Redefining Parenthood?

This week The New York Times noted a new landmark in the transformation of parenthood.  Julie Cohn’s article follows the experience of women in a Vietnamese village who, because war in the 1970s reduced their chances of becoming brides, decided to have children anyway.

One by one they asked men — whom they would never interact with afterward — to help them conceive a child. The practice became known as “xin con,” or “asking for a child,” and it meant breaking with tradition, facing discrimination and enduring the hardships of raising a child alone.

Why would they do it, given stigma of out-of-wedlock births and hardship of parenting solo? Cohn makes their decisions sound progressive, but the explanations the women offer sound premodern.  The writer notes, “[Nguyen Thi] Luu wanted to become a mother, no least so she would have support in her old age. In Vietnam, nursing homes are scarce and care for the elderly is considered a filial duty.”   Or, in Ms. Luu’s own words, “I was afraid to die alone….I wanted a child of my own.”

Why have children?  Many answers are possible, some better than others, though I am often struck by a mismatch between the immensity of the event and the poverty its appreciation.  Christine Overall confronts the question head on in her 2012 book. I had looked forward to reading it last fall, pleased to have the issue addressed with rigor. The book disappointed.  Overall argues carefully and dismisses some weaker reasons for childbearing, but her approach to the problem is forbiddingly distant from my own.  For her, the burden of proof, or what she calls the “burden of justification,” is on those who bear rather than those who forbear.  People who have children are the ones who should have to explain themselves.

After Overall sweeps away many reasons for having children—religious duty, the immortality of extending one’s genetic line, perpetuation of a name or family—she surprises readers by advising prospective parents, “Don’t miss it!” It’s not exactly three cheers for childbearing (“I do not actively go around promoting procreation,” she insists, in case the reader made that mistake).  It is the relationship that one builds in parenthood that affords “the best reason for having a child.”

I had put the book out of mind until reading Gilbert Meilaender’s excellent review of it in The New Atlantis.  While praising some elements of Overall’s treatment, he identifies a fundamental difficulty.  Another, older way of viewing parenthood is rooted in a long tradition of belief and practice. In Christian (though not only Christian) understanding of procreation, we receive children gladly in part because we are glad of our own being and affirm that good for others too.  Further, children spring from the union of man and woman, rather than emerging from one’s choice.

Marriage as a basic form of life has both relational and procreative dimensions, expressing a connection given in human nature between the differentiation of the sexes and the procreation of children. In sexual intercourse the man and woman set aside their projects (even the desire to produce a child) in order to give themselves to each other. And if the (perhaps hoped for) child results from their embrace, that child is the natural fruition of their shared love, not a chosen project. The child is, therefore, a mysterious gift and blessing, and certainly not a possession.

Overall’s rationale for choosing children, in contrast, Meilaender reads as  “as an act of self-creation and self-fulfillment.”

It is true that single women can choose to conceive, birth, and raise a child all by themselves.  You do not need a man to have a baby, as I have written about elsewhere.  Celebration of that practice seems to animate Cohn’s article.  She quotes Tran Thi Ngoi, district head of the Woman’s Union, assuring, “Every woman has the right to be a wife and a mother, and if she cannot find a husband, she should still have the right to her own child.”

“Right” does not seem to me the right language to describe the good of having a child.   And relationship, sometimes happy and sometimes not, does not seem to be what these Vietnamese single mothers were after.  Single parenthood is not the problem, so much as the consideration of the child as the product of a single will.

The putative redefinition of parenthood—as altogether voluntary, adrift from tradition, and simultaneously denying and depending on biology—prefers lofty reasons (relationship, personal fulfillment) to coarse ones, like necessity, the raising of a labor force, or avoidance of a nursing home.  But the definition Cohn’s article aims to leave behind still is a better one: in Meilaender’s words again, “natural fruition of shared love,”  mysterious gift and blessing.”


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