Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Mythbusting: Ayn Rand, Mommies, and Children

Because of the resurgence of interest in Atlas Shrugged in past 9 months or so, I've had the pleasure of reading and hearing so many positive things about Ayn Rand in the media, from friends and family, and even perfect strangers (since I have "My Other Ride is the John Galt Line" and "Rearden Steel" stickers on the back of my minivan). I've never experienced anything like it, at least not with so much frequency. And of course, I'm thrilled, because I think everyone ought to read Atlas, or at the very least, Anthem (which, by the way, predated 1984 by several years).

I do encounter one negative sentiment over and over, and that's this notion--this myth, if you will--that Ayn Rand was somehow hostile toward children, mothers, and families. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I would like to do my part to counter this rumor. This is important to me because I've encountered a lot of crazy misinformation about Ayn Rand and Objectivism over the years. (I first read Atlas in the summer of 1989--twenty years ago!). But this particular piece of misinformation is especially critical to me--because of my chosen career.

I have, as you might not know since I hardly ever mention them (!), three gorgeous children. A boy and a girl and a boy. Their production was the result of a joint venture on the part of me and my husband, and the whole thing began about eight years ago. :o) Not only do I have these little humans living at my house and eating my food, I am "staying" (that word always cracks me up) at home to raise them. And we are homeschooling them.

I am a Career Mommy (for the time being) and I love it. I traded another job that paid actual money for this current job, which rewards me in other ways. This trade off was not a sacrifice on my part; that is, I did not give up a higher value in favor of a lesser one. After Ryan came, Brendan and I knew that we wanted to raise him ourselves if we could pull that off financially. And we could, so we did. So far, it's worked out pretty well financially (although Brendan's between contracts now, so if you have any leads, let me know!) and I have been pleasantly surprised at how happy I am at home with the kids. Not that it's not hard sometimes, or frustrating, but I seem to recall hard and frustrating days (months, years) in my "real" jobs, too.

So, enough about me. I really want to talk about Ayn Rand and these anti-children rumors.

Here is a quotation from a recent article in The New York Times, which was mostly positive but unfortunately contained many factual errors:

She had little time for women who stay home to raise children.
Really? Says who?

Here's a couple quotations from Reason Magazine back in March 2005 (the same month my daughter was born, emphasis added):

Politically, too, Rand's insistence on de-emphasizing, or even denigrating, family, community, and private charity is not a particularly clever tactic for capitalism's defenders. [RJ: I won't even get into the two other issues in this statement, but they are worthy of being addressed.]


And:

Family fares even worse in Rand's universe. The virtual absence of children in her work has been noted by many critics, starting with Whittaker Chambers in his infamous roasting of Atlas Shrugged in National Review. Actually, John Galt's private utopia in Atlas features a nameless young woman who makes it her career to raise rational children; but this brief passage comes across as little more than a pro forma nod to motherhood. In her 1964 Playboy interview Rand flatly declared that it was "immoral" to place family ties and friendship above productive work; in her fiction, family life is depicted as a stifling, soul-killing, mainly feminine swamp.



HUH? In particular, that last paragraph contains quite a few amazingly incorrect notions. Are there tons of children in Pride and Prejudice, A Room with a View (there's one I can think of, but she's a very minor character), or Moby-Dick? Has the "virtual absence" of children in Shakespeare been long noted by critics?

And an oldie-but-goodie from the Wall Street Journal:

After all, blood relationships are involuntary, and parents with any interest in rearing and educating their children are unlikely to look for guidance in "Atlas Shrugged." Ayn Rand was predictably wary of kinship ties and, like radical feminists, saw the family as a soul-killing prison.


Again with the soul-killing. Oh, look at me! I wrote not one, but two responses to this article back in 2007!

Le sigh. And you don't even need to search very hard to find even more of this stuff, especially among bloggers. I'll let you look yourself; I have linked quite a bit already.

Allow me to counter the above statements with Ayn Rand's own words.

From her interview with Playboy in March 1964 (via the Ayn Rand Lexicon, emphasis added):

PLAYBOY: In your opinion, is a woman immoral who chooses to devote herself to home and family instead of a career?

