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.