I had just finished playing the postlude for my church’s morning service when Katie approached me and stared at the piano. I am not sure how old Katie is. She is somewhere between talking and the first grade. I hope that helps.
Trying to be as helpful as possible, I sat her up on the bench and told her the piano was ready. I played a few notes to demonstrate.
She did not play.
I played some more. I told her she could play. I took her hands and placed them on the keys. I tried to be as kind and polite as I could. She stared back at me. We sat there looking at each other.
Finally Katie said something in a voice so soft I could not understand. I leaned down so my right ear was a few inches from her mouth and I heard:
“I want you to go away.”
Of course. I apologized and left as quickly as I could.
This was not an unusual interaction for me. If I’m honest, I wanted to leave too. Communicating with children is difficult for me. Every word I say to them feels patronizing, especially when I resort to telling them something they obviously cannot understand, but which is meant to be overheard by some nearby adult. The undeveloped comprehension most people find endearing in children is foreign and uncomfortable to me. I do not dislike children, but I have never felt drawn to them enough to want a child of my own.
As a married twenty-nine-year-old with a stable income, a desire for kids would be useful. My Facebook feed is a veritable waterfall of babies. I love my friends and I love their kids, but I do not want the lives they have chosen. As I inch towards thirty and these feelings leave me in an ever-shrinking minority, I ask myself the same three-word question almost every day: “Why have kids?”
We will start with the minority position. Though by almost every measure Americans have chosen to have fewer and fewer babies in the last thirty years, most women in the United States will have a child during their lifetime. The U.S. government pays $107 billion each year to subsidize the cost of children. According to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of women and 91 percent of men say being a good parent is an important to them, more than say the same about having a successful marriage or career. The percentage is smaller, 52 percent, among my fellow members of the Millennial generation, but still a majority. Parenting is, as always, pretty popular in America.
This is curious to me because from where I sit, parenting does not look like a good time. One may expect that if parenting is so popular, children must make us happy. On average, they don’t. Nattavudh Powdthavee, an economics researcher at the University of York in the UK, cites studies that have found parents experience “statistically significantly lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being compared with non-parents.” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has come to similar conclusions. Florida State University sociologist Robin Simon is well-known for her research finding that parents have “lower levels of emotional well-being” than non-parents. Simon’s studies even found that some of the negative effects of children do not grow up and leave home like children do, but stay even after the kids have moved out. The data is clear: if you want to increase your chances of a contented life, free from depression, anxiety, and negativity, then get married — but don’t have kids.
For Westerners, many of these negative effects are related to dramatic changes in how children are raised in our society. “It takes a village” is a ridiculous adage in a world of helicopter parents, preschool lotteries, and tiger moms. Western, upper-middle class parenting has become characteristically American in its rugged individualism. Anyone but mom and dad taking an active, consequential role in raising a child is a foreign idea to American communities. The social networks and structures that once supported parents in the most demanding job on earth have eroded, while expectations for the amount of active nurturing children require have risen. This may explain why psychologists Jean Twenge, Keith Campbell, and Craig Foster have found that not only do couples with children have lower marital satisfaction than childless couples, this effect has become stronger in recent years. To an outsider looking in, parenting appears terribly lonely: an 18 year, round-the-clock burden which one or two hapless people take on with little help or support.
This is certainly what I saw in my own upbringing. My mom and dad were not helicopter parents by any means, but it became apparent to me while I was growing up that their lives were defined by me and my two sisters. My parents had a strong disbelief in child care. We had no nearby relative who would regularly babysit us so Mom and Dad could get away. Most of our activities were limited to the five of us. My mom, God bless her, spent her days shuttling us around, cooking and cleaning, helping with homework, doing all the traditional, saintly duties of a stay-at-home mom. She had little time for hobbies or personal pursuits. Parenting wasn’t full-time for her and Dad; it was all the time.
I love my parents to death for this, and I am humbled by them because I do not want it. I do not want to sacrifice all the things my parents did: the late-night dates, the precious time for relationships and hobbies, the freedom to explore. I am in awe at the bar of love and sacrifice my parents set in raising me, and I do not feel I can reach it.
More importantly, there is the trouble of being twenty-nine and not knowing precisely where my career is headed. Today the average employee stays in a job for 4.4 years. Changing jobs, or even brief periods of unemployment, are exponentially harder when you have children to care for. The responsibility of parenthood seems awfully limiting to a noncommittal Millennial like me.
Not only is it limiting, it is frighteningly huge. I have been fortunate to attain enough economic stability that providing for a child’s physical needs would not be overwhelming. Emotional needs are what scare me. My parents didn’t just sacrifice, they fostered loving relationships with me. They taught, disciplined, motivated, and shepherded me with great care and kindness. I have found relationships like these to be sadly rare among my friends and their parents. Such relationships are rare because they are difficult. The sheer audacity of choosing to bring another person into this confusing, pain-filled world and then serve as a sort of guide to it confounds me. How could anyone ever feel up to the job?
There is evidence that this job may not be as significant as I imagine. In her controversial 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption, psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris argues our peers have a more profound impact on our development than our parents do. As journalist Carol Tavris explains in her review of the text, Harris’ studies show no particular parenting method or environment has a measurable effect on children’s personalities, and many children who are parented similarly wind up with completely different character traits. Additionally, adopted children seem to have nothing in common with their adoptive parents, which runs counter to the notion of parents’ extraordinary influence. Certainly abuse and neglect are proven to have horrible impacts on children, but there is evidence to suggest that we overestimate parents’ importance beyond a basic level of care. These possibilities can be horrifying for parents who believe deeply in the consequence of their parenting — but for someone who is anxious about becoming a father or mother, they are a powerful relief.
