According to a Tweet promoting an article on a website called Big Think, we are labouring under the tyranny of a “social narrative” that tricks us into thinking that parenthood will make us happy.
— Big Think (@bigthink) April 27, 2020
An observer of contemporary Britain might, I think, be forgiven for not having noticed this social narrative. In 2018 – the last year for which statistics are available – there were over 200,000 abortions, compared to only 657,076 live births. Our total fertility rate is well below replacement level, as in most Western countries. Our society overwhelming celebrates not child-rearing but hedonism, self-actualisation, and individual choice. Admittedly I have lost touch with mainstream popular culture since the births of my children – see how becoming a father has created such misery! – but from what I do see, the dominant messaging is not “Marry young and have six children”. On the contrary, it seems to me that family life is often portrayed as a source of neurosis and frustration, a pit of abuse, rancour, and bigotry from which one can and must escape, to the sunlit uplands of sexual freedom and fulfilled personal ambition.
I don’t want to criticise the article too heavily. It was more nuanced than the clickbait Tweet suggested, and went on to make some interesting points about the importance of pro-family policies and the fact that many people have fewer children than they would like, usually for socio-economic reasons, a well-established phenomenon that researchers call “unmet family size preference”.
I also don’t want to insist too strongly on the counter-claim that having children is a great source of happiness for most people. I do believe this quite strongly, with certain caveats and qualifications, but it’s not really the point. Even if the outcome of having children is greater happiness, that is not its purpose, even if you thought that it is possible to quantify happiness.
Cynics sometimes question whether virtue is possible, because (the argument goes) doing good deeds makes us feel good and so is ultimately self-interested. However – leaving aside the objection that virtue doesn’t always feel good – this gets the causation backwards. The reason to act virtuously is not that it feels good. Rather, acting virtuously feels good because to act virtuously is to fulfil of our nature. Similarly, we don’t undertake the task of parenthood because it makes us happy. It makes us happy because it is good to live in love and fellowship with people, and to sacrifice yourself for others, and to create new life. All those things also point beyond themselves; by participating in human family life we get some small glimpse into the life of Triune God and an intimation of the perfect joy that accompanies union with God.
What really got me thinking was the underlying assumption that happiness is what we should be aiming for in life, that it should be what Aquinas called the summum bonum, or highest good. This seems to me highly debatable. Of course, to some extent it depends what you mean by happiness. If we take Aristotle’s definition of happiness – roughly speaking, to achieve over the course of one’s life the various goods that lead to true human flourishing – then it seems like a highly commendable aim. But this is not the sense in which it is generally used today, especially in social science research. To Aristotle, the pursuit of happiness would have been unintelligible without the pursuit of virtue, and without the idea that there are particular objective ends to which human effort ought to be directed. Contemporary researchers, by contrast, seem to work with a definition that is much more closely related to the satisfaction of desires, which isn’t the same thing at all.
It strikes me too that people may not always be the best judges of the counterfactuals of their own lives, or indeed the most reliable reporters of their lives. Because no two people are quite alike, there is no meaningful control group for someone’s assessment of how parenthood has affected their happiness. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence! If you are a harassed parent of small children, with six places for every penny, sleepless and time-poor, of course the apparently carefree lives of your childless friends take on an enviable sheen of independence and adventure. But, for all that we might joke about it, would any of us parents really swap our children for a few more nights out and exotic foreign holidays? The question answers itself.
But the central problem with the focus on happiness, it seems to me, is that it puts the individual at the centre of their own moral universe. For Christians this is deeply incompatible with the teaching of Christ: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” St Paul insists on the crucifixion of the old self, while I have always been both comforted and troubled by the words of John the Baptist, about Jesus: “He must become greater, but I must become less”.
It is not even as though this is some kind of arcane wisdom only available to Christians. Almost all thoughtful people would agree that the central challenge of the moral life is learning to put our desires and drives in their place, to order them correctly and subdue those which are disordered. This is the path of humility and virtue. When we are liberated from a solipsistic preoccupation with ourselves, whether through marriage or children or friendship or asceticism, we can turn our energies outwards, to the pursuit of service, justice, and knowledge.
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