When the Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few

You know Spock’s motto. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” (Or, the one, as in The Wrath of Khan when Spock sacrifices himself.)

This is also the motto of many parents, and I’m not talking about all that driving around. I’m talking about later, when your child is ready to live without you, but your needs, the needs of the one, are to pull the child back toward you. To hang on to the best of parenting someone who depends on you and not let go.

But, there are the needs of the many.

I have written a bit about my child, Finn, but here’s his update. He lives in Michigan now, with roommates and friends and two house cats: a grounded life, happily (and busily) pursuing a doctoral degree in high-energy physics.

I’ve written about how I see him less often than I expected after I hit the road, what with Covid keeping me from flying to visit him in the beginning, and then Tracy and my travel schedule being tighter than I’d anticipated, and Finn’s classes and teaching and research keeping him busy, and on and on.

I’m in his town now, though, camping near East Lansing, the home of Michigan State University and nearer to Finn than last year when we visited and I ended up sleeping in his closet. (It was not creepy like it sounds; the drive between that campsite and his apartment was far, so sleeping over was a way to increase my time with him.) Now the drive is only 30 minutes.

This year my needs are the same as last year’s. I want to spend downtime with my kid: unplanned, unstructured, no checklists of items to be exchanged, no meet-up times or deadlines to leave. But on this visit what’s been getting in the way is more than the drive.

The Needs of the Many

His graduate program is important.

The day we arrived, I saw him for two hours at this very cool farmers market/outdoor gathering/beer garden/public event thing, knowing that he’d spent hours before that in class and would spend hours afterwards working. So we tried to tell each other everything we could think of in that little window of time.

Then he was off to grade lab reports; this happens to be his busiest semester so far, when he finishes all his coursework. But, during the short time we were exchanging stories, Finn was sharing with me one of his favorite places in his new town, so he was sharing his new life with me.

(It’s a cool place, too! If you’re ever in Lansing, I recommend Horrock’s. This is a food truck there.)

Family is important.

Finn’s dad, Paul, drove up from West Virginia so we could all be together the first weekend I’m here. At first I thought that would interfere with my time with Finn, like I would be Dorothy watching the sand pour down the hourglass, unable to capture that vibe Finn and I have when it’s just the two us.

Turns out, we hadn’t been together as a family since Finn’s college graduation two years ago, and I’d forgotten that he and his dad have their unique dynamic, as well. When Paul arrived, we hung out in the tent in the newly chilly weather here in Michigan, exchanging items from our lists and catching up in general, remembering what family is like in real-time.

Finn’s new life is important.

My mom knew this truth about my life. When she used to visit me at college, she would take me out to dinner each time, and she’d tell me to invite a handful of friends so she could see me in my element. A treat for everyone. We all got a free meal, and my mom got to see what kind of person I was becoming in my new life surrounded by my friends.

This weekend I followed my mom’s lead, with a Covid twist: Paul and Tracy and I picked up takeout for ten people and fed Finn’s friends in his backyard (at least the friends who weren’t traveling as part of their research, and several were).

Look at the future, right here. These smiles are the future of nuclear physics, of the results of studying rare isotope beams, of computational physics, of studying nutrinoes. Their research will contribute to the good of the many, that I understand in general terms. And, specifically, that these funny, charming, smart kids are a big part of my kid’s life now: this also is who he is.

Any kind of time with him is important.

On Paul’s last night in town, we went out to an odd dinner: the only restaurant I could find that already had its heaters on its covered patio (Finn somehow hit the one rain downpour between the parking lot and the patio). Because of our timing, no one was hungry except for Finn, and because of the meat-heavy menu, he was the only one to get a dish that was more decorative than filling (I did give him half of mine). The wait staff kept forgetting us outside. The prices were shockingly high (for someone who eats at microbrewery tap rooms pretty much all the time).

But look at us side by side again. Bedraggled but happy, talking about a Michelle Yeoh movie Finn recommends and debating the worst villain in Star Trek (Dukat or Vedek Winn?). It’s not downtime and it’s not just the two of us, but we’re happy.

Meeting All the Needs

When I first thought of this theme, I did a quick online search of how people interpret this ”Needs of the many” quote, and I found quite a lot of debate. I scrolled through religious viewpoints (I picked a Jewish community website to read more closely) and formal ethics (an article on Objectivism—you know, Ayn Rand, if you can call that ”formal” or ”ethics”) and science (an editorial from the National Center for Biotechnology Information). They all had a lot to say, and no one said the same thing.

I did note from the Jewish site this comment, ”Something is wrong when we start calculating based on the lesser loss rather than on what is right.”

Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing: focusing on how I get only small bits of time with my child and that I have to share him during that time.

Maybe, instead, parenting is where science and religion and philosophy meet, where paradoxes are the norm. For instance, I watch my kid grow away from me, but I also watch as he becomes part of the world. I see him for only glimpses, but they show me his whole new life.

I have a week left here in Michigan, and Finn has to be in class or teaching or grading lap reports or keeping up with research almost the entire time. When I do end up stealing time with him, I’ll remember I’m also getting to know him in his new life, his life of the many.

9 thoughts to “When the Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”

  1. Great post – a discussion I’ve been having in my head a lot of late, and I think we talked a bit about it when we last saw you. I miss the time with my boys when I knew everything of who they were and what they did. But that will never be again, and now they have wonderful partners with whom to evolve their future together. I try to capture the feeling of when they were small, and it can’t happen, because all I get are those snippets, and they are usually shared. So I tell myself I’ve done my job – they are productive and happy and good partners, and they make me proud. And I instead look to my life with Dave for fulfillment. And I treasure each moment with my boys when I get it. BTW I love that memory of what your mom did when she’d visit you at school, and how you carry it on. After all, what our kids are is a continuation of us, as we are of our parents.

    1. Renee, you said all the things I meant to say but missed! We must’ve talked about this in person. It’s odd how much I miss my mom now more than ever and how my kid is growing away more than ever. Poor Dave and Tracy, taking the brunt of our emotions!

  2. I’m still in the ‘keep everything private and away from parents’ phase of teenhood and while I’m NOT looking forward to her moving out and away I’m hoping it will also mean her opening up her life again like Finn. Someone commented online how much they would give to spend another day with their child as a baby or at 2 or 3 and while part of me agrees, part of me thinks it would be too painful, that once you’ve passed through those ages and know the separations to come that knowing the closeness was going to end again would be too too hard. I dunno. I both look forward to Hazel growing up and dread it! At least now I still have her around, even if she’s up in her room with the door closed most of the time!

    1. I hate that idea of being asked if you would have a day with your kid at a certain age, because I agree: too painful. Finn never went through the silent stage as a teen, so college was the first time I wasn’t a part if his life basically most of the day. Yes, enjoy the time you have with her at least in the same house!

  3. So happy you made it to Michigan and are able to spend time with Finn. Your post brought tears to my eyes. Enjoy (I know you will) every moment!

    1. That’s quite a compliment, because I know you’ve been there and done that, Patti. I’m glad we connected!