Before having children, and provided we’ve moved on a little from the maelstrom of adolescence, it is possible to think of ourselves as good people: patient, kind, loving, tolerant. A few years of parenthood strips us of these illusions and we see ourselves in the raw: capable of fury, rage, pettiness, jealousy — you name it. For children confront us with the infantile aspects of our own personalities, the parts of ourselves we’d most like to deny, and we can hate them for it. Worse still, they can thwart our wish, even our need, to feel loving and effective.
I wonder if we ought to re-examine our commitment to happiness. It seems to me that there’s possibly some merit – if we persevere and have the sense to learn from it – in the other-orientation that is (good) parenting. It’s fine to go through life happy, in other words, but I suspect we also want to go through life without becoming big fat self-absorbed jackasses. Children really help in that regard.
To be sure, there are too many parents who, despite their children, remain narcissistic nimrods. But the nature of parenting is to beat that out of you. There’s just no time to spend on ourselves, at least not like we would if we didn’t have babies to wash and toys to clean up, usually in the middle of the night, after impaling our feet on them.
People are inherently self-centered, and especially in a peaceful, prosperous society, this easily leads to self-indulgence that in turn can make us weak and ignoble. There’s something to be said for ordeals – like parenting, or marriage, or tending the weak and broken – which push us into an other-orientation. When we have to care for someone, we get better at, well, caring for people. It actually takes practice, after all.