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The Folly of Parenthood

Sam Vaknin

Many (children) continue to live with their parents into their thirties and consume the family's savings in college tuition, sumptuous weddings, expensive divorces, and parasitic habits.

The advent of cloning, surrogate motherhood, and the donation of gametes and sperm have shaken the traditional biological definition of parenthood to its foundations. The social roles of parents have similarly been recast by the decline of the nuclear family and the surge of alternative household formats. In this day and age why do people become parents in the first place?

Raising children comprises equal measures of satisfaction and frustration. Parents often employ a psychological defense mechanism, known as "cognitive dissonance", to suppress the negative aspects of parenting and to deny the unpalatable fact that raising children is time consuming, exhausting, and strains otherwise pleasurable and tranquil relationships to their limits. Not to mention the fact that the gestational mother experiences "considerable discomfort, effort, and risk in the course of pregnancy and childbirth" (Narayan, U., and J.J. Bartkowiak (1999) Having and Raising Children: Unconventional Families, Hard Choices, and the Social Good University Park, PA, The Pennsylvania State University Press, quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Parenting has become possibly an irrational vocation, but humanity keeps breeding and procreating. It may well be the call of nature. All living species reproduce and most of them parent. Is maternity (and paternity) proof that, beneath the ephemeral veneer of civilization, we are still merely a kind of beast, subject to the impulses and hard-wired behavior that permeate the rest of the animal kingdom?

In his seminal tome, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggested that we copulate in order to preserve our genetic material by embedding it in the future gene pool. Survival itself — whether in the form of DNA, or, on a higher-level, as a species — determines our parenting instinct. Breeding and nurturing the young are mere safe conduct mechanisms, handing the precious cargo of genetics down generations of "organic containers".

Yet surely, to ignore the epistemological and emotional realities of parenthood is misleadingly reductionistic. Moreover, Dawkins commits the scientific faux-pas of teleology. Nature has no purpose "in mind", mainly because it has no mind. Things simply are, period. That genes end up being forwarded in time does not entail that Nature (or, for that matter, "God") planned it this way. Arguments from design have long, and convincingly, been refuted by countless philosophers. Still, human beings do act intentionally. So we're back to square one: why bring children to the world and burden ourselves with decades of commitment to perfect strangers?

First hypothesis: offspring allow us to "delay" death. Our progeny are the medium through which our genetic material is propagated and immortalized. Additionally, by remembering us, our children "keep us alive" after physical death. These, of course, are self-delusional, self-serving, illusions. Our genetic material gets diluted with time; while it constitutes 50% of the first generation, it amounts to a measly 6% three generations later. If the everlastingness of one's unadulterated DNA was the paramount concern, then incest would have been the norm. As for one's enduring memory, well, do you recall or can you name your maternal or paternal great great grandfather? Of course you can't. So much for that. Intellectual feats or architectural monuments are far more potent mementos than genetic inheritance.

Still, we have been so well-indoctrinated that this misconception — that having children equals a sort of immortality — yields a baby boom in each post war period. Having been existentially threatened, people multiply in the vain belief that they thus best protect their genetic heritage and their memory through procreation. Let's study another explanation.

The utilitarian view is that one's offspring are an asset: kind of pension plan and insurance policy rolled into one. Children are still treated as a yielding property in many parts of the world. They plough fields and do menial jobs very effectively. People "hedge their bets" by bringing multiple copies of themselves to the world. Indeed, as infant mortality plunges, at least in the better-educated, higher income parts of the world, so does fecundity.

In the Western world, though, children have long ceased to be a profitable proposition. At present, they are more of an economic drag and a liability. Many continue to live with their parents into their thirties and consume the family's savings in college tuition, sumptuous weddings, expensive divorces, and parasitic habits. Alternatively, increasing mobility breaks families apart at an early stage. Either way, children are no longer the founts of emotional sustenance and monetary support they allegedly used to be.

How about this one then: procreation serves to preserve the cohesiveness of the family nucleus. It further bonds father to mother and strengthens the ties between siblings. Or is it the other way around, and a cohesive and warm family is conductive to reproduction? Both statements, alas, are false.

Stable and functional families sport far fewer children than abnormal or dysfunctional ones. Between one-third and one-half of all children are born in single parent or in other non-traditional, non-nuclear (typically poor and under-educated) households. In such families children are mostly born unwanted and unwelcome: they are the sad outcomes of accidents and mishaps, wrong fertility planning, lust gone awry and misguided turns of events.

The more sexually active people are and the less safe their desirous exploits, the more they are likely to end up with a "bundle of joy" (the American saccharine expression for a newborn). Many children are the results of sexual ignorance, bad timing, and a vigorous and undisciplined sexual drive among teenagers, the poor, and the less educated.

