Sunday, January 10, 2010

Finite Love

I was at the mall quite a bit over the holidays for obvious reasons—buying gifts I knew people would love an returning all the gifts I hated, and I was watching a lot of families. You had the basic family unit of a married couple. Then you had families with one child, two children, and so on. Then you had your trail mix of families with stepchildren, adopted children, sperm donor children, and clones. But as I watched these families and especially the children, I realized that there was an unavoidable sadness that comes as your family gets larger and larger.

Sure, there is the obvious fact that with more kids you must divide your time between them. After all, parents have no favorite child. Or, at least, in nondysfunctional families they do not. So if you have two children you must spend half your time with one and half with the other. With three children it is one third, with four it is a quarter, and so forth. After all, you do not want to short change a child. This is of course counting your free time only, once sleep, bodily functions, work, spousal time, and eating have been accounted for in a twenty-four hour period.

There is nothing more precious that you can give your child other than your time. It is the one commodity that no one can twist, manipulate, or create beyond what is available. And so if you love your children, why not spend as much time with them as possible? And if you have more than one child, all of whom you love equally, of course, why not spend as much time with each of them as possible? In equal amounts, of course. There can be no other ideal way to parse such a finite commodity. So if you loved your children, you would spend as much time with them as possible. We have all learned from after school specials that nothing else substitutes for this. Thus measurement of time becomes a surrogate for measurement of love.

Now let us take a family with one child. Let us say this child is two years old. And for the sake of simplicity, let us say that the parents will always work the same number of hours a day and sleep the same number of hours of day. We can even say they will go to the bathroom the same number of minutes a day, but you get the point. So for two years this only child has been getting all the time, which we can call 2t. But now the family has a second child. In that second child’s first year of life, he will get 0.5t of time, while the first child gets 0.5t of time. By the time the second child turns two years old, he will have had t of time, while the first child, now four years old, will have had 3t. And when the second child turns four years old, he will have had 2t of time, while the first child, now six years old, will have had 4t. By simple algebra, the second child will always have (age)t/2 of time while the first child will always have (age)t/2 + t of time. The first child will always have had more time spent with the parents.

The math need not seem complicated. What it tells us is that because the first child was an only child to begin with, he got all the time while he was an only child. This is something that the second child will never have. Thus, the parents will never be able to have spend the same amount of time with the second child as they did with the first. You can extend that to the third child, who will get less time than the first two because there will never be a time when he gets all or even half the time as the first two children did. Does this then mean that the more children you have the less you love them?

Obviously not, but it is a disturbing concept. You may say that work hours may change. For the children’s sake it would have to go down. You can’t really sleep less because who is spending time with their children at two in the morning? There is, however, a limit to this idea. When the children get older, new children may actually get relatively more time. Few teenagers want or need their parents time to the same degree as when they were six. So if you had children eight or more years apart, you would not have to feel you were shortchanging them your love. Fortunately, children have no frame of reference for comparison to know that you have spent less time with them than their older siblings. Well, until they learn algebra, at least.