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1 Comment | Dec 31, 2011

Why I Don’t Have Children

temper-tantrumI never doubted for a moment that this day would come. At some point in nearly every introductory conversation I have, the topic of children comes up. Do I have any? None, huh? Why is that, exactly? Then, sensing discomfort, awkwardness, we tacitly agree to move on to some different, safer topic of conversation. It’s at these moments that I frequently feel compelled to retort with something like, so, why did you decide to have kids? How would you rate the pros and cons? Would you do it again if you had it to do over?[1] We live, though, in a society that regards child bearing as so self-evidently worthwhile, indeed necessary to the advancement of civilization, that daring to scrutinize the process with anything approaching objectivity is on a social par with offering to show a friend your collection of pipe bombs.

Much of the time, I write with the goal of either informing or entertaining readers. In rare moments of clarity, I might even pull off both simultaneously. But every once in a while—like now, for example—I find myself writing solely for the purpose of explaining something about myself to myself—explaining, in this instance, encompassing, as well, related concepts like rationalizing, reflecting upon, airing out, possibly apologizing for. And I have to confess that this children thing does, indeed, enter my mind from time to time, usually in response to one of two primary stimuli. The first is when I witness the all-too-common meltdown in a public place of some two-year-old who has been raised to believe that the world revolves around him[2], and that failure to get his own way about what sort of cookies his mother should buy merits a tantrum that will communicate to the entire world the sort of despot he has been cursed with as a parent. In these instances, I invariably react (to myself) with a feeling best described as a satisfying blend of self-congratulations and personal vindication. Only then, just to confuse things, there come those occasional (typically non-public for some reason) times when one witnesses moments of immense sweetness, pride, and apparent joy on the parent’s part, which causes me to rethink the whole thing, at least for a minute or two.

I should state here, for the record, that the opinions expressed herein are based on actual experience, and not mere word of mouth, either for better or worse. I have had a great deal of exposure to kids during my life[3]. I have no shortage of friends and relatives who have them, covering the full age range from newborn to adolescent to those who have grown up and gone off to college. I’ve encountered, at least as a spectator, pretty much all of the good and bad moments that a parent can experience, at least as far as I know. I have seen children tell their parents they love them. I have seen those same kids scream at their parents how much they hate them and wish they would die. I’ve seen the aforementioned meltdowns more times than I can count. I have seen sons who had to be bailed out of jail by their fathers at one in the morning. I have seen two three-year-olds stand toe-to-toe and repeatedly punch each other in the face like Ali versus Frazier. I could go on.

There are, in my estimation, many reasons for having children. Focusing for the moment on the intentional ones[4], all of these reasons, save one, are bad. People have kids because of peer pressure, because of pressure from their aging parents who want grandchildren and won’t shut the hell up about it, and from a society that expects them to produce progeny lest they die bereft with a houseful of cats. They have children because their skill set does not support them doing anything else aside from raising children[5]. They have them for legacy reasons, i.e., they feel the need to perpetuate a family name, a gene line, whatever. The list goes on ad nauseum. But, I submit to you that the only valid and sustainable reason for having children is because, down deep inside, you really, really want to have them. And there, returning to the opening paragraph for a moment, is the rub. Deep down inside, I have never once felt anything beyond a passing curiosity as regards children. At no moment in my life has the thought ‘gee, raising kids looks so awesome I just have to give it a try’ ever passed through my head. It’s often occurred to me that one of the foundational pieces of information I’d like to have in order to fully process my reaction to children is the knowledge of what percentage of the adult population feels like I do on this matter. You can’t simply look at demographic studies of who does and who does not have children. As I’ve already suggested, there are all sorts of reasons for having them and for not having them. And it’s also not the sort of thing, I suspect, that a lot of people would be terribly honest about if you just came out and asked them.

I should add here that I have, in fact, encountered a few people in my life who were willing to state that they too had made active choices not to have children. Of course, you will get as many reasons for not wanting to have children as there are for having them, again, many of those reasons bad ones. I know disillusioned people who think the world is going, or has already gone, to hell, and who don’t want to bring children into such a wretched place. I know people who wanted children, but who felt they weren’t equipped to raise them effectively, either psychologically or economically. I know people who had one form or another of bad upbringings themselves and who felt that this would somehow taint their own ability to raise children without repeating the mistakes they endured during their own childhood[6].

All of which is to say that not only have I given this issue rather a lot of thought over the years, I’ve also conducted (in large part involuntarily) a good bit of field research into the subject, which, while largely anecdotal, is, nonetheless, informative and generalizable. Having spent a great deal of time aggregating and distilling that research, I feel I am prepared, at last, to put forth for general consumption (and no doubt a hefty dose of vituperation) some of my conclusions concerning children[7].

