Baby-Induced Depression, Aristotle and Me: A Reply to Amy Glass

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ – Marcel Proust

     There’s an article that’s been sweeping the net for the past month or so by a woman named Amy Glass, called ‘I Look Down on Women with Husbands and Children and I’m Not Sorry’ (I’ve provided the link at the bottom of this post).  Here are some of her arguments:

‘Do people really think that a stay at home mom is really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself? There’s no way those two things are the same.’

‘These aren’t accomplishments, they are actually super easy tasks, literally anyone can do them. They are the most common thing, ever, in the history of the world. They are, by definition, average. And here’s the thing, why on earth are we settling for average?’

‘If women can do anything, why are we still content with applauding them for doing nothing?’   

‘You will never have the time, energy, freedom or mobility to be exceptional if you have a husband and kids.’

In one way, these provocative comments aren’t worth our attention.  On the other hand, I still think it’s important for parents to defend themselves against this kind of criticism.

Frankly, Ms. Glass has articulated a view that is shared by many in our society:  looking after children is ‘nothing’.  Or, it’s ‘something’, but not a very valuable ‘something’.

Sadly, this is a view which even I myself have had in the past.  It took a good, prolonged case of post-natal depression after my first child was born for me to understand that I did not value the huge effort it was taking to raise my child.

The key to overcoming that depression was to change my whole mindset about what was important and what was not.  As I tried to do that, I started to see our culture in a way I had not seen it before.  The idea that looking after children was ‘nothing’ was much more prevalent than I had noticed previously.   In fact, I started to realize that it was implicit even in some of the great philosophies upon which our modern, western societies have been built.

The best way to explain more about how I came to this realization – that some of our society’s formative philosophies do not value parenthood – is to tell the story of what happened to me, both emotionally and intellectually, when I became a mother.

Before I had children, my husband and I were students at the University of Cambridge.  When I got pregnant half-way through my PhD studies, I believed deep down that bringing a child into the world was going to be ‘nothing’.  So many people do it, how hard could it be?   I would be able to carry on with my life pursuits in pretty much the same way after the baby was born.  And I got the impression from my fellow academics that they thought along these lines as well:  having a baby was OK, as long as it didn’t change anything –that is, as long as it was ‘nothing’.

During my pre-baby PhD studies, I especially loved political philosophy.  In Cambridge at that time there were a group of scholars who were interested in the origins of what is known as ‘liberalism’.  Liberalism (not to be confused with the way we use the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ to describe our current day political ideologies) is a political philosophy which espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty. It is considered by many to have its origins in the 17th century philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  It has different varieties, but a concept that is common among many of them is the idea that human beings are ‘prior’ to the state.  Humans possess certain ‘natural rights’ which they have simply in virtue of being human, independently of the state.  These rights include (depending on the philosopher) things like the right to live, the right to liberty, and the right to acquire property.

One implication of such an idea is that the primary purpose of the state is to protect these rights.  Liberal theorists argue that human beings, using their powers of reason, came together and consented with one another to form the state, because they could see that they would be better able to exercise their rights and freedom within the protective framework of the law.

I was passionate about freedom and rights, and I was fascinated by how these ideas developed in our culture.  I spent my time going to lectures, and thinking and writing deep thoughts in a very big library about what it meant for a human being to have a ‘right’,  to be ‘free’, to have ‘reason’, and what it meant to create a state by ‘consent’.  I felt free, and it was bliss.

When my daughter was born, I went into what could best be described as a state of shock.  I simply hadn’t understood how radically my life would change with parenthood.  I had lost my time, energy, mobility, and most importantly, my freedom.  I started to slip into depression.

The flip side of depression is anger, and indeed, at this time I also started to feel very angry.  I wasn’t angry at my baby – I was angry at the message that raising a child was ‘nothing’, that motherhood was an inferior role taken on by inferior people, that it was OK to be a mother only if you could do it without having to sacrifice anything.  If this was nothing, then why was it the most challenging thing I had ever done?

My thought process went something like this: ‘Why is having a child only OK if it affects nothing else in one’s life?  I have a human being here.  Losing my time, energy, mobility and freedom are the sacrifices required to raise a human being.  If I don’t raise this human being, I will have to pay someone else to do it for me.  But why should I value their efforts toward my child, when I don’t value my own?  What is valuable about raising this person?  What is valuable about raising any person?’

I didn’t have time to attend many lectures anymore, or even to sit in the library for hours on end.  Those were luxuries I could afford now only in very small amounts.

