There was a lot of hubbub last week as women stepped forward to point out all the bad feelings evoked by Mother’s Day. The most salient point that was raised was the assumption in our culture that parents are more virtuous than non-parents or non-traditional parents. Of course we all know that parenting does not automatically signify good character in the parent. And it’s very wrong to dismiss the goodness and love that people offer whether they are parents or not. But no one pointed out the reason the parental virtue myth persists. Parenting (in a functional family) is a form of self-discipline. Taking care of children is a repetitive, often exhausting process that requires a great deal of moderation – balance – for a parent to live a healthy, full life. Parents get credit for virtue because they get credit for disciplining themselves.
Thus, we circulate an idea of parents as virtuous. This shorthand hides a lot of ugly truths and beautiful lives. On one hand, not all parents are virtuous or self-disciplined. Child abuse is rampant. On the other, men and women with fabulously disciplined, productive, and creative lives are dismissed out of hand either because they are not parents or because they are parents and no one has bothered to see how they are making things work. What makes for a better person in this world is not family setting, but the rigor of good habits.
A cousin recently wrote me to ask how to make meaning in her life. I answered that she needed to find one small thing worth doing, and to keep doing it. Tend a small garden, go pet shelter animals once a week, run a mile, cook a meal, or any measurable activity, and then keep doing it. After a few weeks, our minds stop feeling they have to protect us from ourselves and go ahead and let slip our hearts’ desires. Discipline makes us trustworthy to ourselves, and it makes us good human beings to others. (And it’s how we can do things like write, and sing, and dance.)
So, let’s change the conversation if we’re looking for what is praiseworthy. A good habit will go farther than a good bio in adding to the dignity of the human family.