July 3, 2012

Paramecia and Butterflies and Rabbits and Us

I remember learning in one psych class or another that the human mind insists on things making sense. If we do something that doesn't make sense to us (we act badly, we act nicely to someone who doesn't deserve it, we act kind of crazy, we act against our own best interests), our minds will scramble to FORCE it to make sense. Maybe our mind decides that we didn't actually do it and so we just kind of forget about it, or now we label it "no sense dwelling on the past [because it makes us look bad]," or maybe our mind decides that we did do it but under circumstances we've cleverly reinterpreted. Maybe our mind decides that we did do it, but that it wasn't our fault.

Our mind tells us a story in which the action now fits our view of the world and of ourselves in it---and if it the story doesn't fit, we don't feel comfortable until it does.

A classic example is relationships. How do we explain attraction? Definitely it isn't our genes calling out for reproduction! No, attraction is fate, it is love, it is two people recognizing something special in each other. We aren't attracted to someone's appearance but rather to that person's SELF. The mind tells us a story in which our love-loopy behavior makes sense.

But then the relationship ends, and how can we explain being so wrong? The mind scrambles to fix it. We were deceived. The other person changed. We changed. We were on the rebound. We thought we wanted something it turned out we didn't want. We were never really in love in the first place. Our upbringing messed us up so we make bad choices in a mate. It's not that our minds finally won the arm-wrestling contest with our genes; it's not that our genes had had time to accomplish their goals, and so let us free.

And because humans ARE more complicated than, say, paramecia or butterflies or rabbits, it IS more complicated than just genes. Well...probably it is. We don't really know yet, but it seems safe to assume that when it's common for people to meet and fall in love and marry long after their genes have given up the reproductive goal, or to gladly stay partnered long after there is any chance of reproduction, that there is more than one thing going on here.

But here is the thought I had this morning, which is flooring me: if the mind scrambles to force things to make sense (even if it has to lie to us to do it), and if we feel uncomfortable and weird and keep-lookingish if it doesn't succeed---I wonder if a lot of the struggles we have with parenting are because our minds are trying to force things to make sense. And repeatedly failing, because it's something that doesn't entirely make sense on a personal level, and isn't going to.

What if the only reason to have children is to continue the species---just as it is for rabbits and butterflies and paramecia? But what if our complicated minds can't leave it at that, especially considering how much more of an investment it is for us to reproduce than it is for rabbits/butterflies/paramecia? And what if natural selection favors the humans who are good at coming up with justifications for things that otherwise don't make sense, so that they continue to do what is beneficial for the species even though they have the mental ability to see that it doesn't make sense for them personally? If all those things are the case, what would our minds try to tell us about something as time-consuming and labor-intensive and resource-draining as parenting? What stories would our minds tell us about that?

We already know that baby faces and baby scents and baby cries have evolved to appeal to something ANIMAL in us. We already know about hormones and how they make us panicky and anxious so that we protect the babies who can't protect themselves. We already know that our bodies want sex because our genes want to reproduce. What if there are MORE THINGS TO KNOW---and pretty much all of them are biological, not logical, and our minds are having trouble figuring out how to resolve that? We like to think we are calling more shots than that.

What if the reason we talk about how FULFILLING and IMPORTANT and MEANINGFUL and WORTH IT parenting is (but then feel like terrible parents for not always liking it or wanting to do it) is that our minds MUST find a way to justify something that is not in our personal best interests at all? Our genes want to reproduce, but all they can do is create a craving; the genes must convince the mind that IT wants that TOO.

But it's a fragile construction. Our minds are pretty good at convincing us that our biological urges make sense, but they're also pretty good at seeing flaws in the logic, at sniffing out things that don't quite fit, at giving us an unsettled feeling until everything clicks naturally into place. When we think we're in love with someone unsuitable, we might hear something about it: "Is it a little...weird...that he does that?" We brush it away, but we heard it. It could be the same with parenting: the voice speaks up anxiously and this time it says, "Does this...make SENSE to do this? I don't know that this...WORKS, as a way to 'live,' in the modern, non-animal sense of the word."

