Beyond evolutionary and societal drives, personal ones lead people to make other people
Knowing why you became a parent can give you the insight to improve your parenting
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
Have you ever asked yourself why you wanted (or want) to have children?
Those who wrestled with the decision or struggled to conceive a child have probably thought about it a good deal. And some have always known the answer, maybe since they were kids themselves.
But for many parents and would-be parents, the question may seem odd or elementary – which makes it a great question to tackle.
One answer is that we, as a species, harbor an evolutionary drive to propagate. Our small part – at its most basic, perhaps unconscious and even (by design) pleasurable level – is to carry on our DNA to the next generation. If enough of us do that (and we avoid destroying the planet), human beings will thrive.
Another answer is simply social and cultural norms. The majority of the people you know, and most of those you don’t, are doing it. This is why people who don’t have kids often have an answer to “Why?” at the ready: because everyone asks them. Rarely, though, are parents asked what motivated them to have kids. There’s little need to explain behavior that is typical and expected.
But even with evolutionary hardwiring and societal peer pressure as part of the equation, that usually doesn’t fully explain the unique, individual drives that lead people to want to make other people.
Whatever your reason, it says something important about you and about the kind of parent you are or hope to be. I think it’s worth exploring.
You are the parenting expert you’ve been looking for
Why did you decide to have children? Why do you want one, or a second or third? What is it about your personal desires, history, influences and beliefs that led to such a major life decision? Why spend so much time and money, and take on all that additional stress, anxiety and responsibility?
Knowing why you got into this game can give you the insight needed to play it to the best of your ability. You are your own best guide to navigating the million and one parenting questions, conundrums and choices you will face from here on out.
Historically, people have had children out of economic necessity, to work the farm, for example. Conversely, children can be symbols of prosperity. They can be a reflection of yourself or a vessel for your own wishes and goals. Or parenting can be a noble act of sacrifice for the greater good.
Pete Seeger is credited with this sweet answer: “We do it for the high wages … kisses.”
When I asked friends and family this question, it was interesting to see how some knew their answers right away while others stared off in the distance with a puzzled look on their faces, as if they’d never pondered it before.
Here’s a taste:
My wife had her answer at the ready: “I wanted to feel the intense love a parent has for a child.” It’s a desire she’s had since she was a young girl.
- Re-create my own childhood joys
- Grow and share familial love
- Make myself a better person
- Start my own family after being on my own for a long time
- Add to a greater sense of life’s purpose
- Fit in and meet society’s expectations
- Because kids are fun to hang out with and talk to
- Help make the world a better place
- Be a better parent than I had
- A spiritual call to action
- Repay what I owe my parents
- Give in to a biological urge
- Cultivate a strong relationship with my kids so they remain a part of my life after they move out
As I began to tell her my reason, I saw a nervous look on her face.
“I feel like we should have had this conversation before we had kids,” she said, cutting me off. “What if I don’t think your answer is a good one?”
“Too late,” I said.
My reasoning lies in the high premium I put on experience: travel. Film. Reading. Writing. Storytelling. Humor. Food and drink (more drink than food). Spirituality. Nature.
Being a parent is a unique experience. I am aware of the missed adventures and career options I might have pursued were it not for my two daughters. But still, being their father comes out far ahead.
I also hubristically thought I’d be very good at parenting. There’s a part of me that wanted to improve upon my own upbringing. Since I was a kid, I’d been convinced I would be an amazing father.
That was, of course, before I became one. Parenting, it turns out, is humbling in the way it exposes your insecurities and personality flaws. I’m getting better, and I try to live up to that potential, but I routinely fall short – which every parent can relate to.
Put your answer to good use
“Mindful parenting” is one of the most enlightened trends in the history of parenting techniques. It’s about being present with your children but also better understanding your motivations and feelings while parenting. Getting in touch with your motivation for becoming a parent gives you a perspective too often lacking at difficult parenting moments.
My answer, about wanting these unique and varied parenting experiences, has helped me embrace a wider spectrum of them. It’s easy to revel in a bear hug or a shared laugh, but I’m extending that love of experience for more challenging moments, such getting screamed at in the middle of a bath time. Staying present and connected to whatever is going on when I’m with my daughters gives them more of the attention they need from me and makes meaningful moments more frequent and poignant.
Your own answer to the question is something of a parental compass needle too, pointing the way when you are unsure how to parent in a given situation.
Get back to the roots of your parenting motivation. It could impact how you respond to frustrating moments, how you spend your weekends, what behavior you model and how you talk to your children about life.
New CNN Parenting column: Go Ask Your Dad
This column, The Wisdom Project, is getting a spinoff series called Go Ask Your Dad, about parenting wisdom. There is no shortage of parenting advice out there – professional, familial, terrible – but there is not enough that looks beyond the new trend or list of tips to get at what we want out of life for ourselves and our children.
Subscribe to this column
Go Ask Your Dad will explore useful paradigms and best parenting practices that will help you think of old problems in new ways or new problems previous generations didn’t face. And for free, I’ll throw in social science research, personal anecdotes and too many metaphors.
We all need guideposts through this (at times, uncharted) desert, so that we know we’re on the right path.
Start with the question of why you headed out on the path in the first place. The answer to why you became a parent will help you more clearly draw your map.