What you Can’t Expect when you’re Expecting

by Kieran Healy on February 27, 2013

Note: This post was written by L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy. The paper it draws on is available here as a PDF.

You should think carefully about whether to have kids. It’s a distinctively modern decision. Until comparatively recently, producing an heir, supplying household labor, insuring against destitution, or being fruitful and multiplying was what having a child was about. Nowadays the decision to bear a child is freighted with a more personal significance—assuming you are physically able to do so, and lucky enough to be well-off and well-situated. Children are an enormous responsibility, we are told, and you should be sure you really want to have one before you go ahead and do it. In particular, you’re supposed to reflect carefully on what it would be like. You weigh the options and make a decision.

Crucially, this involves assessments of your future experiences. You imagine your life with and without kids, and think about what it would be like or feel like to have that experience. In the language of philosophers, you must think about the phenomenology of the experience. When it comes to children, people argue endlessly about what you ought to do. Some claim motherhood is a supremely fulfilling vocation. Some wearily raise their hands (after wiping off spit-up milk) and beg to differ. Others see liberation in the decision to avoid parenthood. They complain about the presumptions of a culture that equates child-rearing with happiness or self-realization, or that looks with pity or suspicion on the indecently happy and child-free. Insofar as there is any detente in the Mommy Wars, though, it’s around the idea that you should personally reflect with great care on these issues and decide for yourself whether this … this—what? Grand adventure? Prison sentence?—this experience is for you.

That sounds like a reasonable compromise, until you realize no-one knows what it’s like to have a child, until they have one.

It’s a phenomenologically transformative experience. Fear not, veterans of the Mommy Wars. We are not saying it’s wonderful, or that people who don’t experience it have somehow failed at life. We just mean that people are very different afterwards, in ways they cannot anticipate. The evidence for this is everywhere. New parents laugh ruefully at their detailed pre-kid plans to fit “the baby” into their existing lives. “You ruined everything/In the nicest way”, as songwriter Jonathan Coulton says. Those who choose to remain child-free, meanwhile, bridle at the insulting suggestion that they are missing out on something. Yet they see their friends get body-snatched one at a time, cocooned in minivans and unable to stay out past eight, lost to civilized life, unrecognizable. Something happened to them. Even the parent who reacts to their new situation with numb disbelief, or shock and depression, has a transformative experience. These reactions have their own cruel character because they break so sharply with the official story.

Stripped of judgmental overtones, the transformative character of becoming a parent is not a controversial idea. The trouble is, transformative experiences throw a wrench in decision-making based on future experiences. In theory, a rational choice is a series of steps: first determine the possible outcomes, and the costs and benefits associated with each one; then assign a probability to each outcome to calculate its value; finally, choose the option that gives the highest expected value. Real decisions are rarely so clean cut, because we are imperfect calculators and it is probably impossible to figure expected values with precision anyway. Yet this is the decision-making standard we aspire to. For it to work, you must at least be able to assess the costs and benefits of the most important outcomes.

But in this case, the most important outcomes include things like “what the experience will be like for me” or “what it will be like to be a parent”. If becoming a parent is a transformative experience, you can’t know in advance what it will be like for you. You can’t assess the costs and benefits of these outcomes, since you can’t know their values—and so if you choose based on what you think it will be like for you, you can’t even approximate a rational decision-making procedure. Our ordinary understanding of the choice to have a family or remain childless—all that careful weighing of options based on what it’s going to be like for you in the future—is based on a fantasy. You don’t know what it is going to be like. So you can’t rationally make the choice by weighing options involving the experience of parenthood.

(Crying baby courtesy of photosavvy.)

You probably have some objections. You might say, “What if I decide to have a child solely because I want to pass along some DNA?” Or, “What if I decide to remain child-free solely because there are too many people on this earth already?” That’s fine. If you’re really not basing your decision at all on what being a parent is going to be like for you then you can make a rational decision. But relying only on criteria like that is not the usual way to decide to have kids.

You might say, can’t a rational decisionmaker adopt a different decision rule, one specially designed to deal with difficult choices? She can—but at a price. For example, consider a play-it-safe rule that says, “Simply choose the option whose worst case scenario is the best one relative to every other option’s worst case scenario.” This rule could help you choose between options without incorporating any special knowledge about what it would be like for you to have a child. Sounds reasonable, but it leads to strange results when considered from any particular individual’s point of view. Take Suzy, for instance, who believes she’d love to have a baby. If the best worst-case scenario involves not having a child (if this is better than having a child and bitterly regretting it, say), then if Suzy follows the play-it-safe rule, she should stay child-free, regardless of her own feelings—as should everyone else following the rule.

What about testimony from people like yourself? Can’t you look at them and rationally expect to have a similar experience if you make a similar choice? No. Without just the sort of self-knowledge you’d get from your own experience of having a child, you can’t know how the experience will affect you, and so you can’t know whether you’re more like the parent or the child-free person. As the saying goes, you get experience just after you need it. Even worse, parental testimony is unreliable. A parent may claim she is happier now than she would have been if she had not had her baby, but that may be because she cannot truly imagine life without it. Once a person has had a child, it becomes psychologically very difficult for her to assess what it would be like if she’d never had it. So even after having the child, she probably can’t weigh the different outcomes.

What about making a simple bet? Shouldn’t you just play the odds and choose to have a family, setting aside what you personally think it will be like? Isn’t it just obvious that having a child will make you happier? The standard account of choosing to be a parent certainly reinforces this view, with its endless talk of deep fulfillment. But the evidence suggests that’s nonsense. The highs may be higher for parents, but the lows are lower. Measures of overall personal happiness suggest that parents with children at home are less happy than those without children. Moreover, individuals who have never had children report similar levels of life satisfaction as individuals with grown children who have left home. If you merely want to play the odds, one shouldn’t have a child. But does that mean you shouldn’t have a child? No! You might be one of the people who find the experience of parenthood fulfilling.

We are not arguing that it is right or wrong to have a child. Nor are we saying people shouldn’t be happy with their choice. You can be happy with a child or blissfully child-free. But if you are happy, you shouldn’t congratulate yourself on your wise decision—you should be thankful for your good luck. Choosing to have a child involves a leap of faith, not a carefully calibrated rational choice. When surprising results surface about the dissatisfaction many parents experience, telling yourself that you knew it wouldn’t be that way for you is simply a rationalization. The same is true if you tell yourself you know you’re happier not being a parent. The standard story of parenthood says it’s a deeply fulfilling event that is like nothing else you’ve ever experienced, and that you should carefully weigh what it will be like before choosing to do it. But in reality you can’t have it both ways.

{ 103 comments }

1

Patrick 02.27.13 at 7:28 pm

It seems very unlikely to me that it is even possible to decide whether to have a child rationally. If evolutionary imperatives exist, any genetically determined instincts, they’re present for this decision in full force. These cognitive pressures are not rational, for traditional definitions of the word.

2

David Moles 02.27.13 at 7:39 pm

I’m having a hard time seeing what’s non-trivial about this result — why it doesn’t equally apply to every other major life decision (getting married, joining the Army, moving to Istanbul, joining a cult, giving up drinking, coming out of the closet). Possibly you’ve demonstrated our cultural frame narrative is inherently self-contradictory (this is like nothing you can imagine! so imagine it carefully before deciding!) but that’s a conclusion about the frame narrative, not about parenting.

3

Shen-yi Liao 02.27.13 at 7:44 pm

This is a really fun argument. I’m worried about this response to a potential objection:

Without just the sort of self-knowledge you’d get from your own experience of having a child, you can’t know how the experience will affect you, and so you can’t know whether you’re more like the parent or the child-free person.

Setting aside the issue with testimony for now. I don’t quite follow why you can’t use other people’s experiences to predict your own. The prediction will be fallible, of course, but (perhaps controversially) I think there can be fallible knowledge.

Take the following case, which I think is structurally analogous. Let’s suppose losing everything you own is a pretty transformative experience. Now you walk up to a craps table and ask yourself whether you should bet everything you own on the next dice roll. If the parallel holds, it seems that we should say you simply can’t have a rational choice about this matter — because without the self-knowledge you’d get from your own experience of losing everything you own, you can’t know how the experience will affect you. (To make the probabilistic aspects analogous, let’s also suppose that you might win, and that some people in fact find great happiness in losing everything they own.)

I think we can have a rational choice: don’t bet everything you own! Why? Because I think by and large people are pretty unhappy when they lose everything they own, even if there are some exceptions. Now, let’s say testimonies are unreliable, so I might try to use more objective criteria to assess other people’s experiences. Perhaps I’d even track other variables, such as their personality traits (and my own). Maybe I find out that people who have personality traits like mine will be especially unhappy when they lose everything they own. Suppose I can do all that, it is unclear to me why my belief still does not rise to the level of knowledge.

It seems that I can do the same with the having kids case to set aside issues with testimony. Perhaps I’ll use observations of my own, statistical data, and so on. The point is that rational choice seems possible even without the what-it’s-like knowledge. In fact, if cognitive biases like illusory superiority are any indication, our decision-making is more likely to err when we think of ourselves as unique snowflakes whose experiences cannot be reliably indicated by other people’s experiences with similar circumstances. It just might take more work than people typically give when they think about whether to have kids.

4

PGD 02.27.13 at 7:48 pm

I’m with David Moles, I don’t see why this doesn’t apply to all kinds of things besides having kids. That doesn’t make it trivial though, it makes it a very broad critique of rational choice models.

There is an age component too — as you accumulate experiences you become better able to predict your own responses to new experiences as there is usually something analogous to a past experience. When you’re a teenager half the shit you do feels ‘transformative’, in your 40s not so much.

5

Stephen 02.27.13 at 7:55 pm

Any advance on Bacon: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune …”

Well, obviously: she that hath partner and children …

or even: she that hath children …

6

io 02.27.13 at 8:00 pm

“What about testimony from people like yourself? Can’t you look at them and rationally expect to have a similar experience if you make a similar choice? No. Without just the sort of self-knowledge you’d get from your own experience of having a child, you can’t know how the experience will affect you, and so you can’t know whether you’re more like the parent or the child-free person. “

This has a flaw. I accept that I cannot *know* in advance how the experience will affect me by considering testimony from similar people. But if the testimony method can give me *some evidence* on that front then that can be enough for standard rational decision making.

