Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

In Defense of Having Children

....Disclosure! I will begin by stating that, at the age 31, I currently have no children. Which, in and of itself, will be a driver for many parents to click the "BACK" button on their browsers while muttering that I have nothing resembling a fucking clue about this topic. Click away, self-righteous parents! No doubt you have a poop-flinging banshee destroying your living room at this very moment. Go handle your business. No hard feelings.

Despite not having children, I think about them. A lot. In recent years, the full teeming strength of my biology has been consumed with a single, driving goal: to produce babies. And now that I've met the man with whom I will gladly (but not immediately! Don't freak out, babe!) have said babies, the topic has become even more germane.

Unfortunately, thanks to an entire body of pop-literature, magazine articles, and semi-accurate science, I am also aware that having children will not make me particularly happy. Or, more specifically, it may very well leech every iota of joy from my existence. (But I'll never regret it! Never! No regrets! Wouldn't trade it for the WORLD!)

Yes, according to myriad sources, having children is the quickest path down the proverbial Slip N' Slide into abject misery. No sleep! No freedom! The complete loss of a halcyon lifestyle that we ("we" in this case meaning predominantly "white middle-to-upper-middle-class professionals with college degrees and subscriptions to New York magazine") enjoy with vigor. Gone are the boozy weekend brunches and "Mad Men" marathons and bi-weekly pilgrimages to Bruni Sifton-ranked restaurants. Banished are the freedoms and comforts and indulgences of modern life.

And the expense! Let's not forget the expense! It will cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to raise just one offspring — money that may (gasp) be incentivizing us not to procreate, money that could have been spent on innumerable bounty, like unnecessary Apple products or Brooklyn Heights co-ops or yacht upgrades. Or simply not earned at all, as we enjoy the budding "free time is the new wealth" economy embraced by our generation. Between, ineffective tax breaks for parents and rising inflation, potential breeders are all in danger of seeing their finances slashed and burned by the gestation of a fetus.

Get pregnant, and suddenly so many funds must be procured! Careers and spending habits may be questioned! Mate-gaming may be necessary! All sorts of problems arise that can only be solved by 1) relocating to a developing country, 2) marrying rich or 3) dropping the idea that a child must be a manifestation of upper-middle class angst.

There's also the enviro-guilt of reproduction. What a carbon footprint it will have! What a tax on our already-gasping planet! You could commute to Taiwan on a weekly basis for the rest of your career, and your carbon output still wouldn't approach the environmental assault of plunking another human being down on the earth.

And of course there's the myopic drudgery of caring for said human being, who at the outset cannot see to its most basic needs. Feeding, wiping, washing and burping will replace the serenity of guzzling Starbucks and reading the Arts & Leisure section. Yes, we can all pretty much agree that no one has ever really liked caring for babies-and now in the age of post-gender co-parenting (right?), we can all recognize just how much it blows to spend your hours changing diapers when you could be reading blogs and imbibing organic cocktails.

Plus there's the ballooning need for validation. So much validation sought in parenthood! That desperate desire to hear that you're "doing it right." Therein lies the true misery-that all of this sleep deprivation and poop-scooping and Disney-watching will be "for nothing" if we mess up (which we inevitably do, and then heap on truckloads of guilt that we could have "done it all differently"). Parents could save themselves some serious grief by not thinking of children as outlets for personal outcome-if I do X, Y will happen-and accepting that when it comes to the survival and development of human beings, whether or not you're fully satisfied with your child's SAT scores is a bit irrelevant.

Plus there's the risk that parenting will run up a misery tab later in life. There's the inevitably assholery of the child's teenage years, and then, as anyone who's ever read a Philip Roth novel can attest, there's the not-insubstantial chance that your child might grow up to be an irredeemable jerk.

Yes, there are myriad reasons not to progenerate. And yet billions of us keep on doing it. And those of us reading and writing articles like this are, more often than not, doing it willingly. Why? The mere biological imperative isn't enough to explain it.

One reason to have children is that there isn't necessarily a reason. That producing and caring for a child is outside the parameters of the "reasonable," consequence-driven, cause-and-effect logic in which we live the rest of life. There's not really an "end" to becoming a parent-in fact, one key mistake people make is expecting parenthood to solve all the questions of purpose and identity that plague the Westernized post-individualism mind.

Like it or not, children won't answer any existential "Who am I? Why am I here?" questions. You may find temporary purpose in the day-to-day of wiping tushes and dishing out peas-but not meaning. Nor will your kids fill the hole of inadequacies leftover from your own childhood-didn't get into Harvard when you applied? Perhaps your children will! Better order $700 of Baby Einstein products, stat.

Still, even beyond the suspension of reason, there lies a deeper truth: Somewhere in the froth of neuroses and judgments and doctrines about modern middle class parenting (and parenting in general), there is a transcendent peace, a unique opportunity to engage in humanity as a whole.

We don't remember our own babyhood. Somewhere in the congealed mass of stories and half-truths that make up the human memory, we forget our transformation from squalling infants to the semi-mature beings we are now. We know this metamorphosis happened-largely, we no longer pee into diapers or shove olive pits up our noses. But the minutiae of the change are lost to us forever.

Parenting doesn't just re-immerse you in this transformation: It gives you a front row seat to the daily revelations of forming and shaping a life. Yesterday, this tiny being had no concept of trees; today, she's speaking the word and grabbing leaves. This morning, a two-year-old realized that other children are not simply a manifestation of his own id and superego, but separate individuals with their own needs. It's the entire human experience boiled into its essential elements-there is no fear or angst or worry in babyhood, no status-envy, no sense of not being loved, no nagging inner monologue constantly informing you of your inferiority to everyone else. There is only possibility, a blank canvas of soul and insight and the full spectrum of chaotic and sacred emotions that make up the human experience. All there for your personal marveling.

Not compelling enough for you? Well, there's not much more to offer. Having a child isn't a panacea, or a means to an end, or even an end itself-it's more a gateway to fuller participation in humanity. Our lives are terminal; human life is not. Children are what they are, and nothing more. There's no overarching moral imperative or greater spiritual truth to it (sorry, Ross Douthat).

You'll always risk the chance that your baby will grow up to be an asshole, or that your spouse will leave you after seeing your stretch marks, or that you'll go broke on SAT tutors and squash lessons. Maybe those things weren't going to provide you with happiness/meaning/purpose anyway. Simply play a bigger game-enjoy your participation in the continuation of the species. What these baby-struck parents are really gazing at in wonderment is the capacity of the human race to grow and evolve-all playing out right there in their living rooms.

It's just about the only thing that gives us hope that adults can grow and evolve the same way. After all, we're really just big children.

Melissa Lafsky usually writes about horror movies here.
Photo from Flickr by Gabi Menashe.

65 Comments / Post A Comment

skybarn (#304)

This is great. I read it while my twins were napping, upstairs peacefully, fuck what the fuck are they up already I'm going to fucking kill myself if I don't get a mintute. Okay, back asleep.

For what it's worth …

When my daughter was born, and the months following, were the happiest days of my life. I was actually surprised how incredibly happy I was.

I was high on the new-parent drug … took me months to come down.

LOOK AT THOSE LITTLE FEET! Makes me want to have another one.

Tyler Coates (#451)

I WANT A BABY SO BAD. Mostly because I want someone who has to hang out with me until they hit puberty, at which point s/he will wise up and hate me.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

There's always the clergy for that, I suppose.

conklin (#364)

Dude, only dumb kids stay in their parents' thrall through puberty.

Blackcapricorn (#4,791)

Cue the Cusack realization moment set to "Under Pressure" in Grosse Pointe Blank.

dr.funke (#336)

Oof. But not the subsequent violent homicide by pen, please.

cherrispryte (#444)

Sorry, still anti-having babies! (Not you. You all do what you want. But me, no babies.)

Based on how much I was agreeing with the beginning/middle of your post, I was very concerned that you'd be able to convince me otherwise, though!

thanks for this. yes, it's this position that needs defending since everyone knows how miserable child bearing/rearing can be and they're still all "GO TEAM BABY." I find that most pressure to have kids comes from female friends taken by the notion of being "mommies together." there are also women who would argue that being a mother is the ultimate expression of womanhood and i don't buy that.

LondonLee (#922)

Right now I fucking hate my job and can't wait to get home to my kids.

I took my daughter to her first movie a couple of months ago and it was one of the happiest, most perfect days of my life. So get breeding!

mathnet (#27)

Also pretty much the only good reason to be a teacher.

City_Dater (#2,500)

I get all my development junkie needs satisfied by teaching my dog new tricks or visiting with someone else's baby at a particularly cute stage. And I don't have to deal with some unhelpful guy who'll leave in a year or two anyway…

Sometimes I feel like I'm not right inside because when I look at babies I don't feel "WANT."

But then I look at some kittens and I know I'm okay.

This (only I feel this way with puppies too).

deepomega (#1,720)

When I see a baby I think "that must be like a kitten that will eventually learn how to solve problems and use the internet", which is kind of the best idea ever? So I love babies too.

AlltheRage (#755)

Thank you for that.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I kind of couldn't stand babies until I had one. Or I was like hwa? about them, also horrified at the thought I'd have one shoved into my inexperienced paws at family things.

Fortunately did not have to birth any kittens or puppies in order to love those.

To all the awesome women who don't want to breed: Haven't you seen _Idiocracy_?

C_Webb (#855)

This was sweet and smart and true. Thanks.

My kids made me get over myself. I was no longer the heroine of the story. I'm a much nicer person now (mostly), and they are fairly awesome little people, if I say so myself. Besides, if people like us don't have kids, then the Duggars and their ilk will take over the world, and all girls will be forced to have Homeschool Hair. Ick.

oudemia (#177)

You better mind yourself and keep sweet, C_Webb.

C_Webb (#855)

I try. I promise. (I'm not against homeschooling, if that's what you mean; I'm against long stringy uncut hair and big barrettes perched atop pale foreheads. Is that wrong?)

oudemia (#177)

No, no! I was making fun of pioneer-lady-Christian-Quiverfull speak!

C_Webb (#855)

Thank goodness. I couldn't figure out which mine I'd stepped on!

Yes, according to myriad sources, having children is the quickest path down the proverbial Slip N' Slide into abject misery. No sleep! No freedom! The complete loss of a halcyon lifestyle that we ("we" in this case meaning predominantly "white middle-to-upper-middle-class professionals with college degrees and subscriptions to New York magazine") enjoy with vigor. Gone are the boozy weekend brunches and "Mad Men" marathons and bi-weekly pilgrimages to Bruni Sifton-ranked restaurants. Banished are the freedoms and comforts and indulgences of modern life.

This. And it's been over 5 years and I'm still not over it. But I may be cracking. The 5yo boy and I often butt heads over his feet-dragging at bath/brushteeth/bedtime. I tell him to hurry, he gets pissed and yells, I threaten no books, he starts crying and tries to kick me or spits water on the bathroom mirror or tells me he hates me, I tell him to go to bed on his own. He still wants a hug and kiss from me 5 minutes later. He forgives me before I forgive him. It gets me every time.

That said, don't have kids unless you're a masochist.

Point taken. It's a phase though. He's been edgy for the past week or so. We're pretty sure he's anxious about starting kindergarten on Monday.

Plus you can push the shopping cart through the grocery store going "vroom, vroom" and everyone thinks you're doing it to entertain your baby. So there's that.

Nobody talks about the fucking FUN of having a kid. And if you are not a totally self-obsessed jerk with a bare inkling of an imagination and a few bucks in your pocket, there is a TON of it.

HiredGoons (#603)

"one key mistake people make is expecting parenthood to solve all the questions of purpose and identity that plague the Westernized post-individualism mind."


garge (#736)

I am more compelled to hug the care bear behind the baby feet :(

scrooge (#2,697)

If you don't have at least one, you'll most likely end up a weird old person. Not that it'll necessarily prevent it if you do.

Q: Is this cause and effect, or just synchronicity?

cherrispryte (#444)

Some of us are actively looking forward to becoming weird old people. My current plan involves lots of crystals and houseplants.

I was born a weird old person.

scrooge (#2,697)

Bet you both have a kid within the next 10 years.

HiredGoons (#603)

Some of us already have lots of houseplants in our twenties!

cherrispryte (#444)

@scrooge How delightfully paternalistic of you.

sargasm (#104)

@cherri, Scrooge is just mansplaining.

JHenryWaugh (#212)

Kids also make a great excuse for not working on one's manuscript after dinner.

doubled277 (#2,783)

Really? I've been looking for a new excuse

C_Webb (#855)

Yeah, I had two to avoid writing my dissertation. The day I finallyhad more chapters than kids, my advisors bought me champagne.

roboloki (#1,724)

nicely written, but no thank you. i don't like people enough to want to grow one myself. when it's legal to crate them while i go to a movie i'll reconsider my position.

Jen Myers (#6,517)

Lovely and true. Melissa, if you figured this out before you even had a kid, you are going to be one kickass mom.

