Raising children - a worthy Herculean labour

Hercules & Omphale on the way to making babies
(Francois Boucher)
Parenting is a really tough job.

Just ask any mother!

The truth is that the task of raising a child is herculean. The choice of adjective is deliberate. 

Hercules is of course a mythical male famous for his 12 labours.  While none of his labours includes anything quite like raising a child, he was nonetheless associated with neonatal rituals in Roman culture[i].  It is not entirely clear why, perhaps because of his own precocious childhood, or his being granted immortality through the breast milk of Juno in Roman and Etruscan myths, or his fathering of many children.

Regardless, birthing and raising a child is a challenge worthy of Hercules. The awe with which we hold Mothers reflects their willingness to take on this challenge. The word mother is virtually synonymous with dedication to child-rearing, beginning as it does and appropriately enough for the argument here, with labour.

And if mother means all this, then the term single-mother takes that this all to another dimension. A mother who is trying to raise children while also keeping the house, working and without a partner is one of best modern images of a battler well worthy of compassion.

The word father – whether referring to single fathers or otherwise – does not evoke anything like this kind of effort and sacrifice. And justifiably perhaps given their apparent willingness to put child-rearing into the ‘too hard’ basket.

Why is raising a baby seen as so different from other man-projects?  I mean, it’s fiddly, the details can be annoying, and he will certainly get his hands dirty, and yet, will the chaos of the process that takes place in the workshop will produce something magnificent.

In fact, a child is a better project than most because it keeps on developing. The child is always growing, changing, and at some point, s/he is very likely to take on a mind of her/his own.
Parenting then is much as Michaelangelo famously described sculpting: ““Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”[ii].

Even so, still takes a lot of work for the parent/sculptor to do.

So much work perhaps, that many men seem to baulk at the challenge. This is of course ironic as men are held to be the ones that rise to the big challenges, at least stereotypically as reflected in the character of Hercules. To shy at this challenge might seriously undermine the stereotype of men’s strength, and cast their courage as little more than a myth.

So if the man isn’t willing to take instructions, is he at least willing to make mistakes?
In fairness, there is something about the nature of child-wrangling that makes the challenge a little different from engaging in arduous journeys (like Ulysses), wrestling lions (like Hercules) and getting up to investigate things that go bump in the night (like our modern male hero).
Imagine someone who is about to jump from a plane with a parachute on their back for the first time.

What they feel is fear.  A fear that things could go terribly wrong. And if something goes wrong, he (or she) is in serious trouble.

However, the fear in a challenge like skydiving – and like many of the challenges that men do like to tackle – is of a personal nature. That is, ‘If I get this wrong, I might be damaged.’
The fear in the challenge of child-rearing is quite different: ‘If I get this wrong, my child could be damaged.’

That is a big responsibility. I make a mistake, I mess up someone else’s life. Still, for a man to even feel this fear is a good step in the right direction. It means that he has realised that there is someone out there that is more important than he is! An important step towards manhood is the shift from seeing himself as the centre of the universe to seeing himself as an infinitesimal and integral element of the universe.

However, while his fear of getting it wrong for the child is quite reasonable, he is not alone. Mothers of course may well share a similar fear.