But here we are, doing it! It MUST make sense, or we wouldn't have done it! It HAS to make sense: we're already no-turning-back invested. And so our minds quickly build up better construction to repair the doubts: Of COURSE it makes sense! It's fully worth it! We LOVE this! It's the most important work we've ever done! Sure, we don't ALWAYS love it, but that's NORMAL! In the long run, this is important and valuable! And if it doesn't feel that way, we will distract ourselves with new parenting concepts, new parenting methods, anything that seems like it might make everything fall into place and explain to us why we spent a good two decades of a short life doing it.

I wonder if some of us would be happier with a different approach. Instead of driving ourselves crazy trying to force parenting to make sense or feel personally worth it, what if we...DIDN'T do that? What if we shrugged and thought, "Yeah. Well, the species sure does a good job making sure it gets continued, doesn't it! It sure roped ME in! And I don't mind playing my part, now that I don't have much of a choice! Gene continuation is nice, in its way! And this child isn't half bad, in her way!" And then we could try to take from the experience anything enjoyable we could, but without expecting for it to make sense in a cost/benefits sort of way.

The cost of reproducing and parenting is huge. The benefits to us personally are...uncertain. But it could easily be that the benefits to us personally were never the point of any of this.


Laura Diniwilk said...

This is my favorite post of yours in recent history, mainly because I'm a former psychology nerd and I instantly remembered the phenomenon you are talking about - cognitive dissonance! Shh, don't tell me if I'm wrong.

I have always been amazed by how much power my body has over my mind. There was a time when I didn't want to get married or have kids, but then those pesky hormones kicked in and informed me otherwise. There have also been times when I've been a wee bit jealous of those who don't seem to be affected as strongly by the biological desire to reproduce. It seems so...relaxing. Good thing my girls are biologically driven to turn on the cute right when the benefits aren't readily apparent.

PinkieBling said...

I love this post, but it is making me feel uncomfortable! ;-)

I wish I could leave a long, well-thought-out comment, but I'm at work. I will be brain-chewing on this for a while, though.

Anonymous said...

I just enjoyed this generally. In the past year I've thought a lot about How children are not possessions, but people who exist completely separate from the parents, which seems so unfair to the parents, given the utter dependence of the child on the parent. And then I think about how since they are not a possession, they can't exist for the purpose of making the parent happy. If they happen to make a parent happy - the parent is lucky. If they make the parent unhappy... Who does the parent get to be mad at? How to solve and make sense? The parent needs to be content with having contributed to the continuation of the human species. Ack, what a gamble! Lindsay

Tess said...

It DOES feel a bit like brainwashing at times, doesn't it! It's like I will occasionally swim up to the surface and be like, "WAIT A MINUTE"!

But then, you wonder. Is THIS reality, or the hormone-swimming? RED PILL OR BLUE PILL? Are we in the Matrix or not??!

And so on.

Great post. And probably my most bizarre comment to date, which is really saying something.

Life of a Doctor's Wife said...

Like PinkieBling, this makes me feel uncomfortable! Like you have just shattered the wall hiding the Wizard of Oz.

Your last sentence is also making me feel a little panicky. What if my mind - which has never wanted kids - is RIGHT and the biological stuff - that has made me, in recent years, want kids - is WRONG?

Rebecca said...

I wanted kids. I enjoy kids. I like being around kids. Not only do I love my kids, but I genuinely *like* them. They're cool people. So for me, it does make sense to have kids. Not once have I ever thought of it in the way you put it. Your post actually seemed kind of cynical to me.

Now, I don't mean to say I love every aspect of the parenting gig, I'm not crazy, but if you can name anything you love every single aspect of, you're a better person than I am. Even amusement parks kinda suck at the end of the day when your feet hurt and your wallet's empty.

So maybe you're correct for some of us... but we've always known people are different. As for me, my brain and biology are pretty synched up in this parenting thing. Cleaning up vomit sucks, but I genuinely enjoy raising my kids, giving them what I've got, and watching them become really cool people.

