Life Musings

I’m so glad I don’t have children

Folks, I want to hear from those of you – male, female, transgender, whatever – who share my preference for a childfree lifestyle. I’ve been flirting with the idea of not having kids for the better part of a year. What started as “Hmm, I don’t know about this motherhood thing” has started to settle into “I literally can’t imagine having kids.” With every passing day, my disdain for childbearing grows.

At dinner tonight, I told an entire table full of male colleagues – several of whom were parents – that I did not want children. I won’t bore you with the details of how this even became of subject of discussion, but suffice it to say that before I had time to self-edit, I heard these words flowing from my tongue: “Every time I see someone with children, I feel sorry for them.” That is probably a horrible thing to say, but it’s true.

It would be more accurate to say that I feel sorry for women with children. Not because they aren’t happy — I am sure at least some of them are thrilled to be mothers — but simply because the thought of having children increasingly makes me unhappy.

When men wax poetic about how great it is to be a father, sometimes I quip: “Yeah, if someone would come along and bear my children, and I could swoop in and parent when I feel like it, that would be fantastic” I’m exaggerating here, but the truth is that mothers still bear the brunt of parenting and domestic duties, even when they also have a professional life of their own. The gendered burden of motherhood – for all its joys – is quite unattractive.

Being somewhat solipsistic, I did not realize – and still do not fully realize – that it’s “taboo” to speak of not wanting kids. If it’s a taboo, no one but Google has told me so directly. I have a number of childfree female friends who feel the same way and a few friends who are mothers who tell me I’m right to be circumspect. I don’t have any rose colored glasses when it comes to parenting.

Another contributing – though ironic – factor is my own mother. My mom was – and continues to be – a heroic parent. I owe everything redeeming about me to her wisdom, sacrifice and love: my strong connection to God, my commitment to personal development (though I hate that term, particularly as I no longer principally define myself as a ‘person’ due to my dalliance with non duality) and my intellectual curiosity and self confidence. But it is precisely because I see how hard she worked – how committed she has been – that I have no illusions about parenting. It is difficult, day-in-day-out work. A life sentence, in most cases. And while it surely has its highs and moments of fulfillment, there is also frustration and bitterness and disappointment and fatigue and stress and worry.

I do not feel the need to defend my disdain for parenting, but it does give me some joy to talk about it. I am also genuinely perplexed as to why having children seems like such a “natural” thing for folks to want to do. Setting aside the biological/evolutionary impulse, the sociologist in me marvels at the way most people seem to regard reproduction unreflexively. I do not hear enough people having critical discussions about whether it’s actually a good idea to procreate. There are many, many, many people who should not have children but have them anyway. I do not see that this world needs as many people as are being produced and I do not understand the urge to keep popping out humans to overrun this already overrun and decaying planet. Not to mention all of the children who await adoption. If I ever decide to be a parent, adoption is something I would seriously consider, for the simple fact that biological procreation in the midst of children begging for a home seems wrong, somehow.

I am happy that some people derive happiness from parenting. I suppose someone’s got to do it. But that’s also the great thing about life: since other people are having kids, I don’t need to. The species will propagate even without my genetic contribution.

In speaking with other junior faculty – male and female – it dawned on me that being childfree also reduces my professional vulnerability in all kinds of ways. I have more time to work and be productive, obviously. But I also have more flexibility and control over my career. If I need or want to take a job elsewhere, I have nothing and no one holding me down. I’ve known this abstractly, but it’s only now that I can better understand why I feel so happy and confident in my professional prospects compared to some of my friends and colleagues who feel forced to get tenure at a particular place because they have a family and a mortgage.

Don’t get me wrong: I have my mommy moments. I fall back in love with the idea of reproducing when I am in love. I know if I were in a committed relationship, parenting is something would be a more concrete possibility.

But for now, I absolutely love my freedom. I also appreciate that I can focus my energies on whatever I want: my creative interests, my spiritual practice, my hobbies, my friends, my romantic life. I am also free to channel my compassion and nurturing spirit into a variety of non-parental outlets: teaching and mentoring students, service and activism in the community, being a helping hand and support wherever and whenever I can.

Without children, I am also able to face squarely some of the very difficult problems of existence that most people – parents and otherwise – have to put on the backburner: What is the meaning of this life? Why am I here? What should I do with my time? Who am I? What is my relationship to the rest of creation? What is my relationship to the Creator? What is death? How should I conceive of it? Can I prepare for it? What is the purpose of my work? What are my core values? What is the ego? What is consciousness? Yes, you can tackle this even if you have kids, but you have less time and opportunity to confront these issues when you are changing diapers or helping Charlie with 6th grade algebra.

Unraveling these existential concerns is my full-time job. I can understand why Buddha had to leave his family to figure it out. But Buddha *could* leave his family. His wife could not.

Children generally delight me, but they are no more special than adults. Children are just small people discovering the world. Their newness, cuteness and innocence is endearing, to be sure. But then they do this thing called growing up. And I know it must be fulfilling to see your child develop into a talented, wonderful human being. But, you know it’s also just fantastic to BE a talented, wonderful human being and to help other people develop in that way. Birthing a person is not necessary for that kind of fulfillment

I will admit that I think it’s a bit sad that lots of parents report finding the meaning of life or their purpose in procreation. To me, it’s just as sad as folks who think that their work makes life worth living or whatever. Finding some external person or thing and deluding yourself that this individual, or your social role brings meaning to your existence is unfortunate. If there is a purpose to this life, it is for you to wake up and realize who you really are – beyond your social roles, beyond your identities, beyond your conditioning, beyond your wishes, hopes and dreams. You can do this as a parent or a civilian – but either way, your life is not figured out just because you start a family, or just because you decide not to. The most important thing in your life should not be a social role — as a mother, father, daughter, sister, friend, whatever. The most important thing in your life should consist in being a conduit of love and compassion. Period. And then that love flows through whatever your role is in whatever particular situation you find yourself.

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Life Musings

Maybe Babies

Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Avi and Noah, the precocious, highly intelligent, charming, bilingual (soon tri-lingual) and generally adorable sons of my friend Miriam. I am so impressed with Miriam’s indefatigable, disciplined, joyous, organized, practical and upbeat approach to parenting. When I’m not horrified by in awe of the constant attention, care, thoughtfulness, wisdom, energy, playfulness and outpouring of love required to parent 5 year old twin boys, she almost makes me want to be a mother. Almost. (Though, “friend-of-other-people-with-kids” might work out just fine for me, too . . .)

Miriam

Hanging out with Miriam and her sons was an unexpected addition to my New England roadtrip. I’d met her a few times over the years because of my friendship with her parents, but we had never had an in-depth conversation. This time, she happened to be at her parents’ home the day I arrived in Massachusetts, and for reasons unknown, we suddenly clicked. We found out that we both had been making music using Garageband and shared interests in foreign languages as well as some similar health challenges and strategies for healing. We stayed up into the wee hours of the morning discussing all manner of minutiae. We took a long walk on a nature trail where she pointed out the various plants and flowers that were edible. I found myself eating clovers (and loving it) and nibbling on tiny pink raspberries like a bird. I’d never done anything quite like this before, but thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

Miriam’s kids are pretty incredible. They flow effortlessly in and out of Spanish and English and have such alert minds that they also attentively watch movies in other languages that they don’t understand. For years, when I would see them in passing, I never heard Avi and Noah speak English (their mother and their grandparents address them almost exclusively in Spanish). Their mastery of Spanish is all the more impressive given that they have no Hispanic ethnic background in their family. It’s also really lovely that they can speak Spanish because they live in an extremely diverse neighborhood where over 50% of the children are Hispanic.

Noah and Avi were shy when I showed up in their grandparents’ kitchen a few days ago. I’m sure they noticed that I didn’t respond to whatever they were saying in Spanish and wondered what was wrong with me. When their mother explained that I speak English, they instantly “got it” even if they remained a bit suspicious of me. They would continue their on-going Spanish conversations with each other and their family, but they would generously slip into English when they wanted to tell me something. Their mother, who speaks at least four languages, would also sweetly translate bits of Spanish into French for me.

After the boys established that I was a nice person and cool enough to be included in their 5 year old inner circle, they started to really show off their various skills, inventive ideas, pranks and funny observations. I noticed some slight differences in personality between the two. They are both full of energy, playful, bright, creative and full of love. Noah seems a bit more pensive and analytical. He likes to build things (this morning he showed me a device he made to hunt for dinosaurs) and he often begins his English sentences with “Well, *actually* . . .” Noah is also very good at teaching things yet also humble about what he does not know (something all of us in academia should learn from). When I asked him to teach me something in Hebrew, he showed me how to write his name. Yet when I asked if he could read from the Hebrew dinosaur book he brought me, he immediately said “I don’t know how”, matter of factly, without an ounce of self consciousness. I loved it.

