N. writes: “I am a 35 year old woman and I would love to start a family. However, despite months of trying I have not conceived and continue to hope that this will happen either naturally or with fertility interventions. Like many women there is a feeling of longing to have a baby and nurture, and many of my friends now have families and I enjoy spending time with their children. I am aware of my biological clock and the fact that I have a condition which could effect my ability to conceive. I wonder what Stoicism would say about fulfillment of desires and coping with life not going as one would so desperately like it to. I would love a baby but want to manage my expectations as fate may have a different plan, and at present I feel very sad about the thought that my yearning for a baby may not be satisfied. This question could relate to any goal someone wants and feels would help make their life complete.”
Indeed, your question is actually far more general than the specific case: what is the Stoic attitude toward desperate (to use your phrase) beliefs that are unlikely to be fulfilled? The short answer isn’t going to be very satisfying to you, but bear with me, okay?
Here is the short answer, from Epictetus: “People to whom such things are still denied come to imagine that everything good will be theirs if only they could acquire them. Then they get them: and their longing is unchanged, their anxiety is unchanged, their disgust is no less, and they still long for whatever is lacking. Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.” (Discourses IV, 1.174-175)
Why is this? Because having or not having children is not under your control. Of course you can try, but the outcome isn’t up to you. The only thing that is truly up to you is how you think about it.
So let’s consider a couple of different ways to think about. To begin with, of course you know — at a cognitive, not emotional, level — that you are responding to a combination of biological instincts and social expectations. These are powerful forces, but why should your happiness depend on the combined pressure of natural selection and the example of your friends? There is nothing wrong, obviously, with wanting to have children. But plenty of people do live fulfilling lives without them.
In fact, research shows that although people generally are happy about the idea of having children, the actual thing stresses them and decreases their moment-to-moment happiness compared to that of people who don’t have children and have found other ways to make their lives meaningful. (Here is one of many articles on the topic.)
Notice that I myself am a father, and I’m very happy that my daughter is in the world. But I’m sure she will agree (she’s cool, she’s a Stoic in training, and she knows I think this way) that I would be just as happy if she weren’t, but in a different way. Having or not having children is a preferred indifferent — meaning, of course, not something that doesn’t matter (it is, after all, “preferred”), but rather something that does not affect (it is “indifferent” to) virtue.
Here, however, is another way of looking at the same issue, taking inspiration from Marcus:
“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impending our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to our action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)
This is the famous phrase that gave the title to Ryan Holiday’s best selling book, The Obstacle is the Way. In your case, the way to turn the impediment into action is to consider alternatives, the most obvious one of which is adoption. There are countless children without a family, and there is no reason you couldn’t make one (or more) of them happy by channeling your desire to be a parent in their direction. So what if they don’t share your genetic background? As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker once said in a different context, this is what I decided to do, and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump into the lake.
This, incidentally, is what Epictetus himself did toward the end of his life. Simplicius (Commentary on the Enchiridion, 46) tells us that Epictetus adopted the child of a friend, who would have otherwise been “exposed,” meaning left to die, and raised it with the help of a woman (whom he may have married, Simplicius’ language is ambiguous). By adopting a child of your own you would fulfill your desire, help another human being, and emulate one of the most influential Stoics of all times. Seems to me like an option to at least consider seriously.