“Walk a little slower, Daddy”, said a child so small.
“I’m following in your footsteps, and I don’t want to fall.
Sometimes your steps are very fast, sometimes they’re hard to see;
So walk a little slower, Daddy, for you are leading me.”1 (Continued Th. 88)
Probably nothing separates us more from the world of our ancestors than that we should ever think to question “Why have children?”2 Surely children are simply what life is all about? They are what results when man’s almost uncontrollable urge to have sex meets a women with the woman’s desire to be appreciated for her body as well as her mind. Whatever it is, it seems to have worked phenomenally well. Despite the dangers and pain of childbirth our ancestors “went forth and multiplied” very successfully. Six or seven thousand years ago the world’s population was probably less than five million; at six and a half billion it is now twice what it was in 1940. We may not be quite as good at it as rabbits, but we do well, nevertheless.
In the West our attitude towards family and children has been conditioned by the religions that came out of the desert. Those desert peoples adapted themselves to live precariously in a world of extreme temperatures, endless wars, rampant disease and ever recurring famines. They survived on the ‘edge of possibility’, by developing a most rigorous, unbending ethical code. Sperm was an agent of colonisation; no wild oats could be sown. A child was the total responsibility of its father; if he were killed his brother was compelled to take his widow into his own tent, and accept responsibility for the children. No tolerance was given to a man unwilling to take a wife3. homosexuality simply was not an option. Prior to the invention of writing it appears that God was always defined as female, but from the time of the Babylonians it had become a man’s world, dominated by those written legal formulations so beloved by men. The sanctity of the fertility goddess was replaced by Eve as the temptress (with no recognition apparently of man’s inability to resist temptation!)4. Until very recent times in Europe, children were a parent’s very practical guarantee of being cared for in their old age; the more ‘hands’ a family had the greater wealth could be collected from the fields, or from the factory bench. It was when, in the nineteenth century, children came to have better access to education that they started to see their lives as being more than just adjuncts to their parents’ well-being; they had lives of their own to shape, and children of their own to raise5.
So why do we have children, especially if they are going to cost a lot, and not bring us any actual return? We have to think back to the very beginnings of human consciousness, to the awakening of a sense of mystery, wonder and awe, and the early formation of religious thought6. As our ancestors pondered the miracle of new birth, and saw in the growing child some shadows of themselves, so they came to see in a new birth an obvious continuity of life. And they marvelled at their babies. Already they were partially entrapped by all those strategies with which evolution has given babies to encourage us to pick them up, and care and protect them; the chubby features, the engaging helplessness, the chuckles and, in the mother’s case, a scent that is all their own7.
What may have been the impact of contraception8 on our behaviours? Inevitably profound, but it is still not well understood. Less than 50 years ago there were few contraceptives so a night of wild sex was not followed by a morning of fear as to the possible consequences. While a contraceptive pill is a better and more humane preventative of an unwanted child than is fear (either of the unwanted child itself, or eternal damnation for sin), contraception has effectively disconnected the joy of sex with any necessary thoughts of the long-term significance of that relationship. To argue from evolutionary studies that promiscuity is innate (in both men and women), using science to justify bad behaviour (“I can’t help it, I am a man; I have to spill my seed”) and that morality is simply a spoil-sport, takes us absolutely nowhere9. Probably there were always ‘cads’ (Augustus the Strong of Saxony was rumoured to have several thousand children) and always there were some women who were happier as concubines than as wives, but that is probably how our basic biology works10. But the mass marketing of pornography in all its forms is the latest, and maybe the most devastating, aspect of consumerism yet to have been developed11. We lose interest even in sex if it is so prolific that the mystery, and any possible ‘meaning’, disappears. The feminist Germaine Greer commented in 2006 that a modern woman “has got to be a feminine impersonator, she exists to mime sexual readiness, not to experience it”12, with the consequence that “the most over-stimulated generation that has ever trod the earth is running empty”13.
The post-modern world so over-indulges itself with its ‘ifs’ and ‘onlys’ and ‘but ifs’ that it has forgotten an age-old truth. We don’t have children for our sake; we have them for their sakes. They are not our children but “the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself… they come through you, but not from you”14. For better or worse we are all that our children have to prepare them for their future. However difficult that future may be, it’s us, or nothing. It’s what our parents did for us, and what their parents earlier did for them. The bringing up of children is perhaps the only work that forces us to consider what we would like life to be for generations to come15. And it is only through being parents that we have that opportunity. Children force us to be hopeful; they shake us out of our terrible self-obsessions and they shame us for our supposed individuality. If you need a ‘selfish’ reason for having children it has to be that. In becoming a parent you are accepting that you are part of the great wonder that is Life16.
Thesis 87: 27th August 2006