Mother’s Day and Father’s Day may have been invented by Hallmark as a brilliant strategy for selling greeting cards, but these days are becoming embedded in the warp and woof of our culture’s values and ritual practice. I am in favor of encouraging children and partners to appreciate celebrate the love of parents. I do think, however, that we are taking it a bit too far.
Last week, my cousin Dan asked me what it was like to have a grandson. I told him about the pleasures of unconditional love I feel for the two-month-old little guy and about the joy of watching my own son parenting with such joy, skill and love. Dan reported that he and his husband Eric, both just a few years younger than me,had a conversation about whether they had missed out on something essential to the human experience by choosing not to become parents. (Not that there was much of a choice for a gay couple 30 or even 20 years ago.)
That was certainly the message that Dan and Eric have been getting from friends who are now becoming grandparents. You just don’t know what it feels like. I can’t put it into words, but it’s so wonderful.
It is impossible to imagine what it’s like to be a parent or a grandparent. My life was certainly transformed beyond recognition, even though I tried very hard to read extensively on the subjects in advance. But that’s true of everything. I had no idea in advance of what it would feel like to windsurf, to publish a book, to swim in the Sea of Galilee, to kiss a man. I thought I knew, but I really didn’t. So it is not the fact that the experience of parenting is unimaginable that makes it distinctive.
There does, nevertheless, seem to be an unspoken conspiracy among parents and grandparents to elevate the experience as the most wonderful, most rewarding, most meaningful enterprise that anyone can undertake. It makes you realize what is really important. It disabuses you of the illusion that you are in control. It just fills up your heart with love and makes you into a more generous person.
It’s just a short hop from such testimonials to condescension, however well-meaning: Don’t worry—your time will come, just be patient. The poor thing—she never had a child. Who will take care of him in his old age? Isn’t it selfish of them not to become parents? As if all parents live happy lives of meaning, and all non-parents are therefore to be pitied.
All parents are not happier because they raise children and not all coupled people without children are miserable. Many non-parents lead extraordinary lives of public service. They have deep, long-lasting loving friendships and marriages. They love children and care for nephews, nieces, and children of friends. But they don’t bear or adopt children because…they are not in a long term relationship and do want to raise a child alone, they have fertility issues, they are less passionate about parenting than about the important, meaningful work in which they are engaged, they cannot afford the expense, they are gay in a state that does not allow a same-sex couple to adopt. Or because of dozens of other reasons.
Because we can’t imagine what it is like to relate to something that we have never encountered, we tend to elevate the value of things that we do experience. Even if we are theoretically committed to pluralism and diversity, we slip. We forget that each of us is unique and that others need not value or do the things that are most meaningful to me. It isn’t possible, after all, to engage in all possibilities during our lifetime, so why should we all march to the same drum?
Dan and Eric have been together for 23 years, and they are as madly in love with each other now as they were two decades ago. That is not an argument for couples to remain childless. It is rather an invitation to a practice of trying to value your own life circumstances without devaluing all other alternatives.
Maybe Hallmark could be convinced of the business advantages of introducing another annual holiday for people who are not parents. They are to be appreciated and admired for the lives they do lead.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/the-value-of-a-different-path.