Friday, March 13, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 13

Chapter 13 (pages 145-161), “The Family”

Family life could be the great fount of happiness, but under current conditions, both parents and children typically find the whole exercise trying. The subject of this chapter, however, is limited to what can be done about familial unhappiness by individuals, without reforming society at large. [Nevertheless, this is the longest chapter of the book – RBR.]

Women used to be “driven into marriage by the intolerable conditions of life for the spinster [p. 146],” which included financial dependence on a male relative and, if unchaste, being socially scorned as a fallen woman. The entrance of women into careers and the decline of the domestic services industry means that parenthood comes at a heavier price than before for well-to-do women. In particular, career women almost invariably have to stop working if they give birth, reinstituting a life of financial dependence. Further, they are then confronted with “a new and appalling problem, namely the paucity and bad quality of domestic service [p. 147].” [An old complaint that was apparently not yet a chestnut in 1930, and a reminder of just how large a change it was when middle-class (particularly British?) folks could no longer afford to hire servants -- RBR.] So a former career woman either undertakes the domestic labor herself or becomes shrewish in dealing with the maids. “Weighed down by a mass of trivial detail, she is fortunate indeed if she does not soon lose all her charm and three-quarters of her intelligence [p. 147].” Husbands and children find her company to be problematic. She is so aware of all that she has given up for her children that she demands a repayment of which they are incapable. The paradox is that by performing her domestic duties faithfully she loses the affection of her husband and children – affections which would not have been threatened by a carefree neglect of those duties.

Urbanization combined with family life can generate unhappiness. Cities are much more densely packed than before, and cramped apartment dwellers do not have a yard (or simply the great outdoors) in which the children can play. So parents in cities have a hard time escaping the noise of children, whereas suburban life involves a happiness-threatening commute to work for the father and his marginalization in his family’s lives.

The movement from master-slave relationships towards democracy, even within the family, has undermined traditional roles and created some uncertainty about proper behaviors. Obedience of children towards parents is no longer taken for granted. Psychoanalysis has rendered parents fearful that whatever they do, they will be psychologically scarring their offspring; the “simple and natural happiness [p. 150]” of family life is compromised. Wealthier, more civilized, and more intelligent people become less likely to have children, though the uncivilized remain relatively fruitful. Western nations will be seeing their populations fall, except to the extent that immigration compensates for the natural decrease. Civilizations that cannot reproduce are unstable, and will find their places usurped by those who multiply. Governments and clergymen can exhort all they want, but the blandishments of neither patriotism nor holiness are particularly successful at inducing breeding. Ignorance of how to prevent pregnancy can be an effective spur to population growth, and governments do their best to spread this ignorance, but this, too, is a losing battle. Parenthood will only be popular if the interest (that is, happiness) of the parents can be enlisted into the cause.

As a general proposition, being a parent can provide the best and most lasting happiness, for men almost as well as for women. Russell recounts his own experience: “…speaking personally, I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced [p. 153].” People who pass up this happiness develop a profound listlessness. As you get older, happiness requires that you are not atomized, but are “part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future [p. 153].” Perhaps a lasting work product can produce the same feeling of connection, but for most folks, children are the only means. Without children, your interests appear to be limited to your lifespan, lending a sense of futility to any endeavor.

Normal parental affection towards one’s children is a different order of feeling than other types of affection – and a similar point seems to apply to non-human animals, too. “If it were not for this special emotion there would be almost nothing to be said for the family as an institution, since children might equally well be left to the care of professionals [p. 155].” Other types of affection tend to be granted conditional on good behavior or good health or what have you – parental affection remains strong even when other claims to affection have been lost. The affection of your parents might not seem all that important when times are good, but at times of failure, it provides an invaluable security.

In human relationships that involve one dominant and one submissive partner, such as employer and employee, securing happiness for the dominant party is relatively easy. The world has become more interested in making these relationships happy for both parties; therefore, parents now draw less happiness from their children, while children suffer less from their parents.

Caring for an infant “gratifies not only the parent’s love towards the child, but also the parent’s desire for power [p. 156].” As the child develops, however, its well-being demands that the parent cede power, allowing the child more independence. Some parents continue to play the tyrant. Other parents validate their child’s claims to independence, but at the cost of their own happiness, as the child chooses directions that do not coincide with parental interests. The parental impulse towards possessiveness is hard to overcome, even when acting upon it does not conduce to the welfare of the child. Parents who recognize this problem become indecisive, and their very uncertainty undermines their value for the child. “Better than being careful, therefore, is to be pure in heart [157].” If you really put your child’s welfare above your own, you can guide your child confidently, and the mistakes that assuredly you will make will not prove costly.

The ingrained respect for a child’s personality that engenders wise parenting also is a necessary attitude for successful marriages and friendships. “In a good world it would pervade the political relations between groups of human beings, though this is so distant a hope that we need not linger over it [p. 158].” The respectful stance greatly adds to parental happiness, as parents with this respect can act in the best interests of their children without seeking the shallow joys of gratifying their desire of power.

Mothers recognize that they are not expected to teach calculus to their children, but they are less willing to contract out other duties of child-rearing, even when specialists are better placed to fulfill these duties. For some months around the birth of a child, perhaps, mothers generally will not be able to continue fulltime in their professional capacities; nevertheless, motherhood and careers should be compatible. If society expects otherwise, the sacrifice required by mothers will be too large, and the mothers themselves will seek excessive emotional compensation from their children. “It is important, therefore, quite as much in the interests of the children as in those of the mother, that motherhood should not cut her off from all other interests and pursuits [p. 160].” Those who are good at child rearing should specialize in it, providing paid services for other parents, many of whom are baffled by the demands of child care. It is almost received wisdom that fathers are not accomplished at child rearing, and there is no shame for them in taking a back seat in such domestic duties. Yet children love their fathers as much as their mothers. It would liberate women and benefit children if mothers similarly could leave many of the tasks of child raising to adept professionals.

No comments: