Philosopher Agnes Callard on Anxiety & Decisions
Estimated read time: 8 minutes
One of my biggest worries before having kids is that I would feel torn between my intellectual side and my caretaking side. I like reading, writing, and thinking. Everything I knew about having kids seemed like the opposite of those quiet, contemplative activities. But in fact, I found that taking care of a child was very intellectually engaging. There was a lot to think about: I’m not talking about the intricacies of wake windows and ounces of breast milk, although I thought a lot about those mind numbing figures too. More like, what am I even doing here? Am I passing on knowledge? Preparing someone for an uncertain future? Just trying to enjoy it? Just trying to survive?
One of my favorite thinkers to help answer these questions is the philosopher Agnes Callard. Agnes is a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in ancient philosophy and ethics. And sometimes, she writes about parenting. She had her first child as a grad student at UC Berkeley, and went on to have two more. (She and her first husband divorced after 10 years of happy marriage, and she had her third child with her second husband. She lives with both her ex and her husband. For more about this unique arrangement, check out her New Yorker profile.)
The way she tells it, Agnes’s experience of being a parent is very relatable: she gets anxious about things, she deliberates about screen time limits, she feels rejected as her kids get older and have their own ideas about how to do things. There’s nothing particularly unusual or “philosophical” about these feelings. But what is unusual is her ability to examine her emotions to reveal fresh insight about what it’s like to be a parent today.
I’ll link some of my favorite of her parenting pieces below, but first, enjoy my interview with Agnes!
Lindsay, Head of Content & Community
A Conversation with Philosopher Agnes Callard
Lindsay: If someone who didn’t know anything about parenting asked you to describe what it is like, what would you say?
Agnes: I would say it’s a combination of getting to know someone during the time when that same someone is coming into existence. But at the same time, you have to take care of them. Most of the people we get to know are already completed people by the time we get to know them. But a child hasn’t really come into existence yet when they’re born. They’re not really a person yet—they’re becoming a person. So you’re getting to know someone as they’re becoming the someone you’re getting to know … and you’ve got to keep them alive the whole time.
A lot of the time this feels like you don’t know what you’re doing. Because parents, especially mothers, worry a lot. And that worrying is just a feeling of constant reassessment: am I doing things right? Should I be doing something different? Is there something I didn’t look out for that I should be? You’re scouting for danger but you don’t even know what danger looks like. And because you don’t know what you’re doing, you need to be constantly second guessing, revising, and worrying.
Lindsay: Should parents try to worry less?
Agnes: When I'm worried about something and people try to make me worry less about it, that's very annoying. They're trying to manage my psychology, but there's something I'm worried about! I'm not really sure that the worry is extractable or removable from the project.
Worry is quite unpleasant to everyone. I'm worrying and I'm expressing my worries to you. That kind of stresses you out, too. I think we haven't yet figured out how to manage that situation, but I'm not sure the best way to manage it is to try to get people to worry less.
It's true that what [parenting] is like is to not know what you're doing, and that it is worrisome. But I also think it's very fun. And most of the funnest things in life are things where you don't know what you're doing, and you're figuring it out as you go along, and it's kind of experimental and you get surprised.
A lot of the hardest tasks of like parenting used to be things like just doing the laundry. It was really time consuming and that must have sucked! And now a lot of the tasks are hard in a different way. And that way has emotional cost, but it also has a lot of intellectual and emotional benefits.
Lindsay: Parents have a lot of anxiety around making decisions in topics like sleep, feeding, screen time, etc. When you make these kinds of decisions, do you make them as just another parent? Or do you feel like a philosopher when it comes to parenting decisions?
Agnes: I think I do feel like a philosopher. But that has led me to feel that I have much less of a philosophy. The thing that really really struck me when I first became a parent, I was introduced to all these questions. Questions like: how are you going to give birth to him? Is it going to be vaginally or cesarean? Are you going to have painkillers? Breastfeed or not? What kind of diapers? Do they sleep on their back or their stomach?
All these questions struck me as totally unimportant and uninteresting. That people had very strong views—I was really surprised by that. I'm like, but this obviously doesn't matter! None of this matters! You’ve got to feed them one way or the other, but which way you feed them? It's both food.
My oldest was a toilet trained when he was older than four. He wanted to keep wearing diapers and so I was like, okay, I don't care. And then one day I was like, it's enough, you have to start using the bathroom.
I felt much less invested in trying to make these decisions the right way because they didn't seem important. But then there's other stuff later that started to seem important. Questions about how I guide them to the people that they’re supposed to be.
Those questions don't show up when they're less than one. For me they didn’t, anyway. So I felt a bit less in need of a parenting philosophy. Maybe because I felt like with all those things I could just do whatever I felt like as long as the kids stayed alive. Whatever was easiest for me would be fine. I was less inclined to have a philosophy.
Parenting babies, apart from the sleep deprivation, is just really fun. They're cute and bubbly and every once in a while they cry and you’ve got to deal with that. But they're like very high maintenance dolls. I like babies a lot but I don't feel like you have to do a lot of parenting of babies.
Lindsay: What part of parenting do you feel like you were made for?
Agnes: Having conversations with my kids. All three of my kids have told me: we go to other people's houses and they have dinner, and they don't talk about anything! I find it very easy to talk to my kids, and to talk to them in ways where I'm interested in what they're going to say. To not talk down to them. I think that other people struggle with that.
I feel like it's not actually hard. I just pretend that they're grownups and then it works fine. They have all kinds of interesting answers to questions. Pretty much any question. One thing we discussed at dinner recently was, suppose you're in your room and you're like: I think I'll just spend today in my room and not leave all day. But unbeknown to you, somebody has locked the door so you couldn't have left even if you'd wanted to. Did you choose to stay in your room? My kids have views on this!
It's so easy to find things where they will have some kind of opinion and then want to argue about it.
Do you feel the need to pick a parenting philosophy? Or do you just figure it out as you go? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts!
What we're reading this week
💪🏽 These Moms Have Been Misjudged for their Parenting Decisions, and Now They're Speaking Out "We wanted to celebrate and tell the stories of those who have been publicly scrutinized for their parenting decisions. They are not, in fact, bad moms. They are just moms who refuse to cave in to the judgments of strangers." (Business Insider)
💼 The HR-ification of Marriage "My relationship is so much more like a business partnership than I ever expected it to be, especially when kids are involved." (Bustle)
Interested in reading more of Callard’s writing about parenting? Here are a few of my favorites:
🔥 Parenting and Panic "When you’re a parent, there’s a story you are deeply invested in, it’s not your story and you’re not going to get to know how it turns out—at least, not unless you’re very unlucky. Pretending one controls the story with one’s “parenting choices” is one coping strategy; convincing oneself that the story is already written in the genetic stars is another. The truth is, the story is not yet written, you care tremendously how it goes and you don’t get to write it. Which is all to say, the panic is justified." (The Point)
💯 Acceptance Parenting "If I were a traditional parent, I would be trying to give my child some version of my life; as an acceptance parent, I am trying to give my child something I don’t have and am not familiar with—his life." (The Point)
🌓 Half a Person "Pregnancy clouds the mind, and life with a newborn so much more so. Giving birth to a baby is, literally, splitting in two, and it is not always clear which one your “I” goes with. Actually, it is clear. It is clearly not you. The one that matters—the real person—is the one whose needs, cries and future you spend all your time attending to. You are reduced to almost nothing, not even half a person." (The Point)