He died a devoted family man, with his wife and children at his bedside. But Steve Jobs didn’t come into the world as the object of his parents’ devotion. His birth was complicated and all too human in its details, and yet his story upends the notion that “unwanted” children are doomed from the start.
Jobs’ death saddened many of his admirers, who developed a firsthand appreciation for his commitment to excellence and viewed Apple’s explosive success as a bright spot amid unrelenting economic gloom. But I’ve always been more intrigued with the backstory of his closely guarded personal life, and thus welcomed Walter Isaacson’s newly released biography, Steve Jobs.
Isaacson does not disappoint. Not only will techies learn lessons about business leadership and innovation, this portrait provides rich insights into Jobs’ struggle to overcome the painful sense of abandonment that contributed to his trademark non-conformism.
From his childhood, Jobs suffered from the emotional wounds inflicted by his unmarried biological parents, who put him up for adoption. Like many such children, he was “unwanted.”
Jobs’ personal history testifies to children’s need for family stability — even for an individualist like Jobs. However, the reader also learns that, contrary to the gloomy predictions of abortion-rights supporters, “unwanted” children consistently defy set expectations about their ability to succeed and find happiness, and the love of adoptive parents can make all the difference.
Decades later, Jobs would express gratitude that his mother didn’t abort him. And his own experience confirms that an unwanted child can ultimately reverse the pattern of male irresponsibility bequeathed to him by his biological father.
Isaacson traces Jobs’ effort to find his biological mother, a Midwestern graduate student raised in a Catholic family. “I wanted to meet my biological mother mostly to see if she was okay and to thank her, because I’m glad I didn’t end up as an abortion. She was 23 and went through a lot to have me,” Jobs told his biographer.
The founder of Apple had already made his mark when he located his mother, Joanne Simpson. The two had an emotional meeting, and Simpson tearfully apologized for putting him up for adoption. He learned that in 1955, at the time of his birth, she and his biological father had delayed marriage because of the objections of their extended families.
Subsequently, the couple did marry and had a daughter, the novelist Mona Simpson. But by then, Jobs’ adoption had been finalized. His biological father soon abandoned the family.
As a youngster, Jobs struggled to resolve his feelings of abandonment.
In one childhood experience described in the book, Jobs tells a close friend that he is adopted. She responds that his parents must not have “wanted” him. He rushes home to seek the reassurance of his adoptive parents, Clara and Paul Jobs, who insist that they chose him specifically and that he is very “special.”
In truth, Jobs was “smarter” than his parents, who maintained a modest home for him and a daughter, also adopted. The family attended a Lutheran church, but Jobs, ever the skeptic, questioned how an omnipotent God allowed for suffering in the world and rejected Christianity.
His specialness was noted during elementary school, when teachers, impressed with his superior intelligence, suggested he skip several grades.
Paul Jobs cut his son a lot of slack, allowing Steve to ignore parental orders and requirements. Steve chose an expensive private college, despite the family’s limited finances. But after a semester at Reed College, he realized it was too expensive for his parents and dropped out.
As Isaacson tells it, the competing experiences of abandonment and specialness produced a complex personal identity. He was a non-conformist in the business world, which worked to his advantage. But he could also be cruel and destructive.
Like many children who have been abandoned, Jobs would repeat the pattern as an adult.
When he learned that a live-in girlfriend was pregnant, he questioned whether he was the father. And despite a sense of gratitude that his own life had been spared in the womb, he considers an abortion as a solution to the pregnancy.
Once his daughter, Lisa, was born, he initially refused to acknowledge her as his own, but finally agreed to a paternity test and then began to pay child support.
Decades later, Lisa’s mother told Isaacson that “being put up for adoption left Jobs full of broken glass.”
A friend and co-worker at Apple made a similar observation: “The key question about Steve is why he can’t control himself at times from being so reflexively cruel and harmful to some people.
“That goes back to being abandoned at birth. The real underlying problem was the theme of abandonment in Steve’s life.”
Jobs disputed this diagnosis of his behavior, and he would later marry and have three more children. He and his wife celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary before his death. He came to regret his treatment of Lisa, and during her teenage years, she moved into her father’s household. However, the relationship remained tempestuous, though they patched up their differences before his death.
Jobs didn’t meet his biological sister, Mona Simpson, until both were adults, but the two immediately became close. After his death, Simpson offered a eulogy that reflected on the emotional scars inflicted by their biological father and the healing power of her brother’s love.
“Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man, and he was my brother,” said Simpson.
Steve Jobs learned to become a committed husband and father, inspired, no doubt, by the generous example of his adoptive father. But his story also reveals that an “unwanted” child can choose to end a generational pattern of abandonment. Had he lived longer, perhaps he would have come to understand that abortion is always wrong and not just a personal decision.
Certainly, Jobs proved himself capable of raising a relatively normal and close family as a billionaire. There’s a wonderful scene in the biography when Bill Gates comes to pay his respects to his old nemesis.
While Gates lives in a house that rivals the square footage of Versailles, Jobs consciously chose to reside in a comparatively modest residence that functioned without live-in staff or a security detail. The Jobs family gathered every night at the kitchen table for dinner. When Gates checks out Jobs’ home, he asks in wonderment, “Do you all live here?”
In the course of human history, “unwanted” children have jostled for their place alongside those who were part of their doting parents’ long-term plan.
As Catholics, we believe that children should be brought into the world through a loving one-flesh union of husband and wife, both committed to vows of faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness. And social-science research confirms that children born to single mothers face multiple hurdles that may derail their success and happiness in adulthood.
As responsible adults, we’re duty-bound to make careful preparations for our future progeny. But hubris also can lead us to make ironclad predictions regarding the future of the “unplanned” children in our midst — as if our earthly visions override God’s providence.
Jobs’ biological mother sought to secure his future well-being by insisting that a college-educated couple adopt her son. Instead, two high-school dropouts provided a loving and secure home — and a garage where Jobs watched his father fix things and make them work. Meanwhile, the well-credentialed biological father left his children in the lurch.
A generation later, after an extended struggle with terminal cancer, Jobs fought to stay alive to witness the high-school graduation of his beloved son, Reed.
In the third installment of Toy Story, a Pixar film project that drew Jobs’ intense involvement, the character of Andy heads off to college and bids farewell to his own parents, prompting his mother to say, “I wish I could always be with you.”
“You always will be,” Andy reassures both parents, surely expressing Jobs’ dying wish.
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.