Day 3 in Maine: Parents make bad citizens

Last night in Maine my brother and his wife toiled in the family kitchen slicing vegetables to make coleslaw while outside in the backyard I chased after Jay who was intent on eating every last unripe blueberry from the bushes along our property line.

That scene has repeated itself throughout the two days we’ve been in Maine: Caroline and I tend to Jay and Wally while the rest of the family (besides my sister, who also has an infant) makes grocery lists, cooks meals, washes dishes, and generally does the work that keeps our extended family enterprise afloat.  I chip in where I can—my preferred chore is going to the grocery store where I can strap hyperactive Jay into the front seat of a shopping cart—but overall Caroline and I have contributed mainly by doing our best to prevent Jay from breaking my sister-in-law’s iPad.

In my twenties, before I had kids, I developed a reflexive skepticism whenever I encountered families in public places.  This was partly for the obvious reason that other people’s children can be loud and annoying and make for terrible seatmates on airplanes.  But my skepticism ran deeper than that.   In an evolutionary biology class in college I remember the professor explaining that altruism develops among animals under circumstances in which every animal can count on every other animals to lend a hand in a time of need.  The professor gave the specific example of bats.  They go out hunting every night but not every bat is always successful.  Back at the cave the bats that got food share with the bats that came home empty.  The system works because on any given bat-night there’s always a chance that you’ll be the one who fails to collect a mouthful of bugs.

This is how a good society functions, too-I’ll scratch scratch your back as long as you’ll scratch mine.  This, I think, is the fundamental reason why we have the tendency to think of parents as occupying the margins of the social compact:  Their loyalties lie, understandably, more with their families than with the rest of us.

Since becoming a parent I’ve tried to be mindful of how my responsibility to Jay and Wally impacts the other relationships in my life.  As Caroline’s due date with Wally approached it occurred to me that for awhile after he was born I’d have a lot less to give people outside our immediate family.  A week before the due date I took a day trip up from Philadelphia to New York to see my brother and a close friend.  I was happy to make the trip for its own sake, but there was also something of a calculation at work: It seemed important to refresh the reservoir of good will in those relationships while I still had the time to do so.

As for Maine, we’ve got three days left in our trip.  I’ll continue to try and find ways to pitch in where I can.  The rest of the time I’ll hope that the rest of my family finds Jay and Wally cute enough that they don’t resent having us along for the ride.

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