THE GREATEST OBLIGATION

Zuckerberg’s carefully orchestrated gift expresses a wish shared by parents the world over

Prepare for an onslaught of snark about Mark Zuckerberg using the occasion of his daughter’s birth to announce a $45 billion philanthropic gift. And then please feel free to ignore every last bit of it.

Yes, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have just one-upped anyone who has ever used social media. They turned the birth of their child into a Facebook event (although these days, who hasn’t?) and wrote her a way-too-long letter that buried the lead and probably made a lot of other moms and dads feel inadequate in comparison, however temporarily.

But behind this seemingly unholy mix of prosperity, parenthood, and public relations is this basic fact: For many of us, parenthood really can bring on the sudden desire to help make the world a better place.

This hopefulness and sense of responsibility for the generations that come after us isn’t just sappy idealism—at least that’s not how I’ve experienced it. Implicit in the idea is an acknowledgment that the world, as it is, is not what we want it to be; that it has inequities that need to be addressed, diseases that need to be cured, potential that hasn’t been met.

Admittedly, I spent little of my first weeks of motherhood plotting solutions to any of these problems. The precious time available between feedings and diaper changes made me feel, most days, that just getting a load of laundry done or finding time for a shower was accomplishment enough.

But I distinctly remember looking into my baby’s eyes and wondering what I could do to ensure that the world she grew up in was a place that deserved such preciousness. In an instant, my daughter had given me a world of joy; I wanted to make sure she would receive the same in return. This longing is not a mawkish hope reserved for parents of certain means, or of a certain age, or of certain political stripes; it is something that parents generally have always wanted for their children.

Although my daughter has long outgrown her Pampers and onesies, I still feel the weight of that responsibility, if with less constancy than I would have hoped. Usually it’s tied to celebrations of new milestones (her first steps, her first day of school) or, conversely, to times of deep tragedy (the recent terror attacks on Paris, for example).

These moments remind me that there are obligations I carry that go far beyond the daily grind of making lunches and enforcing bedtimes and getting to the school bus on time.

I am thrilled to see Zuckerberg and Chan join the ranks of parents willing and eager to confront this deeper set of responsibilities, and not only because of the financial resources at their disposal. Indeed, I relish seeing mothers and fathers of any means thinking about the kind of world their children will inherit, in no small part because that is the world my daughter will inherit; I appreciate knowing that making it better is not a responsibility I bear alone.

Sometime down the road we can look back and determine whether this was the day Zuckerberg and Chan chose the wrong causes, ruined social media for the rest of us, and condemned their daughter to a lifetime of moments perfectly orchestrated for maximum publicity. We can debate the right structures for charitable giving, discuss whether income distribution is work better left to the state than to private citizens, and decide whether the world is really ready for the guilelessness of millennial billionaires.

But for now I will just say thank you, Mark and Priscilla, for showing an extraordinary commitment to the next generation. As a fellow parent, it means a great deal to me. I might not have $45 billion to return the favor, but I hope that in not haranguing you today for your generosity, I have perhaps helped make the world a slightly more civilized place for both of our daughters, and we can just call it even.

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