A couple weekends ago I waffled on whether to be kind to a stranger. I was at the playground with my sons, Jay, 3, and Wally, 1, when Jay found a smartphone face up in the wood chips. There was only one other family at the playground. They said it wasn't theirs. I knew, then, who had left it behind.
Twenty minutes earlier there'd been another family at the playground -- a dad with his young son. The boy was maybe 7 or 8 and he and Wally had crossed paths for a moment when they'd put their hands on a rope swing at the same time. But it was the dad I remembered most clearly. He was about my age with a closely cropped beard but he stood out in particular because he hadn't been wearing a shirt. His chest was cut in the way of someone who lifts weights a lot, and he had a tattoo of a cross on his chest that split his pectoral muscles and came down nearly to his belly button. All told, he gave off the distinct air of having been in prison.
It was obvious that the phone was his, and now I held it in my hand and didn't know what to do. Had this man instead been a cute park mom or a square Joe dad like me I have no doubt I would have taken the phone home and waited for the owner to call. But given the likely owner's actual appearance I wasn't sure I really wanted to get involved in his life. I considered placing the phone on a picnic table and I reassured myself that he was sure to race back to the park and find it there.
At the same time I knew that if I left the phone out it might get rained on, or someone else might come along and take it or the man might never realize where he'd left it. The right thing to do was obvious but the easy way out was so tempting -- I knew I could leave the phone behind and let the whole incident fade away like vapor. It was only after some hemming and hawing and a quick phone consultation with Caroline that I drove home with Jay and Wally and the phone sitting beside me in the passenger seat.
There are a number of things I could say about this story. I could write about the flimsiness of my own biases or how surprisingly easy it can be to wash one's hands of another person's problems. But what I really want to write about is how being a father may have actually made me more ethically indecisive than I should have been.
Jay and Wally have certainly deepened my ethical commitments. I care about their welfare more than I do my own. When I hold Wally and look in the mirror I'm much more interested in his reflection than I am in mine. In that sense, becoming a parent has deepened my attachment to people outside myself.
But I've noticed that in other ways being a parent has made me ethically softer. One easy example of this is my attitude towards resource conservation. I used to be real conscious of how much stuff I consumed and I'd go way out of my way to economize and recycle and reuse. Now I put bags and bags of diapers out to the curb each week and do my best not to imagine the landfill where they'll end up, and when it comes to buying a new swing or a second baby monitor, I don't hesitate if I think it's going to make my life as a parent easier.
It's inevitable that Jay and Wally will increase my carbon footprint. But there are also times when I justify not doing something I should, thinking, "My life is already stressful and tiring. I'm fulfilling my ethical quota just by being a good dad. Maybe it's okay if I don't bother to rinse out this peanut butter jar before putting it into the recycling."
The same kind of thinking applies to the way parenthood has affected my relationships with other people. As I wrote last year around the Fourth of July, some of my ethical obligations to Jay and Wally come at the expense of my ethical obligations to other people. I imagine I'm a little less likely, say, to risk my life to save a stranger now than I was before becoming a father, because I feel like I owe it to Jay and Wally to stick around to take care of them. It's all pretty complicated, but I think there's no doubt that becoming a parent shifts one's ethical commitments. As a society we understand and encourage parents to put their commitments to their kids above their commitments to other people.
At the same time I sometimes use my status as a parent to justify being less generous with others than I know I should be. It's usually small things, like whether to text rather than call friends on their birthdays, or how much to spend on a wedding gift or whether to fly across the country to be with a friend who's having a hard time. I see myself all the time trying to justify the easier, cheaper, less time-consuming way out based upon the idea that I'm already giving so much to my kids.
Which brings me back to the smartphone. In my indecision I remember thinking, "I've got Jay and Wally to think of here, so maybe it's ok if I don't go out of my way to get involved with a man who's almost certainly done hard time." Of course, the whole excuse was a stretch: The tattoo didn't mean the guy had gone to prison and even if he had, what was he going to do, repay my kindness at returning his phone by smashing Jay and Wally's car seats? It was pretty thin reasoning, which is to say, I was surely using Jay and Wally as an excuse to look the other way because that was in fact what my weaker side wanted to do, regardless of how many kids I have.
But I did take the phone home. The four of us sat down to lunch with the phone resting ominously on the kitchen counter. Within ten minutes it rang. The ring tone made me jump. It was a rap song and the phone display said "R Jay" was calling. I tried to answer it but my finger was wet and I couldn't immediately figure out how to operate the touchscreen and after swiping at the phone frantically for what felt like an hour, I ended up missing the call. "Great," I thought. "Now I'm sucked in even deeper."
The phone rang again five minutes later and this time I managed to answer the call. I was worried that after failing to pick up the first time the guy might be thinking that I intended to steal his phone so I rushed out an explanation: "Hi my name is Kevin I found this phone on the playground and I don't know whose it is but I really want to give it back can you help me." It was a woman's voice on the other end. I heard her say, away from the phone, "someone's found it." Then she handed the phone to a man who said the phone was indeed his. I asked if he lived close to the playground. He said that he did, and we agreed to meet there in five minutes.
I took Jay with me (kind of for cover, kind of to keep him out of Caroline's hair while she put Wally down for a nap) and by the time we reached the playground the man was already there, sitting in the passenger seat of a small SUV driven by an older woman who I took to be his mom. He and his son got out of their car and Jay and I got out of ours. As we walked across the parking lot towards each other I couldn't decide whether to lead with the cellphone or a handshake and decided at the last second to get him back his personal property first thing.
He was wearing his t-shirt now and was quite grateful. I told him I hadn't been sure whether it was best to leave the phone on the playground so that he could retrieve it or to take it with me, and he said that he was so glad I'd done what I had. We talked for another minute or so about our kids' ages and about how during the summer he and his son walk through the playground every week on their way to the public pool.
Then we turned to go. As he walked back towards his car I heard his son ask him, "Are you guys becoming friends," and his dad gave a reply that I couldn't quite make out as I ducked my head into our car to strap Jay back into his seat.