic effect. They estimate that: “In 2017 … car seat laws lead to a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births” while “preventing only 57 fatalities of children below age eight”. A law intended to safeguard children’s existence may prevent it. As the writer Ross Douthat points out, this study is emblematic of the series of policy and economic nudges which restrain the actualisation of potential children, like rising house prices, the cost of education, and lifestyle aspirations. He says these nudges and a set of cultural bludgeons—“the alienation of the sexes from one another,” prosperity, and secularisation—are driving the birth rate below the 2.5 births that American parents want to the 1.7 children they actually have.
Not all of us will be parents, but these trends also mean that overall and over time there will be fewer opportunities to experience the other person- and society-shaping dimensions of family life. One of my most formative experiences was watching my grandmother and parents care for my grandfather in the last few years of his life. They met his practical needs and enabled him to live in his own home until the end of his life; but more than that, they cherished his presence in our family and by their actions affirmed his inherent dignity even as his horizons shrank. We are all someone’s child, and these intergenerational relationships offer each of us the opportunity to learn and practice the self-giving love on which so much else depends. So does the institution of marriage, whether or not children are present, if we can reimagine what marriage is. Here’s Harrington again: “The twentieth century grew used to thinking about marriage as a vector for self-fulfilment. The twenty-first needs to re-imagine marriage as the enabling condition for radical solidarity between the sexes.”
Family life asks us to see ourselves as part of something bigger than we are, linked by obligations which are unchosen in an important sense. We may choose to have a child, but we don’t choose the particular child we have. We choose to marry a particular person, but we don’t know what the marriage will require of us in the decades ahead—in sickness, health, riches or poverty. In a world that believes that to choose is the essence of being human, embracing these unchosen obligations is, as Harrington says, “an act of resistance to overwhelming economic, cultural and political pressure to be lone atoms in a market.” And because this resistance both encourages sacrificial love and aligns with the reality that we are interdependent social animals, we are all better for it.
That goes for our leaders too, for those who find themselves in elite positions of influence, even for the exalted Elon Musks of the world. Learning to love sacrificially is what fits us for leadership and makes us worthy of it, just as it fits us for society and helps us grow into the best possible version of ourselves. The average parent might not make it onto the cover of TIME, but the mundane realities of family life are the training ground in service and sacrifice that we all need.