Tuesday, February 01, 2011

I am a Productive Mommy

Is parenting productive in the virtuous sense of the word?

This issue comes up from time to time, and I'd like to say a couple of things about this. Probably I'll think of more to say later and add to it. But for now, here are my general thoughts.

Okay, first let's establish what the virtue of productiveness is according to Ayn Rand.

The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself. Productive work is the road of man’s unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values. “Productive work” does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.

Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness, 26

Also, this is a good passage from Dr. Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

Productiveness" is the process of creating material values, whether goods or services. Such creation is a necessity of human survival in any age, whether the values take the form of bearskins, clubs, a pot full of meat, and paintings on the walls of caves; or of skyscrapers, ballet, brain surgery, and a gourmet meal aboard a computerized spaceship; or of the unimaginable luxuries and splendors yet to come.

This is kind of a big topic, and I don't know where to start. I think I'll start by describing what I see as the nature and purpose of parenting a bit, and then address some objections I've heard about parenting as a productive endeavor.

What Parenting Is

Anyone who has had a baby knows that caring for a newborn is a full-time occupation. Someone asked about this in the latest OGrownups Chat. What do people do all day with a baby?

 First, remember back to a time when you were so exhausted you could barely see straight. Now imagine being three times as tired as that. Now nurse the baby for 40 minutes or so, change his clothes and yours because you've all been puked on, change his diaper, go start some laundry, change his diaper again, burp the baby, bounce him around to get him to sleep, set him down, go try to pee, pick up the screaming baby (without having peed), rock him some more, maybe try to nurse him, find some clean cloths or receiving blankets to wipe up the newest spill, gently the sleeping baby down (or hold him), close your eyes for 10 minutes.

Now do this every 3 hours for about 8-12 weeks.

Okay, not every single day is quite like that, but there's a lot of truth in there, yes, parents? :o)

The babyhood stage of parenting involves literally sustaining your value, a material value. Your little value cannot sustain himself at all. He is utterly and completely dependent and will actually die without proper care. Not every second is hands-on, and over time, you may find that you have actual blocks of time ranging from 30 seconds to 15 minutes in which you will be able to pursue other values such as showering and teeth-brushing.

I contend that parents are "dedicat[ed] to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of [their] values" when they do the things that are necessary to keep their little ones healthy and safe and alive.

Okay, so that might be applicable when the child is very small. What about when they are older? What are the actions a parent takes to sustain those values? Well, they certainly change over time. I don't actively parent my 8 year old every single minute of the day. I spend a disproportionate part of my day actively parenting the 2.5 year old, as he is the one much more likely to try to hurt himself, and hasn't yet learned the fine arts of trading and negotiating.

But I do actively parent my older children, even if it happens less frequently than it did when they were babies. I answer questions. I use non-punitive/non-rewarding discipline when necessary. We have long talks about our feelings and the state of the world and discussions about how things work. I teach them life skills such as using a dustbuster and how to tell if the milk is bad.

All of these activities, I think, contribute to sustaining them as my values, because my role as a parent is to help them prepare for adulthood.

I wonder if non-parents (or even some parents) consider parenting as mainly a supervision sort of activity. Certainly that is a big part of it. But there is, as I've attempted to show again and again, so much more to parenting than merely having an adult around in case of a big emergency. I want to raise my kids according to my idea of what is right, and that takes time and interaction and lots and lots of 'splainin' stuff.

One premise here that I should bring up is this: children need adult guidance to learn the things they will need to know for adulthood. I hope most of us can agree on this premise.

Here's another premise: you can't predict when you'll need to actively parent. Even now that we're beyond the newborn phase, there is a good chance that I will need to parent someone in the middle of the night--if someone has bad dreams and needs adult support and guidance, my husband or I will need to do that. Parenting doesn't happen on a schedule--you can't really predict just when and how someone will need that adult guidance (as the fact that I've already been interrupted eleventy-jillion times in the writing of this post shows).

So here is a summary of the premises I'm working from: Kids need adult guidance and support--both physically in order to survive when they are very small, and cognitively as they get older and become less physically dependent. You can't predict when they will need that adult guidance. Parenting is time-intensive at first, but that intensity lessens over time (though there will be waves of intense and less-intense times), though even my 8 year old is too young to be left alone at home all day long--he needs me.

