To Spawn or Not to Spawn?
A couple of weeks ago, a young woman to whom I’d only just been introduced asked me if she should have a baby.
Trick question, I thought.
For one thing, I’d just mentioned I’ve been sleep deprived for 15 years and shouldn’t be allowed to operate machinery (never mind help her make life-altering decisions). For another, people splashing around in their own genetic pool are more likely to tell you the water’s lovely.
You could take an 8 question quiz about whether you’re ready for parenthood, (I just did and it said I “may still have some thinking to do”) but my favourite response is (and has always been): Don’t ask if you want to have a baby; those big eyes and toothless grins are false advertising. It’s better to ask if you want to have your body, your brain and your bank account juiced. Or if you’d like to share WiFi or hair conditioner or eventually, your favourite boots.
But these days, you also need to ask if you want to be judged by a fair amount of People Like Us.
People Like Us have a higher calling. They are accommodating people who hate crying babies on planes. They are saving the planet and are not afraid to be alone. They have seven, eight or even nine reasons other reasons not to spawn; each defiant klaxon against mindlessly (or even mindfully) bumping uglies and posting the results to Facebook nine months later carries more subtle aggression than the last. There’s the implication that people who admit they want children are letting slip some sort of regressive mindset – like being racist or buying shampoo tested on bunnies.
It can make you quite defensive if you’re already a parent. If you’re not, it’s enough to make you consider just adopting a cat and giving it a cool name.
Sure, there is solid proof of the negative environmental impacts of having children (though, the effects are worse in countries with higher consumption patterns, e.g., the US). Still, I’m not sure just not having a child is helping the planet. And it doesn’t redeem the “I don’t want to waste my money on kids; I’d rather fly around the world” folk.
These increasingly outspoken revolts against breeders may be what my editor called a sort of “counter-culture rebellion.” After all, so many women – and it is almost ALWAYS women – have had to deal with intrusive, snide, judge-y commentary on their choice not to have babies (‘Selfish,’ ‘Will regret it when she’s older,’ ‘Not natural to not want kids’).
But the backlash has hit the wrong target – women who have had kids have faced as much derision. In addition to this, they’ve also been ‘mommy tracked’ at work, suffered from shoddy childcare infrastructure and policies, and let’s never forgive the word mumsy.
In some ways, the enthusiastic Facebook posts and parenting blogs were a rebellion of their own against being expected, like your children, “to be seen and not heard and preferably not seen.” The home-crafts, exotic packed lunches, touting of junior achievements and SuperMom tropes were often direct responses to the ‘So what do you do all day?’ queries.
The good thing was, the more you talked about parenthood, motherhood particularly, in public, the more truthful you could get. The funny bits, the lonely bits, the frustrations, the long waits at the doctor, the sarcasm from the boss, the crash course in basic first aid. Sure, there’s a lot of warm and fuzziness to these discussions. But there are also people like Amy Chua whose book, Tiger Mom, was a Six Sigma approach to creating super achievers. There are hilarious memoirs and irreverent bedtime reading. And increasingly, now, there are people who will come out and say the hitherto unimaginable: that they regret having kids!
What we need now, instead of more judgment, is corresponding commentary from the child-free. This Reddit thread asking childless people over 55 whether they regretted their decisions is gentle, funny and truthful. In short responses, you see the effects of generational influences and cultural pressure. Many know they made the right decision; most made peace with those decisions, some with reassuringly human regret. The exemplary Dame Helen Mirren admitted recently that she allowed herself a 20-minute cry over her “lost chance” while watching the film Parenthood. But I’ve heard only one acquaintance say she has an element of wistfulness about not having kids.
The young woman who just came out and asked me whether to have a baby might have asked the wrong question, but her honesty and lack of prejudice either way were refreshing. She has a new enterprise that has just started to make money. “That’s my baby right now,” she said matter-of-factly, “But I know if I have kids, I want to do all that…” she moved her hand in a circle that incorporated my children, playing in the distance, “be there and stuff.”
Then she turned to look me straight in the eye, “But I don’t know if I should just not bother, either.”
The New York magazine story “All Joy No Fun” is the most objective answer I’ve found to her dilemma. It’s an in-depth look at the toll parenthood takes on your relationships, your finances, even your sanity. It tracks changes in the expectations people have of themselves as parents, the pressures of the environment and attempts at measuring something as ephemeral as how rewarding being a parent is. It is all research and data and expertise but does end on a cautiously reassuring note for parents.
I told the young woman that anything I said in favour of having children must be regarded as “dispatches from Stockholm,” but if she needed to chat anytime, she could call me.
In the meanwhile, I’m calling for more nuanced, non-judgmental information from the ‘no going back’ child-free. It is everything you thought it would be? Because I’m going to admit, as I sit in a pile of homework, laundry, and feelings of inadequacy, I’d love to hear a little regret from your camp, too.
Only, you understand, to help young people make good decisions.