Dilemmas of Parenthood: Gender, Culture and Subjectivity

Why do people choose to procreate? Better still, do people choose to procreate? Or are kids a product of the pronatalist bias and have absolutely nothing to do with the emotional indispensability that is traditionally attached to their existence? Has reproduction gained an unnecessary glorification out of the realms of sustainability or is there actually more to parenting and inheritance than just mutual biological affiliation? If there is, is it the same for everyone across the globe or does it vary from person to person, culture to culture and even across time? The following paragraphs seek to confront these questions which arise while dealing with the complex issue of subjectivism and relativism vis-a-vis parent-child relationships.

It is common knowledge that people reproduce and reproduction happens to be the basis of continuity of a society, and civilisation itself. But this does not in any way impose the presence of a loving, caring or even economical relationship between children and their biological parents. Notwithstanding, a majority of people on this planet have chosen not only to bring about a population crisis but also to defend it emphatically, using the abstract notion of love and meaningful trans-generational relationships. It is interesting to note that this argument is not based on the importance of love in general but on the partial love showered by parents on their children, and only their own children. In his paper Morality, Parents and Children, James Rachels notes:

“...as parents, we do play favourites. Parental love is partial through and through. And we think there is nothing wrong with this. In fact we normally think there is something wrong with the parent who is not deeply partial, where his own children are concerned.”

It has been an accepted operating truth of the past few centuries that parents owe special physical, mental and economic attention to their own children. But this was not always the case, and is still not functional in many cultures across the world even today. Cultural and historical relativism plays a huge role in determining the kind of practices that will be followed by parents while raising their children in a particular community. Consequently, the way children perceive the role and stature of parents in their lives will also vary. There are a whole range of political, economic, religious and even climatic factors which encourage varied parent-child obligations. Statist philosophies exist and have always existed right from the times of the Greek Athenian state to the ideas expressed by Adolf Hitler and even further. Fasting for a child’s welfare and killing one’s own female child in the womb are both very real and commonplace experiences in India. Moreover, there are general differences in parenting practices which entire communities in different parts of the world follow. For example, many tribes across the tribal culture in the world follow the centuries’ old ‘Attachment Parenting’ approach while taking care of their offspring. This is easily an idea which would seem absolutely formidable to most working parents in the 21st century urban demographic. Moreover, keeping the individual interests aside, the idea itself can go extremely wrong in patriarchal setups (which exist almost all over the world even today). To cite a more detailed example of cultural differences in parenting practices, let us consider the New Vrindaban Hare Krishna community of West Virginia which followed a system of community child- rearing until very recently. The children of the community were taught and brought up in the Gurukula, in an effort to restrict the influences of the materialistic world outside and to further the children’s minds towards Krishna Consciousness. This ‘outside world’, fortunately or unfortunately, also encompassed the parents. It was only when cases of child abuse mushroomed was this practice actively boycotted and ultimately stopped. Some members of the community are trying to revive the practice in a more organised and regulated manner, keeping an eye on the aim that the system was established for in the first place. Now, even if parents across the world were to ignore the things that went wrong in such a setup, the very idea of sending their kids away and consequently missing out on the joys of parenting and watching their kids grow old might make some of them shudder.

It also deserves attention that meticulous parental obligation in the name of immortalised emotional bonds is not always convenient. Or let us say- it takes different courses. In Eskimo cultures, for example, many parents end up killing their children because they know they will not be able to feed the young ones properly. Arguably, this too is a form of special attention and love, even if it takes a slightly unconventional path when compared to other cultures. As a matter of fact, even Eskimo parents do not kill someone else’s children while keeping the physical conditions of the habitat in mind. To bring in another example, the Callatians ate the bodies of the dead kin because they felt that even after death; their elder generation will continue to live inside them. This form of remembrance is sure to horrify a devout Hindu Brahmin.