1)      Being a parent requires that you willingly shut off a significant portion of your brain for lengthy periods of time. These will be different portions of your brain at different times, depending, of course, on the particular situation. Failure to master this ability can, I believe, result in permanent brain damage. I am reminded, for example, of the repetition phase that every child seems to go through sometime between ages two and four, wherein they demand to watch the same movie in a more or less endless loop for about a year. I have encountered more than one parent so hypnotized by this behavior that they eventually find themselves walking around the office mindlessly humming the Lion King theme all day.

2)      Being a parent requires that you subordinate (and, ideally, forget completely about) everything that you actually want to do for the better part of twenty years, give or take, depending on how many kids you have. I have friends who haven’t seen an adult movie in a theater since ‘ET’ was released[8]. Having children means that you cannot have the car you want, cannot furnish your home the way you want to, cannot attend the social events you want to, and, most certainly, cannot eat a complete meal in peace in a restaurant[9]. The list is endless.

3)      Being a parent means that you will frequently find yourself doing insane, inexplicable things. You will, without thinking twice, spend a Saturday driving to every McDonald’s in your city because your daughter has to have that final novelty plastic figurine that will complete her set, and without which she will be a pariah at school, seeing as how everyone else has the complete set. You will pay phenomenal amounts of money so that your child can have enormous inflatable bouncing castles, cotton candy machines, face painting clowns, live ponies, and anything else necessary to prove to your neighbors that you can put on a better birthday party than they can.

4)      Being a parent means that your time is never, not for one single instant, your own[10]. You will spend every weekday evening and weekend day driving your kids to soccer games, violin practice, school play rehearsal, and play dates. And when you aren’t driving them from one of these activities to the next, you will be sitting at the kitchen table with your spouse carefully poring over a spreadsheet that details your child’s activity program, and within which there had damned well better not be so much as one fifteen-minute interval during which there isn’t some culturally enriching activity to occupy their time[11]. And not only will you drive them to all of these activities, you will pay (again) enormous amounts for the privilege of their participation. At risk of oversimplification, being a parent means that your life is reduced to the functions of chauffeur and ATM machine.

It’s important to concede that there are many people in the world who are okay with all of the foregoing. Thank goodness for these people, for without them civilization would doubtless crumble in a matter of decades. My personal constitution does not, however, allow me to accept any of these states of being. Which likely means that I’m selfish or intolerant, perhaps even inhuman at some level. I decided, at an early stage, that if I could not embrace the parenting lifestyle with enthusiasm, then I was best off leaving it to others. The last thing any child needs is a parent who deeply resents the myriad of sacrifices that the job demands.

Totally separate from my general psychological unsuitableness for parenting, another aspect of the experience, one characterized by the times in which we live, contributes significantly to the wisdom of my decision. The societal rules of child rearing have changed dramatically since my adolescence, and many of these changes I find either ineffective, or downright debilitating to the development of a child. I am referring, in particular, to the culture of hypersensitivity to self-esteem. In my youth, the only way in which congratulations and reward came about was in response to doing something worthy of them, i.e., earning them. You got the best grades, excelled at sports, or created something unique for the science fair. In the child-rearing world of today, children have come to expect congratulations merely for showing up. We are raising a generation of kids who believe there are no winners and losers in life, that everybody is a winner, simply by virtue of participating. We hand out certificates of accomplishment like so much toilet paper. We award diplomas and conduct elaborate graduation ceremonies at the conclusion of every grade. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a bullshit way of raising children, and it sets them up for profound failure and disappointment when they enter the real world and find out that their boss isn’t going to heap praise upon them or hand them a certificate of accomplishment every day they manage to show up for work on time.

There is no conceivable way that my upbringing and worldview would allow me to function in this way with children—my own or anyone else’s—and I have little doubt that the first time I espoused these views at a parent/teacher meeting, I would immediately be branded a “bad parent” and regarded as such forever after. Stating my indignance at the prospect of springing for a cap, gown, and diploma frame so that my eight-year-old can graduate with suitable pomp from third grade would doubtless be sufficient to get a file started on me with CPS.

There is a final aspect of child rearing which, more than anything else, has contributed markedly to my decision to forego what might otherwise have been, all of my objections to the contrary notwithstanding, a rich and rewarding child raising experience. It is the fraught area of corporal punishment. I grew up in a time and place when sparing the rod was tantamount to raising a family of delinquents, or so it was widely believed. The fact that I grew up in a single-parent household didn’t help any, since the usual good-cop/bad-cop approach employed by many experienced mother/father teams was not available, leaving my over-stressed, under-supported single parent to handle all disciplinary matters. Add to this home life the public-school administrations of the time, who were not only enthusiastic believers in the salutary effects of corporal punishment, but who took things a step further by providing frequent doses of public humiliation as well, and you end up with a child whose primary psychological motivator in most matters is fear. In today’s world, parents are expected to reason with their two-year-old, to explain why perhaps striking one’s younger sister repeatedly with that baseball bat might be a bad idea and requesting that the child spend a bit of quality time reflecting on the pros and cons of his actions. In my day, you were shouted at to stop whatever unfavorable activity you were engaged in, and if you did not both acknowledge the admonition and respond appropriately to the threat (whether real or implied), you could expect to be beaten, and enthusiastically so.

I can never know what effect this background would have on attempts to raise children of my own. What I do know is that I have a bit of a temper when thrust into extremely unfavorable circumstances. And I know, as well, that no one is as capable of creating unfavorable circumstances as a young child. Whether it’s destroying some object that you hold in great value, or acting out in a public place, I have serious doubts about my ability to respond acceptably, doubts so severe that I am not prepared to place anyone at their mercy.

Aside from a boundless capacity for mischief and an insatiable ability to zero-in on the exact object that you don’t want them to go near, children also, from time to time, demonstrate a unique capacity to create emotional schisms that are better described by example than exposition. I have a good friend who saved money for years to buy his first-ever brand new car, only to have his three-year-old go out into the driveway one sunny summer day and use a small sharp stone to scratch the words “I love mommy” deeply and indelibly into the driver’s-side door. In today’s world, we would be expected to congratulate the child on his ability to express his feelings so candidly and creatively. We might even be impressed by the fact that had learned to write complete sentences at such a tender age. But we most certainly would not be encouraged to beat him within an inch of his life, which is how any such creativity on my part would have been received back in the halcyon days of my youth. And, just to be clear, I’m not arguing for a moment with the generally superior state of affairs, morally speaking, of today’s world, just saying that I am not at all confident with my own ability to behave in these ways. So, better safe than sorry.

I’ve never met a parent who, in private or public, would admit that, had they the opportunity to do it all over again, they wouldn’t have their children again. This even includes two good friends who each endured sons of such epic disciplinary failure that they had to be sent involuntarily to military academies during their teenage years. The fact that I find this so utterly inconceivable causes me to wonder if I am not predisposed to see only (or mostly) the bad in the kids I encounter around me. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a school play where my daughter is dressed as a tree on stage, or sat in the bleachers during the little league game when my son hits the clutch base hit in the bottom of the ninth, or struggled to sew together the perfect Halloween costume. I’m just not certain whether I should feel regret over this state of affairs or not, and that’s probably as it should be.

[1] I imagine that the answers to these questions would depend greatly on the proximity of my interlocutor’s spouse or partner.

[2] At risk of appearing sexist, I will stick with ‘him’ throughout this discourse rather than resort to clunky devices like ‘s/he,’ ‘him/her,’etc. Let’s all just agree, in the interest of brevity, that the observations and opinions presented herein refer to, and are more or less equally applicable to, children of either gender. Any exceptions will be noted as such.

[3] The fact that this exposure has encompassed dozens of different children, rather than the same two or three every day, may color, in some way, my views. Strictly speaking, my opinions should, however, have greater statistical veracity than the views of a parent, the majority of whose views—for better or worse—will be based largely on their own family experiences.

[4] Accidents, after all, do still happen.

[5] This, like several statements in this essay, sounds a bit crass. However, I know more than one parent who will willingly admit that they believe themselves societally fit to do nothing other than create and raise children.

[6] Which, in extreme cases, possibly includes ending up in prison, since many of the practices that were perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, during the upbringing of most baby boomers, are now not only frowned upon, but are, in fact, illegal in many states.

[7] As with all generalizations, it’s important to concede from the outset that there will be exceptions to each of the following statements, anecdotes, and observations.

[8] If you can, without any thought at all, name more characters on Sponge Bob Square Pants than you can on any currently running sitcom, then you are familiar with what I am saying.

[9] An interesting phenomenon that seems to occur with every first-time parent is that in which they decide, with great optimism and enthusiasm, that they are not going to have their lifestyles modified by the mere arrival of an infant. These are the couples who bravely head out to restaurants and movies, toting their progeny (and associated mountains of apparatus) along, and pretending that everything is the same as it ever was, notwithstanding the half hour that it now requires to get into and out of the car or the fact that they have to leave a quarter of the way through the movie or the dinner. Invariably, these couples give up on this fantasy after the second or third attempt and simply stay home for the next twenty years.

[10] Unless you are pathetic enough to count your time at work as your own, in which case…well, never mind.

[11] And, of course, help them get into Harvard.

1 Comment

Elizabeth 5:14 am - 9th June:

I appreciate your candid take on a decision everyone faces at some time or another in their lives. One suggested amendment to your comment about the tantrum-indulging two-year-old in the second paragraph: It’s not that he has “been raised to believe that the world revolves around him” so much as that, at two years old, life has not yet disabused him of the notion.

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