'Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia' by Leah Goldrick

Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia

by Leah Goldrick

Parenting

As the mother of a baby, I often hear admonitions and complaints from fellow parents about how hard parenting is and how stressful it can be to take care of children, particularly babies and toddlers. Sleep deprivation, constant work, loss of former lifestyle, expense, societal disregard for the importance of parenting, and lack of paid parental leave all top the list of concerns.

Much of what is said about the difficulty of modem parenting certainly has merit, but griping seems to have become endemic among parents, obscuring what should be a predominately joyful experience and a precious gift to family and society. This phenomenon is what Ross Douthat of the New York Times comically terms, “The parental pity party.”

Practising Stoics know that the quality of our thoughts about something dictate how we feel about it. With the right attitude, parenthood need not be a constant struggle; it can be fertile ground for eudaimonia, or a contented state of human flourishing, regardless of inherent hardships. This 2300-year-old philosophy is particularly applicable to common concerns that parents face today.

Concentrate Every Minute like a Roman on Doing What’s in Front of You – Focusing on the Present

Babies and small children require non-stop care. Parents often grumble about the amount of work that is involved in taking care of children, and how it must be accomplished in spite of everything else we have to do during the course of our busy day.  With the responsibility of having a baby in the house, it often happens that an entire day, or even a week will pass without me being able to cross various tasks off of my growing to-do list, which can be very discouraging.

Rather than thinking of childcare as labor, or as an impediment to achieving other goals, perhaps we should focus on present moment, on being with the child. Marcus Aurelius implores us to:

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. … do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered , irritable… If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.” [1]

Focusing on the present moment has helped to prevent me from being overwhelmed by responsibilities and anxieties about the future. Rather than the endless mental chatter of “Will the baby go down for his nap? Will I be able to get anything done today?” I concentrate on doing each thing one at a time. I am able to enjoy what I am doing more and not get bogged down by a pressing list of tasks and concerns.

Think That Being Inferior is Preferable to Being Ambitious – Societal Disregard for Parenting

One dilemma that American parents face is that society doesn’t seem to place as much value on the act of raising children as it does on pursuing a successful career or earning money. This is evidenced by the fact that the United States is the only country in the developed world without any paid parental leave. There is also a common tendency to look down on stay at home parents of both genders.

The later Stoic philosophers, including Seneca and Epictetus, deeply valued parenting as a gift to society. Musonius Rufus, best known for being Epictetus’ tutor, advocated for the philosophical education of women and pointed out that philosophy was particularly applicable to the raising of children and management of the household.

Like Musonius, we must remember that regardless of cultural paradigms, philosophy applies just as much to the domestic aspects of life as it does to our career or financial matters. His comments on the necessity of virtue for raising children and running a household could today apply to either gender:

In the first place a woman must run her household and pick out what is beneficial for her home. In these activities I claim that philosophy is particularly helpful, since each of these activities is an aspect of life, and philosophy is nothing other than the science of living, and the philosopher, as Socrates says, continually contemplates this, ‘what good or evil has been done in his house.[2]

Now, wouldn’t the woman who practises philosophy be just, and a blameless partner in life, and a good worker in common causes, and devoted in her responsibilities towards her husband and her children, and free in every way from greed or ambition? Who could be like this more than the woman who practises philosophy, since she must inevitably think that doing wrong is worse than being wronged, because it is more disgraceful to do wrong, and to think that being inferior is preferable to being ambitious, and in addition, to love her children more than her own life. [3]

Endure and Renounce – Adjusting Your Attitude

A popular parenting book entitled All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, stresses that parents are often less happy than their childless peers because of their expectations about parenting. The author, Jennifer Senior, posits that parents often believe having children will make them happier, but the reality of dirty diapers and 3:00 AM awakenings is vastly more difficult than they had anticipated. Many parents are well into their 30s and financially independent by the time they have children, and are distressed at having to give up the lifestyle, hobbies, freedom and income that they once had.

I can say that I sometimes experienced similar feelings as a new parent, but when I changed my expectations about what life with a baby would be like, my attitude transformed. Rather than ruminating on the fact that I can’t easily go hiking, mountain biking, or out for dinner like I used to, I remember Epictetus’ instruction, “Endure and renounce.” [4]

By bringing our values into accord with the Stoic virtue of sophrosyne, or moderation, we remember that life isn’t about being entertained and having fun; such things are indifferent for our happiness. Since only virtue is necessary for happiness, being good and doing good, our lives shouldn’t be spent in pursuit of indifferent distractions.

I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything; I am able to be of service to my son. Being of service to others is a good, and that is enough. Our lives as parents should be as simple and unstressful as possible.  This may mean living on less money, saying no to unnecessary obligations, or finding satisfaction and joy in small things. According to Seneca “What is good is that I choose well.” [5]

Quickly Return to Yourself – Remembering What You Can Control

Many aspects of parenthood are out of our control. We do not control our child’s temperament, his sleep, his health, and so on. While sleep deprivation is a given, a baby’s sleep, or lack thereof, is not fully within our control. It is easy to feel frustrated after pulling yourself from your warm bed in the middle of the night for the fifth time, and equally hard to be philosophical when operating on very little sleep. Parenting well, indeed living well, relies on being able to keep your emotions in check and your perspective on a situation relatively placid even if the situation is difficult.

According to Marcus Aurelius, “When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts.” [6]

Instead of thinking, “Dear God, why won’t my son sleep?” I try to remind myself that not only is this is phase quite temporary, but it’s in a baby’s nature to wake up at night. I cannot control his nature. I find it helpful to keep my thoughts confined to what I can control; how respond to him.

Since I cannot change my son’s nature, I also don’t worry about comparing his sleep habits to those of other babies, or about trying to “train,” him to sleep. I try not to become frustrated each time the situation changes, because like everything in life, it is transitory.

Rather than worrying about the pressure of culture to produce a perfect child, who always sleeps through the night, remember, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.” [7]

It is Difficult to be Good at Helping – Reflecting on Mistakes

Certainly no one can be the perfect parent, always mentally tranquil and perfectly composed, given the inherent frustrations involved with raising children. The best we can do is to be good helpers and role models for our children, continually striving for excellence.

Even Seneca admits that it is difficult to be good at helping others. But if we are to help, he advises that we should do so graciously, rather than complaining about our situation.  “We are evasive and assist only grudgingly. No wonder that our reticence sticks out more in people’s minds than the fact that we eventually relented; no wonder that we are not held in esteem for such ungracious giving.” [8]

It is inevitable that as parents, we will fail to live up to the Stoic ideal, or occasionally gripe about our lives. Fortunately, each day provides a new opportunity to meditate on and improve our conduct, to find joy, and to learn from our mistakes. “How plain does it appear that there is not another condition of life so well suited for philosophizing as this in which you now happen to be.” [9]

Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

References

[1] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 2:5.

[2] Lutz, Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates (1947).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Epictetus, Enchiridion (2004).

[5] Seneca, Letter 92. 11-12

[6]  Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 6:11

[7] Ibid., 6:52

[8] Seneca, On Benefits, I.1.8.

[9] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 11:7

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