7

Mao Cheng Ji 02.27.13 at 8:04 pm

Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone

I’d say having a child is a very unceremonious and rude thing to do, to this child.

8

marcel 02.27.13 at 8:05 pm

1) RE maximin or “choosing the policy with the best worst outcome.” In this case, definitely do not breed, since for pretty much any one in the developed world (I am reluctant to generalize too far beyond my own narrow experience), losing a child, having a child die before you, its parent, does, is the single worst thing imaginable.[1] This cannot happen to you if you have no children.

2) PGD wrote: When you’re a teenager half the shit you do feels ‘transformative’, in your 40s not so much.

A good thing too, since by the time I was in my 40s, I was actively choosing to avoid (or perhaps choosing to actively avoid) transformative experiences. The ones available to me in my 40s — job loss, divorce, child’s injury or death — were serious downers.

[1] OK, perhaps other outcomes for the child, like an awful disease or injury to the child, are even worse than the child’s death.

9

Kevin 02.27.13 at 8:07 pm

Bacon seems to be referring to the exigencies that apply post-birth whereas the article focusses on those that apply pre-decision to conceive. So the Bacon comparison seems inapt.

10

isaiah 02.27.13 at 8:11 pm

There are two ways to take this argument:

1. Having a child really is a uniquely transfomative experience, and so it makes an exception to the usual rational choice method.

But what is the evidence that having a child is uniquely transformative? Just becuase it’s popular to say so? (I consider myself more or less the same person I was before the kid.)

2. Maybe this argument is really supposed to imply that no choice is rational, as PGD suggests, and there is nothing unique about parenting.

In that case, I don’t see why we can’t still make rational choices, it just means that we have to make some allowance for uncertainty. But I think that allowance is already assumed, I’m not sure it requires us to change anything. Is the point just that certain models are oversimplified?

11

JW Mason 02.27.13 at 8:11 pm

I’m sympathetic to where you’re trying to go, but this argument won’t get you there.

Is it possible, ex post, to assess whether a given person’s decision to have a child had a good or bad outcome? If it is, then we can compare the pre-child qualities of people with good outcomes with the pre-child qualities of the people with bad outcomes, and make a perfectly rational assessment of which category we are more likely to fall into.

On the other hand, if it’s impossible to say, even after the fact, whether having a child worked out well or worked out badly, then of course it isn’t possible to make a decision about it rationally. But if you believe that, then the transformative character of parenting is irrelevant. If the argument requires the premise that it’s impossible to ever normatively evaluate a decision to have kids, then the post is just a whole lot of huffing and puffing to reach a conclusion that as assumed from the outset.

So again, I like the spirit of this post, but it doesn’t work.

12

JW Mason 02.27.13 at 8:18 pm

Re marcel @8: Lionel Shriver, the author of the school-shooting novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, wrote it specifically as an exercise in imagining the worst possible outcome of having a child, and decided after (and, she’s said in interviews, in part as a result of) writing it, not to have any kids herself.

13

SamChevre 02.27.13 at 8:29 pm

This argument would seems to be similar for any use of the personality-affecting drugs (the “hallucinogens”).

14

William Timberman 02.27.13 at 8:30 pm

A charming post, as much for what it leaves out as for what it includes. What does it mean — what does it take — not to regret the choices we’ve made, or the accidents that have befallen us? A better situation, unfortunately, than many people are granted. That’s the dark side of reflection for those of us who last long enough to reflect — and for the economists among us, a warning about the limits of rational choice as an explanation for anything worth thinking about.

15

Shen-yi Liao 02.27.13 at 8:33 pm

After thinking about the argument even more, I’d like to understand what work “transformative experience” is doing, especially in responding to the objections. Is it that testimonies are systematically even more unreliable when it comes to transformative experiences? Is it that transformative experience brings up a new kind of difficulty in a kind of probabilistic self-locating (as one of the four cases discussed in the paper)? Is it that transformative experiences can have no objective probabilities?

16

Brendan 02.27.13 at 8:44 pm

Like some of the other commenters, I find myself somewhat sympathetic to the conclusion, but I don’t think the argument is all that convincing.
1) I don’t think it’s plausible to suppose that I need to *know what an experience is like* to make an informed judgement as to how that experience will compare to another experience in terms of providing personal fulfillment. If if I’m poor, have no family support system, do not enjoy spending time around children, and deeply value having time for creative projects, it’s perfectly reasonable for me to think that I won’t enjoy raising children. In fact, I think I can make this sort of judgment without engaging in any sort of phenomenology at all. Are there tough cases? Sure. But I’m not convinced these cases are typical.
2) In general, I think this argument overestimates the importance of phenomenological “imagining” in deciding which sort of action I ought to take, especially in cases where undertaking the action will most likely change the way I allocate value. In many circumstances, this process provides a good heuristic (e.g., Do I feel more like eating spaghetti or curry tonight?), but it’s far from flawless (e.g., I’m often wrong about how much I will enjoy a given food, even when I can accurately imagine how it will “taste”), and it often needs to be supplemented with other, more objective sorts of data.

17

David Moles 02.27.13 at 8:47 pm

PGD @4: That doesn’t make it trivial though, it makes it a very broad critique of rational choice models.

Fair point.

Though I’m also with Shen-yi Liao @3: Even if it’s a priori impossible to imagine correctly what it would be like to have kids — perhaps especially if it’s a priori impossible to imagine correctly what it would be like to have kids — it seems rational to make the decision based on observation of my childless and childful peeers. Maybe it’s not “rational” in the classical rational-choice sense, but IIRC the classical rational-choice sense assumes perfect information and hence doesn’t even admit the premise.

18

x.trapnel 02.27.13 at 9:26 pm

A fine and reasonable post, but I’m a little saddened that the linked paper didn’t even cite, much less engage with, Edna Ullman-Margalit’s precisely-on-point paper about standard decision-theory’s difficulties dealing with “big decisions” (which even uses having-a-child as a prime example of what she’s talking about). Ok, I’ll stop being That Guy now.

19

Trader Joe 02.27.13 at 9:37 pm

JW@11
While some might differ, ex-post analysis of the ‘to be or not to be’ a parent decision is likely to have the same sort of skewed bell curve distribution that most major decisions have (skewed in favor of the decision taken).

There is no externally objective way to measure the extent of satisfaction with having parented someone. Likewise, there is also no way to measure satisfaction of not parenting relative to parenting (since you’d be comparing against a null). As such – I think the conclusion follows – only the parent (or non parent) can judge their own satisfaction with the path selected and the path they select inherently colors their view of the journey.

The way one might study the question – if it were possible – might be to look at people who chose to be single, but for some reason after a long period of non-parenting were thrust into the position of having to parent (perhaps death of a siblings child or something). Contrasting pre/post views might illuminate whether any transformation of value had actually occurred…although this would need to be somehow distilled to exclude the plusses/minus associated with involuntarily assuming a life decision.

Aside: Being in the process of parenting two children, its not often possible to say day to day where my satisfaction with the choice might be particularly relative to either a glorified or non-glorified non-parenting alternative. If the answer is hard to calibrate in the middle of the experience the odds of pegging the outcome in advance would seem to be pretty low.

20

Kiwanda 02.27.13 at 9:45 pm

I think the decision is a little less mysterious than it’s made out to be. Whatever else it is, having kids is a time commitment, with a scale and finality larger than most anything else. Is being with your kids how you want to spend a good fraction of your life? Are you so committed to your career and other activities that changing diapers, watching a toddler, cooking, going to kid events, coping with an adolescent, and so on, seems like a huge waste of time, a tragic sacrifice of time better spent elsewhere? Then don’t have kids. Otherwise, maybe, do.

I don’t think parenthood was “transformative” of me, just of my life. I don’t feel “very different” from the experience, I just enjoyed it, mostly, and grateful that I didn’t screw it up, too much, and that my kids turned out so well, in general.

There were some serious scares (that “having a child die” business), but the powers of denial are strong with me, and so the prospect (without the actual event) was not as horrible as might be. Enough, though. As long as I’m on heavy topics: having a child (enough an adult one) creates a sense of obligation to remain alive; you might regard that as an advantage or disadvantage, depending.

21

js. 02.27.13 at 10:25 pm

I’m not this affects your argument one way or another, but I was curious:

You begin by noting, rightly I think, that the rational choice approach to becoming a parent is a “distinctively modern” phenomenon. (I think this restatement does no violence to your point?) You go to note that becoming a parent is a “phenomenologically transformative experience”. And I’m wondering to what extent the latter is itself a distinctively modern phenomena rather than a universal truth? I can’t see any indication in the post that would suggest that you prefer one answer over the other.

In the end, I don’t think it matters, because even if, as I’m inclined to think, the transformative-ness of the experience is itself a historically specific phenomenon, precisely the people inclined to apply a rational choice approach are those to whom this approach can be of no help. Still, I was curious whether you had any position on this.

22

MHC 02.27.13 at 10:27 pm

As an echo (or addendum) to Brendan’s point — there seems to be a clearly rational choice here, as having children absolutely requires exercising control over other, less empowered, humans who have no say in the matter, at least for a period of time. This has been called “taking responsibility for dependents” or “being a grown up” or “opening yourself up to transformative love” by those who parent, but it is still just a decision to create/acquire humans who have no control over themselves/their choices and to control them — again, at least for a certain amount of time. So those who choose not to have children seem to be making a quite rational choice based, one assumes, on experience (as all of us have been children) and on self-knowledge and on the ability to project their own future happiness and how it might correlate to being in a position of control over other humans. If their own experience of being a child/controlled was damaging, and their desires do not ever run to engaging in this kind of control with others now as adults, then one would imagine (or one would engage in the act of imagining, as fuel for a decision) that the likelihood of a projected future as a parent being a damaging or unsatisfying phenomenological experience would be quite high for them, and they would choose against this. And this would be a choice that has nothing at all to do with trying to predict “what kind of kid will we have?”

