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Do I want to have kids? | Just Reflections - Issue #8
A few comments I got about the last issue said it was shorter than usual. Interestingly, my draft was longer than usual and when I shortened it I guess I took out too much. I still have a lot to share about heuristics and bias, so if you’d like me to write more on it in the future, hit reply and let me know.
I’d also like to know what people prefer in terms of the length of the issues. Do you like long ones, short ones or the length doesn’t matter as long as the content is interesting? Please let me know in a reply.
Let’s get it!
Our wedding anniversary is coming up in a few weeks 🎉 and I’m really glad that I don’t have kids. I know this comes as a disappointment to people who have been wondering why we don’t have kids yet. I’m sorry (I’m not really sorry).
Most of my friends have children. Most had their first child in their first year of marriage and some before they got married. And as the group splinters into the parents and non-parents, I — like many people — watch my friends with their kids and feel envious, and feel like calling my wife right away for a quick … a quick family meeting. I also watch videos of kids on social media and my heart melts at how cute they are with their tiny little limbs and their intriguing questions and, again, wish I had my own. But when the day ends and I’m back to my senses, I’m always glad that I didn’t have to bring any of them home with me. I’ve really enjoyed being married without kids. I’ve enjoyed focusing on establishing my career before needing to disappear into paternal responsibility. And I wonder how different my life would have been if we had a child in our first year.
Apparently, the number of people having kids is slowly decreasing. It seems millennials aren’t enthusiastic about having kids. Unlike generations before, having kids is no longer a natural step that follows getting married. We wonder if we should have children at all if we only want children because we were brought up to want them. It’s something we believe we can choose. I am one of those millennials. I think there needs to be some sort of acknowledgement that not everyone should be a parent. When parenting is a given, it’s not fully considered or thought out, and it gives way too easily to parental ambivalence and unhappiness.
There are so many things to think about when considering when and whether to become a parent. And that can create this sense of tension that can be really difficult to untangle. No one can untangle it for anyone else, but today I want to talk about a few of the factors that I believe should shape that decision and can hopefully ease some of the tension. If you want more thoughts on the subject, check out Jessica Valenti’s book “Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness” or listen to this episode of the NPR’s Life Kit program titled “There’s Never A ‘Right’ Time For A Baby — But These Questions Can Help You Decide”.
Let me be quick to say, I don’t need to have kids to have an opinion about parenting and having kids doesn’t make anyone a parenting expert. It’s possible to learn a subject without personal experience. In fact, for many subjects, it’s easier to stay objective when you learn as much as you can before you have a personal experience. With that out of the way, let’s talk about parenting!
Parenthood is often portrayed as the most magical thing. But what if your truth differs from what you expected it to be? Have you ever suspected that some parents ‘secretly’ hate being parents? This is a tough subject to be honest about because it’s about kids, they’re so adorable, they’re a gift and if you already have kids, it’s taboo to even think about the possibility that you may not have wanted to have them. Or at least not at the time that you did. Yeah, your kids are your world and everything but humour me for a moment. It’s possible to love your child and care for them, but still hate being a parent.
We don’t have to keep suspecting because the internet has all the answers. One brave woman on Reddit made the following confession on the parenting subreddit, acknowledging that deep down, she honestly doesn’t actually like being a mom. Although she loves her kid, her reality is that she does not love being a mother.
After her confession, many other parents poured in with some of their own. That thread is one of the saddest things I’ve read in recent weeks.
Here’s something else to consider. In 2008, the state of Nebraska in the United States decriminalized child abandonment. The move was designed to address increasing rates of infanticide in the state. Under the law, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their children could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. Legislators decided not to include an age limitation for dropped-off children because they believed all distressed children needed to be rescued, not just infants.
In a few weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. However, none of the kids were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. One father dropped off nine of his ten children from ages one to 17, the remaining one couldn’t be dropped off because they were 18 years old. Others drove from neighbouring states to drop off their children once they heard they could abandon them without repercussion. The Nebraska state government, realizing their mistake, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law to add an age limitation and restrict children from other states. On November 21, 2008, the last day that the law was in effect for children of all ages, a mother from Yolo County, California, drove over 1,200 miles (approx. 1,920 km) to the Kimball County Hospital in Nebraska where she left her 14-year-old son.
