BECOMING PARENTS TO OURSELVES
My wife gave birth to a child. The child gave birth to a new thought.
Philosophy has always appealed to me more than fatherhood. I used to imagine my life as a sequence of quiet contemplations, readings and travels. I did not think much about children, though I assumed I would have one at some point. Being a father was not something I associated with a life devoted to philosophy.
However, all of that changed when my daughter was born in 2014, three months after I defended my doctoral dissertation. In a span of a summer, I became both a father and a philosopher. The two merged in me and created an identity that was entirely new. Before her birth, I was primarily interested in political philosophy. I was drawn to the questions of social and political justice, liberalism and legitimacy. Then, as my child gestated in her mother’s womb, a new set of interests and ideas started to grow in my mind. My wife gave birth to a child; the child gave birth to a new thought.
Parenthood, as I was about to learn, provides many paths for reflection. Philosophers typically ask a whole range of questions about parenthood: Is there a moral justification for having children? What are the moral dimensions to raising a child? Now that I found myself a parent as well as a philosopher, I began asking similar questions: How should I raise my child? How can I be a good father?
As most parents of newborns know, the first months of parenthood are a mix of bliss, fear, frustration and most of all, sleeplessness. It was in those wee hours in the first months of fatherhood that my philosophical concern stumbled upon one particular question: Who will my daughter grow up to be? What will be her identity? As I observed her tiny bodily features, I kept thinking about the possible futures ahead of her. Will she be able to become whomever she wants?
There is an autobiographical background to this question. I was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina into a secular Muslim family, and lived in the country for most of the first 30 years of my life. Coming of age during a brutal ethnic conflict in the early 1990s, I was corralled into a cultural identity I was told belonged to me. Being persecuted for being Muslim generated a personal and cultural resistance in me. I adopted and celebrated that scorned identity. Gradually, I became a Muslim. I embraced the target on my back and made it my own. But adopting an identity as a form of resistance, as I learned quickly, can take one only so far. Like an ill-fitting polyester suit, this identity itched, and I yearned to wear something more comfortable.
Philosophy has been an invaluable part of my process of self-creation. It helped me learn and accept who I was, but it also gave me tools I needed to change the itchy suit for something more fitting. One of the first thinkers who inspired this process was Hannah Arendt. When I first learned about her understanding of freedom, I immediately recognized myself in her thoughts. For Arendt, freedom means the capacity for a new beginning. It is realized in the human capability for action, a feature all new human beings are endowed with. The root of freedom, for her, lies in the concept of “natality,” in the fact that each new birth represents the introduction of novelty into the world. Children are something radically new, a true embodiment of freedom and a guide to structuring our social world.
Arendt’s favorite historical example of natality is the American Revolution, a radical act of bringing liberty to the world. I realized that my longing for the New World was a form of longing for a new self. Once I settled in the place of perpetual novelty, New York City, I had another beginning to deal with: a child of my own.
I thought of Hannah Arendt a lot during those sleepless nights, as my daughter was adjusting to life outside the womb. If she is a radical novelty in this world, I remember asking myself, how can I help her preserve that novelty and not suppress her uniqueness? How can I raise this tiny new being and let her be herself and not somebody else? What could I do to raise my daughter as an original, and not merely a copy of me, my background or the cultural expectations of the time and place of her birth?
The sleepless nights were productive in more ways than one. First, I realized that Arendt was right: Children are radically new and must be treated as such. While this is sometimes hard to comprehend, especially for new parents who delight in recognizing their features imprinted on the newborn (“Look, honey, she’s got my nose!”), it is both morally and practically imperative that we do so. Regardless of the genes she inherited from her mother and me, my daughter is a unique human being, and I can’t possibly predict, yet alone determine, her future self. Will her identity confirm to my expectations? I have no right to expect that.
I have witnessed many parental disappointments in what their children grow up to be: fathers obsessing when their sons turns out gay, mothers in despair when their daughters reject their parents’ religion. Gay conversion therapies and estranged relationships between transgender children and their parents are the perfect example of parental expectations gone off the rails. I knew that I wanted to be better than that. But how?
For children to grow up as authentic human beings and not as products of their parents’ expectations, they must learn to understand that identities are built on reasons, in other words, reasonable justifications; the very concept of identity is derived from this concept of reasons.
If personal identity is a certain kind of belief about oneself, it is always the product of the relation between the person’s consciousness and some set of facts. According to this, there could be different kinds of reasons for identification, depending on the nature of different facts. Some of them are based on the way we are physically constituted. If a child feels more comfortable under the label of the gender opposite to (or in between or beyond) the one assigned to her at birth, then that is a reason for her to identify in such a way. Other reasons are based on historical, environmental and experiential facts.
If a child learns about another way of life, in school or through socialization, and decides to adopt it, then parents must respect that the child could have a valid reason to stray from their family’s culture. Preventing children from acting upon the reasons they recognize, without addressing their validity, betrays the value and the meaning of the parent-child relationship.
Second, I realized that parenthood is a perfect exercise in self-knowledge: One gets a chance for self-discovery. Becoming a father helped me to understand my philosophical outlook. Thinking about the reasons that could underpin my daughter’s future self helped me understand the reasons behind my own philosophical and personal identity. Namely, being an immigrant in the United States, I embody two citizenships and two cultures.
This embodiment is largely responsible for the kinds of philosophical issues that interest me. Although I live in the United States, I exist on the boundary between the two. I never cease to bewithout both referential systems: Bosnian and American. Duality is my existential default. So I am constantly aware of the workings of culture. Because I always see its edges, I keep asking questions about its core.
Even my idea about the child’s right to authentic identity embodies a duality of philosophical traditions that underpin it. For example, authenticity has traditionally been a rallying call of Romantics who, like Rousseau, believed that the progress of the Enlightenment erodes the uniqueness of individuals. We are all born originals but die as copies. The time between our birth and our death is shaped by civilization, which molds us in ways that are often contrary to those parts of ourselves that are given by nature. Insights of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Marshall Berman and other thinkers who wished to advance the cause of authentic existence have always had a special appeal to me.
Yet insisting that a person becomes authentic through access and evaluation of reasons reflects methods and ideas usually found in the tradition of Enlightenment thinkers. Unlike the Romantics, I hold that the use and promotion of reason helps us to truly be ourselves. Self-alienation is the product of an unreasonable mind. Like John Locke, I believe that identity is a product of consciousness and reason. We can’t be authentic unless we are reasonable.
Sleepless nights with a newborn are behind me. My daughter is a 4-year-old now, with an identity of her own and an iron-strong will to make things go her way. Yet the dread of an unexpected future could still grip me in the middle of the night and make me question everything, unsettling the prospects of quiet rest. The lullaby I need is nowhere to be found; all I can do is stare into the void, with no hope that it will stare back.
But when I see her sleeping serenely, I understand that the void is not to be feared. It is not a maelstrom of meaninglessness that will lead us into insanity. The void is a portal to our self. It is ours to fill with whatever we want — dreams, fears, ambitions. It is our only chance to become what we really are: parents to ourselves.