I figured it out: children make watching horror flicks fun again!

balsa_wood (#465)

"Gone are the boozy weekend brunches and "Mad Men" marathons and bi-weekly pilgrimages to Sifton-ranked restaurants."

Sentences like this do a good job reminding me of how poor I am.

(Though I do like "Mad Men.")

Leon (#6,596)

Oh noes. I was hoping this was a holdover from when Sifton was writing $25 and under!

hockeymom (#143)

Baby feet! There's nothing that tastes better than baby feet!

C_Webb (#855)

I agree completely, but do wonder what's at the heart of our near-uncontrollable desire to put babies in our mouths and nom them. It's like mooing at cows, but weirder.

Baroness (#273)

I'm just glad there's someone defending having children out there, after the recent hysterectomy craze. Perhaps Jennifer Aniston could make a rom-com about this unpopular notion.

Carina (#4,319)

"Like it or not, children won't answer any existential "Who am I? Why am I here?" questions. You may find temporary purpose in the day-to-day of wiping tushes and dishing out peas-but not meaning."

And see, grasshopper, this is how you're wrong: Yes, they will; yes, you will. Kids did that for me, and they'll probably do it for you, too. Not in a solve-everything-in-western-civ way but in a oh-now-I-get-it way. It's mind-blowing, and lovely, and glorious, and unbelievable.

It's the secret that makes you have more than one. It's the secret that keeps you happy even through the drudgery. It's the secret that makes you realize you really don't care if you ever have that halcyon life back (because it was all just silly anyway.)

I can't wait to hear your own response after you've spent 6 months in baby bliss. As for me, I'm just lucky I get to be their mom.

missdelite (#625)


I've been living at home with ma and bro for 6 long days now, and witnessing the number my parents have played on him has shriveled my womb to the size of a peanut. He's got so much potential, and yet so little incentive to do anything with it. The cute kid I grew up with is long gone and has been replaced by a bipolar Dr.Jekyll/Mr.Hyde. My only hope is that if/when he snaps, my mom won't be caught up in his fury. Yes, he's really that dangerous, she's in absolute denial about it, and the sooner I get out of here, the better.

Of course humans will continue to procreate in the face of innumerable reasons not to. We're the only species born without survival instincts and capable of rationalizing ourselves into a bigger hole than the one we came from.

But aren't babies just the cutest little things???

LondonLee (#922)

Do you trust yourself so little not to do a number on your own child? My parents separated when I was young but that didn't stop me getting married myself, if anything it's an incentive to get it right.

missdelite (#625)

That's a gamble I'm not willing to take.

melis (#1,854)

"The mere biological imperative isn't enough to explain it" – or does it explain everything perfectly?

I refuse to surrender this planet, on which my family has lived, worked, and died for centuries, to the Mormons, the West Bank Settlers, the too-cowardly-to-get-an-abortion, the too-stupid-to-use-contraception, the teeming masses yearning to be free, and the just generally religious and/or rightist. Fight back!

Now there's just the matter of convincing my wife to lend me use of her womb for this purpose. But then, that's why Darwin invented G&Ts.

cherrispryte (#444)

This is actually the most valid argument I've run across, and people have been trying to talk me out of my anti-breeding stance for a long time.

C_Webb (#855)

'ZACTLY. (See my fear of homeschool hair above.)

joeks (#5,805)

Having children doesn't need defending. We've been doing it for millions of years and it's not gonna stop anytime soon. This is like defending breathing.

Exhaling is overrated.

doubled277 (#2,783)

I only exhale. Inhaling is for chumps. And so wasteful.

Sweetie (#519)

Oh, you can still have slightly boozy brunches.

And trains! You can play with trains again without being judged!

Leon (#6,596)

This remains me of the first "dirty joke" I ever memorized:

Breasts are like toy trains. They're meant for Junior, but Dad plays with them the most.

abenedikt (#6,811)

Random, sloppy thoughts in no particular order, some of which came up when reading the above, some I've been thinking about since that New York mag story, some even before:

1. Having a kid does not mean being shackled to your apartment or sentenced to Chuck E. Cheese. True, you don't go out to nice restaurants as often as you used to, or to bars, or to see bands. But did you know that having a kid means you MUST get out of the house or else? Kids don't like being cooped up at home. So you DO THINGS. My weekends are far more active now than they used to be, and it's not because we are on some hamster wheel of birthday parties and playdates. We do fun things! With friends! And we see parts of the city I otherwise probably wouldn't have gotten my lazy childless ass up off the couch to see. Governor's Island! Also, doing things with your kid often makes old experiences new again. Like every day stuff, that once was fun to you but now is routine becomes fun again, because you get to experience it with (a) someone new, and (b) someone new who gets really really excited, reminding you that the beach/park/swimming pool/baseball game/ice cream truck/Air and Space Museum/GROCERY STORE is actually pretty neat. You may not be rushing off to do all sorts of cosmopolitan shit, but I am telling you that the mundane becomes less so with a wide-eyed toddler.