The children’s side of the argument is deeply interesting when we bear in mind the fact that children do not really owe anything to their parents when they are born. They did not come to this world by choice, they were forced out. But still, mutually caring and loving relationships between children and their parents are not a rare sight at all though there definitely are differences on what such a happy relationship looks like. It is one of the primary Western and Indian differences that Indian male children stay with their parents even after they get married and get involved with their next generation, while the same practice is considered to be a serious stain on personal independence and worthiness in the western culture (for all genders). In countries like the USA, it is considered absolutely normal for children to ‘move out’ of their parents’ home once they enter adulthood. In fact, that is the norm. In Jewish, Norwegian and Japanese cultures too, children are brought up in a way which makes them independent sooner. Various minor independence-building lifestyle activities are characteristic to households in these cultures. In the Jewish culture for example, there is an obligation for parents to facilitate their children to swim.

But these arguments do not mean to conclude that all parents and all children will work just the way the community makes them work. It does not mean that all Jewish children can swim or that all American parents push their children out of the house on their eighteenth birthday. This is where subjectivism comes in. There are always persons and ideas in a community which do not fit with the larger framework of the community itself. Some individuals living in a particular society may not conform to the ideals or practices of that society or at least, may not follow them exactly as they are. They might have a different take on these due to their personal experiences in life. Depending on the rigidity of the society and the extent to which it cherishes its particular ideas, these people may or may not be accepted by the community. Moreover, sometimes a change of place and community can significantly alter the ideas of a particular person on almost any subject. For example, parents not willing to let their female children stay out of the house till late at night in India may not hesitate to do so in Japan. Thus, subjectivism does play an important role in shaping a person’s decision to act in a particular way in a given situation.

The fact that parents love their own children more than children in general poses a significant counter argument to subjectivism. In the century that we’re living in, it is hard to imagine that a couple will have children and simply forget all about them. It is also very difficult to think of parents whose general kindness surpasses their specific love for their children. In his article mentioned before, James Rachels puts forward the arguments from social roles, proximity, and personal goods which come in the way of an all encompassing, impartial love. He also mentions the problems with each argument as they presuppose the existence of caring parents and a well organised and impartial social system. But none of it is true. Let us consider for example, two different settings for a child to grow up in. Let the first be a well provided orphanage with a warm and welcoming caretaker and the second, a home where a child lives with abusive parents. A person who thinks straight would definitely want the child to end up in the orphanage. As mentioned before, female foeticide can also be cited as an example where a parent hates his own child so much that he kills her inside the womb. Each system, culture, and time period has its own set of problems to which different people respond differently. Thus it is important to take the varying and volatile nature of the human mind into account and to leave space for subjectivist arguments while discussing the important realm of morality, parenting and children.

As an answer to the arguments to parental impartiality, James Rachels also devised the ‘Partial Bias’ theory, which seems as close to utopia as one can possibly get. He proposes that parents should focus on meeting the basic and immediate needs of their own children at first; but as soon as that is done, they should prioritise the necessities of other unprivileged children before the luxuries of their own. This is a wonderful moral idea which can bring the practical realm of morality as close to impartiality as possible.

Bringing subjectivism back into the picture, it remains to argue that some people may choose not to have kids at all. This, however, is not the norm in any culture since no culture would ever propagate its own extinction. Thus, this is subjectivism at its best. ‘Childfree’ (not childless) life is not a taboo anymore. Going by the 2010 U.S. census data, the percentage of childless people aged 40 to 44 has arisen to 20% as compared to the 10% in 1979.

In an article Childless by choice: Statistics show more are opting out of parenthood published on triblive.com, Kellie B. Gormly writes about Kaye D.Walters, author of Kidfree and lovin’ it:

“Walters, 51, surveyed more than 3,800 adults without children in 55 countries for her book, published last year. People's reasons for not having kids include the desire for freedom and free time, not wanting the physical wear and tear from pregnancy and raising a child, wanting to focus on a romantic relationship with a partner, or wanting to avoid a financial strain, she says. Childfree people often love travelling, which can be difficult with children, and they fear the irreversible nature of a decision: If they have a kid and find that parenthood is not for them, there's no going back.”

Such studies bring to light the changing concepts of parenting and the progressive views on the same. The fact that people have started choosing whether or not to perform a basic biological function is really a new step towards claiming control over one’s life, as opposed to following the norms unthinkingly. This is not to say that no one enters parenthood consciously. Indeed, there is remarkable increase in planned pregnancies and an increasing awareness towards family planning.

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