23

chris 02.27.13 at 11:41 pm

I don’t think it’s plausible to suppose that I need to *know what an experience is like* to make an informed judgement as to how that experience will compare to another experience in terms of providing personal fulfillment.

Reductio ad absurdum version: while I remain alive, I can’t know what it’s like to be dead, therefore my decision to avoid death isn’t really rational. After all, it might be an improvement. This argument is actually stronger than the one about parenting, since I can’t talk to the dead people I know and ask them what it was like for them (although, as you point out, this is of limited usefulness since I’m not them, surely it would be better than nothing).

…and it occurs to me after writing that that some people (generally believers in an afterlife) have applied that argument in all seriousness and actually gone to their deaths on that basis. I tend to think that by the time they found out how wrong they had been, they were in no condition to appreciate it, but I can’t *know* that.

One side point though: while it may be true that I can’t know what being a parent is like, I can know what not being a parent is like, because I’m already not one. Not being a parent next year will probably be a lot like not being a parent this year, barring other independent life changes like job loss or serious illness (which would probably be pretty bad news if they intersected with parenting). So if I’m pretty satisfied with nonparenthood, doesn’t that imply that I shouldn’t rock the boat, if parenting is such a jump into the unknown? (On the other hand, if I’m desperately unhappy with my childless life now, that doesn’t necessarily imply that a child will improve things…)

24

Nick 02.28.13 at 1:17 am

Chris: not necessarily that much of an absurdity http://crookedtimber.org/2008/09/03/better-never-to-have-been/

Although I guess dying prematurely is a little bit irrational since we all will sooner or later anyway.

Perhaps more than rationalism, this argument seems to challenge individualist notions of the good. You will have a child not because its fun and will make you happy but because thats what you (and we) are about. Being a parent is like being an artist (a proper one anyway). Its one of those things you are bidden to do. The only rational element is choosing your moment (even artists have to eat and sleep occasionally).

25

TGGP 02.28.13 at 1:42 am

Net benefits have basically always flowed from the older generation to the younger, throughout human history (at least before we started dedicating so much health spending to end of life care). Even as the elderly become less capable of producing calories among hunter-gatherers, they tend to consume less so that they remain net-positive. This is as should be predicted from kin-selection theory.

26

Mike 02.28.13 at 1:56 am

First, a note about the decision making model: Yes, expected values in real-world decision-making are difficult to calculate. I’d say mostly because the outcomes are very rarely independent of other choices and the webs of conditional probability get tangled, and because we rarely spend the time to acquire enough actual data to assign the right odds in the first place. However, I think at least as much blame for poor human decision-making is due to people using even less complete heuristics than the the basic one you described.

Second, to expand on the point raised by Kiwanda, I think your survey method requires a little work. If you just go around and ask everyone “Are you happy with your decision?”, not only will you get mixed results, but they aren’t even necessarily answering the same question. What makes people happy varies heavily, not to mention that their comparison is going to be relative to their own previous lifestyle, the lives of those around them and their expectations.

What you can do is ask objective questions, about how much of their time it takes up, what they spend their time on, how much it’s cost so far, etc. If you can get good idea of the time and money required, you then look at your own life. If you lost that much time and money, what wouldn’t you do that you do now? How unhappy would these sacrifices make you?

You probably do a similar task for the objective aspects of child-raising (diapers, feeding, general child-focused experiences). Hopefully, this gets you to a point where you can either say “My child would have to be a(n) angel/demon for me to have/not have a baby”, or at least some place outside of the exact middle.

27

Mike 02.28.13 at 2:18 am

I guess the short, technical way of saying all that is: If you think the notion of “How much will I love the idea of being a parent?” is a uniform random variable, you can define the parameters for a more complex distribution based on that variable where the breakeven point isn’t equivalent to Parent-Love = 1/2.

28

Peter T 02.28.13 at 2:31 am

“having children absolutely requires exercising control over other, less empowered, humans who have no say in the matter, at least for a period of time”.

Nobody ever had more say over me than my infant children – and I couldn’t even ARGUE with the little sods!

29

chris 02.28.13 at 3:54 am

What you can do is ask objective questions, about how much of their time it takes up, what they spend their time on, how much it’s cost so far, etc. If you can get good idea of the time and money required, you then look at your own life. If you lost that much time and money, what wouldn’t you do that you do now? How unhappy would these sacrifices make you?

ISTM that this is somewhat missing the point of the OP. What effect those sacrifices would have on present-you may have little bearing on what effect they will have on future-you. That’s the point of the experience being transformative. Parent-you might (or might not) evaluate those factors differently, or consider them completely unimportant compared to other things about parenting. So you can’t just assume that present-you’s opinion of your hypothetical life will be shared by future-you, even if you actually predict the tangible consequences correctly.

30

Dan Hirschman 02.28.13 at 3:57 am

The “fundamental problem of causal inference” (Holland 1986) rears its head once more. I’d be interested to know if you think that the problem is more severe in this case – are there no reasons to think that the effect of treatment (“becoming a parent”) on people like you (match on your favorite covariates) will be no good guide to your own likely experiences?

As usual the solution is obvious: randomized controlled trials.

31

Andrew Burday 02.28.13 at 4:54 am

The crux of this argument is the notion of a “transformative experience”, but the notion is never defined or characterized. Of course there is a sense in which everyone would agree that having children is transformative, but when people agree with that, they’re not saying anything about the knowability of future states of consciousness and their relation to future utility. They’re talking about experiences like having to get up at five in the morning every day for a year, or about trying to nurture another person’s moral capacities, which you can guide but never control. (For mothers, they’re also talking about the physical changes caused by pregnancy.) So the first thing I want to know is, what is a transformative experience such that both (1) having a child is one and (2) it makes future utilities utterly unknowable?

Second, what do you gain by relating this to the concept of consciousness? It looks to me like you just set yourself up for a lot of trouble, e.g. with Dennett and his followers. Perhaps the definition will help to answer this question. What’s the relation between “what it’s like” and transformative experience?

Part of the background to these questions is that everybody knows that rational choice theories have problems with uncertainty, of both probabilities and utilities. You’re saying that the decision to have children goes beyond that to be somehow utterly unknowable. Why? The unknowns involved in having children are more extensive and far more significant than the unknowns involved in, say, deciding where to go on vacation, but what reason is there to think a difference in kind exists? You can’t answer this just by referring to consciousness. What it’s like to be me in Jamaica is different from what it’s like to be me in my present dreary location. A difference in what it’s like does not necessarily amount to a transformative experience. So what does, and why?

32

Meredith 02.28.13 at 6:02 am

Buffeted by the comments here — many good points that contradicted one another. Then Nick@24 set the keel aright for me.
“Rational choice” and “the good” are all, well, well and good. Desire needs to play in (and will, like it or not). Which is radically individualist, I suppose, but also implicates each of us in others. That’s what desire is all about. (And desire involves the imagination for something not yet known or calculable. It is very faulty and very productive.)
Many years ago, when my son was maybe 4 or 5, he was puzzled by friends of ours who didn’t have children. He asked, why not? I was about to respond, “Because they don’t want to” (they adamantly so advertised in terms I respected) when I was rescued by a fit of parental wisdom. I just answered that they just hadn’t had children yet and added that some people could not, even though they wanted to. Why this lie? Because I realized what was at at stake for my son: I am desired, conceived of desire. Therefore I am free to desire.

33

robinia 02.28.13 at 6:11 am

Two comments. “No one knows what it’s like to have a child until they have one” — and no one knows what it’s like to breastfeed a baby until they do so. Perhaps this isn’t such a big deal as having a child in the first place (and nowadays, I’m told, there’s so much pressure to breastfeed that it’s hard to say no); still, I remember American hospitals asking women to make a pre-delivery, preemptive decision and hearing at least one women say, “well, I think I’m too nervous . . .” As if she knew in advance just what it would be like!

Yes, thinking carefully about whether to have children is a good idea, and I happily note that as women’s education advances, birthrates tend to decline. We find other things to do with our lives? When it comes to some of the “reasons” advanced for having or not having children (passing DNA along, overpopulation . . .), though, I cannot but wonder if (as Ben Franklin suggested) they’re only advanced to justify what we want or don’t want to do in the first place. In other words, we’re a hell of a lot less rational than we pretend to be.

34

211 02.28.13 at 7:11 am

I certainly thought this when I was deciding to have a child. I think all this is pretty clear to most people deciding to have children. There seems no good basis for deciding but it didn’t seem like a terrible dilemma for this particular choice. I started to wonder if good deciding is different from rational deciding. There is a very long list of decisions I’ve made that wouldn’t hold up to rational scrutiny but were, in fact, extremely good decisions. (Maybe I should face the fact I almost never make “carefully calibrated rational decisions.”)

The self-transformation problem you describe was true about graduate school as well. I couldn’t have anticipated the transformation of myself into the person I became and what I would come to want. I certainly couldn’t have chosen to become that person prior to becoming that person. I knew much less about what would happen to me as a result of going to grad school for so long than I did about what it would be like to be a parent. I didn’t know anyone well at all who’d immersed themselves in an academic subject for years on end. (I did notice that some of my TAs in college had unappealing characteristics I thought they got from their years in grad school and I tried to avoid developing those characteristics.)

Even if I had no good rational decision process I still thought I had a good reason to have a child. I knew that odds were small that I would not love my child intensely since that is so much the usual case. I enjoy the company of children, making those odds greater. I knew from past experience that loving someone makes life better–that it is the best thing in life. I’d already loved and cared for a few children and so I knew how wonderful such an experience can be. So I was doing something that would bring great love into my life and this seemed better to me (based on what I already wanted and cared about) than the things I’d give up by having a child.

It was relevant to me that most people appear to not regret having a child. Some could be hiding their regrets but most clearly are not. I tend to assume that I am like most people.

