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Are all Parents Selfish Narcissists?

Uploaded 6/14/2011, approx. 12 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

The advent of cloning, surrogate motherhood, and the donation of gametes and sperm have shaken the traditional biological definition of parenthood to its foundations.

The social roles of parents have similarly been recast by the decline of the nuclear family and the surge in alternative household formats.

So why do people become parents in the first place? Do we have a moral obligation to humanity at large, to ourselves, to our unborn children?

Hardly so. Raising children comprises equal measures of satisfaction and frustration.

Parents often employ a psychological defense mechanism known as cognitive dissonance to suppress the negative aspects of parenting and to deny the unpalatable truth and fact that raising children is time-consuming, exhausting, and strains otherwise pleasurable, tranquil and functional relationships to their limits.

This is not to mention the fact that the gestational mother experiences, and I am quoting, considerable discomfort, effort and risk in the course of pregnancy and childbirth.

No, this is not a sentence I have written. This was written by Narayan and Bhatkovyak in 1999 in their seminal work, Having and Raising Children, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press.


So parenting is possibly an irrational vocation, yet humanity keeps breeding and procreating.

This may well be the call of nature, as many people think. All living species reproduce and most of them are re-entrant.

His maternity and paternity prove that beneath the ephemeral veneer of civilization, we are still merely kind of an animal, least, subject to the impulses and hardwired behavior that permeate the rest of the animal kingdom.

In his important book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggested that we copulate in order to preserve our genetic material by embedding it in a future gene pool.

Survival itself, whether in the form of DNA or on a higher level as a species, determines our parenting instincts. Breeding and nurturing the young are mere safe-contact mechanisms, handing the precious cargo of genetics down generations of organic containers known as children.

Yet surely to ignore the epistemological and emotional realities of parenthood is misleadingly reductionist.

Moreover, Dawkins commits a scientific faux pas of teleology. Nature itself has no purpose in mind because it has no mind. Things simply are in nature, period. There is no goal, no plan, no master plan. The genes end up being forwarded in time does not entail that nature or for that matter a god planned it this way.

Arguments from design have long and convincingly been refuted by countless philosophers.

Still, human beings, as opposed to nature, do act intentionally.

And so we are back to square one.

Why bring children to the world and burden ourselves with decades of commitment to perfect strangers?

Well, here's a hypothesis for you. Offspring allows us to delay death, to postpone, to procrastinate.

Our progeny are the medium through which our genetic material is propagated and immortalized.

Additionally, by remembering us, our children keep us alive after physical death.

And these, of course, are self-delusional, self-serving illusions.

Our genetic material gets diluted with time. While it constitutes 50% of the first generation, it amounts to a measly 6% three generations later.

If the everlastingness of one's unadulterated DNA was the paramount concern, incest would have been the norm, not outbreeding.

As for one's enduring memory via the generations, let's go through a simple exercise.

Do you remember or can you name your maternal or paternal great-great-great-grandfather?

Of course you can't. And that means that our memory vanishes within three to four generations.

Intellectual feats or architectural monuments are far more potent mementos of our existence than children.

Still, we have been so well indoctrinated that this misconception that children equal immortality yields a baby boom in each post-war period.

Having been existentially threatened, people multiply and procreate in the vain belief that they thus best protect their genetic heritage and their memory as persons.

So let's study another, more rational and grounded explanation.

The utilitarian view is that one's offspring are an asset, kind of a pension plan and insurance policy rolled into one. Children are still treated as a yielding property in many parts of the world.

They plow fields. They do menial jobs, very effectively. People hedge their bets by bringing multiple copies of themselves to the world.

Indeed, as infant mortality plunges in the better-educated, higher-income parts of the world, so does fecundity. The richer we are, more educated we are, the more wealthy we are, the fewer children we have.

In the Western world, though, children have long ceased to be a profitable proposition. At present, they are more of an economic drag and a liability.

Many continue to live with their parents into their thirties and consume the family's savings in college tuition, sumptuous weddings, expensive divorces, parasitic habits.

Alternatively, increasing mobility breaks families apart at an early stage. Either way, children are no longer the founts of emotional sustenance and monetary support.

They allegedly used to be in previous generations.

This explanation falls by the rule.


How about this third attempt?

Procreation serves to preserve the cohesiveness of the family nucleus. It further bonds father to mother, strengthens the ties between siblings.

Or is it the other way around? A cohesive and warm family is conductive or conducive to reproduction. Either way, they seem to be connected, functional families and reproduction.

But of course, both statements are false. Stable and functional families sport far fewer children than abnormal or dysfunctional families.

Between one-third and one-half of all children are born in single-parent or in other non-traditional, non-nuclear, or undereducated households. Such families' children are mostly born unwanted and unwelcome.

The said outcomes of accidents and mishaps, ignorance, wrong fertility planning, lust, gun, awry, and misguided turns of ignorance. The more sexually active people are, the less safe their deserious exploits, the more they are likely to end up with a bundle of joy, the American saccharine expression for a newborn.

Many children are the result of sexual ignorance, bed timing, and a vigorous and undisciplined sexual drive among teenagers, the poor, the less educated, the mentally ill, and the dysfunctional.

Still, there is no denying that most people want their kids and love them. They are attached to the kids, to their children, and they experience grief and bereavement when these children die, depart, or are sick.