Avi seems to be more active, perhaps a bit more emotional and demanding than Noah. Avi knows what he wants and asks for it. He is very attentive and let’s nothing get past him. When I pointed to a picture and said the word for “truck” in Spanish, he shook his head and said – in English – with thinly veiled pity, “No, that’s a car.” Avi also very clearly loves me, which is remarkable given that he attacked my leg viciously with a fly swatter when we first met. I kind of knew there must be some affection underneath his playful predator-mode (a kind of behavior I instantly recognized from the crazy, yet well-meaning “attacks” my cat Zora sometimes directs my way). After I picked him up, turned him upside down and spun him around a few times, his little heart melted and he decided to be my friend.

Hanging out with kids is very novel for me. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed their company during this trip. We went swimming at sunset at a gorgeous lake and ruthlessly disturbed a family of ducks. I became a human launching pad for the boys, throwing them several feet into the air and catching them in the water. I taught them a few words in French. We made art on my iPad. (When Noah first touched the purple oil drawing tool on the screen, he checked his finger to see if the paint had gotten on it.) Avi bit my leg, then hugged it like a tree trunk and counted my toes. Noah showed me their “secret hiding place” next to the television (some kind of structure made of chair, a basket and a yoga ball). I watched with interest and mild concern as Noah vigorously attacked his brother with a fly swatter (apparently with Avi’s consent). At one point, Avi asked his brother “Can I do it now?! Can I do it now!?” – meaning “Will you please grant me permission to beat you down?” Noah agreed, which led to Avi hitting him twice as hard as Noah hit him. Before I could intervene, Noah ran off to his mother, crying. I’m sure he was a bit hurt but he was also embarrassed.

I went over to Noah and picked him up, which only made him cry harder. “No!” he whimpered, pitifully. I panicked for a moment, then I squinched his face (yes I know squinched is not a word, but somehow it naturally emerges from interacting with a child) and said “Hey! Wanna see something?” He got quiet for a moment, tears still streaming down his face. Somehow, I accessed a long dormant memory of a game my mom would play with me. Magically, my hand transformed into a creepy crawly creature which makes funny noises and tries to pinch your nose. Noah loved it, burst into laughter and smiled brighter than the sun. Then Avi came running, begging me to pinch his nose with the hand monster.

I am an only child and grew up far away from my cousins, so babysitting was something I did quite rarely. It has only been in the last year or so that I noticed myself appreciating children. Last Christmas, I spent the day volunteering at a soup kitchen run by my friend Betty. One of the homeless women brought her newborn son – an extraordinarily beautiful lump of golden perfection whose singular presence filled me with love. As I’ve gone back to the soup kitchen almost every month since December, I’ve seen this little lump get bigger and even more beautiful. Last month, my soup kitchen duties included holding him so his mother could eat and enjoy her meal. I noticed, with pleasure, how natural and lovely it was to cradle him on my shoulder. In the past, holding babies was always so awkward for me. But, for whatever reasons, something clicked this time and I knew what to do without anyone telling me. The Golden One was also obviously very comfortable – no crying or complaining as he gazed lovingly into my eyes. I was so enchanted that I didn’t even care when he threw up all over me. Three times.

Holding this little person, I wanted very much to communicate a few things to him and I somehow had the conviction that he could understand. So, I told the Golden One that he was a manifestation of God, that he was really smart and beautiful and that all good things were possible. He just started at me, blinking and smiling, which I took as 100% confirmation that he “got it”.

I do not know if a “mothering instinct” is presenting itself, but the idea of reproducing is becoming slightly more attractive. In the past, I thought of having children as something I might do one day after finishing graduate school and probably after getting tenure. I had fantasized about motherhood – especially when I was in love – but could not, for various reasons, seriously imagine myself having kids with any of my ex partners. For a while, I thought of reproduction as something people do for egoic reasons (i.e. “I want a little version of myself” or “I want to make a little person with this individual I love because my ego feels the need to extend itself and its attachments”). In this jaded, naive state of mind, I found myself mocking parenthood.

As I began to move beyond my attachment to not wanting attachments, I opened up to the miracle of Life as it emerges in the present moment. I saw that feelings (i.e. wanting or not wanting kids) can and often do change. I also saw very clearly that I, personally, could want to have children with the right man. I began to get a better idea of the kind of character, wisdom, personality, thoughtfulness, capacity for love and emotional maturity that would make a man an attractive partner and father in my eyes.

I still feel that parenting is something that I can take or leave — it is not Something I Must Do to Make My Life Complete. If I don’t have kids, at least I can delight in the presence of Other People’s Kids (and then go home to the freedom of my childless life). But as time goes by, I’m beginning to feel that children are probably in my future. Let us hope that an excellent partner, nanny, proximate grandparents willing to babysit, a child-friendly lifestyle and bottomless wells of patience are all in my future, too.

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