I am staying true to my blog’s theme this week, despite the opportunity to wax lyrical about the birth of my daughter today. Rather, I want to challenge the notion that by having a child, we are somehow giving up our freedom, and that we will never be as free as we have been. Common wisdom tells us that once we have a child, (or get married), we must sacrifice our freedom in the name of the social contract, but this is just a story we tell ourselves to justify laziness.
About 10 years ago, I was going through a really rough time personally and career-wise. At one point in my self-destructive spiral, I asked myself why I was doing what I was doing and being who I was being? What was it that would make me happy? What was it, I asked, that I really wanted? For me the answer came back with striking clarity: freedom.
This abstract concept of freedom was just fleeting images at that point; exploration, continuous learning, full self-expression. I began to think about where freedom really comes from. I chewed on this for days and weeks, and what I kept coming back to was choice. Choice, not of things that are given to us, but that we take on purpose. When we choose our life purposefully, we are free.
This seemed relatively simple; I just needed more choices. But I realized that it wasn’t the quantity of choice, but the quality that mattered more. Think of a grocery store with an entire aisle full of different brands of soda. These really didn’t represent choices to me, because they were the same bad choice in my mind, and that choice was an unhealthy diet. The same went for moving to a different city in China, because I was unhappy with where I was in Guangzhou. These also represented variations on a similar choice, which was to be committed to continue living in China. True choice, I thought, came from something distinct.
That distinction is responsibility, and here is the counter-intuitive part; responsibility makes us free. Because when we are responsible for something, we choose it. We choose to take care of it, we choose to honor it, we choose to seek it out and embrace it wherever it occurs.
But I was still exploring the causation to its root. Why do we become responsible? What motivates responsibility? Doesn’t this mean we are somehow compelled to limit our own freedom? The answer came to me when I was going on about laziness one night with friends at the pub in Guangzhou. “Look around at all the neglected houses here, the failing state-run factories,” I made a sweeping gesture to emphasize my point. “Look at the utter lack of accountability in government in China, and yet people put up with it.” At this point, someone brought up the mandate of heaven, and drawing on my debating skills, finely honed at Bates, I retorted, “Fuck the mandate of heaven!” To which another friend replied, “You’re missing the point, it’s all about ownership.” And he was right.
Ownership makes us accountable. When we own something we will be responsible for it. We keep our houses tidy, we repay the trust of constituents who own the political process. From responsibility comes choice and from choice, freedom. Ownership is not entitlement, it is not a legal construct, but rather a mindset of value. The greater the value, the more care one extends to cultivating and preserving something.
Nothing is of greater value than those you love, starting with yourself.
In my formulaic way, I derived the source of the freedom I sought and found it to be true. The lifestyle I had before I married, while at times exciting (and dangerous), didn’t honor me. It wasn’t a choice that led me toward anything, but served as a means of distraction & escape. Having a daughter has reaffirmed my commitment of responsibility, because I understand how it helps to make me free. By choosing to value parenthood, I have created a myriad of new possibilities to explore and learn from. That is the adventure I have been seeking, distinct from the past, given by a self-owned vision of the future.
Bring it on, baby.