Most parents find parenthood emotionally fulfilling, happiness-inducing, and highly satisfying. This pertains even to unplanned and initially unwanted new arrivals.

Could this be the missing link? Do fatherhood and motherhood revolve around self-gratification? Does it all boil down to the pleasure principle?

Child rearing may indeed be habit-forming. Nine months of pregnancy and a host of social positive reinforcement expectations can condition the parents to do the job.

Still, a living pot is nothing like the abstract concept. Babies cry. They soil themselves and their environment. They stink. They severely disrupt the lives of their parents. There's nothing too enticing in an infant, objectively speaking.

One spawns are a risky venture. So many things can and do go wrong. So few expectations, wishes, and dreams are realized. So much pain is inflicted on the parents. And then child runs off, and his procreators are left to face the emptiness.

The emotional returns on a child are rarely commensurate with the magnitude of the investment.

If you eliminate the impossible, say Sherlock Holmes, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. People multiply because it provides them with narcissistic supply.

A narcissist is a person who projects a false image onto others and uses the interest this projection generates to regulate a labile and grandiose sense of self-worth.

The reactions garnered by the narcissist, tension, unconditional acceptance, adulation, admiration, and affirmation, all these are collectively known as narcissistic supply.

The narcissist objectifies people and treats them as mere instruments of gratification to be idealized, used, abused, and discarded.

Infants go through a phase of unbridled fantasy, tyrannical behavior, and perceived omnipotence.

An adult narcissist, in other words, is still stuck in his terrible tools and is possessed with the emotional maturity of a toddler.

To some degree we are all narcissists.

Yet as we grow, we learn to empathize and to love ourselves and others. We grow out of our primary narcissism.

We do not develop what Freud called secondary malignant pathological narcissism, but narcissists do.

They are stuck in a time world. They have never grown up. This edifice of maturity is severely tested by new-found parenthood.

Babies evoke in the parent the most primordial drives, protective, animalistic instincts, the desire to merge with the newborn, and the sense of terror generated by such a desire.

It's a fear of vanishing and of being assimilated and assimilating.

Neonates engender in their parents an emotional regression. The parents find themselves revisiting their own childhoods through and via the infant, even as they are caring for the newborn.

The crumbling of decades and layers of personal growth is accompanied by a resurgence of the aforementioned early infantile narcissistic defenses.

Parents, especially new ones, are gradually transformed into narcissists by this encounter with the newborn.

They find in their children the perfect sources of narcissistic supply, euphemistically known as love.

So parenthood, child rearing, caring for children, caregiving, these really are all forms of symbolic co-dependence of both parties. The child provides narcissistic supply. The parent consumes it.

Even the most balanced, most mature, most psychodynamically stable of parents find such a flood of narcissistic supply emanating from the child irresistible and addictive. Such supply enhances the parent's self-confidence, buttresses his or her self-esteem, regulates the sense of self-worth, and projects a complementary image of the parent onto himself or herself.

And so this interaction is so addictive that it fast becomes indispensable, especially in the emotionally vulnerable position in which your parents finds herself, with the reawakening and repetition of all the unresolved conflicts that she had with her own parents.


Well if this theory of parenthood as narcissism is true, if breeding is merely about securing prime quality narcissistic supply, then the higher the self-confidence, the self-esteem, the more abundant his other sources of narcissistic supply, the fewer children such a parent will have.

And these predictions are borne out by reality.

Educated, high income, high self-esteem, self-confident people have few or no children.

And so the higher the education and the income of adults, consequently the firmer their sense of self-worth, the fewer children they have.

That's statistical law.

Children are perceived as counterproductive by these people. Not only is their output narcissistic supply redundant, they hinder the parent's professional and pecuniary progress and the parent's liberty and freedom.

The more children people can economically afford, the fewer they have. This gives the lie to the selfish gene hypothesis.

The more educated people are, the more they know about the world and about themselves, the less they seek to procreate. The more advanced the civilization, the more efforts it invests in preventing the birth of children.

In Western civilization, we spend billions of dollars in preventing pregnancy or aborting fetuses. Contraceptives, family planning and abortions are typical of affluent, well-informed society, not poor ones.

The more plentiful the narcissistic supply afforded by other sources, the lesser the emphasis on breeding.

Freud described the mechanism of sublimation. The sex drive, what he called the Eros, limiter, can be converted, sublimated into other types of activities. All the sublimatory channels, politics and art, for instance, are narcissistic. All of them yield narcissistic supply. They render children unnecessary, superfluous. Creative people have fewer children than the average, or none at all.

This is because they are narcissistically self-sufficient. They know how to generate their own narcissistic supply. They don't need children to give them narcissistic supply. They have enough.

The key to our determination to have children seems to be our wish to experience the same unconditional love that we had received or were supposed to have received from our mothers.

This intoxicating brew and feeling of being adored without caveats and without conditions for what we are with no limits, reservations or calculations. This kind of love, this kind of laser-focused attention, it's the most powerful, crystallized form of narcissistic supply.

A child's love nourishes our self-love, our self-worth, our self-confidence. It infuses us with feelings of omnipotence and omniscience.

In these and other respects, parenthood is a return to infancy. It is a type of narcissistic defense mechanism.

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