Parents are good for children, and children are good for parents (especially selfish parents)

Having babies used to be biologically inevitable.  If you were a woman who had sex, the possibility of pregnancy increased automatically with every act of sexual intercourse.  People have always had birth control (withdrawal, the rhythm method, vinegar-soaked sponges, primitive condoms, etc.) but their success rate was random and limited.

Then came modern birth control — pills, diaphragms, IUDs, quality condoms, etc. — and, for responsible women, sex stopped leading to pregnancy unless they wanted it to happen.

The societal assumption when birth control use surged in America was that women who used birth control would invariably have children.  They’d simply do so on their own time-table, rather than on Nature’s.  Some women waited too long (or just had problems with conception), but science had an answer there too, with increasingly successful fertility treatments, implants, and even complex surrogacies, using a combination of egg, sperm, and womb.

What no one predicted was that, given the choice, women simply wouldn’t want to have children.  This isn’t just because they’re Malthusian environmentalists who are afraid that children will destroy the world.  It’s because they don’t see children as part of their happy (and sometimes selfish) life plan:

For many individual women considering their own lives and careers, children have become a choice, rather than an inevitable milestone—and one that comes with more costs than benefits.

“I don’t know if that’s selfish,” says Jordan, the daughter of an Ecuadoran and an Ohioan who grew up in the South Bronx, explaining her reasons for a decision increasingly common among women across the developed world, where more than half of the world’s population is now reproducing at below the replacement rate. “I feel like my life is not stable enough, and I don’t think I necessarily want it to be … Kids, they change your entire life. That’s the name of the game. And that’s not something I’m interested in doing.”

I totally get that.  As I hit my 30s, I was living the lush life:  good job, good income, nice apartment, quality boyfriend and, when the long work hours were over, a lot of “me” time.  I had no biological clock ticking away.  I didn’t want children.  In general, I’m not that fond of them.  Yet here I am today, completely defined by my status as “Mom.”  What the heck happened?

What happened was that my boyfriend (now husband) wanted children and I wanted him.  The other thing that happened was that I took a long, considering look at all of the older childless couples I knew, who voluntarily stayed childless, and I didn’t like what I saw.  Without exception, these people were more affluent than their peers, they were well-traveled, well-dined, and well-groomed.  They were also rigid, humorless, thin-skinned, and unable to deal with even the most minor crises.  I realized that it’s not just that (g00d) parents are good for children, it’s that children are good for parents.

I hated the baby and toddler years, and they definitely accelerated my aging (chronic sleep deprivation did not agree with me).  I also hated the schlepping, the endless frustration of dealing with toddlers, and the chaos in my once-quiet house.  I don’t like irrational creatures and there is no creature more irrational (from an adult perspective) than a toddler.  Toddlers, of course, function in a completely rational world, defined by their immediate desires, limited understanding, and somewhat magical thinking.

It got easier as the kids grew up, and now I’m in a really great position where I’m optimizing the benefits that come with being a parent.  I enjoy my teenagers, a great deal.  They’re intelligent, loving, funny people and, while I like it when I’ve got my house it myself, I certainly don’t dislike it when they’re around.  I like their friends too, and am very happy to have (no kidding) the most popular house in the neighborhood.  My son, bless his heart, told me that all his friends like to be here because I’m the easiest-to-get-along-with parent they know.  I’m not a pushover — it’s just that, as with politics, I’m laissez faire.  I have a few fixed rules but otherwise, if the kids are not hurting themselves, each other, my dog, or my house, I leave them alone.

Meanwhile, they keep me young.  I hope I’m not mutton dressed as lamb, but I know the games, music, movies, language, clothing (which I don’t copy), and the general culture of youth.  I am not calcified and I am not rigid.  I don’t get hysterical if there’s no blood or vomit involved in whatever crisis arises — and I don’t even get hysterical about blood or vomit.  I just move a bit more quickly to cope with it.

My point is that the selfish person should want to have children.  I believe that my children benefit from my selfishness, which leads me to a benign neglect that keeps them from trying to grow under the shadow and endless wind of a helicopter parent, and I get to stay young, agreeable and adaptable.  It’s a good deal for me, even though the upfront costs (two miserable pregnancies followed by years without sleep, rest, or privacy) were high.