When I did attend lectures, however, they didn’t seem relevant to me in the same way as before.  I would sit and listen to graduate students and academics who I knew didn’t have any children talk about freedom and rights.  Yet, now that I had been inducted into parenthood, I started to view human beings with different eyes.  It started to seem like something was missing from these academic discussions.  It’s important to talk about freedom and rights for human beings, but did any of these people know how much work it was to raise a human being?  Surely freedom becomes meaningful when we can choose a certain way of life, and we can only exercise our choice when we are rational enough to have a conception of what is good in life.  Yet, we don’t automatically develop our reasoning about what is good.  We are taught to develop this reasoning by those who raise us, and that takes a lot of sweat and tears.  But there was no mention in these political philosophy lectures of family or parenthood.

In the same way, I found that something was missing from the great liberal texts that I once enjoyed reading.  They didn’t seem to be talking to me anymore.  They were talking to ‘man’ – a single entity who thought and acted only for himself, a human being who had no life-altering commitments to another human being.   I wanted the liberal texts to tell me how important my new, all-consuming job as a parent was – but it wasn’t there.  Suddenly as a parent I felt shut out of these political discussions of freedom and rights – like I was on the outside, looking in.  The focus in liberalism was all on the freedom that the individual enjoys as a rational, fully developed adult.  There was no mention of how the individual comes develop his rationality.  That part, and this is extremely important, was taken for granted.

That’s when it began to dawn on me:   In our society, we value ‘the individual’.  We value individual rights and individual freedom.  Yet, we do not seem to value the process of raising ‘the individual’.  We seem to think that will happen naturally, without much thought or effort on the part of anyone.  So, we do not value ‘the individuals’ who raise ‘the individual’.  Those of us who raise ‘the individual’ are invisible, unimportant.  This is what I call the ‘liberal paradox’.

All this happened nearly 16 years ago.  I’ve studied a lot more philosophy since then, and I am happy to say that it’s not all bad – there are philosophers who do not take for granted the process of raising a child.  For me, Aristotle stands out as one of these philosophers.  The more I read Aristotle as a parent, the more I appreciate him.  Liberalism focuses on the freedom that human beings should have to pursue what they want, but Aristotle focuses on what is good for human beings to pursue.  He is interested in how human beings become rational enough to know what is good.  And he believes that how a person is raised makes all the difference to her ability to reason about what is good and what is bad.  For Aristotle, childhood matters.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am still passionate about freedom and rights, and in that way I am sympathetic to liberalism.  But I am vexed by the ‘liberal paradox’.  I think we’re deluding ourselves if we emphasize the importance of freedom, rights, consent, etc. and then ignore or belittle the importance of parenting.  The law may give us political freedom, but our ability to use that freedom and how we will use it is affected hugely by our upbringing.

So, parenting is not ‘nothing’.  On the contrary, the efficacy of our western values of freedom and rights rest upon people who try to do it properly.  So, when women – or men – choose to stay home to do it, we must open our eyes and recognize our indebtedness to them.

On Creating Virtuous Children Who Love to Do Housework and Other Good Things

     A few months ago, I gathered all my six children around me and tried to have a positive discussion about the concept of honoring one’s parents.

‘So, what do you all think it means to honor your parents?’, I asked.

‘It means we have to do what you say, O holy one,’ the first teenager sullenly remarked.

‘It means we have no rights,’ murmured the second teenager.

      The discussion more or less went downhill from there, as I tried to repackage the concept which my teenagers had so negatively, but nevertheless – to my mind – correctly, expressed.  In essence, I tried to explain very sweetly, but firmly (think smiling whilst talking through clenched teeth), that yes, at this stage in my children’s lives, honoring us as parents does mean doing what we say.  It means understanding that the parents are in charge, not the children.

    The teenagers weren’t very happy after that discussion.  Although as a mother I am instinctually anxious when any of my children are unhappy, I found refuge from their unhappiness in Aristotle’s belief that childhood is an absolutely crucial time for the development of a person’s virtue.   According to Aristotle, children will not grow up to be good people if they are left to their own devices when they are young.  They must be guided by an ‘external reason’ – that is, by people whose reason is fully matured – while their own reason develops.  Thus, the importance of honoring one’s parents.

Aristotle on the Development of Virtue

     Recall that for Aristotle, the virtuous person is the one who can identify what is truly good, and who also desires what is truly good.  The rational and irrational parts of his soul are integrated, because he wants to do what he knows is right.

     Now, it’s fairly easy to explain what virtue is; what is hard is actually becoming virtuous – that is, getting to the point where reason and passion are aligned.  Developing into a virtuous person is a process, and that process includes learning to understand what is good, and learning to love what is good.  However, Aristotle thinks that these two aspects of developing virtue happen at different times.  We must first be taught to love what is good, and the ideal time for this teaching is childhood.  Our understanding of why something is good will then come later, when we are more mature.