It turns out that loving and caring for my own child isn’t dramatically different than loving and caring for the other children I’d already loved and cared for. It is better but I wasn’t wrong about what it would be like. Now, it seems irrational to regret a decision like this–not only because it is so good but because it is too all-encompassing to regret. It would be like regretting who you are.

35

Bruno Verbeek 02.28.13 at 8:05 am

It is a neat paper, but not a terribly original point
1) It is widely accepted among those working on an empirical basis with rational choice that the theory works best in “small worlds”, clear choices with overseeable consequences that have lots of ceteris paribus conditions in the background. So, for example, when thinking of getting insurance RC helps.
2) Furthermore, the general message that rational choice models have difficulties modeling changing preferences over time is not something that is exclusive to rational choice. Many forms of preference utilitarianism, for example, cannot make consistent recommendations in those cases either. (Think of the standard example of the champagne lover who tries to learn to like beer as it is so much cheaper…)
3) You could try to tinker with rational choice decision making so as to give some guidance in matters like this. For example, by parsing up the decision: would it be ratioanl to get pregnant? Would it be rational to have a natural birth, etc. That way the ‘transformative’ nature of the project could be mitigated somewhat?

And while the population of Homo Sapiens has more than doubled within one generation and it, consequently, should be considered a plague and measures ought to be taken so as to reduce our numbers, I do wish for you to experience the joys of parenthood.

36

mjfgates 02.28.13 at 8:29 am

Obviously, since you do not have the information to rationally decide whether or not to have a child until after you have experienced being a parent, the best time to make that decision is when you have already had a child. With this in mind, I have a modest proposal…

37

reason 02.28.13 at 9:03 am

Isn’t calculating the effect ONLY on the potential parents a category error. In choosing to create a new unique individual doesn’t their – and their potential descendents – happiness count as well.

38

reason 02.28.13 at 9:06 am

Not to mention other the impact on other relatives of course. I thought we were a social democratic community here, or have we adopted radical methodical individualism as a principal?

39

reason 02.28.13 at 9:30 am

Maybe we should ask why people get vaccinations. When the majority of the population are vaccinated, for any given individual the risk of damage from the vaccination (small as it is) may be greater than the benefit given that herd immunity has made the chance of infection vanishingly small.

See the problem?

If nobody has children, then the building blocks of society – in many ways our sense of connectedness fall apart.

Having children and investing in bringing them up well, is part of the taxes we pay to society. It doesn’t necessarily have to benefit us alone.

40

krippendorf 02.28.13 at 10:40 am

I’m wrestling with the assumption that most parents choose to have kids. In the US, 48% of pregnancies are either unintended (19%) or mistimed (29%) — women wanted to have kids “some day” but not now. (“Indifferent” are counted as intended.)

Granted, pregnancy isn’t the same as birth. Abortions are still possible (although I suspect that many women who have had abortions will answer “not pregnant” as opposed to “unintended pregnancy” + “abortion” to a survey, given the stigma). Miscarriages are possible. But, in a context where close to 1/2 of pregnancies are accidents, it seems premature (sorry) to talk about the rationality of the decision.

41

Katherine 02.28.13 at 10:52 am

Part of the problem with even starting to try to make the decision is that information out there about the experience is so mixed. I was one of the first of my peers to have a child (we were all late starters as it happens – career women and all that) so I had little to go on.

If I were to believe much of popular TV, babies aren’t that difficult to fit into your life, and not that much changes really. And certain authors make huge amounts of money purporting to tell you it’s easy and even necessary to make the little buggers fit into your pre-child existence – if you follow these 7 easy steps at the low low price of…..

But frankly, when it comes down to it, it’s mostly not a “rational” choice, if by “rational” is meant you sat down, thought about the pros and cons, made a list, weighed options. It’s possible certainly that some people do do that, but I think for most people it’s not a rational choice, it’s an emotional choice based on desire.

42

Katherine 02.28.13 at 10:55 am

I’m also suspicious of the studies on “happiness” comparing people with children to those without, since they don’t distinguish any further. Surely there’s going to be a difference in the happiness, say, of someone who never wanted children and doesn’t have them, and someone who desperately wanted a child but couldn’t. Also, between those who wanted children and did, and those who didn’t, but then did, for whatever reason.

43

Niall McAuley 02.28.13 at 11:21 am

I think I would like some lunch, but how can I know? I have never eaten this particular lunch before, and nor has anyone else in the entire history of the Universe!

44

Jaycie 02.28.13 at 12:05 pm

Thank you krippendorf (comment 40) – I know several couples who have had unplanned pregnancies, even in this (first) world of easy to access birth control, because: surprise! It doesn’t always work as advertised.

The tendency to assume birth control is 100% effective and that therefore all babies are intended is more than just a curiosity of modern times; it leads to people lambasting women for having babies mid-career, because after all they CHOSE to so they (alone) have to Deal With The Consequences (e.g., this comment on an Inside Higher Ed article on finding academic work: “You’re doing yourself no favors by taking this approach:
“I also had to invest in some nice post-pregnancy clothes, as my pre-pregnancy suits didn’t quite fit yet. And, I was doing this while struggling with post-partum depression. [...]” These issues are the result of personal decisions that you made; it may be time to take responsibility for those decisions.” http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/college-ready-writing/cost-job-application-process ; I strongly suspect this to be the work of a male troll as, as an actual woman, I have never felt the need to begin a comment with the words, ‘as a woman’ *chuckle*).

So if we accept that numerous pregnancies are accidental, and that any decision we make to have a child is based on inadequate (or impossible to access) data, perhaps we can begin to structure our working lives as though having children is an unpredictable likelihood and not a vexatious inconvenience?

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sanbikinoraion 02.28.13 at 2:18 pm

Dan @30:

I keep on asking women if they want to have a randomized controlled trial with me but no joy so far.

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Adam Roberts 02.28.13 at 2:27 pm

I think I would like some lunch, but how can I know? I have never eaten this particular lunch before, and nor has anyone else in the entire history of the Universe!

Much of this thread has been various elaborations of this idea: that the post isn’t really talking about having kids, but about ‘big decisions’ more generally, or even about simply ‘decisions’. But I don’t think it is (and, it seems, I like this post a lot more than some of the commentators). The decision to have or not have children is different in a number of key ways. One is that it is, for women, time-delimited. This isn’t a trivial detail; indeed, the pressure of time, of ageing, seems to me central to the force of the original point made here. Plenty of women in their 20s approach the question ‘shall I have children or not?’ by kicking it down the road: ‘I’ll concentrate on my career, I can always have kids later’ But a women aged 39 is placed in a wholly different situation with respect to this. I’m not sure I can think of other major life decisions that work like this — you can decide to jack in your job, join a cult, get a facial tattoo at any point in your life, after all. Nor am we talking about a neutral, wholly rational decision, especially not when the climacteric hoves into view. I can’t be the only person here who has personal experience of how desperate and all-consuming this matter can suddenly become for a woman.

I assume this is one of the reasons why Healy and Paul choose this particular ‘big decision’ example to write about. I might decide to have lunch, or not, but either way the decision is a trivial one. It would only work as a parallel if I’d been fine skipping lunch all through my 20s and 30s until, one day, suddenly, I discovered within me a vast, unignorable hunger for a particular lunch, despite knwoing it contained mushrooms the chemical composition of which would utterly change the way I saw the cosmos and behaved in the world.

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chris 02.28.13 at 2:40 pm

If nobody has children, then the building blocks of society – in many ways our sense of connectedness fall apart.

I don’t think it’s very realistic to assume that if I don’t have children, nobody else will either and therefore society will collapse. The categorical imperative is fun and all, but in reality, other people will make their own decisions and the evidence is quite strong that lots of them do choose to have children (and some have them by accident, too) and the species is in no danger of decline from insufficient reproduction — rather the reverse, if anything.

Having children and investing in bringing them up well, is part of the taxes we pay to society.

I don’t know where you live, but where I live, society *subsidizes* families with children. Rather heavily, in fact. There are some good reasons for this in some cases (for example, it’s not a child’s fault if his/her parents can’t afford adequate support on their own), but there’s also quite a lot of giveaways to rather well-off parents just because it’s politically popular to do so.

Society, meanwhile, has all the children it could possibly need and then some, and that’s before counting immigration. If you think the raising, more than the conceiving, is a service to society, I urge you to adopt instead, for exactly that reason. Although, to come full circle, many of the same considerations about unknowability apply to that decision too.

48

reason 02.28.13 at 2:41 pm

Adam,
I think you (and the people you are arguing against) both have a point.

I don’t think the parameters used for thinking about this decision are appropriate. It is not just a simple individual utility maximising decision like the decision to take to a new job, or buy a new car – because it creates a new individual and changes all the relationships surrounding yourself (in unforseeable ways). Treating it as a purely private affair is grossly unsocial.

49

reason 02.28.13 at 2:42 pm

Adam,
P.S. Has it occured to you that the other people you are disagreeing with, may be subtly and ironically making the same point.

50

reason 02.28.13 at 2:48 pm

chris,
“I don’t think it’s very realistic to assume that if I don’t have children, nobody else will either and therefore society will collapse.”

This is true, but it’s not what I meant. I mean that you need to see this as part of the fabric of society, not as an independent act. You are giving grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, cousins, teachers pupils, future employers, future employees.

“I don’t know where you live, but where I live, society *subsidizes* families with children. Rather heavily, in fact.”

ummm – nowhere near the cost in a Western society. In poorer societies, children and grandchildren often subsidise their own antecedents. In the West, they also subsidise (pay the pensions of) of people with no children. People paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in net income to raise children see very little of that investment back.

