From time to time – whether in a work of literature, an overheard conversation, the sentiment of a friend, or etc – one hears the idea repeated: Unless/until you are a parent, you cannot understand. This, though I am not a parent, strikes me as almost indubitably true. Now, I take it to be the case that empathy, if skilled, can indeed help us reach beyond the limitations of our own experiences. That is to say, I think even non-parents can empathize with parents. So there is a tension. I can *understand* the particular feelings a parent might be feeling, but I can’t *understand* something else about the feeling of being a parent, something essential. But there is a different tension I am more interested in: I do understand what it’s like to be a child, and to be a person. (More or less.) The question for me, then, is how to craft a parenthood. If there is something essential about parenthood that I will simply not be able to understand until I am myself a parent, how can I make myself at least somewhat prepared for the shock of that something? I know, as I imagine we all know, ways in which my parents failed me, and I know their failures were in large part due to their unpreparedness. We all wish not to become our parents, but it is our fate to do so nonetheless. How can we at least prepare ourselves to become – not the parents our parents were, but – the parents our parents would have been had they been prepared?
Then there is something here about the curious unfixed determinism of identity. (I can’t get away from that topic.) I started noticing, mostly in the last several months, that I share certain mannerisms with my father. I increasingly wondered: did I always have these and never yet notice? or are they springing up in me now? will my father’s entire personality someday become mine? And I realized: the notion of “becoming” my father is confused: I never knew my father before he was my age. Actually, he was several years older than I am now when I was born. The man I will meet, in myself, when I hit that age, will feel, to me, to have become more like my father. But the extent to which I am similar to him – and must be, thanks to genetics – surely reaches before the time when I first met him. The tragedy adults encounter (“I am becoming my parents”) is simply a temporal misunderstanding: we are our parents (literally – genetically speaking), only we do not know who they were when they were as young as we are. We see the slow change that age brings up close and personal, and it frightens us; we note growing similarities with the people who, in a sense, we always have been (our parents), and shudder. I wanted to be different; I wanted to be better. We have children; we fail them differently than our parents failed us, but something feels painfully familiar, and we realize that we were unprepared. Unprepared for parenthood, yes, but unprepared, also, for coming to terms with who we “have become” (but also already were).
I think the “something” about parenthood that non-parents can’t know has a lot to do with the creation of and responsibility for another life. That seems unimaginable. Even parents seem to struggle to imagine it – even after having experienced it. But there is another “something” that parents seem exasperated by, and that maybe we can make, before becoming parents, less impenetrably un-expectable. The question could be: How can I be a better parent than my father? or How can I succeed where my father failed? To a certain extent, we will of course be different parents than our parents, and there will be ways in which we are prepared where our parents weren’t. But maybe a better question would be: What would it take for my father to have been a better parent? I.e., rather than seeking liberation from genetics; rather than seeking to be something other than my parents; the question is instead, given who my father is, what better parenthood could have been crafted for him?
I’m, as usual, struggling to make myself clear. I guess my point is: despite my sense that “no-self” points to something truer than ego, I also think our best shot at becoming the parents we hope to, entails understanding the people we will gradually “become” — and part of that understanding might entail realizing that we are already different from the fantasy we have about who we are/can be. Our *gradual* transformation is something we won’t be able to understand until it’s already slipped past… somehow our desperate grasping onto self needs to be loosened enough for us to see: the transformation is already present in who we are now.