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The "mommy wars" and the good life

By Jean Kazez

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Being a parent takes you by surprise. As much as you might love whatever you do for a living, that thing is going to seem less important when a child enters the picture. Ask anyone who has children what comes first. They'll all say the same thing.

Of course coming first isn't the same thing as being everything. But what if children do become everything, at least for a time? You are a lawyer on the fast-track, let's say, but then during your three-month maternity leave you decide you'd like to keep on being a full-time mother. Some people are going to think it's a tragedy if you follow through, and some people are going to regard you as a saint. They're going to think it's a very beautiful thing that love and nurturing won out over ambition and competition. Tragic? Saintly? Both calls seem overblown. What should we think about accomplished people who leave their jobs to be full-time parents?

Perhaps we shouldn't think anything. If somebody wants to devote every waking hour to her offspring, that's her choice -- let her do it, or spend her days grooming her dog or painting her toenails, for that matter. This is all very pleasant. But as an approach to value, "to each his own" isn't really satisfactory. We don't really believe all ways of living are equal. Besides, if you've got a choice to make yourself, or you need to give advice to someone making a work-family decision, you'll need more than an attitude of tolerance. You'll actually need to broach a classic question of philosophy: what is central to living a good life?

Ancient philosophy was the beginning of philosophical thinking about the good life. If you had to put it in the smallest possible nutshell, the answer all the ancients give is that a good life is dominated by reason. That's the highest, best and most human part of us, and so we can't flourish without putting it to full use.

Those who think a woman's place is on the job are sometimes worried that reason must inevitably be squandered at home. That's the theme of Linda Hirshman's book Get to Work, which made a big media splash in the US in 2006. She argues for a renaissance of the Greeks' esteem for reason, and an end of the flight of professional women from work to home.

On the face of it, the move home is a move away from reason. When my children were born ten years ago, I fell in with a delightful group of women, all of them refugees from challenging occupations. Robyn, for instance, had been a math major in college and did statistical work for a phone company before her daughter was born. Now at home full-time, her days were certainly spent in a less brainy fashion.

But what the ancients admire so much is not braininess. For both Plato and Aristotle, the consummate use of reason involves contemplation of timeless realities. Robyn did none of this at the phone company, and none at home. The ancients did regard reason as having practical application, but what aspects of practical reason are critical for the good life? Reason, in the relevant sense, is bound up with virtue. For Aristotle, reason makes us brave instead of overwrought or timid; truthful instead of boastful or self-effacing; liberal spenders, instead of spendthrifts or tight-wads. Generally, reason enables a person to find the virtuous middle road between extremes of feeling and behavior. In Plato, reason presides over the appetites and passions. keeping them in their place, but giving them their due -- it keeps our souls (and our lives) in good order.

The ancients actually had nothing very nice to say about work like Robyn's or about mothers, but looking past their complicated prejudices, this is what we see: reason had a chance to flower when Robyn worked -- she had to interact temperately with managers and co-workers; but also at home. There too, there were plenty of chances to be courageous, truthful, liberal, and the rest; to find a rational middle course; to keep appetites and passions in their place.

An esteem for reason won't necessarily argue for staying on the job. But let's look more deeply at the matter. Despite my fondness for the Greeks and for reason, I can't make myself believe that the good life is simply, entirely, exclusively, in essence, the life of reason. There is, however, a thought underlying all the exaltation of reason that has real power and persuasiveness.

In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, reason at first gets its preeminent position from a supposed difference between humans and animals. Humans have reason, animals don't. This isn't the idea I'm drawing attention to. In fact, it seems silly: should I really spend my life trying to be especially human and not too animal? For a new mother that would mean avoiding the animalistic act of breastfeeding; in the name of my humanity, I'm certainly not going to employ a wet-nurse or buy a crate of formula.

Later on in the Ethics, Aristotle acknowledges that the things we strive for needn't be unique to human beings. The gods, he admits, have reason too. He writes, "We ought not to follow the makers of proverbs and 'Think human, since you are human' ... Rather as far as we can, we ought to be pro-immortal, and go to all lengths to live a life in accord with our supreme element..." The very good idea here is that we should live our lives in accord with what is best in ourselves, whatever that may be.

I can understand the reaction of someone who thinks women give up what's best in themselves when they settle into full time mothering. Another one of my friends, in the early days of motherhood, was Ellen. She was a Harvard graduate and had nearly completed a PhD in anthropology. She had done field work in Africa, but hadn't yet written her dissertation. Now her enchanting little boy took up all her time. Despite periodic efforts, the work never got done. To some, I'm sure, this is a classic case of "how the mighty have fallen," but is it really?

The question is what the best in ourselves really amounts to. When we have worked extremely hard, over many years, to acquire a skill or a body of knowledge, it's natural for this to seem like the best thing in us. Looked at in this manner, the best thing in Ellen is her extensive knowledge of African cultures. The things that occupy our effort and attention and make us different from each other loom large, and everything else seems to recede into the background.

But suppose a wicked witch demands just one of your capacities. What are you going to give up? I'd give up my in-depth knowledge of philosophy long before I'd give up my fundamental ability to feel happy. Equally important (though further in the background) is my ability to reflect on my own decisions and shape my own life. I value the fact that I'm a person with a specific identity: I'm Jean, not an amorphous blob soaking up the viewpoints of everyone around me. I'm glad I have an inner make up that enables me to change for the better over time, instead of stagnating. I wouldn't give that up either. And then, very importantly, I'm a person who can care about other people in a way that approaches the way I care about myself.

I like the motto of the United Negro College Fund: a mind is a terrible thing to waste; but I think the terrible things to waste are really multiple. Among them are the capacities for: happiness, autonomy, self, progress, and morality. Some of these capacities presuppose reason, but not all of them. To make use of them all is to have something much richer than "the life of reason". Compared to these fundamentals, my in depth knowledge of philosophy is icing on the cake. I sure wouldn't want to give it up; it contributes something valuable to my life; but it's not one of the make-or-break parts of me that determine whether my life is going well or not well. If it's a pity to squander my education, it's a much greater pity to squander any of these basics.

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the possibility of flourishing

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