51

Maggie 02.28.13 at 3:27 pm

What reason said at 37, only more so. It’s no good to focus solely on the utility of the parent. And it’s certainly nothing like grad school, which someone mentioned. You’re not morally (as opposed to prudentially) obligated to stay in school a single day longer than you wish. What is really unique, and known by all, is that a kid is “for keeps” – absolutely, far more so than marriage, more so than marriage was even before divorce was liberalized. (Yeah, you could give the kid up for adoption – but if it’s more than a few days old, let alone if you’re a married middle-class adult, you won’t. Such a person’s disutility on giving up an older child because they couldn’t hack it is so astronomically high we almost never hear of anyone trying it.) So the first thing to think about is, not what to expect, but whether you can bear an absolute obligation of this type if it turns out to be harder than you expected. I think a lot of child abuse and familial dysfunction stems from miscalculation or self-deception on this point. When you have a kid, the main issue isn’t your utility but the kid’s, your responsibility for which approaches 100%, both in terms of your immediate control of their experiences while dependent and in terms of the damage you can wreak throughout their whole lives by doing the job badly. A parent’s 18 years of disutility on having a kid they don’t want or can’t manage is a drop in the ocean next to the offspring’s 70+ years of disutility on being an unwanted or unmanaged kid. You’re talking about creating a whole new subjectivity that will or will not be happy, depending almost entirely on yourself. It’s a rare person who will be permanently driven crazy by a kid they can’t stand; equally rare the person who isn’t driven crazy – I mean lifelong, intractable mental health problems – by being the kid of someone who couldn’t stand them. The first question isn’t “what is our utility on parenting?” but “what’s a person’s utility on being parented by us, particularly if the worst case for our own utility in parenting were realized?” Many people do fake their regret about having their kids – for an adult audience. Their actual kids are not fooled.

Another thing for women especially to think about is that the fact that it is so hard to get reliable testimony, or firsthand exposure to what parenting is really like, despite the fact that people are obviously having kids all the time, reflects the social isolation of parents of young children. Especially of the mothers. Depending on your economic/household status and the mores you follow, you’re expected either to return to work at six weeks and never make a peep about it, or to stay home, give the child nothing but the breast for at least 12 months, and practice “attachment parenting,” which means literally being tied to it and unable to participate in social activities with anyone not identically situated. This, not some inherent mysteriousness about what having children is like, is why one can’t get more information beforehand; our society makes working moms stay “in the closet,” if you will, and sends stay at home moms into virtual purdah. Think about whether you can either live this way, or both parent and exercise significant resistance against these expectations to boot. Then every child needs a sibling – so they say – and there goes another few years of your life to “attachment.” Meanwhile – unless you’ve got both an unusually energetic temperament and the rare privilege of a real work-from-home gig – you’re drifting further and further away from the labor market, so much so that a lot of “attachment” mothers I know keep having child after child on the (not totally unfounded) premise that after the time and psychological toll it takes to raise two or three that way, they’re ruined for anything else. I know Ivy-educated secular “environmentalists” with six kids, because if one turns out to be good at parenting there’s a kind of domino or cascading effect on the utility calculation for each pregnancy vs. pursuing another kind of life. Of course one doesn’t strictly have to mother according to this dichotomy – (a) get right back to work, and perform at it as though your kid didn’t exist OR (b) never be anything but a mother again for decades, if ever – but forging one’s own path is a task unto itself and should come into the calculation accordingly. It may be important to do so for reasons of utility in the rest of one’s life, but don’t kid yourself that it makes parenting itself any easier.

52

LFC 02.28.13 at 3:43 pm

No one has mentioned the Philip Larkin poem.

53

Trader Joe 02.28.13 at 4:09 pm

Most of the comments here have focused on the pros/cons in utility terms of the decision to be a parent – which is natural given the OP. The other side of the equation bears some scrutiny as well.

Most imagine that they “understand” the non-parenting path since that’s what they are on before taking the decision to be a parent, but the non-parenting path his its own rewards and perils which are equally hard to quantify. As a non-parent do I take better or worse care of my health, do I save more or less for my retirement, do I work more hours at my job encountering more or less disappointment, do I experience lonliness/depression, greater or lesser instance of divorce or relationship satisfaction…no doubt there are many more and numerous studies support some of these differences.

It seems part of the ‘point’ is that there are two paths, which both have numerous unknowns to them and that the selection (the transformational aspects) irrevocably color views about both the path taken and not taken.

Also, as others have noted – I think views on this topic differ sharply by gender. There’s much mythology around the so called “ticking of the biological clock”, but for women (and some men) who experience this the child/no-child decision is not steeped in rational decision trees and utility curves – its really not a ‘decision’ at all.

54

ogged 02.28.13 at 4:55 pm

Interesting stuff. I assume you want feedback, so I’ll note one thing that I don’t think I’ve seen above.

What’s transformative about parenting isn’t any specific experience or set of experiences tied to conceiving/bearing/raising a child, it’s the nature of the commitment we make (whenever we make it; some people before they have the kid, some after “bonding”, some never). That commitment to devote ourselves to the child transforms us, much like, though not exactly like, a soldier’s commitment to his unit, or a novice’s commitment to an order, or a spouse to a spouse.

This matters for your argument because it’s the nature of a commitment to say, in effect, what comes after this commitment doesn’t matter. The fact that you commit to a kid without knowing what that will mean for you is just the thing that transforms you.

I think this resolves the tension you note in your last sentence: carefully consider the commitment you’re about to make, because the experiences that follow will be deeply meaningful to you, but while they may be wonderful, they also might exhausting, depressing, even shattering.

55

bjk 02.28.13 at 5:06 pm

Another brilliant satire. Almost as good as the Caro-inspired “morning in the life of.”

56

bianca steele 02.28.13 at 5:22 pm

I don’t quite understand the import of this problem–I think js. made a very good point way above about a disconnect between the people who will find it compelling and the people who will find it useful–and it seems in some way to cut the opposite way from what’s being claimed. The paper linked IIRC said something along the lines of: There are things that are true of women, after they’ve become mothers, that aren’t true until they’ve become mothers; an these things are enumerated. This, and the OP here, suggest not that rational choice isn’t possible, because of some qualitativeness that makes life after motherhood mysteriously unamenable to bland logical thinking, but only that life after motherhood can only be reasoned about by mothers, who understand those things that only become true after you become a mother. The OP suggests that non-mothers might be trying to exclude mothers from a conversation, by saying the qualitativeness of motherhood is out of bounds for discussion. That’s not quite what I saw the linked article (the parts of it I’ve read so far) as saying.

57

Marius 02.28.13 at 5:32 pm

I’m with 2, 4, and 10. As presently constructed, this paper seems to be more about deficiencies in rational choice models than anything else. As the reductio in 23, makes clear, opportunities to engage in phenomenologically transformative experiences abound. It’s thus not obvious that the decision to procreate illustrates the deficiencies in rational choice models better than, say, the decision to commit (or to decline to commit) suicide.

However, if this paper is really about why choosing to procreate is different from other decisions made by homo sapiens, I’d appreciate a bit more foundation (e.g. ev psych/ev bio) laid to support the proposition. I see that others up thread have tried to do so, but I think the paper would benefit from a systematic approach.

A more robust foundation would have the added benefit of helping to insulate an ostensibly descriptive/positive paper against the normative urges of natalist/anti-natalist camps.

58

bianca steele 02.28.13 at 5:43 pm

And I think the people who’ve said, “by 40 you’re used to life changes,” also have a point. By the time I had a kid, I’d moved to a new state twice, gone to college, worked at several jobs in different environments, moved to a different SES than the one I grew up in, been married for more than a decade, changed my tastes in movies and books several times, had less time to play the piano than I’d ideally like, bought a house, spent a few winters shoveling feet nor of snow every week or two, decided how much time I was willing to put into gardening, etc.

Having a child forced me, as I’d anticipated, to do clothes shopping a lot more than I would normally like to do. It did not make me into a person who enjoys doing clothes shopping so much she would feel depressed if she didn’t get into a store several times a year.

59

Kiwanda 02.28.13 at 6:09 pm

Bianca 55: “…women, after they’ve become mothers, ….” “… life after motherhood….” “…life after motherhood can only be reasoned about by mothers, who understand those things that only become true after you become a mother….” “…non-mothers might be trying to exclude mothers from a conversation, by saying the qualitativeness of motherhood…”

Oy.

60

JW Mason 02.28.13 at 6:12 pm

I’d appreciate a bit more foundation (e.g. ev psych/ev bio) laid to support the proposition.

The problem with this suggestion is that ev psych is stupid pseudo-science.

61

chris 02.28.13 at 6:59 pm

The problem with this suggestion is that ev psych is stupid pseudo-science.

Some of it, sure. Maybe even most of it. But there’s little doubt that human brains evolved, so there is room for a genuinely scientific form of EP even if you have to clear away a lot of crap first. (Start by grounding it on well-supported psychology. There’s little point trying to come up with, let alone test, a hypothesis for why humans do X if you haven’t even established that they *do*.)

Much like economics, in that regard (which probably also ought to be grounded on psychology if it’s an attempt to understand actual human economies rather than an abstract mind game, and if you have any shred of intellectual honesty, don’t confuse the two). The fact that it is often done badly, or even in bad faith, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done at all, or isn’t important.

It’s thus not obvious that the decision to procreate illustrates the deficiencies in rational choice models better than, say, the decision to commit (or to decline to commit) suicide.

Having children has at least two things in common with committing suicide: the person you are now will no longer exist, and you can’t know for sure what it will be like until it’s too late to change your mind. (Although, as I said above, at least you can talk to other parents.)

Making choices under conditions of extreme uncertainty *can* still be rational, in a sense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it *will* be (or that human beings make rational choices even when the consequences of their possible choices *are* clearly understood, for that matter).

So how do people make up their minds about things like that? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that rationality is not prominent. Reasoning has to be learned, it takes effort, and some people never really do become all that proficient at it (or even want to). I think most people just check their gut.

62

TheIronist3 02.28.13 at 7:24 pm

I love children. Some of my best friends were once children.

63

MHC 02.28.13 at 7:39 pm

In reference to 53, I would say that unintended/failed contraception pregnancy in a U.S. state where it is impossible to get an abortion is not a commitment made to parenting; it is a commitment made on the part of that state to keep you pregnant regardless of your own preferences. And this is echoed in the pregnancy stats mentioned earlier in the comments as well. A parenting commitment made by conscious choice seems quite distinct from parenting “made” from religious strictures, or financial constraint, or contraceptive failure, or rape. Non-parenting is not hindered by these things, it seems, as those who choose not to parent must have resources available to them that make this non-parenting choice viable. So, can one idea of rational choice about this really apply to all scenarios?

