Yesterday on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, author Jessica Valenti discussed her new book Why Have Kids?. I haven’t read the book, which sounds like a good one (that’s the level to which I’ve sunk as a book critic). But the conversation got me thinking about my own life.
The question isn’t whether having kids is good or bad. Obviously it depends on the prospective parents. And it isn’t an automatic route to satisfaction, particularly for mothers, who are more involved in the early phase of child-rearing – pregnancy, birthing, nursing. Dads can change diapers, but it isn’t the same.
“You can love your child but not love your life, necessarily, post-kids,” as Lehrer put it. Valenti is right that would-be parents are beginning to look differently at the decision; it’s not so much an automatic yes. And it depends on your stage in life, too. “You go through a natural progression” toward being child-ready, as one caller put it. And lots of people make the right decision, for them, to be childless.
But enough about them. The show, to its credit, invited some self-reflection about my own choices.
At first, I didn’t want children. I thought my work was more important. Fortunately my wife knew I was wrong about myself, and she helped me to change my mind. It helped to sit alone in a playground and watch kids, and try to imagine myself as a parent. This is not an intellectual decision. It’s about knowing yourself and your spouse.
So we had one child and then another and never looked back for a second. Even after we divorced and the kids split their time between two households – an awkward and painful arrangement that improved over time as the intervals got longer – we never had second thoughts. So it amuses me just a bit to think that I ever had doubts about children. In the end, even with a few caveats, it was a no-brainer.
When I started dating, a while after my divorce, I noticed something interesting. The single women who didn’t have kids were wonderful people, but there was a disconnect. I felt a much stronger bond with divorced mothers. In fact, though it may just have been a matter of perspective, they seemed a lot more grown-up. Having children is a maturing experience like no other: a unique dimension of personal growth. It doesn’t make all parents more grown-up than other people; it certainly doesn’t make them better human beings. But it grows them in ways others do not.
The caveats about having kids are few but pretty universal. The main one is that you have to endure knock-knock jokes for a year or so per child. That’s the only real downside of parenting if your kids are healthy and cared for. Most people have it in them to be good parents. And with enough love and common sense, you can manage it even without having the knack. I know a lot of people who were decent parents without being cut out for it. And kids often survive our egregious mistakes. (The biggest one these days is over-parenting. Many moms and dads just don’t know when to back off – or they know but can’t bring themselves to do it.)
Then there’s the other downside of parenting: the shock of realizing that your kids have grown up, and far from being liberated from parenthood, you discover that the problems of adult kids – normal adult kids, if I may use that unfortunate term – are much knottier than the relatively easy ones (for me at least) of young children, such as how to enjoy school when you don’t like your teacher, and whom to invite to your birthday party.
For the first six or seven years, they don’t even care how you dress them. And the questions little kids ask are mostly softballs: do bees brush their teeth? Do baseball players have tushes, and why do they play in pajamas? Why is this city called Sandy Ego? Do I have to be gay when I grow up? That sort of thing. The questions get a bit tougher once they’ve had a little college under their belts.
Finally, with adult kids there’s the annoyance of having to continually forward their mail. I’m tired of getting all their bank statements, credit card bills, etc. But overall, I’m lucky. Mail or no mail, my kids were and are the joys of my life. I know it isn’t that way for everyone. I thank my kids for that. And if they’re reading this, I repeat: please re-route that mail. You no longer live with me.
I have no sage advice for prospective parents, except for one urgent suggestion. With due deference to Ms. Valenti, whose book is probably a fine one – discard all books about parenting, the big famous ones, the little trendy ones, and everything in between. Read War and Peace instead. Get all outside ideas about having or raising or wanting or not wanting children out of your head and out of your house, and go with your instincts. Whether you have kids or not, it will make the whole exercise less neurotic. Less like a final exam and more like life itself. Your kids won’t suffer and neither will you.