God I sound like a douche... I hope I'm coming across how I mean to. If not, apologies in advance!!!

zoot said...

I think about this a lot from the other perspective - about our tendency to blame our faults on our parents, as a society. Everything from blaming a murderous streak on an absentee Dad to blaming poor money skills on having rich parents. We like to be able to have a cause/effect relationship to explain our faults.

But then we become parents and we don't want our kids to be able to do that. We want them to accept their own blame if they screw up, don't blame us! But then, we also want to try to prevent causing damage so it's this psychotic crazy cycle of what-ifs...

I think a lot of it just boils down Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. We don't struggle just to feed/shelter/protect our kids anymore. Most of that comes easily, so we have more time to constantly critique/question the actual theories of parenting.

When I had E as a single Mom/college student/lab worker, life was so insane I couldn't find time to bathe him some days, much less question my parenting skills. I just went based on instinct. With my younger two? I'm constantly wondering if I'm screwing them up.

Yeah...so I think the more privileged we are, the more complicated we make things. Now, whether or not that's a good thing is another debate all together.

Bea said...

One thing that becomes clear by the end of this post is that the whole "genes wanting to reproduce themselves" thing is ITSELF a narrative that we can impose on our experience in order to make sense of it. So the question is, What makes for a good narrative? A narrative with two many holes in it will create too much cognitive dissonance, so "fitting the facts" is one factor that contributes to the functionality of the narrative. But narratives have other jobs as well - they create motivation, they increase happiness, etc.

The scientific narrative will not have the happiness-decreasing effects that some of the other narratives have, in that it doesn't create guilt when we fail to blissfully enjoy every moment of parenting. But I suspect it doesn't have much happiness-boosting potential either.

As for the motivational effects, one of the commenters above pointed out that children don't exist to make their parents happy. That's one of the side effects of the competing narrative, the one that says we choose to have children in order to achieve a happy life. If that's the narrative motivating me, then it will have plenty of holes in it (because my children do not always make me happy) AND it will serve to motivate only certain kinds of parenting practices (those geared toward my own happiness).

So my idea of a good, functional parenting narrative would be one that (a) explains not only the decision to become a parent but also the various other irrational things we do for our children even after we have them, and (b) satisfies our need for meaning so that we can keep on doing all the things mentioned in (a).

Jessica said...

Doctor's wife: I don't think it matters if your mind is right and the biological stuff is wrong, because the biology isn't going to quit. It'll probably make you so miserable without kids that having them will make you happy (aka, less miserable).

Rebecca: You are one lucky lady (said with no sarcasm whatsoever). I don't actually enjoy raising my kids. My husband and I sat down this weekend, actually, and both admitted we hate being parents. I feel like I'm being beat to death with constant need and whining. I love my children, and think they're the cutest kids in the world (biology!), but I often fervently wish they were grown and gone. Of course, when that happens I'll probably end up miserable from missing them so much.

Jessica said...

Also, I do happen to like my kids. A lot, actually. It's being in charge of catering to their every need, cleaning up the constant stupid messes, and turning them into civilized humans I hate.

d e v a n said...

Whoa. This is DEEP. I've never thought of it this way, but it does make sense to me.
Then again, it also reinforces my notion that maybe I just shouldn't think about things too much.

Ann Wyse said...

I really love these types of posts, Swistle, and I don't find them cynical - just really reflective and thoughtful. I like Bea's comment about finding the right kind of narrative and mostly, I find myself trying to do just that while keeping in mind that it is, in fact, only a narrative.

The one thing that gives me pause is this idea of children bringing happiness and benefits. The PROFOUND JOY that all the grandparents in my life seem to experience from their grandchildren (and great grandchildren) is hard to ignore.

Maybe children benefit grandparents?

Mrs. Irritation said...

This is one of my favorite posts of yours ever. Wow. I had to step back and come back to this three different times so I could digest it, but even now all I know is I'm going to be thinking about this for a long long time.

