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:
“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.