64

lemmy caution 02.28.13 at 9:23 pm

It is probably better just to follow your gut on big decisions. Your sub-conscious does a pretty good job.

65

dsquared 02.28.13 at 9:23 pm

As I mentioned to Kieran on Twitter, I’m really not seeing this. People have to make all sorts of choices all the time in conditions of radical uncertainty about the outcomes, where the eventual consequences will depend on factors that they can’t possibly conceive of. Topically given the anniversary’s coming up, the decision to launch a war to get rid of a dictator might be one such; you literally can’t tell whether the newly-liberated people will regard it as having been worth the struggle.

But that doesn’t mean that anything goes, or mean that one can’t judge as more or less rational decisions which make better or worse use of the information we have. I’m sure I’m a different person since having kids but I’m not a completely different person.

There’s a weak Copernican principle which works here; if it’s true that there are unknowable factors, then it’s unknowable whether they’re going to add to or subtract from the expected value. If the distribution is unknowable, then I have no basis for saying that it’s going to be different from zero, and so (controversial but IMO widely accepted) I am within my rights to take the midpoint and say that it will be zero. Nassim Taleb would say that I should take nonlinearity of the payoffs into account, but I think that’s pretty unknowable too.

So the state of having considered all the knowable factors based on my current view of myself and the world might not be a very good basis for making the decision, but it’s the best basis I could possibly have and so I’m making a rational choice. I actually am in an epistemically different position from someone who got pregnant by accident. The rational basis might not be a foolproof or even reliable basis, but nobody ever said the world was predictable. Like starting a business, nobody knows the secret of success, but there are plenty of obvious and avoidable secrets of failure.

66

Kevin 02.28.13 at 10:06 pm

@dsquared: “The rational basis might not be a foolproof or even reliable basis, but nobody ever said the world was predictable. “

I think this actually gets at the heart of the point the paper /post is making. But doesn’t this observation actually support that point rather than undermine it? According to Paul in the paper, parents (nowadays anyway) do act as though there is some reliable rational way of making the decision to have a child. She does not, as far as I can see, deny that this might also apply to lots of other things. The problem is that they are wrong in the following sense: even if there is a (weakly) rational basis for making such decisions in the sense dsquared suggests above, it is very weak indeed and much speccifically much weaker than the sorts of ways parents tend to think about their ‘choice’ when deliberating.

67

faustusnotes 03.01.13 at 1:28 am

I think that the “transformative” nature of parenting is doing a lot of work in this piece, but I’m not convinced that parenting is a transformative experience, for a lot of reasons.

I have had the pleasure of knowing at least two men who regret having children, one of them my own father, and neither of them seemed to be suffering particularly much disutility from their decision, despite their regrets. They did, however, experience significant differences in utility by their choice of employment: one left school at 15 to become a typesetter, while one became an academic. One spent his life being bullied, underpaid, overworked, and ultimately was restructured out of employment to a life on benefits; while the other is wealthy and enjoying his work. It seems to me that choice of spouse and career are far more transformative than the choice to have kids, and that choice generally made much earlier (in our teens), especially in the modern world. It can also be just as binding as parenting, in that once you’ve been in a career long enough to discover it’s a dead end, it’s extremely difficult to get out (except for a thin stratum of wealthy and educated folks).

Furthermore, the claim that parenting is fulfilling or transformative is a very new and, I suspect, fashionable one. I’m old enough to remember a time when having children was not described as transformative or fulfilling, but was just something one did, and it was not uncommon for men, at least, to state their disapproval of the whole process. This wasn’t just empty words either: adult men would spend time at work or drinking with mates rather than be with the kids that we are now supposed to believe almost all men find transformative. It seems that men used to just slot the “transformative” experience of child-rearing somewhere in between the ironing and the cleaning, and leave it to their womenfolk while they were out drinking.

Surely others here remember the phrase “children should be seen and not heard”? Either the transformative nature of parenting is something that is changed at an individual level by community-level changes (in just one generation!), or men a generation ago were lying, or men now are lying. Which is it?

Finally, there is a lot of pressure to say that parenting is transformative. You have to get quite close to someone before they will reveal they regret having children, but every stranger will tell you bravely how much happier they are now they have kids. I think that the proportion of people who find parenting transformative is over-estimated, and the proportion regretting it under-estimated.

So perhaps a different take on this particular decision would be: don’t be fooled by the hype surrounding modern parenting, and think about how your own parents felt and behaved about parenting as a guide to what it will be like.

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Main Street Muse 03.01.13 at 3:13 am

I don’t really understand the point of the OP.

Taking the plunge into parenthood is like a great deal of life – taken on faith. Is it rational? No, not really. Why should it be? And who’s arguing the rationality of this decision? It’s a job – and a hard one at that. [I know a couple who went into parenthood thinking it would be just like when they went to college; boy were they surprised by the discovery their time was no longer their own!]

Is parenthood desired? Yes – throughout the centuries. Even back when parenthood (for the mother) was often fatal.

And I don’t think us modern folks are the only ones who want children simply for the joy of their little tiny presence – and not the utility they bring to us. We have the technology today to limit or enhance our fertility yes. So the size of our family is definitely more within our control. Though, as noted above, a significant percentage of pregnancies are unwanted – even today.

But the Bible is full of stories of infertility. Did Rachel only want little workers who would grow up to help her in her old age? Somehow I think there is more to that story…

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Alan 03.01.13 at 3:18 am

Anecdatum. My brother had two children, both special needs, one severe disability and one life-dependent Aspergers, and while I salute his devotion to them for over two decades, I can’t say his life has been–or ours collectively have been–value-added for his offspring. On the other hand I head into older age without children, and sometimes I regret that I did not make decisions that would have yielded kids. But my brother’s instance has been instructive: perhaps I have lost out on an extremely valuable experience had my children turned out normal. But then again I have avoided his day-to-day pain and uncertainty about his disabled kids’ future. When the venture is to produce kids, one cannot think that it will be smooth sailing genetically.

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novakant 03.01.13 at 3:21 am

Topically given the anniversary’s coming up, the decision to launch a war to get rid of a dictator might be one such; you literally can’t tell whether the newly-liberated people will regard it as having been worth the struggle.

WTF ?

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homunq 03.01.13 at 9:11 am

If you’re making a decision, don’t have kids. There are too many of us already, especially in the first world. I have one, and I’d have liked two, and that’s the biggest sacrifice of my life and the one I’m most proud of.

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Vanya 03.01.13 at 10:21 am

Without just the sort of self-knowledge you’d get from your own experience of having a child, you can’t know how the experience will affect you, and so you can’t know whether you’re more like the parent or the child-free person.

Even after having a child you still won’t know, and your experience won’t even really help you decide whether having another child is a good idea. You’re ignoring the key variable – the actual child, who is also an autonomous being. The fun of having a child is that you don’t get to choose. You may think you’re a “child-free” person, but end up blessed with exactly the sort of interesting little person you can’t imagine ever living without. You may be a self-sacrificing, loving, care giver but have a child who has difficult developmental issues, or whom, for whatever horrible twist of fate, you just don’t like very much.

We just mean that people are very different afterwards, in ways they cannot anticipate.

Only temporarily and only because babies require a tremendous time commitment in our society. Most people, especially men in my experience, revert very quickly to being exactly the same people they were before as soon as the child is capable of going to pre-school.

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Main Street Muse 03.01.13 at 11:47 am

Vanya @72 says it beautifully. “You’re ignoring a key variable – the actual child, who is also an autonomous being.” For me, watching the child unfold into a person is one of my great joys of parenthood (and one of the great stressors as well!)

OPs are ignoring the fact that there is indeed lots of data that indicate having a child means you have less disposable income, less time, more stress, even potentially less happiness. If they are lucky enough to CHOOSE to be parents (i.e – a wanted pregnancy), the parents (hopefully) have looked at this data and made an informed decision. Can they know everything about life after baby? Of course not. That’s the beauty of life – its mysteries.

(Are the OPs parents themselves or are they contemplating this leap into the brave new world of modern parenting? Parenting is not for the faint-hearted… ;-)

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faustusnotes 03.01.13 at 11:54 am

Parenting is not for the faint-hearted

Parenting is something that pretty much everyone has done through most of human history. And mostly, people have turned out okay despite the fact that their parents were thrown into the task of raising them without any preparation or choice, and regardless of the strength of their spirit. How can parenting possibly be “not for the faint-hearted”?

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Mathmos 03.01.13 at 12:22 pm

What about the ecological concerns about you first worlders scioning all over the place? Personal decision, ha.

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Lurker 03.01.13 at 1:09 pm

faustusnotes,

I partly agree with you. Being a parent is not a transformative process. Personally, for me, serving my conscription, being indoctrinated in the military mindset and becoming a reserve officer at the age of 19 caused far larger psychological changes than becoming a father. (I’m not a US person but a Finn.)

I’d say that the “transformative” aspect relates mostly to educated, urban professionals. The way of life of a single person or of a DINK couple is often quite incompatible with having children. My wife and I, on the other hand, had been living quite nicely and quietly as educated middle-class professionals in a rural setting for some years before our first child. In fact, we have been surprised how little our first-born has changed our way of life. Most of the things we three are now unable to do, we two did not do earlier either. And when my wife and I want to have an evening free, we can ask our parents or siblings for help.

The responsibility for a child is a large burden to bear, but then again, I took the responsibility for my wife, when I married, and make daily decisions of importance to other’s life at work. One more responsibility, although greater than the others, is not so much different.

We are very fortunate, I know.

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Main Street Muse 03.01.13 at 11:50 pm

Faustus notes – you neglected to copy the emoticon!

