What Are Children For?

By Hochschild, Paige | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 2013 | Go to article overview

What Are Children For?


Hochschild, Paige, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Friedrich Engels was a prophet of marriage in the modern age. Monogamous marriage, he declared in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, is "unnatural," setting the practical against the genuinely emotional, reducing persons to commodities, and undermining the real possibility for fidelity and happiness. It thus sets the stage for the great class warfare of male against female and parent against offspring. It is "the first form of family to be based not on natural, but on economic, conditions-on the victory of private property over primitive . . . communal property" and ushers in what he describes as the greatest moral advance of mankind: "modern, individual sex-love."

While the chief motivation for marriage and children had historically been the accumulation and preservation of wealth and property, he argued, modern legal and economic developments allowed passion and desire to be the main motivation. The law in the early modern period increasingly required that marriage be entered into freely by both parties and that both "must stand on a common footing of equal rights and duties." It is easier, he condescendingly notes, for the impoverished proletariat to enter into such marriages because they have no real property to preserve in marriage and thus can marry solely for love. If love, however, is the chief motivation for entering into a marriage, then "falling out of" love is naturally a good reason to end a marriage, and the wife-until then rarely permitted legally to divorce- should be as free to end it as the husband.

Where are the children in this evolving picture of marriage? Engels argues that in traditional societies, the motivation for having offspring was largely a matter of economics, honor, family lineage, and so on. In modern societies, children no longer confer any necessary economic advantage and instead are clearly a financial burden. The only possible reason to have them now is natural affectivity, and Engels believes this ought to be the sole reason for having a child-indeed, this motivation safeguards children from the logic of capitalist society. Though parents, particularly mothers, have natural affection for their offspring, Engels insists that children are just one of many effects of marriage, all of which are meant to contribute to the couple's personal fulfillment. He has absolutely no vision of a further social good to which the having of children might be ordered in the absence of economic considerations.

And on precisely that point he proves prophetic. Affective models of marriage and parenting dominate today, with attendant obsessions with psychological fulfillment, behavior, status, and methodology. Indeed, there are no longer many good reasons to have children, to the extent that they no longer contribute usefully to the running of a household.

What, then, is the alternative? A return to the genuinely political understanding of the family is essential. This understanding in turn builds upon a very basic human instinct. To have a family, to reproduce oneself within one's community is, Gabriel Marcel writes, to have an "experience of plenitude" through an "affirmation of the good life that we ourselves have been given." Mother and father are privileged to participate with God in the mystery of creation itself. Children are a gift: the startling, beautiful, and even miraculous effect of the equally given, freely offered love of two persons.

This is a great life-sustaining mystery. But it is not, without the political understanding of the family, an adequate answer to the question "What are children for?" Beyond the foundation of biology, how is the having of children essential to a right understanding of marriage and, in turn, to a right integration of marriage as an institution with human society?

The polarity between the terms procreative and unitive is central to how we speak of marriage, and the Catholic Church has developed its understanding of marriage through the interplay of these terms. …

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