Alice said...

i of course have never been able to re-find it, but i swear i read a study once that essentially confirmed this: that parents more or less get Stockholm Syndromed into believing that children make their lives better and are worth it and their lives are more fulfilling after kids, etc... because they kind of HAVE to think that in order to keep going. because if you look at kids fairly objectively - what with the sacrificing your needs/wants/money/time/effort for a not-so-grateful, often-sticky-and-gross person (or 5) for 18+ years... I AM GOING THROUGH ALL THIS BECAUSE MY LIFE IS MORE WORTHWHILE NOW DARNIT :)

(i am presuming, anyway. since i don't have kids i am going on what i hear from others!)

Swistle said...

Rebecca- Ha! Yes, I genuinely like and enjoy my kids too! And also my parents, and my brother, and my husband, and other members of my family! It's something different I'm talking about in this post.

Karen P said...

Responding to Anonymous, et al. - I have Strong Feelings about children (or any other loved ones)not being possesions. I think that English, and most other languages, have a bad influence on us by making us say MY baby, MY husband, etc. So Wrong.

All I know is that I always wanted to have a baby - and guess what - I got one, and later another one. (Some life goals are easier than others.) And then I developed other life goals and the kids grew up with the usual joys & traumas. And I was very glad to have had the experience.

Terry Pratchett posed an interesting concept. The young dwarfs in Discworld who want to get married save up for a Dowry to give their parents - an amount to compensate them for the expense of raising them. So no debt, no guilt.

Great post Swistle (Any excuse for me to soapbox about "owning" people makes me happy)

Gigi said...

I'd never heard that theory (could be because I never took a psych class) - but this just explained my friend and her bizarre behavior (and explanations) lately! Thank you, I've been puzzling over it all day and now, thanks to this post, I can understand the "why" behind it all.

Sorry to hijack this conversation in another direction, I know this was more skewed to parenting.

Alexicographer said...

Hmmm. Well, if you want to read in graphic and disturbing detail a compelling (really) scholarly account of some aspects of the genetic/psychological issues involved, pick up Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mother Nature book. But beware, as it contains pretty disturbing stuff, like examinations of how infanticide can be a successful reproductive strategy (moreso than the alternatives, e.g. for a human mom in a bad setting, say a woman in a foraging culture in a drought who kills her infant thereby surviving, herself, to reproduce later -- versus both of them dying).

Anyway, Hrdy makes what has for me been just the most, I don't know, informative case about the problem with human children which, let's be honest, is how darned long they are dependent or, seen from an evolutionary perspective, just how difficult it is to get them safely to reproductive age themselves (because reproducing itself does not equal evolutionary success ... some of your offspring have to survive to reproduce themselves, or you're done). Other creatures have it much easier. And one of Hrdy's key points is that it's basically impossible to do alone (this is on the savannah or in the caves, of course, not in a 3 br / 2 ba townhome), so humans have had to find one or another way to organize to help each other raise our young or we wouldn't have survived as a species. I found the book really compelling as you can probably tell.

But when I need something simpler, I just chant "embrace ambivalence" over and over, under my breath. I will say that (so far) I enjoy my son more and more the older he gets, which helps; I see some women who I think really do prefer the baby stage (e.g.) over all others, and that, you know, is what it is, but it just seems so difficult because (if that's you), the best part is over so quickly and, hello, there are still about 2 decades to get through.

Doing My Best said...


I really admire the way you can not only THINK about something interesting like this, but also write it out in a perfectly coherent way that allows the rest of us to think about it too!

The last line: BRILLIANT.

g~ said...

I LOVE THIS POST. I seriously do because often, Bryan and I look at each other and say, "What the HELL were we thinking? This is NOT what it was cracked up to be." Here I was thinking we were selfish and horrible people when, in fact, we are the clear-headed ones who could see through the Matrix. (See how I rationalized my thoughts there to inflate my own sense of self?) It's EVERYWHERE!

meanliving said...

