Now that my daily duties involved a baby, I’d simply expanded my instrumental approach to accommodate the new reality: I wanted to know that I was doing whatever was required to obtain optimal future results in the domain of child-rearing as well.
Except that this now began to seem to me like an astoundingly perverse way to approach spending time with a newborn, not to mention an unnecessarily exhausting thing to have to think about when life was already exhausting enough. Obviously, it mattered to keep half an eye on the future – there would be vaccinations to be administered, preschools to apply to, and so forth. But my son was here now, and he would be zero years old for only one year, and I came to realise that didn’t want to squander these days of his actual existence by focusing solely on how best to use them for the sake of his future one. He was sheer presence, participating unconditionally in the moment in which he found himself, and I wanted to join him in it. I wanted to watch his minuscule fist close around my finger, and his wobbly head turn in response to a noise, without obsessing over whether this showed he was meeting his “developmental milestones” or not, or what I ought to be doing to ensure that he did. Worse still, it dawned on me that my fixation on using time well meant using my son himself, a whole other human being, as a tool for assuaging my own anxiety – treating him as nothing but a means to my hypothetical future sense of security and peace of mind. The writer Adam Gopnik calls the trap into which I had fallen the “causal catastrophe,” which he defines as the belief “that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is the kind of adults it produces.” That idea sounds reasonable enough – how else would you judge rightness or wrongness? – until you realise that its effect is to sap childhood of any intrinsic value, by treating it as nothing but a training ground for adulthood. Maybe it really is a “bad habit,” as the Baby Trainers insisted, for your one-year-old to grow accustomed to falling asleep on your chest. But it’s also a delightful experience in the present moment, and that has to be weighed in the balance; it can’t be the case that concerns for the future must always automatically take precedence. Likewise, the question of whether or not it’s okay to let your nine-year-old spend hours each day playing violent video game doesn’t turn solely on whether or not it’ll turn him into a violent adult, but also on whether that’s a good way for him to be using his life right now; perhaps a childhood immersed in digital blood and gore is just a lower-quality childhood, even if there aren’t any future effects. In his play The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard puts an intensified version of this sentiment into the mouth of the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his son, who has drowned in a shipwreck – and whose life, Herzen insists, was no less valuable for never coming to fruition in adult accomplishments. “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,” Herzen says. “But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment… Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.”