All this focus on myself may sound, and sometimes does feel selfish. But is it? Selfishness requires another person be slighted. It is not selfish to look out for one’s own interests, it is selfish to put oneself above the interests of others, and in the case of prospective children there is no being in existence to put one’s interests above. How can you be selfish towards a nonexistent person?
One answer may be that it is not necessarily selfish towards anyone to put one’s desire for freedom above the possibility of children, but if you happen to be a particularly selfish person, someone who often puts their own needs and desires first, you might be disinclined to have kids. But if so, this is justification for avoiding children, not for having them. If I am too concerned for myself to give large portions of my life to a child, no compassionate person would encourage me to do it anyway.
Some compassionate people even declare that no one should have children, because they believe parenting is unethical. Scholars often argue that never-ending human population growth will one day destroy the earth, kill all its species and devour all its resources (a controversial article to this effect recently appeared in The New Yorker). These Malthusian pessimists argue it is morally wrong to bring another child into the world to further its demise. Luckily, this just isn’t true. Demographer Phillip Longman points out that as countries industrialize, their inhabitants live longer and have fewer babies. As the world industrializes, we will indeed have an overpopulation problem, because people will live longer than ever before. But we will also have a baby problem, because there will not be enough children being born to support our aging world. Beloved Swedish statistician Hans Rosling has made similar arguments, projecting that given advances in medical care and child survival, the world population will level out at about 10 billion in 2100. He states, “The number of children is not growing any longer in the world. We are still debating peak oil, but we have definitely reached peak child.”
All these facts and ideas bring the question into focus: why have kids at all? I have been asking parents this question for months.
Most parents I meet desired children long before marriage or cohabitation; for many people kids are a desire that starts in adolescence. Often the subject is raised and agreed upon during dating, and the option of remaining childless never comes up because neither person is interested. The reasons for having children vary, but there are common threads. Parents desire to be a part of something greater than themselves. They feel they have love stored up whose only proper subject is a child. They have fond memories of their own families and want to create a family with kids of their own, together. If instead the memories they have of their own families are broken and painful, they hope having children will be a healing process. Despite the statistics, many parents simply love parenting. They love their kids deeply, and want more.
These explanations are persuasive, but the parents whose answers had the most impact on me claimed that love is about sacrifice, and there is nothing that forces a person to sacrifice more than loving a child. These parents explain that the sacrifice of having children makes you a better person: more loving, more kind, more generous, more charitable, more merciful. After watching many of my friends become parents, I am convinced this is true. Self-sacrifice is the undeniable centerpiece of nearly all the world’s religions, and a mainstay of spiritual guides for generations as the path to peace, enlightenment, and redemption. I know how deeply self-denial can remake a person. My first year of marriage was the most educational time of my life in learning just how selfish I really am, and just how much sacrifice love requires. Marriage was the deepest and most permanent perspective shift of my life, and I have no doubt that were I to become a father, the world would not look the same afterward. Having a child would be the greatest denial of my own ambitions and desires I will probably ever undertake, and that may be precisely the point.
There is also the question of regret. A 1976 Newsday survey found that 91 percent of parents did not regret having children, while a 2003 Gallup poll found 76 percent of people over 40 who have never had children wish they had them. In 2010 writer Jennifer Senior ended her controversial New York Magazine piece on parenting with a poignant discussion of the regrets of childlessness. Does it really matter, she asked, if you choose to have children and live every day less happy and content than you would be without them, if when you step back and consider your life, you believe your kids brought you joy, meaning, and purpose? What does it matter if any decision we make is right or wrong for us, if we do not regret it?
This is the terrible rub of the decision to have children. According to many sources including the Mayo Clinic, at age 35, all sorts of health risks for pregnancies increase, from miscarriage to Down syndrome to not being able to become pregnant all. Hesitant potential parents like me are faced with making a decision now which will have enormous and permanent consequences later. If my wife and I do want children, the clock is ticking.
Equally as often as I ask myself “why have kids,” I ask myself how can I deny them to my wife. She is a beautiful woman who would make the very best kind of mother. She is content in her “maybe someday” indecision, but I worry what will happen “someday.” It may not be selfish to deny existence to children, but it is certainly selfish to deny their existence to a spouse, most of all one like her. I want to be open to children, for her sake.
I was telling all this to an old friend a few weeks ago, and he brought me out of myself for a moment when he reminded me that her desires have a profound effect on me. Were my wife to want kids, I probably would not feel the way I do about them now. I do not know how my wife and I will disagree, or if we will at all. There is no sense in being anxious about situations I cannot anticipate. Many people who say they will never have children acquiesce when their spouse begins to want them, and most never regret it.
In the end it is a sham, really, this talk of pros and cons. All the studies and the interviews and the experts only reveal there is no obvious path. Having children is a decision a couple must make alone — and I am terrified to make it. My fear of fatherhood is so powerful that I weigh the advantages and disadvantages instinctively, knowing full well the question goes deeper than that. No mom or dad I have spoken with has delusions about the cons; in fact one young mother admitted to me that if you made a list of pros and cons for having children, the cons would always win. Children do not look like a good idea on paper — but almost no one has kids because data says they should.
Still the thought of having a child frightens me, but the kids question cannot be answered out of fear. It cannot be answered from data. It cannot be answered out of selfishness or caution or guilt. It cannot be answered for someone else.
For me, for now, it cannot be answered.
This story originally appeared on my personal blog. Click here to view comments from the original piece.