Friday, November 23, 2007

Thankful for obligation

Thanksgiving. It was a quiet (at least as much as that word can apply to any time spent with my two young sons) day spent at home, with my wife, and boys, our au pair, and a friend of hers who's spending a week with us. We were going to spend the day with my mom and oldest brother, his girlfriend, my nephew, and her two daughters. But logistics (and custody issues) got the best of our plans. My other two brothers were not going to be able to make it in any case.

So, we stayed home. It's finally gotten cool here (relatively at least). It's chilly enough to make a fire at night and not feel too silly about it. I miss autumns (and winters and springs). Soon enough. Soon enough.

I've had time to think these past few days. Spent a good time reading "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Le Guin. Hadn't read her before. A thoughtful book. You never can tell, when you read a book, whether the book motivates contemplations or simply facilitates what's already being contemplated. Part of the story however involves a human species of a rather different sort of biology, thus impacting child-bearing and child-rearing.

I love my boys. I'm eagerly anticipating the arrival of number three. I really wouldn't have it any other way, childless that is. It's a choice that I made long ago. But it's not easy. Sometimes I lament the time that is spent, the time and energy that is dictated by accommodating them, their needs, their wants, their desires. I realize how much time a parent needs to give to children.

Of course, I can't be certain that time would be spent fruitfully otherwise. Aren't we all more productive when we're busy? Don't we become lax and lazy when an abundance of time presents itself? I recall my first summer back in school for the PhD. I hated it, the down time. 13 weeks! I counted the days. It was too long to go without a reason. My second summer was much easier: I enrolled in an intense summer workshop (garnering 8 credits or so of coursework). Not fully having my schedule at my service, perhaps I value more the time that is truly my own.

Of course, this is a choice as well. Many parents (perhaps fathers especially) would choose--have chosen--an easier path, shirking parental duties. I think of William Fulbright. The biography I read of him presents a man I admire in some ways, and yet one who gave little of himself to his children. I think of Alexander Graham Bell, who wrote in a letter to his wife: "...I somehow or other appear to be more interested in things than people, in people wholesale rather than in persons individual." [cited by Harlan Lane, "When the Mind Hears," p. 342]

I love my boys, our interactions. And yet, it would be false to say I wouldn't at times like a hiatus, a week or month without obligation. While I have no desire to be childless, I feel in some ways I understand better the value of liberty that those have whose choice it is to remain childless, perhaps better than they do themselves.

I think of the words of the late psycholinguist Liz Bates who defending bilingualism conceded that there is a cost in terms of the rate of cognitive development, perhaps even residual effects for adults on the speed of speech (even of thought) for those who learn more than one language fluently. She said simply: "It's like having more than one child. Sure, the first child loses out on some of your attention; your love is more spread out. But the benefits outweigh the costs."

I still smile today, thinking of her offhand remark. It is so true.

1 comment:

Lilian said...

Is she right about bilingualism, though? As a bilingual I might agree since sometimes I feel rather overwhelmed by the two languages crowding my brain (plus French and some Spanish), but don't other researchers say otherwise? (more flexible thinking, a different kind of intelligence). I know I should read more about the subject...

anyway... I feel the same way about parenting. I wrote a similar post a while back in which I cite one of your posts on the subject a couple of times. It's really really hard, but "priceless" too (yeah, that stupid commercial :).

I'd love having a #3, but I think it would be tough on the whole family. As you already know K doesn't want it, so I won't press the issue any further.