Family is a Place for Burdens
Against Richard Hanania's paean to parental suicide
For those in DC this week, I’ll be speaking at the National Press Club on Thursday as part of an event by Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. The topic of our roundtable is “Building a Civilization of Love” and we’ll be talking about how to build a post-Roe world that is just to mothers and babies.
Alan Jacobs posted “paging Leah Sargeant” when he read’smusings on Canadian MAiD/euthanasia. Here’s the part of Hanania’s post (“Canadian Euthanasia as Moral Progress”) that struck Jacobs as relevant to our conversation at Other Feminisms:
I don’t like inconveniencing others, and for many parents the possibility that one day they could be a burden on their children scares them much more than death. I think this is a noble sentiment, and would gladly sacrifice myself when I’m old so that those I care about can live better and more fulfilling lives. If we’re going to talk about human dignity, I could think of nothing less dignified than ending a proud and successful life in diapers and with your brain rotting away, making your children miserable and preventing them from reaching their full potential.
But what is that full potential? In Hanania’s view, filial love (let alone filial piety) is an obstacle to being who we’re meant to be. In his view, my daughters are less themselves insofar as they are marked by being my daughters when they and I am old.
If Hanania were right, his argument would gut much more than just end of life care. It’s hard to justify having more than one child, if any burden on the child is a fear worse than death for the parents.
My girls love each other, but I spend a fair amount of the day plucking snatched toys our of one set of hands and returning them to the original holder.
Being sisters means being less free in Hanania’s sense. It means someone else knocking over your cereal bowl, knocking you over with a misjudged hug, occupying your spot on Mama’s lap. High-investment parenting takes Hanania’s perspective, even if not adopting his view of suicide. The parent is a concierge or a cruise director, who smooths the path for their child.
But, I won’t vanish gracefully from my daughters’ lives. And, God willing, they won’t either. Rather than being two independent launches from our family, flung out on their disparate adventures, they’ll remain entangled. That might mean just feeling limited in where they move, because they want to see each other regularly. It might mean needing to take care of one another, in the case of a season of illness or a period of lasting disability.
The more people we love, the more disasters can touch us intimately. It is no longer only our flesh exposed to “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In our friendships, we choose to extend ourselves; in our families we discover we are exposed from the moment of our conception.
Gilbert Meilaender writes, in his starkly titled, “I Want to Burden My Loved Ones”
Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other—and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens? Families would not have the significance they do for us if they did not, in fact, give us a claim upon each other. At least in this sphere of life we do not come together as autonomous individuals freely contracting with each other. We simply find ourselves thrown together and asked to share the burdens of life while learning to care for each other. We may often resent such claims on our time and energies. We did not, after all, consent to them. (Or, at least, if we want to speak of consent, it will have to be something like that old staple of social-contract theorists, tacit consent.)
It is, therefore, understandable that we sometimes chafe under these burdens. If, however, we also go on to reject them, we cease to live in the kind of moral community that deserves to be called a family. Here more than in any other sphere of life we are presented with unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans and projects. I do not like such interruptions any more than the next person; indeed, a little less, I rather suspect. But it is still true that morality consists in large part in learning to deal with the unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans. I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.
When my grandfather was dying, I was so afraid to visit - I thought it would be sad and painful. I finally visited in what happened to be his last instance of lucidity before passing a week later.
I was right, it was sad and painful. But I only regret not visiting sooner and spending more time with him. Trying to avoid the pain of death and dying is self-defeating. My loved ones will reach a point of dying, and this will be painful no matter how it happens. Meanwhile I will either have meaningful loving connection (which by necessity includes caring for such a person) before they die, or I’ll wish I did.
Today, my phone rang at 7:30 a.m. and my heart started to race. Immediately, I thought of my parents and parents-in-law and what could have happened to them. A stroke? Died in their sleep? It was just the ballet teacher calling to postpone the lesson, and after my heart had slowed to its normal pace again I realized that I am constantly having on my mind that my parents or in-laws could have a fall, or get sick, or die suddenly. They're in their mid-seventies and early eighties, some are not in good health.
Obviously, waiting for a call that spells disaster is a burden - but I don't think of my parents or in-laws in terms of a potential burden. They are people who raised me and who supported me and who loved me unconditionally for years, they are people who have invited me into their lives and made room for me there, and I want them to be well.
The next decade is going to show which sacrifices on my part this will entail. I know that caregivers' burnout is real and I know that as a society, we fail caregivers on a daily basis, but I hope that I will be a support to my parents and (to a lesser degree) my in-laws until their death.
You're right, we will have to talk more about the kind of support they might want and need - we've broached the subject, but obviously it's very hard and painful to consider this inevitable period in our shared lives.