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  • Caped Crusader

    From your description of the affluent, well groomed, dined, and traveled, childless by choice couples, they just may be “tottlers” who never grew up. Self gratification only. Children are the messages you send to the future and they apparently have no message. I found our kids have made my life complete and would hate to realize they would have never existed, for they have been a blessing to all in their path of life and to my wife and I.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I couldn’t agree more. Raising children is the best thing we ever did and will do and we have the blessings of strong relationships with our children today. 
    Btw, Book…I am sure that when you look back at the aggravation, gnashing of teeth, anxiety and all that came with raising narcissistic, self-absorbed, uncivilized babies and toddlers that made messes, poop and destruction wherever they went, you will agree that it helped prepare you mentally for interacting on a day-to-day basis with all the Liberal-Democrats that populate Marin County.

  • Bookworm

    Danny, I was dumb enough to spoon some cereal into my mouth right as I started reading your comment.  I now have you to thank for that fact that I have to pick cereal spray off my monitor.  Happily, I’m still giggling as I clean.

  • Indigo Red

    This afternoon, I spent several hours at a “celebration of life” for a young man I had never met. I knew his mother in high school 40 yrs ago and haven’t seen her since June 1972. Two weeks ago, her 38 yr old son was in an accident that killed the driver of the car he was riding in. For 14 days he fought to stay alive, but last Monday, just a day after having his leg amputated, he was removed from life support and died.
    Another high school classmate was there, too. Almost two years ago, her 32 year old son jumped from the 275 ft high Auburn-Folsom Bridge to the rocks below. Today’s memorial brought back much pain for her as well as a great deal of sympathy for the newly bereaved mother.
    No matter the poopy diapers, spaghetti strewn kitchen floor, the class projects that left the dining table unusable for days at a time, the practices, the games, the late nights without phoning home, the calls to come to the principles office, or the police station, these two distraught mother’s would do it all again times a thousand to have the children back with them tonight. 

  • expat

    I don’t have kids because I was pretty old when I found the right man. But I love kids, and the kids of family and friends have always been a big part of my life. I always had a pretty good sense of when a mother and child needed a little break from one another, and I’ve done things like take a 4 year old out for his first Chinese meal in a big people’s Chinese restaurant. Even today, I feel younger when I see a child helping his or her mom select groceries in the supermarket. Every smile they bring to my face is a blessing. Thanks to all the moms and dads who make these smiles possible.

  • shirleyelizabeth

    I wonder, Book, if you would have had an easier time of the pregnancies, sleep deprivation, diapers, messes, spit up, and etc. if you had been younger. I agree with your argument here, though I would also argue that it is better for adults (and children) to have children when they are younger. At a younger stage of adulthood people are more malleable and yielding, and still in possession of their youth. Instead of continuing a pointless college lifestyle for years until you tire of it, you are given the best lesson in responsibility, adaptability, and maturity. Instead of waiting for that magic moment or number that you consider yourself financially able to support a child, you are given the best lesson in frugal living, sacrifice, selflessness, and resourcefulness. I argue that it is good, even essential, for children to see their parents sacrifice, learn what a household can run on and do without, and learn to give up and sacrifice for themselves.
    A couple of things: I say parents, meaning mother and father, committed to each other and the family. When I say that it is good or better to have children when you’re young and poor I don’t mean “poor and therefore qualify for state benefits.” My state, AZ, is among the highest in states that hand out food stamps, WIC, and the million other silly, wasteful, redundant programs. If, in a group of women, I say, “Dang my milk supply is going down so I have to supplement my 5 month old with formula, but it’s SO expensive,” the response is not, “Have you tried milk thistle?” or “I can relate.” It’s “do you qualify for WIC?” I have seen innumerable families receive benefits and, excepting a very few of them, I have seen it as nothing more than income boosting/substitute that allows them to continue making bad decisions and live comfortably in financial conditions they would have likely soon left behind them were it not for the (few questions asked) assistance.