RAND: Not immoral—I would say she is impractical, because a home cannot be a full-time occupation, except when her children are young. However, if she wants a family and wants to make that her career, at least for a while, it would be proper—if she approaches it as a career, that is, if she studies the subject, if she defines the rules and principles by which she wants to bring up her children, if she approaches her task in an intellectual manner. It is a very responsible task and a very important one, but only when treated as a science, not as a mere emotional indulgence.

Once more: "It is a very responsible task and a very important one. . . ."

Is she saying that homemakers are immoral? No. What she's saying is that if a woman intends to pursue homemaking and raising children as a career, it's not practical to expect to do it after the kids go off to college. I agree with this. I've changed careers a couple of times in my adult life.

The difference between my past jobs and my current career--and I DO approach my job as a career--is that I know for certain that it will end. Actually, I even have a pretty good estimate of just when that might be--I've got about 17 years at the most left. And I really have many fewer years of this intense hands-on work. Since we are homeschooling, my Mommy Career will last a bit longer than women who choose to put their kids in school. It will be less easy for me to take on the additional responsibility of another job until the kids are much older, since I need to be around to answer zillions of questions. But I fully intend to find another career, and I will (and have) begin working productively in other areas, even while my children are small.

Are these the words of someone who has no respect for the " job of being a parent? (Again, from the Lexicon):

As I have said before, parenthood is an enormous responsibility . . . .

The task of raising a child is a tremendous, lifelong responsibility . . . .


Are these the words of someone who is anti-child or anti-family? (More from the Lexicon):

I will ask you to project the look on a child’s face when he grasps the answer to some problem he has been striving to understand. It is a radiant look of joy, of liberation, almost of triumph, which is unself-conscious, yet self-assertive, and its radiance seems to spread in two directions: outward, as an illumination of the world—inward, as the first spark of what is to become the fire of an earned pride. If you have seen this look, or experienced it, you know that if there is such a concept as “sacred”—meaning: the best, the highest possible to man—this look is the sacred, the not-to-be-betrayed, the not-to-be-sacrificed for anything or anyone.


Think about the children who lived in Galt's Gulch, from Atlas Shrugged:

The recaptured sense of her [Dagny's] own childhood kept coming back to her whenever she met the two sons of the young woman who owned the bakery shop. . . . They did not have the look she had seen in the children of the outer world--a look of fear, half- secretive, half-sneering, the look of a child's defense against an adult, the look of a being in the process of discovering that he is hearing lies and of learning to feel hatred. The two boys had the open, joyous, friendly confidence of kittens who do not expect to get hurt, they had an innocently natural, non-boastful sense of their own value and as innocent a trust in any stranger's ability to recognize it, they had the eager curiosity that would venture anywhere with the certainty that life held nothing unworthy of or closed to discovery, and they looked as if, should they encounter malevolence, they would reject it contemptuously, not as dangerous, but as stupid, they would not accept it in bruised resignation as the law of existence. p. 730 (Paperback 35th Anniversary edition)


Consider what the mother of those children said about her career:

"They represent my particular career, Miss Taggart," said the young mother in answer to her comment. . . . "They're the profession I've chosen to practice, which, in spite of all the guff about motherhood, one can't practice successfully in the outer world. . . . I came here, not merely for the sake of my husband's profession, but for the sake of my own. I came here in order to bring up my sons as human beings." p. 730


How about some of the scenes from Dagny's childhood? What fun adventures those (free-range) children had together, exploring the world, figuring things out, living their lives!

Are those the words of someone who viewed stay-at-home mommies and their children with dismissiveness or contempt?

No. Not at all. Just because those were things she did not choose to do doesn't mean that she thought no one should choose them. (By the way, search on the word "children" on the Ayn Rand Institute website for numerous Op-Eds and Articles by Objectivists that are quite pro-family and children.)

The reason children are not featured in Atlas Shrugged or in any of her other novels is quite simply because those books were not about children. They were about grownups doing grownup things. The character Dagny Taggart was a woman who chose not to have children (a very minor detail among the great many important things she did choose to do in that book). Many women in real life choose not to have children. I don't consider that to be such an unusual thing. Many women authors chose not to have children. Yet I don't hear too many people accusing Jane Austen or Margaret Mitchell of believing that families are soul-killing prisons.

