The Wisdom of Parenthood: An Essay

The Wisdom of Parenthood: An Essay

by Michael Eskin

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The Wisdom of Parenthood: An Essay by Michael Eskin

THE WISDOM OF PARENTHOOD is a provocative meditation on the meaning, experience and practice of parenthood both as a universally human phenomenon across history and, more specifically, in the age of assisted reproduction, in vitro fertilization, gestational surrogacy, “third-party production,” international adoption and the transformation of the nuclear family with the rise of LGBT parenting.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940045252324
Publisher: Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/31/2013
Series: Subway Line , #7
Sold by: Smashwords
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 162 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

MICHAEL ESKIN was educated at Concordia College, the University of Munich and Rutgers University. A former fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, he has taught at the University of Cambridge and at Columbia University. He has given workshops, lectured and published widely on literary, philosophical, ethical and cultural subjects, including: "Ethics and Dialogue in the Works of Lev⁠inas, Bakhtin, Mandel’shtam, and Celan"; "Poetic Affairs – Celan, Grünbein, Brodsky"; "17 Prejudices That We Germans Hold Against America and Americans and That Can’t Quite Be True" (published in German under the pseudonym ‘Misha Waiman’); "Philosophical Fragments of a Contemporary Life" (under the pseudonym ‘Julien David’); and "The DNA of Prejudice – On the One and the Many" (winner of the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Social Change); and "Yoga for the Mind: A New Ethic for Thinking and Being & Meridians of Thought" (with Kathrin Stengel). A frequent guest on radio programs throughout the US, Michael Eskin is a member of the Academy of American Poets and the PEN Center for German-Speaking Authors Abroad. He lives in New York City and is the cofounder of Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.

Read an Excerpt

The Wisdom of Parenthood

An Essay

By Michael Eskin

Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Michael Eskin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935830-25-2


Parenthood is a second-order phenomenon

Parenthood is not natural. By natural I mean the given in the broadest sense — the substrate of all creative transformation, from brute matter to inborn instinct to natural (unconscious, unintentional) process and law.

Parenthood is a task and as such a function and articulation of thought and will. It manifests intention and creativity. This is what I mean by second- order phenomenon.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, "We are born, so to speak, twice — born into existence and born into life, born human beings and born men." Unlike paternity and maternity, which are, in Rousseau's terms, on the plane of "existence" and "human beings," parenthood is on the plane of "life" and "men." In other words, parenthood is part of what the Greeks called bios — the life worlds we create for ourselves — whereas maternity and paternity are part of what the Greeks called zoe — biological, physiological being, life in the purely material sense.

As a second-order phenomenon, parenthood implies agency. It is an act, a deed we commit. And to the extent that, as I elaborate below, it involves a certain feeling or emotion that we typically call love, the pithy words of Emperor Justinian's famed general Belisarius to his stepson Photius hold true: "For it is not by ties of blood, but in very truth by deeds, that men are wont to gauge their affection for one another."


Parenthood is not a function of biology

If parenthood were a function of biology, adoptive parents, for instance, ought not to be considered parents, which is an empirically untenable proposition. It follows, then, that biology cannot be an essential component of parenthood — unless, that is, we agree on considering all forms of parenthood that are not biologically based derivative or lesser forms. This, in turn, would not only be dubious given that, as a recent study puts it, "a biological link does not guarantee an adult's commitment [and] emotional or caregiving connection to the child," but it would be especially absurd in the age of assisted reproduction, in vitro fertilization, gestational surrogacy, "third-party production" and international adoption. Parenthood comes in different forms, among which are the biological, adoptive, etcetera.

Parenthood is a form of affiliation rather than filiation, which does not mean that there cannot be parenthood that also involves filiation, and, conversely, affiliation that does not involve parenthood. But the fact that the majority of parents happen to be biologically related to their children does not mean that parenthood as such, in its very essence, ought to be understood in biological terms. "Parenthood," Emmanuel Levinas notes, "is a relation that exceeds the biological-empirical," and it cannot, as Gabriel Marcel emphasizes, "in any way be reduced to procreation."

It is high time we discarded the flesh-and-blood notion of parenthood, the view that parenthood is predicated on a direct biological link with the child, that a child is truly ours only if it shares our DNA. Genetics informs paternity and maternity, but it has no essential bearing on parenthood.

There is a passage in Anton Chekhov's novella The Black Monk that poignantly articulates the absurdity of the biological view of parenthood:

While he was consoling Tanya, Andrey surmised that, aside from this young woman and her father, there were no other people in the whole wide world who loved him as their own; if it hadn't been for these two, he, who had lost his parents at a very young age, would have probably never known that pure affection and naïve, non-judgmental love that we only feel for very close blood relatives.

The fact that Andrey experiences the love of two biological strangers as "that pure affection and naïve, non-judgmental love that we only feel for very close blood relatives" belies his concomitant restriction of this same love to blood kin, thus revealing the illogicality and confusion of his position.


