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.

16 comments on “Baby-Induced Depression, Aristotle and Me: A Reply to Amy Glass

  1. Rebecca says:

    Bravo! Well written and timely. When women undervalue their roles as mothers they are inevitably eroding the underpinnings of good society. So few take the long view, the generational view of society and opt for the selfish here and now. Why does freedom and self actualisation have to be selfish? Can’t it also be giving and self effacing? Parenting is the hardest thing, but it’s the most important thing if we want a society that stands the test of time.

    • Thanks for reading, Rebecca. Why is it so easy for women to undervalue their role as mothers? As you say, so few take the ‘long view’. I wonder why. I think in society we are in two minds about parenting – we know it’s important but at the same time we aren’t prepared to recognize it in any meaningful way. And those of us who do it feel that ambivalence.

  2. Norine says:

    She’s being provocative. I wonder does she get journalists commission for inviting controversy in the ‘letters to the editor’ page? Has she a mother issue? I can’t believe that she really believes women with children ‘do’ nothing. Sour grapes? However, Amy will have stirred up a hornets nest among committed mothers who of course, lose brain power with the birth of every child added to having little or no time to reply because they’re too busy wiping baby food off the walls. Ms Glass, bless her, appears to be trying so hard to be exceptional SOME-where that her alter ego, Ms ‘Average’, is revealing itself.

    “Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

    “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

    “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

  3. Norine says:

    “To summarize, Lewis sees the progression like this: 1) the marginalization of value statements leads to 2) the separation of fact from value, which leads to 3) the creation of men without chests, which leads to 4) the elevation of “instinct” as an ultimate value, which, because of its own self-contradictions, leads to 5) man’s attempt to conquer nature through science and technology and 6) the tyranny of the conditioners over mankind, which in the end is 7) the abolition of man.”

    Summary attributed to Joe Rigney – Christian Discipleship in Lewis’ Chronicles

    • Thanks for your comments, Norine! C. S Lewis was nothing if not profound. The problem in society, as I see it, is indeed that we are no longer allowed to call things ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – like Lewis says here, we have marginalized value statements. But if there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’, then what are we as parents to teach? The family is the generator of value, but society isn’t going to thank us for it.

      • Norine says:

        My view Holly is that God is the ‘generator’ of personal value in the sense of ‘origin’. The family regenerates (or degenerates)
        that value – good or bad.

  4. Mandy says:

    Thank you Holly for sharing such personal and very relatable experiences! You’re a beautiful writer.

  5. AD says:

    CS Lewis: “I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour”. (1st to be happy to prepare for being happy in our own real home hereafter: 2nd in the meantime to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist…” (pg 447-Letter of CS Lewis 1988 ed.)

  6. mandy says:

    Thanks, Holly. Enjoyed your take on that. Of course, Ms. Glass was “trolling” but she still managed to make us all stop and think a second. I’m with you, of course–that raising human beings is a very important job. But I think the phrase “stay at home” doesn’t quite capture it. I know many SAHMs (myself included–at times) that don’t really have a vision of what they are doing. They aren’t really trying to raise a rational human being as much as get through the pile of laundry. Conversely, I know many woman who work a full-time job and still make raising their children their real life’s work. We need a new term….or a new concept. We need to value and praise the job of parents–however they manage it–and recognize the service they are providing to both the present and future society. We need to give them permission to pat themselves on the back instead of downplaying what they do. And then, I think, more parents will catch the importance of what they are doing and feel more passionate about it and more interested in the doing the hard work of doing it thoroughly. At least–that’s what I hope.

  7. […] philosopher writes about her experiences of her evolving thoughts on freedom after having a […]

  8. Great post, Holly! Enjoying your blog. Loved ancient and medieval philosophy in university, and enjoy how you apply it to parenthood, my current job!

    Chesterton has great things to say about parenthood as well, how immense a task it is…looking at the bigger picture of raising moral human beings, shaping their view of the universe, etc.

    What I think we need is an understanding that personal growth and fulfilment, and sacrifice and self-giving, are not necessarily opposed. You mentioned in another post that parenthood was like claiming a mountain: extremely challenging but an opportunity for interior growth and the satisfaction of accomplishing something great. I have found this to be the case.

    I have 7 kids, though being a stay at home mom was the last thing I was planning to do growing up. Yet it’s through caring for my family that I’ve grown immensely in my ability to connect on a deeper level with others, my friends as well as my kids. In the midst of my daily chaos I have pursued my dream of writing. I’ve been blogging a for few years, about 3, and just self-published my second book. This is something I never would have had the courage to do before having kids.

    So in short, parenthood can certainly be transformative, and is not opposed to greatness. Cheers to all the moms and dads out there working hard to love their families and raise the future citizens of our world!

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