Ayn Rand portrays several dysfunctional family relationships in Atlas Shrugged and her other novels. The Reardens are the most complete example of how families ought NOT to behave toward each other, but there are many more. I always feel so for the Wet Nurse, and that passage where Rand talks about how his mother must have cared so much for him, to ensure that he grew healthy and strong, but then neglected to monitor the unhealthy ideas that he took into his mind--it never fails to make me tear up. That passage is tender and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Yes, there are many, many examples in Atlas Shrugged of terrible families who share misery instead of love and happiness. Those are minor parts of the story, but important ones nonetheless. Just as she demonstrated the damage caused by businessmen who make business decisions against the principle of what is best for their companies (rational self-interest), she illustrated what happens in families when duty and self-sacrificial standards are upheld instead of selfish, life-loving, happy ones. Those story lines are included to support the main theme of the book, and are bold examples of what NOT to do.

I wonder if some of this "soul-killing" stuff comes from those who simply cannot understand the truly selfish joy of having children. So instead of trying to find out what Ayn Rand actually wrote or said about the subject, they focus on the Reardens and see how nasty they were and conveniently blank out the fact that it's obvious in the novel that these were not people Rand wanted her readers to admire. Or they cling absurdly to the fact that she personally didn't have children, and that her novels did not feature too many children as characters, as if their diminished or absent role somehow constituted "proof" that she abhorred family life.

Getting my little people started in the world has been the most rewarding, most interesting, most soul-fulfilling, happily selfish productive endeavor of my life. The life I have chosen and am happily living is fully consistent with my values as an Objectivist.

39 comments:

Trey Givens said...

I am very sad that your soul has been killed.

Rational Jenn said...

My soul thanks you for your concern.

Stella Zawistowski said...

And hey, who says Dagny Taggart never had kids ("off-screen," of course)? It took her a good thousand pages of novel for her to finally sleep with Mr. Right, let alone make babies!

Not that I picture Dagny giving up the railroad for a career as a mother -- but having mini-Galts might tempt even her ;)

Amy said...

What a wonderful response to such an absurd claim.

Wendy Hawksley said...

The whole thing about a lack of children in "Atlas Shrugged" got me. My response to that is "And your point would be...?"

LOL

My major concern with books and movies is always this: You rarely see or hear people using a toilet. Is the need to eliminate completely, um, eliminated in the literary world? It's unnatural, I say!

Well, back to being a full-time mommy (which, oddly enough, is fully consistent with my values as a feminist)!

;-)

Diana Hsieh said...

Wow, I never thought about it until I read Wendy's comment, but it's true: Hollywood directors are completely anti-pooping!

Rob said...

Where did you get those stickers!

Mike Zemack said...

I discovered Ayn Rand in the late 1960s, and it was she who, through her extensive attention to education, introduced me to Montessori as well as the destructive effects of the Dewey progressives.

I now have two Montessori-trained, independent minded daughters raising six wonderful grandkids, all through, in, or headed for Montessori school.

My family is better off thanks to this "soul-killing" philosopher of reason.

mtnrunner2 said...

I'm glad you posted this; I'm so sick of hearing dumb stuff like that. lol.

Many people mistake the story particulars from a Romantic novel as a literal prescription for how to live, or take Rand's personal choices as principled recommendations, which they are not. If they knew anything about Rand's personality, they'd realize she would be strongly against someone aping her personal choices. She was all about making up your own mind, and choosing your own way, of course based on your actual long-term interest.

Sadly, it also means many people are entirely missing the point of her use of interpersonal issues in the novels, and probably aren't getting much else out of them either. The Rearden family was not about family, it was about unchosen obligations, and about people who were using them to crush Hank's spirit, for crying out loud. It was a literary foil for the issue of the sanction of the victim.

Tenure said...

Thanks Jenn. You set the charges, wired them up and demolished one of those really pernicious myths about Ayn Rand -- one which you are more than qualified to take down.

I'm gonna bookmark this and link it to someone, the next time I hear this nonsense about Ayn Rand and children (or about Ayn Rand being cold-hearted and cruel in general).

Cheers again!

(Also: Wendy's comment is spot on!)

BestSelf said...

Great post, thank you for writing it!

djasonfleming said...

