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The Meaning of Life

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Can a Life of Child-rearing Be Meaningful?

Sarah Conly on devoting one’s life to another.

For hundreds of years the focus of women’s lives has been child-rearing. Since the identification of women as (mere) mothers has been linked to their second-class social status, earlier feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan decried homemaking and child-rearing as a life focus, and encouraged the entry of women into the world of paid, professional work. More contemporary authors, however, have argued that this dismissal in fact reflected a male bias; that while women should not be forced into a life of domesticity, the choice of child-rearing over work outside the home was a perfectly respectable one. Child-rearing, they believe, can make for just as meaningful a life as any other activity. If a meaningful life has, as has been popularly argued, a narrative structure, with a well-defined progression in stages through beginning, middle, end; with a clearly understandable goal, a telos, integral to the activity; with virtues of character defined by their role in reaching this telos, child-rearing has them. The value of the activity is clear, and the product – a healthy, happy, well-adjusted child, competent to enter adulthood, is valuable to the child, the parent, and to society in general.

And yet, while child-rearing is a life which has accepted value, and which makes sense to others and to the person who lives it, it doesn’t seem to interest us. It’s not just that other parents’ stories about their children don’t interest us – people aren’t very good narrators, and other people’s children, on short acquaintance, often seem either obnoxiously pert or blank-eyed dullards. If we look at fictional narratives, where the quality of narrative is high and deficits of character may be swept away, we don’t find narratives about women as child-rearers. No one seems to want to hear about it. If a life of child-rearing is meaningful, why does it seem to be so dull? Shouldn’t the story of a meaningful life be capable of engaging our interest?

It cannot be that child-rearing is so common that we don’t need to read about it, or watch movies about it. Stories about love seem capable of engaging people over and over again, yet falling in love is even more common than raising a child. It’s not just that child-rearing doesn’t appeal to males, because love stories appeal predominantly to women, and yet are perennially popular. It’s not that we don’t want to read about children: stories about growing up, both fictional stories and autobiographical tales of childhood, are extremely popular. It’s not that we don’t want to read about women – women as protagonists in books, at least, are so popular that the number of women detectives, police officers, etc., is hard to keep track of, in addition to women in the traditional role of she who pursues and finds love. Nor is it that we are just prejudiced against traditional female activities, although this may play some role; although narratives about women raising children are few to non-existent, popular narratives about men raising children are growing. Many of these are comical movies about men who must confront the unknown (changing a diaper) but some (like Kramer v. Kramer) are relatively serious works which try to show the growth of character and discovery of values raising children affords.

So what’s the problem? Why don’t women as child-rearers engage our interest? It seems to be because the narrative of your life should be about you, and the narrative of the mother seems by the nature of the caregiving activity to be about someone else – the child. The story of your life becomes the story of another person’s progress, and your contributions to it. While the mother is causally important, she is narratively incidental, and it is impossible to focus on the narrative of the mother when her focus is on the narrative of another person.

Many lives of beneficence, where a person is focused on the good of others, do seem meaningful, it must be admitted. Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, or Florence Nightingale, are none of them names that conjure up lives of meaningless, self-less drudgery, no matter how much they may have sacrificed for others. The difference may be that in these cases we do not imagine that the benefactor sacrificed his selfhood to the service of some other individual. Rather, theirs was the pursuit of an impersonal good – the good of people, generally, or even of a certain people. Their loyalty is to a cause, rather than to the cultivation of another’s traits and talents at the expense of their own. Their narrative is about themselves and the achievements of their aims, not about them as spear-carrier in someone else’s drama.

The live of child-rearing, on the other hand, seems too like a life we have already come to reject as lacking in self-hood – the life of the wife who is a handmaiden to her husband. Of course, there are differences. Children really do need help, in a way that husbands of normal capacity do not, and children of one’s own are one’s responsibility, in a way that a spouse is not. Nor does it reflect on a child’s character that he should want the attention and aid of his parent; these are necessary to his development, where the desire of a husband for his wife’s caretaking bespeaks narcissism rather than need. The two cases are similar, though, in that a mother whose life narrative is exclusively that of child-rearing has subsumed herself to another in a way which diminishes her own selfhood.

This is not to say child-rearing is a bad activity. The reason, I think that we like child-rearing narratives which focus on men as parents is that in their case we see it as a healthy, elucidating addendum to a life which generally has another focus. We don’t imagine that these men will think of themselves as child-rearers exclusively, but see child-rearing as a part of their lives. Childrearing is great, after all, a source of joy, of insight, and of fun. It’s just that we need the plot of our lives to revolve primarily around ourselves. Nor does this show that child-rearing is worse than many other activities which becomes the focus of our lives. There are lots of jobs which are destructive of the self and don’t have the benefits of child-rearing. If it comes to building my life around a job in telephone sales or raising a child I would certainly choose the raising of the child. It’s just that neither of these are good choices for an overall life’s focus. We want a life which places ourself at the centre of its story, and where the development and growth are our own, for that life to be meaningful.

© Sarah Conly 1999

Sarah Conly teaches philosophy at Bates College. Her hobbies are karate and sea-kayaking.

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