     So, how do we teach our children to love what is good?  It is a matter of ‘training’ a child’s desires and passions to be directed toward the right things.  Aristotle sees a close connection between our passions and our actions.  Our passions affect our actions, to be sure.  For instance, if we feel anger, we may shout, say hurtful things, maybe even become violent; if we feel fearful, we may run away, etc.  But there is also a way in which our actions can affect our passions.  If we repeatedly act in a certain way, our passions will eventually become ‘trained’ such that we want to act in that way.

Practice Makes Perfect

     In this way, Aristotle thinks that developing into a virtuous person is one of those things that requires practice.  That is, we have to practice being virtuous before we become virtuous. He often compares developing the virtues to a skill, like playing an instrument or building.  These are things that ‘we have to learn before we can do them,’ but the only way that we can learn them is by doing them.  So, for instance, he says that we become ‘just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts’, and so forth.  As we act in good ways, our passions will become habituated toward these good actions, and this is an essential step in learning how to love doing what is good.

     Although I don’t agree with Aristotle on everything, I have to say that, based on my own parenting experiences, this idea about how to develop good character traits makes sense.  As human beings, we do develop characteristics from acting in a certain way, over and over again, whether for good or for bad.  For instance, from the time my first child was very young, she has always been energetic, fun loving, extremely demanding, and naughty.  Although I could barely cope with these traits when she was a toddler, the older she got, the more difficult it was for me to not lose my temper when she behaved badly.  Whenever I lost my temper, I found that the next time she was naughty, it was harder for me to control my temper.  I soon found that I had developed a habit of responding in anger whenever she misbehaved.

     Of course, that’s an example of me as an adult developing a vice, and I want to discuss here how children develop virtues, but Aristotle’s principle of practice and repetition is exactly the same in both cases.  He says that ‘it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed’, which means that practice can both produce and destroy virtue:  practicing good behavior creates virtue, practicing bad behavior creates vice. 

     So, if we want our children to develop the virtue of responsibility – manifested by understanding that housework is part of contributing to the common good of the family – then they must practice doing housework by doing daily chores, etc.  If we want them to develop the vices of irresponsibility and selfishness, then they must practice shirking work and running away whenever you hand them a broom or a sponge (on reflection, this happens rather frequently in our house).  For Aristotle, our actions determine what kind of person we will become.

     So, says Aristotle, our little developing human beings have need of a teacher, who can help them practice how to act in the right way.  In my view, this is our role as parents.  Of course, other adults in schools, clubs, sports teams, churches etc. can help, but I think that as parents we are the ones primarily responsible for ensuring that our children ‘practice’ being good.

The Development of Virtue:  Aristotle’s Theory, and Reality

     Now, again, it’s one thing to say that parents have the responsibility to help their children practice good behavior, but putting that into action is a completely different thing. As I’ve talked about in several entries in this blog, my experience is that children often are not the willing recipients of parental direction.  They do not necessarily act in the way that a parent shows them how to act.  I find that they usually run circles around me, responding in a whiny and belligerent way whenever I encourage them to do something that will help them develop virtuous habits.   So, how on earth do you train children to become virtuous?

     I can’t turn to Aristotle here, because we have explored the essence of what he says we must do to raise virtuous human beings.  He tells us that we must have them do just acts to become just, but that doesn’t really tell us how we get our willful children to actually do a just act.

     However, consider this example.  Several years ago, my two oldest children started studying violin with a teacher who employed the approach of the Japanese musician and teacher, Shinichi Suzuki.  At the time I had four children and was pregnant with my fifth.  I was always exhausted, always overwhelmed, always feeling like all I could do was cope from day to day.  My children were children, which means they were loud, restless, difficult, and only reluctantly obedient at the best of times.  I tried my best to teach them to do the right thing, but that often involved bribing, and sometimes shouting.

     When I walked into that first Suzuki lesson, I came out a different person, and a better parent.  I had never seen someone deal so positively, yet so effectively with my children.  The teacher seemed to ‘love’ my children into doing what she asked.  During each lesson, she would teach them a new skill or technique, and then praise them for trying to copy her.  When she listened to them play, she always praised them over and over for what they did well.  She always looked for the good in what they did, and built on that, rather than criticize them for what they were doing wrong.  It was as if by ignoring the wrong things they were doing, and praising the right things, she was getting them to focus on and repeat good actions.  They wanted to repeat the things for which she was praising them.  That repetition allowed them to form good habits.

     I loved going to those lessons.  I loved learning from someone else how to help my children develop good habits by handling them with love, at a time when I really wasn’t sure how to do it anymore.    

     So, back to the question of how we train our children’s characters so that they become virtuous:  I don’t have a lot of answers, but my hunch is that it has to be done with love.  Remember that a virtuous person loves the good, and the whole purpose of training a child’s passions is to enable them to get to the point where they love to do the right thing.  But we can’t teach our children to love the good if they do not feel love from us as we try to show them what is good.  Our children have to see that we love both the good, and them, in order for them to respond to our attempts to help them act in virtuous ways.