Some of it also comes of narrow-mindedness, I think. Most people have a difficult time understanding that others can have different values. What they value is the One True Way, and all others are damned.

One of my friends is a very Catholic man, and one time chatting with him, I off-handedly mentioned some celebrity who had chosen not to get married or have kids. And this quiet, nerdish engineer went on a several minute, red-in-the-face tirade about how stupid all people were who didn't have kids, and how they were just forcing the people who did have kids to take care of them in their old age, and even if they could afford care themselves, they were going to be lonely and miserable and...

Yeah. It was fairly ugly, especially since he's usually such a quiet and cheerful man. He didn't actually stand up and pound the table, but it was close.

So it surprises me not at all that people whose lives center around their children (social conservatives, e.g.) simply can't process that Rand was not anti-child. She did not center her life or works around them, as they do, which means that she MUST be against them.

And, sad to say, as clear and explicit as this post was, I doubt that it will help much to change such minds.

Adam Reed said...

Sure. But why assume that this is a proper career for women only? Soon after signing off on my PhD, my advisor, Wayne Wickelgren, fell in love with a great woman and wanted to have several children with her. She said, "fine, if YOU raise them." So he resigned from the University of Oregon, and spend the next several years raising their kids. We met again at a ceremony for Math Olympics: my daughter was the top girl in New Jersey; his was the top girl in the country.

Mark Plus said...

Rand did portray having living, non-Objectivist relatives as a misfortune. Name me one Objectivist character in Atlas Shrugged who has a good relationship with a living relative.

Meanwhile, consider the counter-examples: Dagny versus Jim, Hank versus his mom and brother, Cherryl versus her family, Ragnar versus his father; Galt versus his father. If Dagny's parents, Francisco's parents and Hank's father all lived at the time of the novel, Rand probably would have portrayed them in a bad light as well. Rand's critics have good reasons to support the claim of Rand's implicit anti-family bias.

Tenure said...

"Rand did portray having living, non-Objectivist relatives as a misfortune."

This is incorrect. She portrayed characters for whom their family was either irrelevant, or who were unfortunate people to be associated with. This had nothing to do with them being family, and everything to do with them being horrible people (combined with, in Hank's case, a sense of duty inspite of their natures).

What one could draw from reading Rand's works is that she placed no importance on the family, just as she placed no importance on Unions or charity. To say that something is not important is not to say that it cannot or is not a value however. It simply means it is not a value to oneself, or at least, is not important to one's goal within a context (for instance: good art is of importance to me, but whilst ravenously hungry, I place no importance on the acquisition of Vettriano's paintings, and a hell of a lot on getting a nice big steak.
Rand's context was her novels, which were about the portrayl of heroes, not of their familial relationships (beyond whatever plot-purposes they might serve).

Joseph Kellard said...

Thank you, Jenn, for fleshing out the ideas about this unjust charge against Ayn Rand.

Michael Gold said...

Nice post. Yes, the claim that Rand was anti-family and anti-children is absurd and is nothing more than a smear, a groundless accusation.

I'd agree more with Mr. Zemack than Mr. Plus: there is no evidence that Rand was anti-all that stuff; there is plenty of evidence that she believed family and children were optional values (i.e., a value one could choose to pursue and commit to) and that she believed that said values could be properly attained only within context of reason. The dysfunctional families are meant to illustrate the failure and frustration of irrationality, not to illustrate some anti-family sentiment on the part of Rand.

Rand was very pro-man -- pro a being who, duh, has to go through the stage called "childhood" and who comes into being only after reproduction occurs. I could imagine that Rand figured those things were such a no-brainer as to not need to be stated. But the depths of some people's irrationality and ignorance knows no bounds...

Good post! :)

--Michael

Andrew Dalton said...

Mark -

It's misleading to use the label "Objectivist character" for all of the heroes in AS. It might be appropriate for John Galt, Francisco D'Anconia, and Hugh Akston, who are explicitly aware of the philosophy that Galt later articulates in his radio speech (and which motivated those men to be the first to join the strike).

But most of the novel is focused on Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, who are not only not explicitly aware of philosophy, but who also have considerable errors in their thinking (especially Rearden).