I like that Hrdy's work was brought up here. I read that back in college and STILL managed to decide to have kids, knowing I would mostly be going it alone (with husband, but without family).

I think having thoughts like this in my head for a decade (EEP) has made it somewhat easier for me to distance myself from my kids when life isn't living up to fantasy. I love thinking about how our behavior is all mixed up with genetics and culture and how things play out small-scale and in larger populations of across our species.

HOWEVER. I also think of another thing I read just a couple years ago about kids being "all joy and no fun". I think of the joy part as being a foundational kind of biological response, with the fun parts coming only rarely. What you know rationally doesn't help much when you're slogging through another Tuesday full of household chores to keep your offspring healthy all while listening to them behave antisocially.

Michelle said...

Interesting discussion. Couldn't you say basically the same thing about lots and lots of things we do in life? Marriage? Education? Work/career? And so much if it is investment in the future. It might be something of a slog for a decade and a half or so but then you have adult children and grandchildren.

MrsDragon said...

I am not a parent, but you pretty much summed up my attitude on becoming one. I understand that one pretty much every metric you can think of, parenting doesn't make sense. It's a huge financial and emotional drain, studies have shown that marital happiness decreases when children are added to the family. I know and understand all this.

And yet, I want children. It's a hormonal, biological urge and there simply is no other reason for it.


Angela said...

Hey Swistle, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the book "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids," which talks about reproduction and happiness. It's also has a bunch of fascinating information (using twin studies) about nature vs. nurture in how kids turn out...not to spoil it, but it turns out that it's 99% nature!

Caitlin said...

I am SO INTO this post and these comments. It's fascinating.

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic and am still digesting but I want to say first what Am Doing My Best said: I so admire your ability to clearly process and express these thoughts, especially on so complicated a topic. It's something I have come to think of as So Very Swistle; a defining trait. One to be envied, at that.

Second, I went through a similar process to MrsDragon, and in the end I don't want children. I do not have the hormonal, biological urge, and from a logical standpoint it's not a choice I'm interested in making. Sometimes I do feel the urge, yes, absolutely. I love babies and kids and always have - but I have also never wanted children. People seem shocked by this dichotomy, but there it is. There are a LOT of reasons for this, but a lot of it is the logical process of considering and knowing what it would really mean, and deciding it is not for me.
That's a choice I've made as an adult (though my husband feels the same way, we also say that we're about 90% sure, allowing for the possibility that the biological urge could kick in at some point.), but I recall even at a very young age saying to my mother "What's the point of having kids?". I really was looking for an answer, because I didn't understand it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she didn't really have one. Who can blame her.

Third, Michelle said "It might be something of a slog for a decade and a half or so but then you have adult children and grandchildren. "
Ah, and there you have it. There is absolutely no guarantee that you will have adult children, or if you do, that you will have the good/rewarding/whatever relationship with them that you expected. Or that your kids will have a good relationship with each other. There's also no guarantee of grandchildren (just ask my parents), but I completely understand why so many people are dying to become grandparents when the time is right. It DOES seem like a reward.

I'm also really interested in the children-as-separate-people line. I'm often struck by how often parents expect their kids to be, well, whatever they expect - and seem surprised and disappointed when they're not. I'm terrified of having a kid I don't like, and not being able to parent them as they'd still deserve to be parented.

For what it's worth, I don't find this post cynical at all. I think it's very honest and a discussion that is probably not happening often enough.

In the end, we are animals. Biology does play into it - whether it's a conscious choice to act on the urge to have kids, or someone having a kid because they acted on the biological urge to have sex.

Absolutely fascinated by this conversation! Thank you for this post.

DomestiKook said...

Too true. I always consider not being able to use basic modern technology as an old thing. My mother would murder me if she saw that.

Emily said...

I think you are 100% correct. I came to this conclusion very early on in my (unfortunately still young) parenting career. I get no personal satisfaction from parenting, so the only way it makes sense to my brain is for me to conclude that I only did this (and keep doing it) to continue the species.