We live in a world where “me-time” reigns supreme. People who write “Nowadays the decision to bear a child is freighted with a more personal significance…” (as OPs’ did) seem a tad unnerved by the idea of sharing all that personal space with a baby. And thus, I threw out there the idea that parenting is not for the fainthearted…. ;-)

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TGGP 03.02.13 at 12:29 am

Philip Larkin never read “The Nurture Assumption”. Perhaps his peer group fucked him up, and he didn’t listen when his parents told him not to hang out with such rotten kids.

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novakant 03.02.13 at 12:40 am

Being a slightly egocentric creative type I can somewhat identify with all the hand- wringing regarding offspring, but then sometimes I think about my grandma who managed to raise 8 kids mostly during WW2 (as in bombs falling all around you, the whole place going to shit) and then it seems to me we’re all a bunch of terribly middle class pussies.

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Number Three 03.02.13 at 12:42 am

Y’all think too much! Damn! Didn’t your momma love you? Despite what a nerdy, debate-club eff-up you were/are? And didn’t tour momma take pride in your achievements, even the ones she couldn’t quite understand . . . ? Doesn’t your momma love you now, Lord willing she’s still alive? Would your momma trade *you* for a few thousand hours of recreation? Maybe watching every episode of “Frasier” two more times? Painting 100 extra banal pictures of fruit?

I am biased, as a parent, but I think that the no-kids crowd sometimes bends over BW to defend their choices. And to each his/her own. Not calling anyone selfish. But the genes have a powerful argument here. If you like the kind of person you are, even mildly, then you have to make more people like you. Not always easy! But if you take no action, you will blink out. Your kind will. Smart, hyper-educated people who read blogs like this.

That is the end point. Is it “rational” to want to reproduce Western intellectuals? Consult the economists, and clearly no. Consult your 20th century Nazi friends (Heid-what- is-his-name-er, and Carl Shith**d) and get back to me.

Sorry to be harsh, but someone needed to drop this.

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novakant 03.02.13 at 12:46 am

I don’t think people without kids have any need to defend themselves.

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js. 03.02.13 at 12:48 am

Seems to me that a lot of people are confusing the position articulated in the post with the position being critiqued by the post. No?

Also, faustusnotes’ 74 bears repeating at least a few times.

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Kiwanda 03.02.13 at 12:52 am

faustusnotes 67:

Finally, there is a lot of pressure to say that parenting is transformative. You have to get quite close to someone before they will reveal they regret having children, but every stranger will tell you bravely how much happier they are now they have kids. I think that the proportion of people who find parenting transformative is over-estimated, and the proportion regretting it under-estimated.

There is a bit of a false dichotomy here: there might be social pressure not to say that you regret having kids, but that doesn’t translate to pressure to say that it was transformative. And I can’t see social pressure to say that it was transformative, except maybe in the form of temptation (“Having kids made me a better person!”).

Lurker 76:

I’d say that the “transformative” aspect relates mostly to educated, urban professionals. The way of life of a single person or of a DINK couple is often quite incompatible with having children.

I don’t think “transformative” is intended in the OP to mean “changes your way of life”, but rather “changes your outlook on life”. Parenthood surely does the first, to one degree or other, for everyone, but need not do the second.

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js. 03.02.13 at 1:04 am

If you like the kind of person you are, even mildly, then you have to make more people like you.

Huh? So can I just take people of the street and make them like me? I mean, I have always wanted to subject a random assortment of people to heavy smoking regimens and forced readings of Kant.

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Number Three 03.02.13 at 1:29 am

@js. is playing with the meaning of “make”. One meaning is “create”, as in new life. “Nurture”, “develop”. I guess another is forceful, Procrustean, maybe *Kantian* with those imperatives. Shaping into molds. If you understand raising a child in the latter way, then it would be a slog. Rules. But if you think the things you like are worthwhile, joyful, even, then just your passion/enjoyment can get a child a long way toward the goal. NOT LIKE FORCING PEOPLE TO SMOKE. ??? Or to read Kant. Can one read Kant and understand so little? Yes.

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Mike 03.02.13 at 2:26 am

Re: chris @29

The basic motivation for my post (which I apparently didn’t convey) was that I think the OPs are taking one fact (there are unique aspects to your future parenting experience that you can’t predict by looking at others) and conflating it with another (your entire parenting experience will be totally unique and you can’t predict any of it by looking at others), which I find analogous to applying an overly simplistic probability distribution to a random variable. In both cases, the result is a reduced ability to forecast future outcomes to inform decisions.

I should also say that I don’t really agree with the concept of “parenting is a transformative experience” in the sense of “parenting is so crazy that all knowledge of yourself and your past behavior is meaningless”. Nobody I know who ever had a child turned into different person.

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LFC 03.02.13 at 4:16 am

@TGGP: I don’t know what ‘The Nurture Assumption’ says.

@Number Three: If you ‘like’ yourself, even a little, that means you want to reproduce? No, I don’t think so. Genes may “want” to reproduce themselves but genes don’t control individuals’ decisions to have children or not.

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Meredith 03.02.13 at 4:47 am

Gee whiz. I associate the desire to have children with, among other things, curiosity: what would it be like? With that creative passivity: what would it be like? With having been loved (though I can equally imagine associating it with NOT having been loved, a huge act of the imagination) by parents of my own. What would it be like? Not having any calculable idea of the answer is the whole point, not some rational choice nonsense. (And for people who choose not to have children, I hope they are motivated by other modes of curiosity, other emulations of love.)

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Salient 03.02.13 at 7:11 am

Seems to me that a lot of people are confusing the position articulated in the post with the position being critiqued by the post.

See, I’m just confused, period, full stop… What is the position articulated in the post? The closest I can get is

When it comes to children, people argue endlessly about what you ought to do. FFS, don’t be one of those people. Fuck those people.”

which is probably as eisegetical as it is ancillary. The rest of the post scans like a strangely facetious riff on the paper (utilitarian decision theorists? FFS, don’t be one of those people).

You should think carefully about whether to have kids.

Okay, so, that’s obviously false, at least insofar as “You should think carefully about X” is condescending moralizing tripe for almost every value of X. (You should think carefully about whether to forgo eating meat!) When spoken between close friends, it’s meant to communicate some variety of sympathy, “I recognize the complexity of your major life decision, and I’m reassuring you that it’s your decision and it’s your feelings and thoughts that matter here.” The operative word in the sentence is “You” and the rest is salad dressing. And, like most sympathetic reassurances of autonomy, it means exactly the opposite when spoken between anyone else, and is usually re-tensed with “should” replaced by “should’ve” — in effect, some variant on “If your choice didn’t turn out as well as you’d like, don’t fucking complain to me about it, you brought it on yourself.” (The [to me] gets replaced by [to anybody within earshot or eyeshot] when spoken between strangers, e.g. on Usenet newsgroup boards or NPR comment threads on Facebook.)

It’s a distinctively modern decision.

So is the decision to get vaccinated. Birth control is a wonderful thing. Agency!

Until comparatively recently, producing an heir, supplying household labor, insuring against destitution, or being fruitful and multiplying was what having a child was about.

Until comparatively recently, having had sex was what having a child was about. Birrrrrrrth Controllllllll.

Nowadays the decision to bear a child is freighted with a more personal significance—assuming you are physically able to do so, and lucky enough to be well-off and well-situated. Children are an enormous responsibility,

The question of responsibility (liability, actually) is the main reason you ‘need’ to be physically able, lucky enough to be well-off and well-situated, etc.

we are told, and you should be sure you really want to have one before you go ahead and do it. In particular, you’re supposed to reflect carefully on what it would be like.

If having kids is something you want, you’re supposed to reflect carefully on whether you can handle it. That’s a muuuuch more specific social expectation/obligation.

The evidence for this is everywhere. New parents laugh ruefully at their detailed pre-kid plans to fit “the baby” into their existing lives. “You ruined everything/In the nicest way”, as songwriter Jonathan Coulton says.

Uh, in their early years, you (probably) become really busy, really sleep-deprived, and really interruptable at random intervals. It’s really easy to misunderestimate what it will be like to be way more busy &etc.

These reactions have their own cruel character because they break so sharply with the official story.

I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the ‘official story’ that New parents laugh ruefully at their detailed pre-kid plans to fit “the baby” into their existing lives. More generally, aren’t your complaints the kind of thing you could level against any piecemeal collection of incompatible aphorisms?

Without just the sort of self-knowledge you’d get from your own experience of X, you can’t know how the experience will affect you

I am not getting how or why “X = having children” is unique or even remarkable (except insofar as it’s a remarkably time-consuming obligation to undertake).

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mijnheer 03.02.13 at 7:31 am

“Measures of overall personal happiness suggest that parents with children at home are less happy than those without children. Moreover, individuals who have never had children report similar levels of life satisfaction as individuals with grown children who have left home.”

I’m sceptical about such reports. Someone who climbs mountains may be more likely to feel tired, hungry, cold, and anxious during the process than someone who’s busy being a couch potato. Does that mean the mountaineer’s life is less “happy” (think eudaimonia) than that of the couch potato? And if the couch potato and the retired mountaineer report similar levels of life satisfaction, are they measuring this against the same standard? To invoke J. S. Mill: Would someone who was competently acquainted with the satisfactions of being a couch potato and the satisfactions of mountaineering (weariness, hunger, cold, and anxiety included) really be likely to rate them as equal?

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Salient 03.02.13 at 8:21 am

It would only work as a parallel if I’d been fine skipping lunch all through my 20s and 30s until, one day, suddenly, I discovered within me a vast, unignorable hunger for a particular lunch,

Anyone who has a “vast, unignorable hunger” would be incapable of deferring to utilitarian assessments in the first place. (Slightly more technically, they assign a disutility of negative infinity to every option that doesn’t sate their hunger.) We are, by authors’ choice, only talking about people who feel dispassionate enough about their options to engage with the decision rationally, and unhungry enough to feel comfortably settled with the prospect of permanently committing to either decision.