2. Why do all these articles and blog posts say that parents shouldn't expect their kids to make them happy? It's OK for your kids to fulfill you! Why that would ever be a bad thing is beyond me. No, having kids isn't going to fix you, but it certainly does SOMETHING to you, and in my experience that something is pretty profound. Brief digression, which I promise is not just me over-sharing but also has a point: I was pretty unhappy in my early-20s in New York. Depressed and mainly fucking hungry cause I wouldn't let myself eat. Then I met my current husband. And slowly slowly I started to be less unhappy, and then actually happy. I ate a piece of pizza for the first time in six years, etc. Things were getting better in my life. And I very clearly remember saying to my therapist one day: "So all these years of therapy and then I meet a guy and all of a sudden I'm happy and eating? Am I really that shallow???" And back at me came this look of total surprise, as though he was shocked that there was this very basic thing about life that I didn't know. And he said in the most matter-of-fact manner possible: "That's not shallow. That's love." Roll your eyes all you want but really he was right. I mean, people come into our lives and make a difference. My then-boyfriend/now-husband didn't fix me like I was some kind of leaky faucet, but the experience of being with him, and of him being with me, made me happy. Thank god! That's a great thing about life! And same goes for having a kid. No, a child isn't going to save a broken marriage or cure your disease, but that kid is going to make a difference. Being a mother to my son has made me a far less self-absorbed (current blog comment notwithstanding), far more confident human being. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a very good thing.

3. I've only been married for seven years, and my kid is just a toddler – we've got another one on the way – so I can't speak from experience about what having kids does to a marriage over the long haul. But I do know that marriages survive and fail for a bazillion, often-unidentifiable reasons. Whatever New York mag and all those Scandinavian surveys say, I don't care. You can't isolate out kids and say: THERE! THAT'S WHAT'S MAKING OUR MARRIAGE SO SHITTY. My parents are not the model, but they are my model, and from observing their 40-plus year marriage I know a few things: It's going to get rocky, perhaps for long long periods of time, but that doesn't mean my marriage is bad. (My parents actually got separated for a year when I was young. And then got back together and are currently living happily ever after, no joke. Which taught me that you can go through some really crap times but that doesn't necessarily mean divorce.) Kids are going to change the relationship, but so would 18 years of childlessness, don't you think? I mean, even the best partners get sick of each other, run out of things to talk about, get headaches at bedtime. Kids might exacerbate some of those things, but they are also a fairly productive and worthwhile distraction along the way, and they are a constantly evolving thing that you and your partner share. And then they turn 18 and hopefully go off on their own and guess what? All those terribly important things you had to give up to have kids? You can have them back! And now you really appreciate them cause they've been missing for so long. Sometimes I resent my mother when I call to talk about myself and she instead starts talking about HER life, frothing at the mouth excited to tell me about her weekend of movies and lectures and museums and interesting dinner partners. But then I think: Awesome. At 60something, she is having a lot of fun! And a lot of fun with my dad. There's time for everything. Fun before kids, fun with kids, fun after kids, marriage in all different forms, there's time.

4. None of this can properly be articulated. Not by me. Not by all the smart authors who have written so much on the topic. Not by sociologists and not by data. Definitely not by Jennifer Senior. It's just not something you can put into words. (Same goes, I would imagine, for why not to have kids. Despite all the comments here and elsewhere from the no-kids-no-way crowd, people who choose not to have kids aren't just doing so because they don't want to miss out on restaurant openings or because they don't find other people's babies cute.)

Horror Chick (#1,677)

Thank you for this. Truly insightful, excellent points.

Mark C (#6,862)

i was going to write my own response but i really couldn't top this one. all the bullshit you miss out on because of all the hard work your kids are, is just that. it's all stages and if you give up stuff to have kids, you will not regret it. but if you don't want kids, then don't have them. oh, and live near one set of grandparents if at all possible (if you still want to get to the occasional restaurant opening…)

Cavale Fnord (#6,817)

i just want to save this comment forever and refer back to it.

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