It’s easy to think these crazy Americans have no morals, but what happened in Nebraska raises an important question: If there were no consequences, how many of us would give up our kids? After all, child abandonment is nothing new, and it’s certainly not rare. In the United States alone, there are almost half a million children in foster care. Thousands of parents relinquish their children every year. And given that this is a difficult thing to admit, we can reasonably assume there are many more people who feel the same but don’t say it or abandon their children.
The stories on Reddit are largely from women who identify themselves as financially stable and they spell out something less explicit than well-worn reasons for parental unhappiness such as poverty and a lack of support. The feeling of a loss of self, the terrifying reality that their lives have been subsumed into the needs of their child. One parent wrote, “I feel like I have completely lost anything that was me. I never imagined having children and putting myself aside would make me feel this bad.” Another wrote, “The expectation of total motherhood is bad enough, having to live it out every day is soul-crushing. Everything that made me an individual, that made me unique, no longer matters. It’s my role as a mother that defines me.”
I have all these fears, but I know the expectations are much worse for women and most times, women are made to bear the bigger share of the burden. Society is more forgiving of men who aren’t there for their kids than women. This means that the decision about whether you really have the desire for kids is even more important for women, together with the decision about who you choose to co-parent with because they can make or break your experience. While it’s acceptable for men, popular culture still can’t accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother. It goes against everything it has taught us about women and how desperately they want babies. That even teen girls are forever desperate for a baby, that it’s their greatest desire. So there’s pressure from many directions.
So my first reflection is if I have kids without understanding what I’m getting into or who I’m getting into it with, I will probably regret being a parent and be miserable.
The happiness gap
Despite widespread cultural beliefs, research suggests that being a parent doesn’t make you happier than not being one. In fact, a popular 2016 study titled “Parenthood and Happiness: Effects of Work-Family” by Dr Jennifer Glass and colleagues reveals that parents report lower levels of emotional well-being than non-parents in many developed countries. The image below shows a summary of what the study calls ‘the happiness gap’.
Parenthood and Happiness: Effects of Work-Family
Now, I’m sure if I asked all my friends who are parents whether they think their children have made them happier, they would all say yes. But I need to make this second consideration in my decision, that having kids has a fairly significant likelihood to bring me anxiety, stress and financial trouble that I wouldn’t have if I don’t have them. There is a huge cultural myth that children will magically bring joy to your life and that can lead people to go into parenthood with the wrong expectation.
This study conducted by Jennifer Barber, a population researcher at the University of Michigan, shows that ‘unintended children’ receive less attention and warmth from their parents than children whose births were planned. They studied over 3,000 mothers and their close to 6,000 children from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The families were studied for eight years, from 1986 through 2004. For the study, women who had recently given birth were asked, “Just before you became pregnant, did you want to become pregnant when you did?” If they answered yes, the birth was classified as ‘intended’. If they answered no, they were then asked if they wanted a baby, just not at that time, or whether they didn’t want a baby at all. The researchers found that 24 percent of pregnancies were mistimed, and 10 percent were unwanted.
The results of Barber’s research showed that the unintended children — both those who were mistimed and those who were unwanted — got fewer parental resources than those children who were intended. Basically, unplanned children didn’t get as much emotional and cognitive support as children who were planned — as reported both by the researchers and the mothers themselves. Across the board, children who were wanted got more from their parents than children who weren’t. Unplanned children were also subject to harsher parenting and more punitive measures than a sibling who was intended.
Barber pointed out that this kind of pattern could be because of parental stress and a lack of patience that’s “directed explicitly toward an unwanted child,” and that a mistimed or unwanted birth could raise stress levels in the parents’ interactions with their other children as well. She also says that besides benign emotional neglect, parenting unintended children is also associated with infant health problems and mortality, maternal depression, and sometimes child abuse.
It’s easy to think this could never be me, but as we spoke about in the last issue, we’re all biased to view ourselves positively. When under pressure, we humans act in similar ways. If I have unintended kids — whether unwanted or mistimed — I will have an inclination towards giving them inadequate emotional and cognitive support.
