These past few years my life has been pretty stable. I have a job I enjoy more times than not; one that gives me a sense of meaning and achievement. I also have a fairly stable relationship with a person I love and respect. The “only” destabilising factors have been the birth of my son and the death of my grandmother. Both elicited strong emotional reactions, however it was only the birth of Johnny that generated feelings I did not anticipate, and surprisingly, cannot, to this day, identify.
The death of my grandmother was long-expected, albeit one with considerable impact as she was the matriarch of the family and also the only person (apart from my parents) with whom I could be brutally honest, without having the slightest reservation as to her unconditional love. She was my person, always by my side without ever sugarcoating the truth. Although her loss was difficult, it was managable – I knew what I was feeling and I could appreciate that time would make things better.
The birth of my son was also expected. However, although he was “planned,” my reaction to his birth was something I could never have anticipated. His mere presence generated feelings of overwhelming joy, which is highly unusual for me. The mere thought of this little baby was enough to make me smile. Initially, I attributed it to biology. This is what Sunshine taught me to do. As per the evolutionary theory, we are biologically (pre-)disposed to have positive feelings towards our offsprings in order to care for them until they can be self sufficient, thus enabling them to survive. This is necessary so that we don’t throw them out of the window the n-th time they wake up during the night.
But I don’t buy the evolutionary angle, meaning that although clearly a factor, “evolution” is not the answer to everything. I’m always suspicious of proclamations about human nature. Having spent quite a few years studying the classical liberals, I really doubt that we can find a definition of human nature that is not merely a reflection of our biases, experiences and upbringing. Which then begs the question: if we cannot attribute these positive feelings to biology, how can we explain the feelings generated by the arrival of a new baby?
Let me come clean. As I write this, I don’t have the answer. Let’s consider together a few answers that may explain why parenthood usually generates overwhelmingly positive and seemingly (but not really) irrational feelings. I won’t express any judgement when contemplating the possible reasons, but rather reflect upon them in the closing part.
Dependency. As humans we like to be needed. This is why parents long for the pre-teen years of their children before their offsprings raise walls during teenhood. This is also why parents experience the empty nest syndrome once their children depart for university or otherwise leave the home. Infants and babies are absolutely dependent on adults, without whom their survival is impossible. This is the perfect match. On the one hand it’s the baby who depends upon adults for their survival and on the other hand are the adults who gain personal value from the dependency. Can it be? Do we love our children because they make us feel… necessary and relevant?
We love ourselves. The child came from us and is therefore a part of ourselves. Parental love, according to this reading, is selfish love for oneself, with the child being considered an extension of ourselves and thus someone we love by default.
Focus and control of our life. We live busy lives in a chaotic world. An array of persons demand our attention, both at home and at work, and it’s often hard to prioritise and even decide between what needs to be done and what does not warrant the investment of our limited time. Many people, especially in advanced modern societies, get lost in the chaos of commitments. A child puts things into perspective and also creates a clear hierarchy, in which she or he is at the very top. This clear prioritisation, the deserved focus on the child’s needs, generates a sense of (being in) control. Do we then love our children because of this feeling? Do I really feel in control?
Control of others. Sometimes control over a child is the only control that we get to have. This is very troubling, but could it be one of the reasons why we display such affection towards our children? Because we can control them?
Proxy for unrealised dreams. People often see through their children an opportunity to achieve the things that they set out to achieve but never did, this time through someone else. Do parents love their children because they enable them to realise their own dreams through a proxy?
We love the role. Being a dad is an act in itself. It’s a new role in which we enter upon parenthood. Some people fall in love with that identity. They like the idea and the image of themselves as dads. I suppose this might be particularly relevant to those who grew up in societies where special value is placed on the traditional structures of family and kinship.
Overcome our mortality. The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom listed the fear of death as one of the most debilitating fears; one which can terrorise people. A child may help us overcome this fear, enabling a sense of continuity – we will continue to live through our offspring. Do we love our children because they help us overcome the fear of death?
A new start. When I first held him in my arms, I was mesmerised by the fact that this little dude had done absolutely nothing wrong (yet). Fresh starts are rare and incredibly difficult, and often come at a great cost. Watching a new beginning was inspiring and really made the whole experience more special than it already was. But surely the fact that we are witnessing a new beginning cannot be the reason we love our children.
I’m not sure which of the above applies to me. I don’t really feel any added value in the fact that Johnny depends on us for his survival. If anything, it is something that has caused me great anxiety, especially during the first months of his life. I also don’t get a kick from being in a position of authority over him. In fact, I worry whether I indeed create the conditions and the environment for him to be able to flourish through making autonomous choices. I also feel quite content with the choices I made, even though some where rather difficult, and although I have unfulfilled dreams, as most of us do, they are not ones I would want him to pursue. As it should be clear by now, I’m interested in raising a free person, not someone to fulfil my lost hopes. In the same vain, I don’t consider him a part of myself, but rather a person of his own, who will soon be challenging his dad. He did add some structure to my life, though I wouldn’t say that it was groundbreaking, seeing as I was already in control of my daily routine. And though I do feel proud of the identity of fatherhood, it is something that came months after Johnny’s birth, and certainly cannot explain the instant feeling of overwhelming joy I felt upon Johnny’s arrival.
What remains? Well, the last two, mostly the latter. I am very attracted to the idea of a new beginning, which can wash off all the ills of the past. A fresh start for him and also for me in my new-found role as a dad. The value I add to being a dad is not really related to any societal constructs, but rather to this pure idea of it being an opportunity to help a fellow human become independent and, hopefully, the best version of himself. In the process of trying to set a good example, while giving him space to develop, I may also become a better person (there’s quite a margin). This, I find very attractive – the opportunity for a clean slate, seeing as I’ve never done this before and thus I didn’t yet have the opportunity to fuck it up, or, to put it mildly, to attach to it the baggage that accompanies most other areas of our lives.
I do believe that we are the sum of our current habits and past experiences. The arrival of Johnny is something new, an opportunity to form new experiences and habits, the opportunity to become better by trying to become someone who he will, in the future – once he overcomes the default parental idolisation of childhood – admire and possibly aspire to surpass. The possibility of becoming a person whom someone admires and wants to match or even surpass is really the road to immortality.
I see Johnny not as the possibility to fulfil the dreams that I left unrealised, but rather an absolution of the choices I pursued, good and bad. A small shift, a slightly different trajectory may have led somewhere else, without Johnny. The arrival of Johnny suddenly settled all the what-ifs. If not this, then Johnny would not be around.
I realise that I may have spent 1,600 words for what is possibly a biological reaction. But there you have it, possible non-evolutionary reasons why one immediately falls for their children. Humans are complicated beings, and there’s a sense of selfishness in all of our decisions. The same goes for parenthood. But as we get the opportunity to validate our choices and boost our egos through our children, we also get the chance, this rare opportunity, to change someone’s life for the better, to offer life chances, to enable someone to make informed choices, and in the end, to enable them to become better than us, which is something that I know will generate immense joy for me.
This is part of a series of entries titled Fatherhood Diaries where I record thoughts on life as a new dad. Click here for all the Fatherhood Diaries.