I'm sure there's more but it's time to move on. I hope we agree on those premises I've managed to think of. Here are common objections I've seen to the idea that parenting is a productive endeavor.

Parenting does not produce an income, therefore it is not productive.

Yep, that's certainly true. In fact, kids suck away your money almost as fast as they suck away breastmilk. :)

I can't find any reference in OPAR or anything written by Ayn Rand that says an endeavor that is productive in the virtuous sense must be an income-producing activity. I welcome citations if you have them, as I'll need to reconsider this aspect.

A couple of points here--my husband and I consider ourselves one financial unit, and did so even before we had kids. There was a point in our lives when I made more money at my work than he did. Then there was a point when he made more than I did. Then there was a point when he made the vast majority of the money. At all of those points in our marriage, we considered our money as "our" money, no matter who put what percentage into the bank accounts.

As one financial unit, we make financial decisions for our whole family together. Two such decisions are not to outsource childcare or education. (That's not for everyone and I do not intend to suggest it is.) Given that Brendan is the one with the higher of the two potential incomes, and given our commitment to breastfeed the kids, it made sense for me to be the at-home parent.

The other point I'd like to make, in no small part because this is something that really bugs me, is this: Why is it be more productive or virtuously productive for me to take a full-time job as a nanny of three children, doing all of those things I described above, for money, than it is for me to do the same thing for the three children my husband and I produced? To put it another way, why is it more okay for me to hire a nanny to care for my own children than to care for them myself?

Most income-producing activities are certainly productive, but not all productive activities are income-producing. I am doing the same job as a nanny--and more, because these children are MY values, and I love them more than any other children in the whole world--but I don't make money doing this job.
Income-production cannot be the standard.

Parenting is inherently second-handed, therefore it is not productive.

Someone once told me that my chosen career is inherently second-handed, and it can't be productive because of this inherent second-handedness.

Why would he suppose this? Apparently because parenting involves focusing on other people. Living your life for other people is second-handed, people need to live selfishly, QED.

This involves a misunderstanding of what second-handed means, and also an assumption that parenting can't possibly be selfish. I've addressed the selfishness aspect in the past, so I won't go into that here.

Yes, you are focused on other people as a parent, but not necessarily selflessly. These people you are focused on are immense VALUES that you went to all kinds of efforts to acquire (and yes, I count the c-sections as part of those efforts).

If parenting is second-handed, then so is doctoring, for where would they be without patients to doctor on?

One more point and I'll stop writing, I promise.

I feel productive when I parent.

When I do the work that is associated with my chosen career--whether it's getting a baby fed or changed, or answering a hard question, or helping someone learn to read music, or working through a mutual problem, or teaching some how to take turns--I feel productive. And happy.

I am providing physical and psychological and cognitive support to these material values that my husband and I created (in addition to basic supervision). When I handle a parenting challenge particularly well, according to my parenting principles and values, I feel elated at MY accomplishment (my blog is full of such specific examples), which is me being selfish and proud. When I handle something poorly, I rededicate myself to my principles and try again, remembering that not every day in my income-producing jobs was hunky-dory either.

My point here is that this job is as much about me and being selfish as it is about providing for the needs of my children. If I approached at-home parenting/homeschooling as a selfless endeavor, as a martyr, there is no way I could enjoy it. I would become resentful and depressed. I am the opposite of resentful and depressed--I am enthusiastic and interested and thoughtful and I enjoy the figuring out creative ways to work through a problem. I enjoy my children's company and each stage of development they hit, and look forward to knowing the adults they will become.

Not all of my productive activity is parenting, though. This is important for my own sanity and for my non-parenting future. I am working on Cultivating the Virtues with Kelly (yes, it's about parenting, but not actual parenting). I am working to make the Atlanta Objectivist Society the best community group in the whole 'verse! I work on our cabin business. CtV and ATLOS are not income-producing ventures (yet they are productive as I am certainly creating material values in these endeavors!). The cabin makes a bit of money that all goes back into the cabin.

I think Ayn Rand was correct in the following snippet from the Playboy interview (found via the online Lexicon), that it's impractical for a woman (or a man) to count on at-home parenting as a full-time occupation for the rest of her life. It won't be forever, even with the homeschooling that we do. So I am careful to keep up my business skills and am starting these other part-time ventures in anticipation of the day when I won't have to spend a significant portion of my time helping people figure out who gets to play on the Wii next.