Be fruitful and multiply
Is it sinful to be married and choose not to have kids? Some religious people say choosing not to have kids is disobeying “be fruitful and multiply”. But is “be fruitful and multiply” a commandment? I don’t think so. If it were a command, then marriage would not optional. But the Bible has multiple instances where it encourages not marrying for several reasons. Besides, if you believe this is a command, where do you stop? When is fruitful, fruitful enough? Should you just keep going as long as you’re able?
That said, while there are many really valid reasons Christian people choose not to have children, I think just deciding not to because you want to have an easy life without the responsibility of taking care of someone else doesn’t fully align with Christian dictum. Christianity is about denying self and selfish ambition and giving ourselves for other people. While the Bible is pretty clear that there will be tough times, it still has a really strong leaning towards having kids amidst those tough times. It doesn’t share in the modern thinking that the prime goal of life is the avoidance of hardship. In fact, biblical teaching seems to suggest that hardship has a place in our lives for shaping our character.
A case for having kids
Most of my research around having kids has revealed some pretty sad and bleak things and reading all this, I’m sure most people think that I probably don’t want kids. But despite it all, I still want kids, it’s inexplicable. I still want to join this crazy club of unhappy people and take my shot at making it work. Here’s my reason.
Having kids is a risk, but life is a risk. For me, it’s a risk worth taking. To appropriate Wajahat Ali’s words, kids represent our best, boldest, most beautiful and infinite possibilities and if I opt-out and don’t invest in present and future generations, then what the hell is the point of everything I’m building? Kids are an opportunity for me to give all I can to propel someone much further than I could ever get. They are a chance to exercise my love muscles by caring and taking full responsibility for someone who cannot give me anything in return, who’s not obligated to. Parenting is me casting my vote for the future of humanity. However, I feel like there’s a lot I don’t know (I think there’s a lot that people who already have kids don’t know as well) and I should have the humility to accept that and learn from those who know better.
I put all the negatives at the top to highlight the fact that I understand that this is a decision I need to approach with careful caution. Like, The School of Life put it;
“No honest experience of parenting is complete without an intimate and very strong impression that in some ways children are both the meaning of one’s life and the cause of the ruin of one’s life,” - The school of life, To have or not to have children
Just like every other choice in life, I know that if I have kids, I will have some points where I’m thrilled about my decision and I’ll have others where I’m absolutely miserable, but it is still an experience I want to have. The best case for having kids, I found on this internet is by Jordan Peterson on this YouTube video. To see someone like Jordan Peterson light up like that, I want that. It’s too long for me to include here and I’m hard-pressed to decide which parts to quote, but please watch it.
On a more altruistic note, apparently, birth rates in most countries in the world are not high enough to replenish the population and they’re dropping further each year. Many countries are worried that in a few years, populations are going to get into an irreversible downward trend. Wajahat Ali explains a lot about the implications of that in the Ted Talk “The case for kids”.
A lot of parenthood regret is because of getting into it ill-prepared. It comes from approaching it without a full grasp of what exactly it is and what it involves and requires of us. And because of failing to make a careful consideration of the person we choose to be co-parents with.
Many millennials who say they don’t want to have kids do it because they don’t want to carry that additional responsibility. They feel it’s unnecessary and is an affront to their individuality and independence. I can’t relate to this, it sounds a little too self-focused for me. I would not be happy to look back at my life and see that I have lived my life only for myself. However, those who feel like they’ve lost themselves and their own individuality because of having kids bear this in mind. Children should come first, no doubt, but according to development psychologist Dr Aliza Pressman;
“If you sacrifice yourself and your mental health for your child, you’re actually taking away from your child’s development. Think about on a plane when they say put your oxygen mask on first. You cannot take care of another person without taking care of yourself. And you also need to show your child through modelling that you can have self compassion and self care and still love other people and, in fact thrive loving other people because you’ve taken that time.” - Dr Aliza Pressman, Development Psychologist.
There are many struggles in parenting, more than those who have kids are open about. But there are a lot of great things about it if done right. The ‘if done right’ is very key. We need to realise how great a responsibility it is. Many people are just winging it and unfortunately, the error of their ways will probably only emerge many years down the line and might affect multiple generations. Before you nonchalantly approach parenting, remember that your actions will have repercussions on many generations that will come after you.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
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I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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