Stoic advice: I want a child, but I can’t conceive

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

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.

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7 thoughts on “Stoic advice: I want a child, but I can’t conceive

  1. Excellent advice, as usual. Those Stoics really had something there, didn’t they? All kidding aside, your mention of Holiday got me thinking. I realize he’s kind of a different Stoic than you are but in this case that might be a good thing. You mentioned exploring the possibility of an introductory Stoic comic for young people. Maybe a collaboration with Mr. Holiday would be fruitful? I haven’t read much of him but from I gather his examples connect to business and sports types and that’s an aspect that might connect with (some) young readers as well? Along with all of your abundant humor and wisdom of course! Just a thought.

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  2. Great article and food for thought about the way to handle impediments/obstacles. I do love the Marcus quote and have yet to read Ryan’s book but have it on a list to read. One of my practices is to at least watch my desires (small ones) as a start towards lessening desires overall.

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  3. It can be a total emotional rollercoaster trying for a baby. Along with the normal ups and downs of the monthly cycle you need in addition to deal with the anticipation, efforts, waiting, disappointment, loss, acceptance of trying and failing each long drawn out month, each month starting again the cycle unrelenting. Something men have much less awareness or impact from.

    It is worth getting an ovulation monitor and all the assistance you can muster, as many women do gain success with perseverance. Have a look at the statistics, I think it takes an average of 18 months to get pregnant at 35 (but check that).

    Adopting is a whole new ball game. Personally, I’d rather express that need via a pet, because taking on an actual person is a huge responsibility and imo genes make a huge difference. You may get lucky with compatible genes, so to speak, depending on how much contact you have with birth parents to ascertain if there is a natural kinship there.

    Adopting a baby with unknown history could mean taking on something even more challenging that facing not being able to have your own children.

    Safe option, a dog and charity work, with the prospect of some chance having your own.

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  4. My own experiences are a bit different to N’s, but I think they might have some read-across. I do have children, but I have not seen them for over 6 years. My wife and I separated due to financial problems, but with the intention of getting back together once things improved. I was led to believe that seeing them (i.e. wife and children) was not in my wife’s best interests (and by extension, those of the children), so I stayed away and only had phone and email contact. After a while, my wife filed for divorce, having conceived another child, and my attempts to gain access to the children were denied by the court as too much time had passed and my daughter (the elder child) had formed a rather different view of her childhood to what had actually occurred.

    I’m not going through this to suggest that I’m worse off than N – that would surely be a Epicurean, not a Stoic route to comfort- but having practiced Stoicism for a couple of years now, a couple of points might be helpful.

    Firstly, I can still be happy. Obviously, I miss my children, but that does not preclude my own happiness. I accept that I do not, at the moment, see them, but I can find other things to give me joy. The experiences I have now are different to those which I might expected to have, but they are equally valid. They are not better or worse, just different. How I perceive them, and what I take from them is entirely up to me.

    Secondly, I see the whole episode as an opportunity, specifically, a chance to exercise my Virtue. I can display resilience, patience, determination and acceptance. I can continue fighting to get access to my children, mindful of the fact that I might not. It will probably be up to a judge to decide, which I obviously cannot control. The act of trying to get access, however, does have value as I am fulfilling my social duty as a father, and it is (almost) completely in my control, as is choosing never to give up the fight.

    While I would not necessarily have chosen my life to turn out the way it has, in many ways I’m grateful it did. I came to Stoicism during my divorce and I might not have taken it so seriously if not for the external pressure. As it is, Fate has introduced me to something valuable and given me the opportunity to “show my muscles”.

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  5. Thank you Massimo, this is so helpful! As a single, childless woman past reproductive age, I struggle every day with the messages that I have not “achieved” the one and only purpose of my life: procreation. Modern developed societies (and probably also the under-developed world, as well) still convey these messages for women. I’m not sure if men experience these self-doubts in the same way. Stoicism has helped me enormously with all the feelings of worthlessness, by encouraging me to focus on the things I can control (like being the best aunt possible) and developing myself as a human being. I also feel that the “choice” of being a parent (or not) is often one of pure luck. Perhaps N. can relax if she allows herself to accept whatever fate has in store for her. Whether to be a mother or not, she can still live the eudaimonic life.

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