Still, there is no denying that most people want their kids and love them. They are attached to them and experience grief and bereavement when they die, depart, or are sick. Most parents find parenthood emotionally fulfilling, happiness-inducing, and highly satisfying. This pertains even to unplanned and initially unwanted new arrivals. Could this be the missing link? Do fatherhood and motherhood revolve around self-gratification? Does it all boil down to the pleasure principle?

Childrearing may, indeed, be habit forming. Nine months of pregnancy and a host of social positive reinforcements and expectations condition the parents to do the job. Still, a living tot is nothing like the abstract concept. Babies cry, soil themselves and their environment, stink, and severely disrupt the lives of their parents. It seems that nothing is too enticing, here.

Indeed, one's spawns are a risky venture. So many things can and do go wrong. So few expectations, wishes, and dreams are realized. So much pain is inflicted on the parents. And then the child runs off and his procreators are left to face the "empty nest". The emotional "returns" on a child are rarely commensurate with the magnitude of the investment.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes; if you eliminate impossible explanations as to why people multiply, what is left, however improbably, must be the truth. People multiply because it provides them with narcissistic supply. A narcissist is a person who projects a (false) image unto others and uses the interest this generates to regulate a labile and grandiose sense of self-worth. The reactions garnered by the narcissist — attention, unconditional acceptance, adulation, admiration, affirmation — are collectively known as "narcissistic supply". The narcissist objectifies people and treats them as mere instruments of gratification.

Infants go through a phase of unbridled fantasy, tyrannical behavior, and perceived omnipotence. An adult narcissist, in other words, is still stuck in his "terrible twos" and is possessed with the emotional maturity of a toddler. To some degree, we are all narcissists. Yet, as we grow, we learn to empathize and to love ourselves and others. This edifice of maturity is severely tested by newfound parenthood.

Babies evoke in the parent the most primordial drives, protective, animalistic instincts, the desire to merge with the newborn and a sense of terror generated by such a desire (a fear of vanishing and of being assimilated). Neonates engender in their parents an emotional regression. The parents find themselves revisiting their own childhood even as they are caring for the newborn. The crumbling of decades and layers of personal growth is accompanied by a resurgence of the aforementioned early infancy narcissistic defenses. Parents, especially new ones, are gradually transformed into narcissists by this encounter and find in their children the perfect sources of narcissistic supply, euphemistically known as love. Really it is a form of symbiotic codependence of both parties.

Even the most balanced, most mature, most psychodynamically stable of parents finds such a flood of narcissistic supply irresistible and addictive. It enhances his or her self-confidence, buttresses self-esteem, regulates the sense of self-worth, and projects a complimentary image of the parent to himself or herself. It fast becomes indispensable, especially in the emotionally vulnerable position in which the parent finds herself, with the reawakening and repetition of all the unresolved conflicts that she had with her own parents.

If this theory is true, if breeding is merely about securing prime quality narcissistic supply, then the higher the self-confidence, the self-esteem, and the self-worth of the parent, the clearer and more realistic his self-image, and the more abundant his other sources of narcissistic supply, then the fewer children he will have. These predictions are borne out by reality.

The higher the education and the income of adults — and, consequently, the firmer their sense of self worth — the fewer children they have. Children are perceived as counter-productive: not only is their output (narcissistic supply) redundant, they hinder the parent's professional and pecuniary progress. The more children people can economically afford, the fewer they have. This gives the lie to the Selfish Gene hypothesis. The more educated they are, the more they know about the world and about themselves, the less they seek to procreate. The more advanced the civilization, the more efforts it invests in preventing the birth of children. Contraceptives, family planning, and abortions are typical of affluent, well-informed societies.

The more plentiful the narcissistic supply afforded by other sources, the lesser the emphasis on breeding. Freud described the mechanism of sublimation: the sex drive, the Eros (libido), can be "converted", "sublimated" into other activities. All the sublimatory channels — politics and art, for instance — are narcissistic and yield narcissistic supply. They render children superfluous. Creative people have fewer children than the average, or none at all. This is because they are narcissistically self-sufficient.

The key to our determination to have children is our wish to experience the same unconditional love that we received from our mothers; this intoxicating feeling of being adored without caveats, for what we are, with no limits, reservations, or calculations. This is the most powerful, crystallized form of narcissistic supply. It nourishes our self-love, self-worth and self-confidence. It infuses us with feelings of omnipotence and omniscience. In these, and other respects, parenthood is a return to infancy.

* * * *

Suggested Reading by the same author
Narcissism at a Glance
Beware the Children
The Narcissist's Mother
Born Alien
The Development of Narcissists and Schizoids




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