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I have a pair of cousins, sisters, who couldn’t be more different in terms of their approach to children. The elder loves kids, is an adored second-grade teacher, and can’t wait to have a gaggle of her own. The younger wants nothing to do with the little ankle-biters and is an outspoken proponent of child-free living.
Until I had my own, I resonated with the younger cousin’s outlook so much.
I never appreciated kids. I babysat to fund myself, not because I relished playing Candy Land for hours at a time, or because I found great personal fulfillment in unwittingly memorizing the unabridged anthology of Dr. Seuss:
One foot, two foot…
red food, blue foot…
Agh! Kill me now!!!
Children, however, always delighted in me, much to my ever-grimacing displeasure.
They followed me around. Asked me, “Why? Why? Why?” until I wanted to duct-tape their yammering pie holes shut and tote them like mute, squirming footballs back to their parents. When my mom said, “Take your niece outside and play in the sprinkler with her!” I was like, “Why in the name of all that’s holy would I ever want to waste my valuable time getting my hair frizzy in the service of a three-year-old?”
I don’t like Disneyland. Not a fan of Build-a-Bear. Never attended a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
However, I always planned to have children. Why?
Was I a culturally indoctrinated throw-back to a nineteen-fifties mentality regarding the holiness of the wife/mother/white-picket-fence trifecta? I don’t think so. When I was nine years old or so my mom asked if I might like to be a secretary one day. I arrogantly retorted, “I’m not going to be a secretary. I’m going to have a secretary.”
(I don’t, by the way. Just another life goal unmet.)
I think I always planned to have or adopt children, if able, because I try to look at life through the long view. Family can be a blast. When I reflect on my childhood, and all the extended-family get-togethers, those were huge, populous, raucous events.
My uncle dressed up as Santa Claus every Christmas and tried to ignore his obnoxious children who yelled, “That’s Dad! That’s totally my dad!”
Another time my mom asked her brother-in-law about a family member who’d gone through rehab and then became a minister. He grudgingly replied, “Bob’s fine. But he was a h*ll of a lot more fun when he was a drunk.”
We’d have euchre tournaments and board-game championships and dart board grudge matches.
But I noticed that these family events centered around the oldest people in the crowd, like inverted cones, or pyramids. First it was the grandparents: all their kids—my aunts and uncles—brought their broods to the grandparents’ house, or invited the grandparents and everyone else to their house.
When the grandparents died off, however, the family fragmented. Then the aunts and uncles were at the top of their own pyramids, and it was them partying with their kids and grandkids. The aunts and uncles might all get together occasionally and reminisce over ham and potato salad and pie, but the en masse family group from my childhood only ever congregated at weddings and funerals.
I wanted to have kids so that hopefully, when I’m at the chronological apex of the pyramid, I’ll have some people of my own to hang with.
So I had three, all a couple of years apart, and it was tough sometimes. A lot of times. I still don’t like Disneyland. Haven’t yet Built-a-Bear. And I drop my kids off at the Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties.
But you know what? I’m crazy about those little snot-wads, and by accompanying them as they’ve grown through infancy and toddlerhood and childhood and adolescence, I’ve discovered an astonishing appreciation for kids of all ages and sizes.
Kids are brilliant. They see stuff and make connections that boggle the inflexibly dull adult mind. I took math all the way through grad-school statistics, but had to turn one of my daughters over to her engineer father when she started querying me about the mathematical properties of the tenth dimension.
Kids are hilarious. My youngest girl made a beautiful paper Christmas ornament to hang on her door. And she wrote on it, “STOP! BY THE CHRISMAS LAW! (turn paper over) TURN BACK! P.S. This means you, Chris!” (Chris is her older brother.)
And my kids have made me a better person.
I’ve learned more about humility, unconditional love, and sacrifice in the dozen years I’ve been a parent than I did in my entire previously self-engrossed life. I’ve had to clean up someone else’s puke in between my own dashes to the porcelain deity. I’ve learned that screaming “Just go to sleep already!” at a crying child in the middle of the night will never yield the desired outcome, and I’ve missed entire nights of sleep learning how to be calm and patient and trustworthy in the midst of what feels like a deep, personal, existential crisis that will never, ever end until I am dead and rotting in a pine box.
But I also learned that it always ends.
For example, I used to consider sleep a necessary evil; after having kids I’ve many times prayed, “Thank you, ALMIGHTY GOD IN HEAVEN, that biology demands this child must fall unconscious eventually!”
Has it been fun? Sometimes. Often not very much.
But I didn’t have kids to have fun. Fun is just a nice by-product of the very hard work required to raise them. Kind of like how you have to sacrifice and save in order to buy that brand new car you wanted. Or how it takes three hours to make a gourmet meal, but every single bite makes it worth all the work it took to enjoy it.
So if, like my cousin, you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided child-free is the way you want to go, more power to you. We all have to map out our own plans and dreams and schemata about our futures, and I don’t know anyone else’s internal landscape any better than I know my own.
But if life doesn’t cooperate—whether you wanted kids and didn’t get them, or didn’t want them and did—be encouraged. There are benefits and drawbacks to every decision and outcome, and in my admittedly limited experience, reality rarely aligns with expectation anyway.
I think the joy comes in discovery of the unexpected.
And sometimes, even in finding out you were wrong.