Parenthood is beyond necessity

Not being a function of biology or natural programming, parenthood is an articulation of thought and will. It is a task that we set ourselves and that demands our wholehearted commitment. As such it is a matter of choice, decision and, consequently, freedom. This, in turn, means that there is nothing necessary about parenthood, in the sense that we are naturally programmed or hard-wired to become parents. While we may be hard-wired to propagate our species and to make sure that our young survive long enough to be able to take care of themselves and procreate in turn, we are not made to be parents. Unlike the propagation of the species, unlike procreation, which is an instinctual component of our make-up as living beings, parenthood is neither instinctual nor bound to happen or to be expected. (In terms of decision-making, parenthood is on a par with the free choice not to procreate, to break the natural cycle.)

Being beyond necessity, parenthood is always a miracle, for it may as well not have been. It is a gift, freely and spontaneously bestowed on ourselves and our children. This insight is staged with particular vividness and poignancy in Homer's treatment of the father-son theme in the Odyssey.

* * *

No sooner has the council of gods decided Odysseus' safe passage back to Ithaca than Hermes is dispatched to the island of Ogygia, where Odysseus is being held captive by Calypso, to broker his release. Meanwhile, Athena, shape-shifting into Odysseus' old friend Mentes, flies to Ithaca to enjoin Telemachos — the son whom Odysseus had left behind as an infant twenty years earlier, when he set out for Troy — to travel to Pylos and Sparta and gather news about his father, who, as Telemachos learns, is alive, about to return to his kingdom and wreak vengeance on the host of suitors besieging the royal palace in quest of his mother Penelope's — the faithful, steadfast queen's and putative widow's — hand in marriage. As if to reassure himself of the identity of the young prince, whom he has presumably never laid eyes on before (or, at least, not since he was an infant), Mentes/Athena observes: "Indeed, you are strangely like [Odysseus] around the head, the fine eyes ..." Not satisfied, it would appear, with the concrete evidence of physical resemblance between the young prince and the absent king, however, Mentes/Athena further presses Telemachos for an "accurate answer" to the question: "Are you, big as you are, the very child of Odysseus?" To which Telemachos replies: "My mother says indeed I am his. I for my part do not know. Nobody really knows his own father."

This exchange between Mentes/Athena and Telemachos at the beginning of the Odyssey pointedly articulates the complexity and inherent uncertainty of filiation in the age of pre-DNA-testing. Establishing paternal descent, Homer suggests, is predicated on three factors: (1) physical resemblance between parent and child; (2) affirmation of lineage; and (3) the truth value of the affirmation as a function of whom the person in question has been known or said to be descended from (for instance, based on the testimony of more or less trustworthy or 'authorized' individuals, or the presumed parents' marital status). Clearly, affirmation trumps physical likeness, which, Homer implies, plays a supporting role in establishing filiation at best, given that often enough biologically unrelated persons may look sufficiently alike to be mistaken for blood kin, while biologically related persons may not look alike at all.

As Telemachos' qualified response indicates, moreover, his own affirmation of paternal descent would have to depend on his mother's affirmation that Odysseus is, in fact, his biological father — the implication being that, if anyone, it is the mother who should be able to vouch for the paternity of her offspring; yet given that, as Homer suggests, a mother's genealogical testimony can ostensibly not be trusted, the father's biological identity must structurally remain uncertain. It is in this sense that, as Telemachos surmises, "nobody really knows" — with complete biological certainty — "his own father." Or, in the phrasing of Roman law: pater semper incertus est — the father is always uncertain. Affirmation thus emerges as the sole 'reliable' criterion for 'ascertaining' paternal descent: In other words, you are the child of the one who is known, said and, most importantly, claims to be your father.

It is precisely this understanding of paternity and filiation that is most vividly brought home to us later in the Odyssey, in the famous reunion scene between father and son, who literally do not know each other (after all, Telemachos was only an infant when his father left for Troy, and now, twenty years later, neither knows what the other looks like). This is how Homer solves the problem of mutual recognition between father and son: He sets up the scene of their first encounter in such a way that Odysseus happens to be present when Eumaios, the royal swineherd, addresses Telemachos by name, thus identifying him to his long-lost father; he then has Odysseus reveal himself to his son: "I am your father, for whose sake you are always grieving ..." Far from sending father and son into each others' arms, however, this declaration provokes the following reply from Telemachos, who seems to have no compelling reason to trust that the stranger thus addressing him is speaking the truth: "No, you are not Odysseus my father ..." To which Odysseus, in turn, replies: "Telemachos, it does not become you to wonder too much at your own father when he is here, nor doubt him — no other Odysseus than I will ever come back to you, but here I am, and I am as you see me ..." These words, finally, are forceful enough to pierce the armor of the son's wariness and allay his doubts: " ... but now," Homer tells us, "Telemachos folded his great father in his arms and lamented, shedding tears, and desire for mourning rose in both of them ..."