Here's the relevant question from the Playboy interview with Ayn Rand:

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.

Yes, parenting is productive in the way I approach it (as a career). I feel happy, virtuous, efficacious, and I get to practice being rational and honest and all of those other virtues every day. If I wasn't happy doing this, then I would surely be doing something better with my time.

Probably there are many other points that could be made, maybe other objections that need addressing, so if you would care to leave them in the comments, I'd sure appreciate it. :o)


JP said...

Nice post, Jenn. The answer to the problem of Mommy Productivity completely disappears if the criteria is the production of value rather than financial profit through trade. Money's certainly a value in most cases, but we can all acknowledge that it's not the only one.

Hearing the pat-pat-pat of little bugger's feet while he proudly goes downstairs to make his own breakfast is an objective value to me at 5am. I helped produce this value by restraining the spilt-milk beatings and happily showing him a better way to open the cereal box than the explosive method.

Though the bank balance counts, productivity is to be judged on the basis of objective values like a few minutes extra sleep, or a slow, long term improvement in the odds of raising a capable, independent and joyous kid.

Kyle Haight said...

One minor point: not all income-producing activities are productive, at least in a mixed economy. IRS agents and government regulators generate income through their jobs, but they aren't productive. Quite the opposite.

I think that JP is correct to focus on the creation of value as the distinctive element. Productivity is the recognition that one's life requires material and spiritual values, and that those values need to be brought into existence through a process of thought and action. Nothing in that requires the generation of a monetary income.

Jenn Casey said...

JP and Kyle, thanks for your comments. JP, I can relate to the "explosive method" of package-opening. :)

Kyle, I thought of that point, too, after I'd posted it. I think I'll make a minor correction to the post. Because you're very correct.

Appreciate your input, thanks to both of you!

Kate Yoak said...

Great post! I know, my parents "support me because they love me" in choosing to "throw away my education" and stay at home. It is just too tough for them to understand that parenting can be as serious an endeavor as my career had been. They are coming around as they see and respect how I approach it and what I do.

I recently wrote a post on this subject: Parenting as a career. It addresses Ayn Rand's own views, expressed at the playboy interview, on what that would mean.

Kyle Haight said...

One other thought on productivity and income. John Galt had a laboratory in his apartment in New York, in which he worked while on strike, producing values while explicitly refusing to trade them for income with the rest of the world. Was he violating the virtue of productivity? I think not.

More generally, income is what you get when you trade a value to someone else in exchange for money. If you aren't productive when you don't generate income, then your moral character is determined in part by the willingness of others to trade with you. But morality applies to what is within your choice and control, and the willingness of others to trade with you is not.

Productivity is about the creation of values. Income is about a certain form of trading the values you produce with other people. It's a derivative, not a fundamental.

Dan Edge said...

Great post. I'm going to go back and read it again when I'm done writing this.

It's funny, both of the links you provided at the beginning of your post were questions submitted by me :D

Hanah said...

I really like this post and agree with pretty much all of it. I did want to make a point about your nanny discussion, though. You make the argument that working as a full-time nanny to three children is in no way more productive than doing the same job, unpaid, for your own children.

A more nuanced point is that being a full-time nanny is perhaps not the most productive use of your skills, talents, and education. You have a comparative advantage for different careers, and could contribute more to the economy than someone who has "only" the skills necessary to be a nanny. You're being productive in doing a nanny job, but not at the highest possible productivity level you could achieve.

This is not to belittle your choice to be a full-time parent at all. Your choice depends on your *values*, not your most productive use.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Good post. I looked back approximately two posts to "My Daughter Thinks Well of Herself." From that I can see what kind of values you are producing. Congratulations--on both posts!

Dan Edge said...


The part of this post I found most interesting was the bit about you and your husband's "team" attitude. This is the best argument I've seen for why child rearing can be a productive activity (in the virtue sense).

I say "can be" productive, because I see an objection to that point: it is only possible to work full time raising children if *someone* for works for income. One could have a family with two full-time salesmen, or architects, or construction workers, but not with two fill-time parents (without outside financial support).

I'm not saying that this invalidates you argument, but it is the obvious counter-point. I'd be very interested in your (or someone else's) counter-counter-argument.

Great article. eleventy jillion is my new favorite number.

--Dan Edge