Philosopher Anastasia Berg on What Children Are For
When I was preparing to give birth to my first child, my doula told me that during labor, a woman’s body goes through a natural, hormone-driven transformation that allows her to endure pain that might otherwise break her. I found this idea highly motivating. It reminded me of the marathon training I’d done years before: running 26.2 miles seemed intimidating, but I knew that every training run I completed was strengthening my muscles, improving my red blood cells’ ability to transport oxygen, and transforming me into something more capable of taking on that challenge.
That’s how I thought labor would work too, but it didn’t—not at all. I was still me, only now I was in pain so great that it made the “preparation” I had undertaken—holding ice cubes, deep breathing exercises, visualizations—seem laughable. In retrospect, what feels most true to me about labor was something my friend Lisa once told me about her own labor: “if someone handed me a gun, I would have shot myself in the head with it.”
This idea, applied to motherhood at large, is what the philosopher Anastasia Berg is getting at in her critique of maternal transformation. Motherhood is supposed to change you in ways that make you tolerate the hard parts. But maybe we have it backwards: maybe its failure to change you is what makes it so hard. You’re still the same person you were before you had a baby, only now you have to wake up four times a night to soothe a screaming baby.
Her forthcoming book, “What Are Children For?” tackles this and other aspects of parenting, including what’s at stake in the question of whether to have children at all. I loved my conversation with her, and I hope you do too!
Lindsay, Head of Content & Community
A Conversation with Philosopher Anastasia Berg
Lindsay: What made you decide to have children, and what did the process of having one look like for you?
Anastasia: I didn’t always know I wanted a family of my own. I attended grad school straight out of college and spent the entirety of my twenties pursuing degrees from one university and then my early thirties in a postdoc at another. Spending one’s early adulthood pursuing an education in the humanities can have peculiar effects on one’s psyche, and very few of those is conducive to having children. For me it meant that I felt a strong demand to be able to account for everything I do; that everything should be done for a good reason. One did everything for a reason, a good reason, a noble reason, a poetic reason, even if that reason was simply that sometimes it is very necessary to do something very stupid. How would this contribute to the development of my mind? How would this help me become who I must be? The thought of dating someone “normal” seemed strange, threatening; the thought of dedicating any of my precious time to a child—a prelinguistic, inconsiderate, all-consuming, baby—it simply didn’t occur to me. Some people had children; they were, as far as I could tell, all religious, or old. And it wasn’t just that it would have never occurred to me that children might be a welcome addition to my life, it was laughably apparent they did not need me. I think embracing a desire of my own required me overcoming this sort of commitment to justifications of this sort.
As for the “process”: I was very lucky to get pregnant quickly and enjoy a first healthy pregnancy. We want to have another but I have suffered from three consecutive miscarriages, so I’m not entirely certain that will be possible.
Lindsay: You have a book coming out called “What Are Children For?” What’s the short answer to this question? And why is it of concern to philosophers?
Anastasia: I think, first, that children are not “for” anything; it is you who are for them. Having children is one relationship where you do not undertake it because it promotes a goal you have (though it may) or because of the advantages it confers (though there are many) outweigh the disadvantages.
The question of whether or not we should have children implies a deep philosophical question that we can call the question of the value of human life. In deciding whether or not to have a child one is always also answering the question whether human life—despite pain, loss and failure; despite injustice and risk—is worth the trouble. The book tries to show why we are in a position to show that it is.
Lindsay: If someone who didn’t know anything about kids or parenting asked you to describe what parenting is like, what would you say?
Anastasia: In the book I say that the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this question is the first line of David Wallace-Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth, a very alarmist set of predictions about climate change: “it is, I promise you, worse than you think.” I go on to suggest that what made it so hard was not so much the loss of self or identity transformation that I saw people sometimes talk about but the fact that I felt I remained very much the same. It was the fact that my priorities hadn’t changed, they had been augmented, that I didn’t develop a new personality, that new traits like patience and time management genius didn’t sprout to replace the old ones, that made the new reality—with its infinitely many new demands and restrictions—so hard.
Lindsay: In your review of Maggie Gyllenhaal's film adaptation of Elena Ferrante's book The Lost Daughter, you argue that it’s actually not taboo, at least in art, to talk about maternal ambivalence. Do you think there’s anything that genuinely is taboo for mothers, or parents, to talk about?
Anastasia: That’s a really good question. I don’t know if it’s a taboo, per se, but I do think that we are very invested in the idea of maternal transformation and in my conclusion to the book I suggest that in my case, but I think also in that of others, the transformation we often hear talked about didn’t take place. In addition to it being false, I think that the investment in this idea of transformation can also be harmful for various reasons. Perhaps the most important one is that it can leave a new mother feel like she’s somehow doing it all wrong.
Lindsay: In the same essay, you argue that a particular form of suffering is inextricable from the mother-child relationship (”To give life to someone else is always to give away something of your own and to saddle yourself with a love that can be almost unbearable. A child’s life really does come at the cost of yours.”). Given this, how do you think about the concept of fairness and equality when it comes to parenthood? Are these values we should be striving for? What would that look like?
Anastasia: Fairness and equality between me and my child? We’re potty training our two year old and the other day I heard her say “I’m doing a peepee on mama” only to look down and see she was telling the truth, so I don’t find these to be applicable normative categories with which to characterize our relationship. As for gender equality, however, one thing we talk about in the book is that while there is recognition of the importance of fairness in the distribution of housework and child care we need to recognize another domain in which we need to be asking all parties to take an equal part and that is asking the question of whether or not they want to have children. The recognition that women ought to have control over their bodies and their life trajectories, especially insofar as it is under such a severe threat now, has had the effect of discouraging men from touching the question of children at all, deferring to women. But the result is not empowerment but its opposite: as we write, no one wants to hear “whatever you like” when trying to decide where to eat or what to watch, let alone when the question of children is at stake.
Lindsay: You’ve written that you understand human freedom to be “not the freedom to exercise control over errant emotions and dispositions of character but the freedom from having to expand one's efforts in this way.” Based on this account of freedom, does someone become freer or less free after having children?
Anastasia: Wow, that’s an excellent question, as those remarks on freedom were written in a completely different context. People talk about all sorts of newfound freedoms they find in parenthood, the freedom to really take time off of work, or the freedom not have to make certain kind of decisions because having children, especially young ones, means they are made for you, or that they don’t arise (should I take a week long exotic vacation on a whim? When should I wake up). In a way, I think when people say that it’s possible that they are enjoying the freedom I was referring to. As for me, it’s important to say that that freedom is characterized by harmony, i.e., the fact you don’t have a choice in a certain matter is not experienced as a limitation, and I confess I don’t think I’m there yet.
Lindsay: Do you think having a child has impacted the way you think / how your mind operates?
Anastasia: This relates to the question of transformation. As I’ve said, I’ve been exploring the ways I, and other women, resist the script of transformation and that includes the idea you now think differently or your mind operates differently. That said, I also think that we are never either fully visible or transparent to ourselves, that is, we don’t know how we present and we are not always the best authority on what’s “really going on inside us” so I won’t pronounce a final judgment here and I won’t close off in advance the possibility of such changes becoming more apparent in the future.