Beyond the work-and-family paradigm

I remember during my fortieth birthday party – a dinner at the Republic Bar in North Hobart, in Tasmania – the question arose of the ultimate human experience. Or at least, the ultimate experience for a woman. I remember at least two of my friends (both mothers) expressed the belief that having a child was it; and that you couldn’t know this until you’d had one yourself.

Not everyone expressed a point of view, so I don’t know what others at the table thought. All at the table were women. No one apart from me seemed to think any differently, or at least was prepared to say so then and there.

Perhaps the others viewed the question as being too sensitive, a question for each woman to answer for herself alone. And it is that; but it is also a question for society.

I still, over seven years later, find myself bothered by this silence; this inability to entertain even the possibility of other, equally profound, experiences available to women.

I ask you: Does it diminish novelist Iris Murdoch even the tiniest bit that she chose to have no children with her husband, John Bayley, and that she put her writing first? Was giving expression to her powerful mind somehow less vital, less impactful, in the catalogue of human experiences, than giving birth?

Does it seem a pity that Angela Merkel has merely been Chancellor of Germany for ten years, and before that a research scientist – for whatever reason skipping the opportunity to rise to greater heights and become a mother too?

I don’t mind that individual women consider having a child the peak of their own experience; but I am disturbed by the suggestion that this might casually be applied to all women, and that any other deep commitment – no matter what it is – is seen as second best.

* * *

Discussions in the media around managing work and family – while no doubt simplifying the issues for easy consumption – tend to suggest that career and family are the two fundamental choices to be considered between leaving school and entering retirement.

That the whole of this period of life must be either a precarious balancing of these two, or a choice of one or the other (as in, ‘sacrificing’ the having of a family to one’s career), implies that there is nothing else that could be of equal importance.

Whereas could the options not consist of work and/or family and/or – something else? Your vocation, your passion, your calling?

Even writing those words – ‘your calling’ – sounds so out of touch with the real world, with the realities of managing adult commitments, and with our tacit belief that any ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’ of real merit will or should attract remuneration. (Hence it will not really count until it becomes ‘work’).

Of course, the activity from which you derive your primary income might happen to be your passion. And if it is, lucky you.

Likewise, having and caring for children might be your particular vocation, and if that is what you are actually able to dedicate yourself to, lucky you again.

But many of us are drawn to something beyond our work, and beyond the possibilities of childbearing; something apart.

Trying to articulate the nature of this something apart feels awkward to me even still. Attempting to present it as (at least potentially) of equal value to the fundamental pillars of work/career and family feels like wishful thinking.

And yet.

Many of us don’t have families of our own, and don’t seek to. We don’t pursue the achievement of our potential through bearing and parenting a child, or through establishing a family dynamic.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we wish to mould ourselves to a demanding ‘career’, either; that the not-having of children is to do with the need or willingness to be completely absorbed in work.

It means, we’re looking somewhere else for our fulfilment.

I’m not talking about leisure activities – things that are done for relaxation or to distract from other things.

I’m talking about undertakings such as a sustained dedication to writing; creative exploration; deep political commitment; geekish play and invention. Undertakings which emerge when somebody thinks to ask How? and What if? and decides to pursue these questions for themselves.

While focusing on these sorts of things may be seen as selfish, it’s obvious it can be seen as just the opposite. These kinds of undertakings, which have the potential to change our world, clearly can have significant social value as well.

* * *

In ‘Here comes the (single) bride’, published on the ABC’s The Drum, Michaelie Clark writes of being ‘[t]ired of being treated with pity and suspicion for being 30 years old and happily single’, and of her resulting decision to hold a mock marriage to ‘Scot Land’ before moving to Glasgow to write.

The first person to comment, Gordon, said something that I found interesting:

Sounds like a kind of secular nun with better clothing options: A life dedicated to something worthwhile, with friends and colleagues presumably, but that doesn’t include a permanent relationship that might take focus away from the chosen path …

I reckon he was onto something there.

Following a calling that takes you beyond the confines of the work and/or baby path: I think it certainly could be comparable to choosing monasticism, in the sense that doing so might lead you into a life ‘whose ideal’, per the Wikipedia entry on Christian monasticism, ‘is different from and largely at variance with that pursued by the majority of humanity’.

The fact that monasticism was once a fact of life in many places suggests that, perhaps even in a society like this one, where we are almost all (within a certain age bracket) categorised as being either workers or nurturers of children (or a combination of both), we might be able, somehow or other, to consciously define another way. Some day.

* * *

Hannah Arendt writes in the prologue to The Human Condition (first published in 1958):

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society … It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [i.e. through the ‘advent of automation’], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won … What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them [my emphasis]. (pp 4–5)

We are more – must be more – than working machines … as challenging as it may be to remember it at a time when the media shouts out our current state of chronic overwork and underemployment. When companies are haemorrhaging jobs – liberating people, that is – like sand from a slashed sack.

Perhaps it’s turning out to feel not quite like liberation.

Still: it seems that the less able we are to lay a claim to time for our own meaningful pursuits, the more employers will expect to absorb our (unvalued, except in work) time from us. Surely a lose/lose situation, both for those who work and for those seeking work. Not to mention, eventually, for employers themselves, who already find themselves dealing with an often splintering and degraded workforce.

* * *

To regard the having of children as being a vocation alongside other vocations – an absurd proposition, perhaps, before the wide availability of birth control, and some time before the world’s population reached seven billion. Much less absurd now.

The question of responsibility – of selfishness – in relation to having children. With seven billion people trying to survive on this planet, can we really continue to countenance the idea that not having children is selfish?

The notion of parenthood as a tremendous sacrifice – not wrong, by any means – it really can be. But often the desire to become a parent is imbued with the urge a parent feels, whether conscious or not, to see themselves reflected in their offspring; to continue themselves; to have another chance. As understandable as it is: this isn’t selfish?

Perhaps those who cry ‘selfish’ are thinking of individuals who choose a hedonistic lifestyle – free of serious commitment to any other person – over the responsibilities of caring for children. I doubt such individuals are the norm for non-parents, however.

In one respect I can see the having of children as developing unselfish behaviour, and this is in the realm of putting one’s children before oneself. Some parents achieve this. Some do not. That experience, of loving another person more than you love yourself, must certainly be life-changing. But is it the stamp of mature, considered unselfishness, or merely a facet of parental behaviour? Are parents naturally less selfish outside of their family as well? Does parenthood actually make you less selfish overall? Are parents better people?

Even if they are: would the world be a better place if everyone had children?

I find it hard to believe it would be. Environmental impact aside, the abuse and neglect of so many children already in our world suggests that perhaps we’d have the capacity (at the level of society) to take better care of them if we felt them to be even more rare, more precious.

While having children is everyone’s right, it might be preferable, for the sake of our children, to move away from a position where it is deemed the natural choice – the ultimate choice – for any and all; to recognise there is another way.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

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