  • Gringo

    I hated the baby and toddler years…..It got easier as the kids grew up, and now I’m in a really great position where I’m optimizing the benefits that come with being a parent.  I enjoy my teenagers, a great deal… I’m not a pushover — it’s just that, as with politics, I’m laissez faire.
    Raising children is a constant balancing act. Not all that parents do to raise a child is enjoyable. While this is so, children feel degraded if  they sense that a parent considers  children to be an onerous burden- and glow when parents show their enjoyment. Children become less a burden and more an enjoyment when parents establish rules and routine with which parents are comfortable. While establishing rules and routines which help make a parent comfortable may seem like selfishness, doing so will in the long run reduce strain on the parent. Less strain on a parent results in a more even-tempered parent – which will help the child.
    Also note w Book that  “laissez faire” does not mean neglect. She is very involved with her children.
    A few big rules, as opposed to a lot of little rules, can also be easier to enforce. Lassay fair, schmazzay fair.

  • Beth

    Very good points, ShirleyElizabeth.  Although I was older, 29, when we had our first child, my husband and I wanted a large family as that is how we were both raised.  Eight children later we only wish we had started earlier to have had even more–btw, three of the eight were in my 40’s. 
    One thing I’d like to add is that my husband and I had no continuous ‘help’ with any of them.  My parents would come to visit within the first week or two of birth but then depart.  Being in the military we moved every couple of years so we never lived near family.  This was probably the greatest help for not only our parenting abilities but also for our marriage.  We had to depend on ourselves and each other.  AND, to be fair, we were surrounded by other families doing the same–that is, starting families without our own parents involved.  We had to grow-up and frankly learned that we knew more than we thought we did–we trusted in ourselves and in God.  Which has made it easier for us, I believe, to allow our children to grow up. I feel bad for many young married today–they never get to live out those struggles of raising kids to find out what they are truly made of because there is always someone there to make it easier.  Wouldn’t you agree, Bookworm, that because you had those sleepless nights, the schlepping, the incredible frustrations of toddlerville you were/are better prepared for the teen years when saying “no” (and/or “yes”) takes real courage, determination and perseverance? 
    Our oldest is 21, youngest is 4.  Life may not be quiet, restful or neat but it is joyful, messy and just plain good.

  • Charles Martel

    My wife and I have been good friends with an older couple for more than 30 years. Early on in their marriage, they decided to forgo having children in favor of traveling the world. Both of them made good salaries at their jobs, and with no kids to pay for, traveled extensively and lived in a beautiful home in the hills.
    We always enjoyed their company, and occasionally felt a pang of envy when they would tell us stories from the distant places they had visited.
    Still very mentally sharp, they are now in their late 80s and living at an upscale retirement community about 10 minutes north of my house. Recently the woman, Marie, told my wife that for all of hundreds of thousand of miles she and her husband traveled, and the scores of places they visited, both have only the vaguest memories of those journeys.
    Every choice has a consequence.

  • bizcor

    My wife and I combined two families. Together we have 5 children, all grown with children of their own. We have 9 grandchildren and have to be careful when we hug them so their little eyes don’t pop out. Yes raising children has its ups and downs but I wouldn’t change a thing. It took a little getting used to the fact I had become a grandfather but I absolutely love those babies and get tears in my eyes when they come running to us excitedly screaming Grandma!!!! Poppie!!!! While watching them play I wonder what kind of world they are going to inherit which is why I am actively trying to conservatives elected. Those babies deserve to live in a free country.

  • edge of the sandbox

    Toddlers are a mixed blessing.  They are absolutely amazing, but a handful.  My cousin tells me that she loves having teens because she can talk to them as if they were adults.
    I think modern birth control is a part of the story of declining fertility.  Crude birth control probably works better than the experts are willing to admit.  Well, it worked well for me.  😉  And abortions tend to work as far as killing of an baby goes.  People used to have families because they depended on their offsprings to take care of them in their old age.  Now the idea is that a nice Spanish-speaking lady will come and take care of the old, and the federal government will pay for it. Death panels are a more likely scenario.

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