Why I Had Kids
Following on Meaghan’s meditation on childrearing and work and the putting-together of grown-up puzzle pieces, commenter Vanderlyn asked the following not-crazy question: “Why do people still yearn to have biological children? Especially when doing so will render one’s life (more) financially tenuous, when there are so many unwanted children already out there, and when the world is already straining under the load of 7 billion of us?”
In response, Ester said, inter alia, “[P]erhaps this deserves its own feature,” and I agree. As a person who has (1) a lot of debt, (2) a lot of hobbies and interests that aren’t particularly compatible with providing constant care for a helpless mammal, and (3) two children, I have as much explaining to do as anyone.
Let me first put aside the obvious: people seem to have a general, evolutionary inclination to procreate. It was long thought that there was an inherent desire to see one’s own progeny survive to adulthood, although lately science has started to toy with the idea that there is merely an evolutionary drive to have sex, coupled with an evolutionary inclination to find babies and children irresistibly cute. Either way, to say simply that one has children because that is what people do is to dodge the question. One of the signal characteristics of people is that we are able to eschew obvious evolutionary mandates, whether to our detriment (e.g., by eating ourselves into obesity and early death) or benefit (e.g., by submitting to a system of laws and constraints – something that, in the case of large, strong people like me, is obviously preventing us from acquiring more cool stuff by taking it from small, weak people).
Basically, I had children because I wanted children, and I thought I’d be a good parent.
I have always imagined myself raising children. I love babies and children – I like to hold them and care for them when they are small, and to play with them and talk to them when they are older (while still holding them and caring for them from time to time). I just like them, and they tend to like me (my ex used to call me “the small animal whisperer” because of my unerring ability to win the trust of cats, dogs, and babies). So part of the decision to have children was simple affinity: I wanted to do a thing that I liked to do, which seemed at the time to be available to me.
I say that having kids “seemed at the time to be available” as an option because, beyond the obvious fact of my and my ex-wife’s adequate fertility, I assumed that the endeavor would be affordable. That was, in part, because I tended to assume when I was 25 that most things would just work out. Neither I nor my ex ever stopped to think about the costs involved in childrearing – mirroring my complete failure to assess the financial viability of a public interest law career predicated on a lot of student loans.
That blithe, happy-go-lucky approach was tied to my other reason for wanting children: I figured my ex and I would be really good parents – and damnit, if two college graduates who were evidently cut out to be awesome parents couldn’t somehow swing having a baby, who the hell could? Was this outlook both egotistical and foolish? You bet. But it ended up being accurate. I’ll give my ex and me credit here and say that we are pretty good parents (so far, anyway). Our sons are seven and 10 years old and they’re both really nice, and appreciably better-looking than either of us. I don’t know if they’re geniuses or especially gifted at art or music or sports, but they are witty and they care a lot about fairness and justice, which is pretty much all I ask of adults I meet.
And financially, we are piecing things together, massive debts notwithstanding. We can pay our bills as they come due, and we can afford to provide the necessary things for the children. Sometimes, we can even give them some fun, unnecessary things, too.
A final reason for having children, which I didn’t at all consider when I decided to have them, but which, in hindsight, I would have considered and which I think is essential, is being able to balance good childrearing with happy adulthood. In their recent essay, “How American Parenting is Killing the American Marriage,” Danielle and Astro Teller describe the child-centered cult of the American middle class:
Sometime between when we were children and when we had children of our own, parenthood became a religion in America. As with many religions, complete unthinking devotion is required from its practitioners. Nothing in life is allowed to be more important than our children, and we must never speak a disloyal word about our relationships with our offspring. Children always come first. We accept this premise so reflexively today that we forget that it was not always so.
The Tellers focus on how this trend hurts relationships between parents, but it also hurts parents’ individual happiness. (My ex-wife and I didn’t get divorced because childrearing destroyed our relationship. In fact, childrearing was just about the only thing (besides politics) that we were always on the same page about.) It’s weird and miserable for an adult to subsume every desire to the needs of a child for fifteen or twenty years. And it’s destructive: “Children who are raised to believe that they are the center of the universe,” the Tellers observe, “have a tough time when their special status erodes as they approach adulthood.” And parents who spend every waking moment schlepping their children from one structured activity to another turn into bitter people who lack the patience to deal evenhandedly with the poor treatment that their children will invariably inflict on them.
In this last regard, I think my ex and I have done things right. We have no qualms about leaving our children wholly to their own devices so that we can do important things like sleep in, nurse a cup of coffee, or linger over a newspaper. I live companionably with my kids, and enjoy their company. Mostly, they don’t feel like too much of a burden. I don’t hit them, I don’t yell at them a lot, and I seldom feel bitter about the things I have to do to keep them alive and happy (except laundry, which they generate at a startling rate). They are happy and they make me happy, and that seems like one of the best conceivable reasons to decide to do something.
Here it bears mentioning, since this is a website about personal finance, that the reason I can choose to ignore financial hardship to do something that makes me happy is because I have tremendous unearned advantages in my life. My ex and I each earn about twice the average American salary and have jobs that provide good health insurance. For widely differing but wholly circumstantial reasons, we both went to good high schools and colleges, and emerged without significant debt. The fact that even with our resources, something as fundamentally human as raising children has proved economically challenging should make everyone realize just how tragically off kilter our nation’s economic system is.
It should also cause people in uncertain financial circumstances who are not (as I was) decidedly predisposed to having children to think long and hard about the decision. As our commenter rightly pointed out, there are enough people in the world already. I may delude myself into thinking that I am doing everyone a service by raising well-spoken young socialists, but I know in my heart that it is, in some regards, a selfish endeavor, and that I am privileged to take it on with relative ease. And children aren’t automatically wonderful. As the Tellers note, “That guy at the office who everyone thinks is a jerk was a kid once upon a time, and there’s a pretty good chance that his parents also noticed that he could be a jerk.”
And really, having a kid who’s a jerk is the least of it (jerks can be a lot of fun). Having children is altogether a crapshoot. They may be born ill, or develop grave illnesses later, which won’t keep us from loving them and caring for them, but will tax us and make us sad and disconnect us from other people we love and care for. They may be kind but wild, and hurt us in ways we can’t even imagine. And at the very best, children are woefully expensive to raise. If anything else required so much and promised so little financially, we would call the cost “prohibitive.”
All of that is not to say that people with unstable finances should not have kids, nor that my ex-wife and I are a model of good planning or good parenting. All I can say with certainty is that I really like children, I decided to have them without nearly the level of consideration that the project deserved, and I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have it work out so well.
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
Photo by the author.