What Nietzsche Taught Me About Parenthood

You shouldn’t believe anything that people tell you about parenting. Including this. Because no matter what you hear, you won’t truly believe it — truly internalize it — until you experience it for yourself. And yet I continue.

The cliché is that parenthood activates within you vast reserves of untapped patience, empathy, and love. It’s true. It’s also true that children ruin your life in the nicest way. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about this:

“What was silent in the father speaks in the son; and I often found in the son the unveiled secret of the father.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

And this:

“Fathers have much to do to make amends for the fact that they have sons.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

Parenthood makes you feel incomprehensibly vulnerable. It is as if there is your own small, perfect, ignorant, delicate, and infinitely valuable personal avatar out there in the world, who is effectively impossible to fully protect. You well and truly know that the only thing worse for your quality of life than you stepping out in front of a bus, would be them stepping out in front of a bus. This transforms otherwise saccharine moments such as you holding their hand and walking them into the store to buy them their first bicycle into tableaus of terror. The irrational immortality I felt in my twenties was suddenly and grotesquely transformed into paralyzing and near-paranoid levels of impotence and worry.

What if he wrenches his hand from mine and takes two steps to his right as this car passes at far too great a speed oh shit shit shit slow down you ignorant cockwagon, don’t you realize I’m escorting my own intentionally created concentrated meatbag of personal vulnerability mere dozens of inches from your steel weapon of perfect child murder?

Parenthood is that. Constantly. All while your higher brain is telling you to stop hovering and stop insulating them from the world and to stop prioritizing the minimization of your own vastly inflated worries over their development as an independent being.

As much as that whole parental maelstrom of lizard brain v. monkey brain consumes you and makes you want to collapse into a heap the moment they are safely tucked in bed (but also maybe silently choking to death on that toy you forgot to remove from their room you negligent monster), that’s not the thing that has hit me the hardest as a parent. It’s what Nietzsche said.

Getting to know your offspring as people is the most embarrassing, terrifying, uplifting, eye-opening, and utterly unexpected journey you can take as a human being.

Envision every shameful instinct you harbor. Every psychological manipulation you undertake and immediately regret. Consider your bad habits, your deepest fears, your greatest failings as a person. Recall the things you do and then pretend you didn’t. Think about the things you refuse to think about yourself. Go ahead, dig deep. Imagine all the things that only you know about how you’re broken and insufficient. Examine those traits you strive to hide, but which you know have hurt the people you love, and yourself besides.

Now imagine all of those things laid bare for everyone to see, realized through the clear and magnified lens of a child’s emotional experience of the world. Moreover, prepare to learn new terrible things about yourself. Things that you only knew on the level that one remembers a waking dream, months past; the things that are shockingly obvious once revealed, but impossible to articulate while still obscured. Imagine yourself on a fainting couch, confessing your innermost failings to a therapist. Only you’re not in control of what is being said. And everyone is listening in.

Being a parent changes you, irrevocably. But only part of that is due to the experience of parenting your child. The other — and in my view, more potent — factor is the experience of getting to know yourself through your child. It is impossible to ignore, because the presentation of these facets is raw, and unfiltered by social pressures or learned defenses.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche ponders about the advent of science and secular morality rendering the concept of “God” dead, and whether humanity is up to the task of rebuilding a system of morality now that we have destroyed what we thought was its foundation.

Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

So too, is the crisis of confidence suffered after you, as a parent, are utterly deconstructed by a being of one sixth your size and one tenth your experience. So too, are you faced with the task of rebuilding yourself anew on top of the rubble your own flesh and blood has chiseled away from your ego. But you will. And you’ll never see yourself, or the world, the same way again.

Knowing yourself is a necessary step in you being able to optimally function in society. We don’t consume the universe’s raw inputs; we filter them through our abilities and personalities and experiences. If we don’t cast a critical eye on these aspects of ourselves, we will see a skewed version of reality and not even realize we are doing so.

If you want to know yourself, procreate. Much will be illuminated.