As others have already said, the heroes' conflicts with family members had nothing to do with their relatives' non-Objectivist status, nor with their status as family, but rather from the fact that those family members were irrational and malicious people.

Motherhussy said...

I love that you busted this Ayn Rand myth!

About six months ago I found that very quote from Playboy. I made a copy of it and it's stuck to my white board with a magnet. When times get difficult, and I feel emotionally drained and under-appreciated, I often read that quote and it renews and reminds me of my purpose and determination to be a great mother.

Thank you for your blogs!

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "The reason children are not featured in Atlas Shrugged or in any of her other novels is quite simply because those books were not about children. They were about grownups doing grownup things."

But they are featured!? I remember being very impressed (and uplifted) by how Ayn Rand described the childhood of Dagny, Francisco, Eddie and the envious James (Taggart). Every character trait these children exhibit as adults one can also find in some form in Ayn Rands depiction of their childhood. This is in fact the most cheerful, sunny, benevolent and most enjoyable part of Atlas Shrugged. I have never read a better novel depicting the purity and the moral inocence of a rational childhood. So I litterally do not get it when people say Ayn Rand did not like children or ever wrote about it.

Kai B.
PS! Also, The Fountainhead features some brilliant childhood stories. For instance, Toohey's manipulative personality and hatred for achievers is revealed by small illustrative glimpses into Toohey's childhood.

Andrew Clunn said...

A very good post, and a very interesting blog. I would send you an e-mail if I could, but I am creating a site list to be distributed in the November news mailer for the Objectivist political party, to share well produced resources for Objectivists. I would very much like to put your blog on the list. I would not incinuate that you endorse the Objectivist political party, you would simply be listed as an resource for Objectivists parenting. If you would be happy to be on this list, then please e-mail me at andrewclunn@gmail.com

Amy said...

After listening to Dina Schein Federman's excellent lecture on "Ayn Rand's Home Atmosphere," it really emphasizes how insensitive these critics are. Ayn Rand had no option but to leave her family in Russia. She never saw them again, except for a tragic reunion with her sister Nora. She loved her family and was relentless in trying to get them all to America. SHE LOVED THEM.

Her two sisters were both very talented and intelligent. Natasha was a piano virtuoso, later killed in an air raid, and Nora was an aspiring fashion designer and artist, and barely survived in the Soviet Union, tragically later proclaiming that she disliked America. Ayn Rand wanted to bring her mother to America, so that she could take care of her in her old age. And she worshipped her father -- and he absolutely adored her. He was her intellectual mentor, which say a lot.

It was a great tragedy when the Soviets no longer allowed communication, as they frequently wrote letters to each other. Her parents and sister died without her knowing for years. How these people can contend that Ayn Rand disliked the notion of family is beyond ignorant -- it's vicious. If they would just dig a bit deeper in their research outside of speculating what her convictions were from her fiction work, they would be ashamed to know how horribly wrong they are. So there! ;-)

Wonderful article Jenn, and as always, job well done!

Roger said...

Please comment on a remark that Ayn Rand made at her 1981 Ford Hall Forum talk, “The Age of Mediocrity”: “When you bring children into the world, you give up your own sovereignty and become a means to an end; the end, the primary concern, are the children."

Anonymous said...

Greetings,

I arrived here as a result of a search for Rand's attitudes on children and your essay fit the bill. Nice work.

I just read Atlas for the first time last month and loved it. You mentioned something in this piece that relates to a question I have about the scene in which Reardon tries to save the wet nurse.

This is probably the most touching scene in the book, I actually teared up as I read it it. But the dialogue presents an obvious contradiction with Rand's overall theme.

The wet nurse struggled to remain alive long enough to warn Reardon of danger at the plant. Recognizing the boy's devotion Reardon asks him(paraphrasing), "Try to stay alive for me and I'll get you to a doctor."

This request directly opposes Galt's oath to never ask another man to live his life for you. This is so glaringly obvious Rand must have meant something important in this passage but I don't know what it is.

Any ideas?

-- Darren

Tenure said...

Darren,

It's just an expression he's using. Don't worry about it. :P

Hasan said...

Who is Marion Parker?

Jenn Casey said...

Hasan--Why does she have anything to do with this?

Hasan said...

Your question shocks me.

Ayn Rand asks, "Who is John Galt?"

