Why do people want families

Why do people become parents? : More of an adventure than a conscious decision

Barbara Bleisch is a member of the Ethics Center at the University of Zurich. Andrea Büchler is Professor of Law and President of the Swiss National Ethics Commission in the field of human medicine. The text is based on her book “Children want. About Autonomy and Responsibility ”, which will be published by Hanser Verlag on May 25th.

Around 360,000 children are born around the world every day. Many of them wanted, some longed for, others completely unplanned. A new life starts. Something new also begins for those who have a child: They become parents, perhaps for the first time, but certainly for the first time of this child.

Having children is rarely a question of fate, at least in our social contexts, but mostly a decision that can be preceded by many questions, but which is also accompanied by high hopes. But why do people become parents? Do you even consciously decide for or against offspring? Or is having children still more aptly described as an experience because it eludes weighing up the reasons?

In retrospect, very few parents can say why they actually decided to have children. Is the question of your own descendants perhaps not a decision like others: a process in which the reasons for and against are examined? The Canadian writer Margaret Laurence writes in “Dance on the Earth. A Memoir ”on this:“ I don't think I should analyze my motives for wanting children. For self-affirmation? For fun? To flatter your own ego? It does not matter. It's like asking me why do you want to write. Who cares? I have to, and that's it. "

[Keep track of things: every morning from 6 a.m., editor-in-chief Lorenz Maroldt and his team report in the Tagesspiegel newsletter Checkpoint on the latest developments relating to the coronavirus. Register now for free: checkpoint.tagesspiegel.de.]

But on what exactly should the necessity she described be based? It seems to be a widespread opinion that the longing for our own children is inherent in us and that one does not have to invent it or cultivate it in order to feel it. Describing your own children as the only "natural" feeling is still inadmissible. On the one hand, it negates the fact that one can distance oneself from “natural” longings and drives and give priority to other wishes, and on the other hand it assumes that those who decide against children display “unnatural” behavior.

For the Canadian Sheila Heti, for example, her life as a writer contradicts life as a mother, and her preference is for writing, as she tells us in her book “Mutterschaft”. In fact, there are more and more people in our society who consciously do without children. Some prefer the term “child freedom” to “childlessness” in order to make it clear that they reject parenting as the norm and accordingly do not see their life as deficient.

The idea that women are born with the desire to have children as well as caring for children is a product of the modern age. Of course, women had already been mothers before that, but this role had no outstanding social and moral value. Large family structures and wet nursing led to multi-person care, in which upbringing was a collective task and biological parenting was at least not always decisive.

It was only in the course of industrialization that the “large household family”, which united several generations under one roof, was replaced by the “small family” consisting only of mother, father and children so-called “female destiny” - giving birth and raising offspring - has been reduced.

You can't just say you don't want a child

Fortunately, those days are largely over today. Nevertheless, writes the American essayist Rebecca Solnit in her book “The Mother of All Questions”, women are still expected to deal with the option of having children and to behave consciously towards them. As a woman, writer Sheila Heti has a fictional character recorded in her book, “you can't just say you don't want a child. You have to already have a detailed plan or an idea of ​​what you want to do instead. ”And that plan should be“ something great ”. So the myth of the woman drawn to motherhood remains powerful.

However a woman decides - the "mother of all questions" does not seem to be incidental to anyone, but continues to lead, or even increasingly, to a combat zone again. In fact, the question of having one's own children, as well as reproductive decisions in general, are never asked and made in a vacuum, but always against the background of social expectations and social roles - especially in the case of women.

Studies agree that many people today describe and experience parenting as more demanding than it was 20 years ago. This has primarily to do with changing understandings of what the real role of parents is. The previously clear role as a witness, nourishing and caring person has been transformed into an extensive portfolio of tasks for successful promotion. Children are increasingly seen as total works of art that need to be designed, shaped, shaped. It should come as no surprise that parents fail because of this ideal of embodying the perfect and comprehensive life coach for their children.

[If you want to have all the latest developments on the coronavirus crisis live on your mobile phone, we recommend our completely redesigned app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices.]

Despite all the challenges that having a family of your own brings with it in the present, when thinking about having children there is probably above all the longing to let a new life emerge and thus to give a new dimension to one's own life and perhaps also to the partnership .

Perhaps you imagine that living with your own children, caring for them and watching them grow up makes life more exciting, more colorful and somehow more meaningful. Perhaps one also longs to express a deeply felt, intimate, unconditional love for one's own child and possibly to share this love with a partner.