What makes the son relent and believe someone who was a complete stranger to him but a moment ago and now claims to be his father is the latter's emphatic affirmation of his paternity coupled with an express commitment to parenthood, unambiguously — if somewhat crudely — articulated in the stern admonition that the son better believe it since no "other Odysseus than [he] will ever come back" and assume responsibility for him.

Putting aside the question of what appears, from our contemporary vantage point, as the misogynistic double standard underlying Telemachos' credulity vis-à-vis his presumed father's affirmation of paternity and his concomitant distrust of his mother's testimony on the subject — what makes Homer's staging of this seminal father- and-son reunion so significant in the present context is the fact that the certainty and validity of biological filiation attained by both parties must remain spurious and a matter of faith, given that both father and son cannot but ultimately rely on the mother's account of her son's paternal lineage, which, however, has been presented as unreliable. In other words, the dilemma Telemachos was facing when asked to provide an "accurate answer" about his father at the beginning of the Odyssey has not at all been resolved. And yet, both father and son seem to be perfectly happy with the level of filiational certainty established by the father's affirmation of paternity and declaration of commitment, and the son's acceptance of both as valid. On what grounds?

It seems to me that Homer here subtly valorizes a framework for thinking about parenthood that is squarely at odds with the biological paradigm — one based on commitment and trust. In other words, what makes Odysseus Telemachos' father in the truest sense — the sense operative in the notion of parenthood as I wish it to be understood — is not their presumably shared DNA but the fact that Odysseus alone "will ever come back" for Telemachos, that Odysseus alone is willing to assume full responsibility for being a father to his son, to give himself to him wholly and unreservedly. Even if Telemachos turned out not to be Odysseus' biological son, Homer implies (after all, they will never know for sure), Odysseus will still be Telemachos' father by virtue of recognizing and declaring his commitment to him as his son. Concomitantly, the very question of biology becomes irrelevant in view of Odysseus' affirmation of his paternity in spite of its biological undecidability. In fact, it is this affirmation-cum-commitment-declaration and its acceptance by Telemachos that ex post facto validate the presumed biological bond between father and son in the first place. Thus, Homer can be said to subordinate the biological to the ethical.

This commitment paradigm of parenthood, which may well have been the most plausible framework for 'ascertaining' paternity and establishing parenthood on the spear side before the rise of biology and the advent of genetics, ought to be universally adopted for our own age, in which the very notion of the biologically-based nuclear family has been radically transformed by scientific and technological advances in the field of reproduction and in which, according to recent statistics, "there are tens of thousands of children born every year ... who are not biologically related to all the adults who intend to be their parents, and who will actually function as such."


Parenthood bespeaks love born of responsibility rather than responsibility born of love

The gift of parenthood is the gift of love we bestow on ourselves and our children — love understood not as an emotion so much as an ever-renewed responsibility, commitment and fidelity to what I call the fundamental truth in a parent's life: the decision to become a parent, which determines and irradiates its every aspect. Parenthood, Gabriel Marcel writes, "only exists as a function of a responsibility assumed and maintained." What we commonly call love — a singular, at times overpowering, feeling or emotion that opens onto a steady state of being, heart and mind — rests on the foundations of love in the sense of fidelity to a lived truth.

There are two kinds of love as commonly understood. Love born of responsibility and love bearing responsibility (which, in turn, feeds the love it is continually reborn from). As a second-order phenomenon predicated on choice, decision and freedom, the love we take to be a core component of parenthood is one born of responsibility for our choices, decisions, freedom and, ultimately, another human being as the very end of our freedom. When Immanuel Kant said that we should never regard any human being as a means to an end but as an end in himself, what he meant was simply that we should love the other — and love him not with the functional love that is the manifestation of our own desires and needs, that fickle and unreliable love that may or may not die once our desires have been slaked and our needs fulfilled, but with the love that articulates a fundamental commitment beyond the vagaries of emotion.

Only love born of responsibility is capable of providing the foundation that would justify our inviting another human being to give himself over to us completely and allow us to become his parent.


Parenthood constantly aspires towards the condition of adoption

Insofar as parenthood is a function and articulation of thought, will, choice, decision, freedom and ever-renewed responsibility and fidelity to a lived truth, its most exemplary manifestation reveals itself as adoption. For when it comes to the parent-child nexus, adoption most palpably and saliently attests to the parent's freedom leading to a decision and a choice leading to an event through which parent and child are created and ever reborn as parent and child. In any given parent-child situation, true parenthood begins when the child is adopted — in a sense yet to be explained — by the parent, which first makes the latter truly a parent. This applies to biological and non-biological parents alike, for adoption (in the most profound, ideal sense) means receiving another human being solely for his own sake and irrespective of our own emotional, psychological, material states and needs. Hence, it is true to say that parenthood constantly aspires towards the condition of adoption.


Excerpted from The Wisdom of Parenthood by Michael Eskin. Copyright © 2013 Michael Eskin. Excerpted by permission of Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc..
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