Like it or not, behind every discussion of Ayn Rand or her ideas, especially those ideas concerning children, lies a far more important question. "Who is Marion Parker?"

A "philosopher" who ignores a raped and murdered child and her family, while waxing lyrical about the perp, deserved a huge question mark, in lieu of a dollar sign on her coffin -- yet you ask what she (Marion) has to do with it.

Shame on you!

Tenure said...

Ok, buddy. Ok. Back under your rock.

Hasan said...

"Ok, buddy. Ok. Back under your rock."

Is this a sample of what Objectivists consider rational dialog?

Jenn Casey said...

Were you interested in rational dialog? That was difficult to discern from your previous posts.

Jenn Casey said...

By the way, that was a rhetorical question for you, Hasan. I have no interest in discussing this with you further, as it seems futile and a waste of my time.

Anonymous said...

People make that criticism about Rand - and not Jane Austen or Shakespeare - because Rand was a selfish, egomaniacal, evil bitch. That's why.

Jenn Casey said...

Anon: Selfish, yes, she was. Kind of a main point of Objectivism, that.

Your other smears are completely baseless and rude. Don't post here again until you are brave enough to use your real name.

Ron said...

Dear Jenn, I'm a single father of two. I just wanted to thank you for writing such a great answer to the question of how children fits into objectivism. I'll be checking out the rest of your blog when I have a chance. Cheers!

Ruttiger said...

Rand:

"If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty."

If Rand really believes what she says in this passage, then unless she's willing to endorse self-sacrifice in these cases, she's got to endorse letting the child starve.

Jenn Casey said...

I don't want to put words in her mouth, but I think she'd say that the mother who values a hat for herself more than her child's hunger has a twisted values hierarchy.

It is not a sacrifice to buy food for your child instead of a hat for yourself when you (properly) value your child.

Ruttiger said...

I agree with you that such a person would be twisted, but I'm wondering how that evaluation fits into Rand's broader philosophy.

In particular, it seems to me that there are three possibilities with respect to the original passage:

1. Rand didn't really believe what she said there.
2. Rand thinks such a mother should sacrifice herself for her child.
3. Rand thinks such a mother should neglect her child.

Which of these options is your response meant to endorse (or is there a fourth option I'm not seeing)? It doesn't look like either 2 or 3.

2 would be a rejection of a core element of her view. I doubt you mean that a person with twisted values should sacrifice herself, but rather that her twisted values don't serve her well. So if she had better values -- better for her sake -- she'd care for the child. But that suggests it isn't really a sacrifice to care for the child.

3 seems cold-hearted and doesn't seem to be suggested by your proposal either. If I understand you, you're not saying that given her twisted values she ought to let the child die, but that she ought to get better values.

This leaves option 1. But if you think about it, the implication is rather extraordinary. It means that if you have a dependent child, it's always in your self-interest to take care of it, or at least in the sorts of circumstances where we would be appalled by a failure to do so. But what grounds that claim? Why must taking care of one's kids be in someone's self-interest? Could that be derived from a kind of evolution-based extension of the Randian argument that cites the importance of values for the maintenance of life? That is, values are also important for the maintenance of one's genetic line? That doesn't sound very Randian.

But is that right? Is the idea that if you have a child that you can take care of by bearing the costs that are more-or-less ordinary for that task (e.g., you won't starve), then it is always in your self-interest to do so? It would be in my self-interest because I couldn't live with myself if I neglected a child. But that reflects my valuation of children. We're interested in someone who doesn't especially value children. (I suppose I'm imagining a Roark-like character who values children no more than Roark seems to, but has sex and one day an infant shows up on his door-step with a note. To add to the dilemma, suppose there's no way to adopt it away immediately, or have someone else take care of it, and that he's deeply immersed in an important, fulfilling project.)

Dna2 said...

You do realize Ayn Rand was an admirer of William Hickman, child killer? She praised him and called him a Superman. These are facts that cannot be ignored. Aside from that, what is appealing about living in a world of narcissistic sociopaths where everyone is out for himself? I would humbly suggest opening your mind to the possibility that Ayn Rand was wrong. I'm afraid that Ms. Rand found out the hard way that God does exist. Investigate Christ for yourself and see what you discover