Anyone who has an ignorable but unsettling ‘hunger’ already knows what they want, but it’s unobtainable at this time. What seems like hunger-vs-hesitation is really just hunger for a more specific thing. Moloch forbid anyone want to have and raise kids but only in a stable and secure household, with a reliable career / revenue stream, and with a suitable partner, etc. This is, again, technically avoiding utilitarian contemplation altogether by assigning negative infinities all over the place. You pointed out, correctly, that establishing all those things takes so damn long that many people experience considerable stress and anguish about how unobtainable what they want is. There’s no reason this should be the case; it’s a consequence of how we distribute jobs and money (and other stuff).

despite knwoing it contained mushrooms the chemical composition of which would utterly change the way I saw the cosmos and behaved in the world.

It’s the “the chemical composition of which would utterly change the way I saw the cosmos and behaved in the world” part that’s most problematic. Keep in mind you’re specifically claiming that having children is unique among major life choices in changing how you perceive reality and how you interact with your environment.

It’s not enough to emphasize how uniquely huge a contractual obligation childraising is. To make the OP’s argument, you have to show that having a child, uniformly and with reliable consistency, changes how a person perceives and engages with reality, in ways so unpredictably and so drastically and so fundamentally alien that neither they nor anyone else assessing on their behalf can possibly hope to make a reasonable assessment of what their future life experience is likely to be like. I’m mostly balking at ‘unpredictably’ and setting the rest aside, but nothing in that italicized portion can be wished away with permahallucinogenic mushroom metaphors or X.about.com citations.

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Niall McAuley 03.02.13 at 8:57 am

I think it’s fair to call this event a singularity (“the Singularity” for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.

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Samr 03.02.13 at 10:24 am

I’m not certain why so many commentators see the OP’s argument as relying on the uniqueness of having a child. That this is not necessary is perhaps more explicitly pointed out in the linked paper: other epistemologically transformative experiences discussed there are seeing red for the first time and tasting Vegemite for the first time. Rather, this is a discussion about decision-making models and it focuses on having a child because this is a class of major life event that is widely experienced and that has acquired some (relatively recent) cultural pressure about sitting down and making a rational choice about whether to do it or not. Perhaps I’m more sympathetic to the argument because I’ve relatively recently had a kid and experienced the expectation (as a middle class westerner) that you will think this out. This is not just about deciding whether one is physically able or has the money to do it, something about which you can make rational decisions, but about how it will feel, whether you’ll like it, and whether you are ‘emotionally ready’. Also, I did actually find the experience transformative because I didn’t really like kids before and now I do (and I have an attachment to the little monster I didn’t expect). This hasn’t increased my life satisfaction or altered my personality in any other way, as far as I can tell, but I have acquired a knowledge and experience I did not predict.

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Salient 03.02.13 at 6:41 pm

I’m not certain why so many commentators see the OP’s argument as relying on the uniqueness of having a child.

Well, check the title. And let’s be explicit about this: the paper is not about the uniqueness of the experience of becoming a parent. It’s — even more specifically — about the uniqueness of the experience of becoming a birth-mother. Stuff like “the color red” and Vegemite is mentioned only in passing, to give examples of what “epistemically impoverished” means. They would be really terrible examples to propose as comparable.

Before someone
becomes a parent, she has never experienced the unique state of seeing and touching her newborn child. She has never experienced the full compendium of the extremely intense series of beliefs, emotions, physical exhaustion and emotional intensity that attends the carrying, birth, presentation, and care of her own child, and hence she does not know what it is like to have these experiences.

The decision to rely upon the physiological changes pregnancy and birth was a really bad decision, because it opens up the protest: Gee, vagina-bearers are inconceivably[1] changed as people when they see and touch their baby because BABY, and vagina-bearers are incapable of imagining what this will feel like, because it changes their person soon more than is possible to conjectu–BABY. Whereas a great number of daddies and adoptive mothers have totally experienced holding and bonding with a baby they didn’t push out their groin, so, they can predict and be predictable, foresee and be foreseen.

But I don’t think that argument’s worth having, because at most it would only push us back to talking more generally about the transformative experience of introducing a baby into one’s life, which is still problematic. I guess instead of dancing around it. The environmental context of material circumstances and social and individual obligations change in fairly predictable ways, so what we’re really talking about happening here is a radical change in the person’s personality, identity, sense of self.

So. Does a person’s personality reliably change, really dramatically and pretty unpredictably and really suddenly and pretty involuntarily, when they have a child? If not, the grounding of the post/paper is really pretty shot.

I’m struggling to see how all those conditions obtain, mostly because anecdata — plenty of people around me have become inconceivably[1] busy and harried after having kids, and plenty of people around me have gotten somewhat more no-nonsense responsible and time-aware after having kids, but I just haven’t seen anybody undergo this hypothesized wild sudden unpredictable involuntary transformation into a new person. Maybe I’m socioepistemically impoverished. (This is the only thing I’m saying without some underlying degree of levity / humor / hesitant confusion / confused hesitation. I truly probably am socioepistemically impoverished, here.)

Does anyone want to describe their transformation into a different kind of person, and how the direction of that transformation was dramatic, so wildly unpredictable to them that they couldn’t have recognized and predicted it as a a natural plausible stable continuity of transformation in identity and self? And so sudden and overwhelming that they couldn’t hope to redirect or stifle the change by introspection, or introduce counteracting stimuli to restabilize, at the time or later? (This is a harder standard than it looks, since also, we can only take evidence from folks who dispassionately weighed their options. Having a baby without intending to, in accident or on impulse or or at least without being actively and consciously aware at the time of the plausible possibility/risk of having a baby, is a disqualification too.)

[1] “You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

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Samr 03.03.13 at 10:30 am

Salient @94, fair enough: the experience is presented as unique in that one can’t know what it is like to have a baby until one has one, that other experiences projected forward won’t help you know.

However, giving birth/having a child is explicitly presented as only one kind or example of transformative experience, not as the only or most important transformative experience one can have. It is an example deployed in a critique of decision making models, albeit one chosen because it has real world consequences. And I didn’t read the Vegemite and colour red examples as being mentioned in passing (they take up a good bit of the paper after all) but as setting up what the author means by an ‘epistemologically transformative’ experience. I also don’t think the paper is making a case for a radical change in personality; the transformation is epistemological rather than psychological. Instead, the point seems to be that what is unpredictable (and thus not amenable to conventional decision-making models) is what it will feel like. Being completely unmoved by childbirth would be a theoretical possibility here and one that does not involve a radical personality change (although a lack of feeling doesn’t get discussed here in the way that joy or despair do and I do think this a a problem). Thus trying to make a decision based on how having a baby will feel (with the aim of maximising one’s feelings of fulfilment, for example) is a bad idea.

There is plenty to argue with in this and I tend to agree with you about the way the linked paper (more than the OP I think) focuses on women giving birth and why this tends to muddle the argument. I simply wondered why some commentators seemed so bothered about this particular example and surprised that some seemed to read it as either arguing that having kids is so amazing an experience that it is uniquely transformative or as arguing that you really do need to think carefully about having kids.

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Meredith 03.04.13 at 7:22 am

faustusnotes@67″ I think that the “transformative” nature of parenting is doing a lot of work in this piece, but I’m not convinced that parenting is a transformative experience, for a lot of reasons.”
Do you mean to say, “uniquely” or “distinctively” transformative experience? Surely, having and raising children is transformative, no? Hugely so, no? Just not the only transformative experience (though one shared very very widely, across cultures, classes, sexes, which makes it something not to be dismissed).

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OlderThanDirt 03.04.13 at 12:08 pm

For me, Maggie nailed it:

“What is really unique, and known by all, is that a kid is “for keeps” – absolutely, far more so than marriage, more so than marriage was even before divorce was liberalized.” This was the thing that was scary before and still reverberates in my life as a parent. You can’t change your mind without untold damage to the child.

What pushed me into it was the death of my mother when I was in my late 20’s. All I could picture in my future was a smaller and smaller family, and I’d just gotten divorced. A year later I was married and four years later I was a parent.

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Vanya 03.04.13 at 1:08 pm

If you like the kind of person you are, even mildly, then you have to make more people like you

That sounds like a sure recipe for disappointment. Your child may look like you, but don’t count on more than that.

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JW Mason 03.04.13 at 2:59 pm

Salient has said what needs to be said here, I think.

To make the OP’s argument, you have to show that having a child, uniformly and with reliable consistency, changes how a person perceives and engages with reality, in ways so unpredictably and so drastically and so fundamentally alien that neither they nor anyone else assessing on their behalf can possibly hope to make a reasonable assessment of what their future life experience is likely to be like.

Yup. It’s rather obfuscated in the post, but the argument depends not on the claim that the post-child person is radically different from the pre-child person, but that nothing can be predicted about the post-child person from knowledge available pre child. Which is just obviously wrong.

(I also wasn’t aware, not having read the paper but only the post, of the focus on giving birth. Wow, that just seems awful on many levels.)

Does a person’s personality reliably change, really dramatically and pretty unpredictably and really suddenly and pretty involuntarily, when they have a child? If not, the grounding of the post/paper is really pretty shot.

Speaking just for myself, I can say, No it does not.

Oh well, so a smart person wrote a dumb post/article. Happens every day, on the Internet.

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engels 03.05.13 at 4:42 pm

Have to agree with JWM and others that this argument seems pretty flimsy. As Forest Gump said: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates’. So is breeding. Who knew?

Is there something about this topic that inclines otherwise tough-minded thinkers towards variants of the Chewbacca defence?

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engels 03.05.13 at 5:28 pm

Haven’t read all the comments so don’t know if anyone else was also struck by the solipsism contained in the assumption that the over-riding factor in the decision of whether to have children is the anticipated experiences of the parent?

A useful historical document, which one can imagine forming part of a future exhibition of turn-of-the-millenium upper-middle-class America, alongside various models of Bugaboo.

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.05.13 at 8:41 pm

What about this one:

These were the happy days,
the salad days, as they say,

and Ed felt that havin’a critter
was the next logical step.

It was all she thought about.

Her point was that there was too much
love and beauty for just the two of us.

Every day we kept a child out of the world
was a day he might later regret havin’missed.

—Raising Arizona.

103

reason 03.06.13 at 10:39 am

engels @101
Try my comment @37 and Maggie @51

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