Having Children and IOUs

Giving birth is giving a gift of life. We run into trouble if we expect our children to calculate its value and pay us back.

A parent at the conference I was attending was telling his story. Born soon after the Holocaust, he always wondered how to relate to such an enormous loss to his people. As a young man he decided that there was at least one concrete thing that he could, and would, do. When he was grown up, after having all the children he wanted, he would have one more as a way to help make up for that loss of Jewish life.

So, after a final, third child, he and his wife had a fourth. And she grew up to be the sunshine of his days, the light of his life. For years he basked in her love and vitality. The promise had been a sweet one.

But now she was fourteen and did not always look at him in adoration, did not always light up his days. She was moody, disappointed, sometimes even rejecting. He began to feel hurt, even angry. After all, he had given her the gift of life, had given it very awarely and at some cost. Didn't she owe him something in return?

The possibility that she didn't owe anything seemed outrageous. How could a child not owe her parents, after all they had done for her? It was unthinkable. Further, if she didn't owe him, it would then follow logically that he didn't owe his parents--and that was a concept he couldn't even imagine. Yet, if she did owe, he wasn't getting paid these days, and what could be done about that? What a dilemma!

The issue of children owing was cast in dramatic relief by this good man and loving father who was struggling to live with the whole range of consequences of his deeply-generous, life-affirming choice. I could weep with him for his struggle, but I think the conclusion is simple and inescapable. Our children don't owe us. When we choose to conceive, we are giving a gift of life to that new person and to the world as a whole. Whatever our reasons for having them, for pouring time and love into raising them, they get to be their own people, make their own choices, live their own lives.

We may need to grieve the loss of some of our dearest hopes here. They may not pass on our religious or other cherished traditions. They may not live the lives we dreamed of for ourselves and wished for them. They may not find happiness where we would expect it to be found.

We've given the gift of life, and no true gift is given with strings. But we can reap tremendous rewards from that choice. While their life isn't ours, the relationship we have with them is. It's our relationship as much as it is theirs, to cherish and nurture and keep strong. And if we tend that relationship well we will always have them in our lives, without anybody having to owe anything.

I find this a compelling argument--but not an easy one. There are moments during many days when I wish that my sons' sense of obligation were more highly developed. And I still have secret hopes that if I pay my dues with good parenting now, it will pay off handsomely in my old age. But dues and IOU's are part of a different system. This is a much better one, based in love and gifts from the heart.