Or you want to pass on values ​​and in this way grow beyond yourself. But aren't these reasons for having a child selfish? Shouldn't parents be primarily concerned with happiness for the child and not with increasing their own happiness or meaning in life?

Simone de Beauvoir writes in "The Other Sex", for example, that a child must “be wanted for its own sake and not for the sake of hypothetical advantages”, otherwise it will be instrumentalized. But wishing a child for the child's sake is an impossible endeavor. Since the child does not exist at all before its parents bring it into the world, it cannot be willed for its own sake. Similarly, the idea that you want to give the gift of life to a child runs nowhere - there is simply no one who could receive this gift.

There are few arguments for longing for a child

Parents need to be aware that children will have their own needs and demands; that there will be troublesome moments; that the developments of the children can thwart the plans of their parents in the most violent way. Just as we can have friends so that we are not lonely, but also appreciate them for their own sake, we can also have children because the way of life as parents appears to us to be happy, but we still love our children for their sake.

The longing to have children in this way - as a transmission of love, as an existential experience, as a radical risk - sooner or later grips many people. It is and remains a longing that is difficult to justify or arguably penetrate. When the writer Margaret Laurence spoke of an “inner must”, she probably had the vague feeling in mind that the wish for or against children cannot really be explained in common ways and also does not require explanations.

Desiring a family can be so central to one's own idea of ​​the good life that the option of childlessness is not even considered. Failure to become pregnant can feel like a blow of fate. For many, unwanted childlessness means unhappiness, pain, loss and grief. Conversely, it can be disturbing for a person who never wanted to have children to become a mother or father or to feel pressured by their partner to have a child. Wanting to become a mother or father or consciously excluding parenthood is, as Margaret Laurence's comparison with writing shows, of just as weighty importance as other projects that are closely related to our idea of ​​a fulfilled life.

Parenthood is radically different from other options

The philosopher Dieter Thomä explains this inner urge in his book “Parents. Small philosophy of a risky way of life ”, among other things, with the fact that we have to behave in a necessary way when we want to have children. Parenthood is certainly "of a different kind to most" conceivable "projects, such as that of crossing the Antarctic on foot or that of a self-awareness group at home," says Thomä. Because parenting presents itself to adult people as "a possibility that is in them without further action - or not".

While we have to think up other life projects or they are brought up to us, the possibility of fathering children is actually always inherent in us. As soon as we grow up and are sexually active, we must behave towards her, at least if we have heterosexual preferences: either by taking precautions so as not to father children, or by refraining from contraception, preparing for the possibility of offspring, or at least accept them.

The desire to have children differs in three further respects from other life projects that make dealing with it existential in a special way: First, the desire is exclusive insofar as it excludes the other option. Once women and men have become parents, they cannot be parents a little or remain semi-childless.

In blended families this may be different in that, for example, the children of a new partner can be perceived as "own" children over time. But one does not make decisions about these children, or at least not in the same way; Rather, they grow dear to you because your partner brings them into your life together.

We don't know how we will be as a mother / father

Second, the fulfillment of the wish is irreversible: whoever has become a father or mother remains so for a lifetime. Parenthood cannot be reversed.

Thirdly, parenting is unpredictable: on the one hand, we do not know what the child who joins us will be like; we do not know its nature, its temperament, its curiosity. In addition, something can happen to the child at any time, it can go astray, be unhappy. The fate of one's own child is incalculable, and parents admit to this risk of great personal vulnerability. But that's not all: On the other hand, it is just as unpredictable as it will basically feel to be a parent before we have actually become one.

In this context, the philosopher Laurie A. Paul speaks of “transforming experiences”: We sometimes make decisions in our lives that are so far-reaching that they radically change our living conditions, so that we ourselves are at least a little closer to others during the process to be lived through become.

[The coronavirus crisis is also a historic challenge for politics. Every morning we inform you, dear readers, in our morning situation about the political decisions, news and background. You can register for free here. ]

But because we do not know how we will be and how we will feel then, we also do not know, according to Paul, whether we will perceive a decision that we are making today to be the right one tomorrow. It is therefore impossible to predict whether or not the people we will be as parents will like life with their children. So how are we supposed to decide whether we want to have children?

For some, the risk of parenthood is precisely this impossibility of anticipating who we will be ourselves in the new role that we are committed to assuming. In fact, there are few things in life that are as demanding, emotional, costly and time-consuming, and at the same time exclusive, irreversible and unpredictable as parenting. These considerations alone show that weighing up for and against children is obviously extremely difficult and that wanting to have children may have to be described less as a decision than as a longing and an adventure.

To home page