I grew up with a bad case of fecudophobia: for most of my life, I did not like, did not want, and did not plan to have any children. Considering how the U.S. birthrate has been hitting record lows year after year—lows barely dented by 2014’s small uptick—I don’t seem to be alone in that sentiment.
The many reasons for my personal aversion are hardly unique to my own experience. I was the youngest in a typical two-child family and spent little time around children younger than myself. Those encounters I did have were more irritating than anything else. Little kids were so different, so peculiar, and I never perceived any responsibility to see them as anything else. I never had much opportunity to even see how others interacted with them, let alone to learn how myself. Like most of my peers, I spent most of my minority sequestered with people my own age and was uncomfortable stepping more than a couple of years outside of that zone.
The whole safe-sex movement played a role, as well. Upon leaving parochial grade school, I was told by pretty much every cultural institution the horrifying dangers of unprotected sex: AIDS, herpes, syphilis, chlamydia, and pregnancy.
Whether intentional or not, ubiquitously treating children as just another STD was formative. In my high-school health class, I remember being made to watch what I believe was an already dated ABC Monday Night Movie from the ‘80s about a high-school student who got his girlfriend pregnant—despite pulling out, despite it being their first time, and despite every other birth-control myth ever devised. It effectively ruined his life. It estranged him from his parents, who were anything but supportive. It disrupted sexytime with his girlfriend, and ultimately ended their relationship.
Worst of all, it took away his future. His dream was to be a professional musician who rocked and rolled all night and partied every day. Instead, he ended up working at an ice-cream parlor to make ends meet. In the movie’s not-so-subtle finale, a friend from high school visits him at his job to catch up. The friend is wearing an expensive suit because he’s working at some high-end job raking in big money, while the paper-hat and apron-wearing father hopes he might eventually make manager of the ice-cream shop. They both awkwardly pretend things are going well for the father, and the movie ends. It was a bad movie that I never took too seriously, but it does illustrate how we were usually exposed to the idea of parenthood.
A Surprising Reversal Towards Fatherhood
An unintended pregnancy between two unmarried high-school students is hardly the best of circumstances, but many of the portrayed drawbacks never change. Once a man becomes a father, he has responsibilities that often require trading excitement for stability. Late-night feedings and glasses of water often abort intimacy. He can no longer live for himself on his own terms, because he is responsible for another human being who is dependent on him to just to survive. Even in the best of circumstances, children are a huge disruption to his life—at least, if they are not numbered among his dreams and aspirations in the first place.
Among my generation, they very seldom were. Our parents deliberately cultivated our desires for education and career. They indulged our desires for fun and entertainment. They facilitated our desires for sexual gratification—whether knowingly or not. Subjects like marriage and family, on the other hand, seldom came up except as distractions from education and career. By and large, we were told that if we wanted a family at all, we should delay until we’ve settled into a career suitable for a college graduate. It should be no surprise that we now deem children unimportant distractions from “real” life.
When we were first married, my wife and I agreed on our aversion to children; they were not any part of our plans. Nevertheless, over time our views gradually transformed until we both flipped 180 degrees. What changed? I began reflecting on the reasons I didn’t want kids and couldn’t help but find them appallingly selfish. I would lose money I could have spent on vacations, eating out, and creature comforts. I would lose time to devote to my hobbies. I would lose the freedom of planning my time off at my leisure and devoting it to whatever I felt like.
As for the gain, I had no real sense of what that meant other than chores like changing diapers and tedium like watching Little League games. Children continued to seem strange and alien to me… until I finally realized the obvious fact that I had been one, and that I had rather enjoyed it. With that came the (also obvious) implication that my parents had given up a lot to give me that life. Ultimately, my reticence was a refusal to do unto others as others had already freely done unto me.
The Long View of Life
At the same time, I began taking a longer view of life—one that stretched beyond the youth Baby Boomers had taught my generation to worship. The college experience and my twenties were supposed to be the best days of my life. Yet I began reading old books that offered a very different point of view. Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” for example, offhandedly described a man’s fifties as his prime—in part because his children have matured and he’s able to see the larger shape his family is taking as they have kids of their own.
“Where do you see yourself in five years” was a question I always had to shamelessly story-tell my way through at job interviews. Now I actually wondered where I’d be in 20 or 30. When we visited family at the holidays—something I always looked forward to—I began to realize the implications of deliberate childlessness more deeply. I envisioned our gatherings gradually shrinking year after year until only the last gray-haired survivors were left and didn’t want to (or couldn’t) bother with it anymore. The thought of receiving all those years of love and simply hoarding it until it had been entirely consumed began to wear on me.
Finally, I began to realize where my aversion actually came from—how little of it came from God or nature or reason or even my own preferences, and how much of it came from what I had absentmindedly absorbed from my culture growing up. Raising children seemed both unnatural and impossible, yet it was something every human being who has ever lived has been involved with in one way or another. It was something that even the average and below-average—people I had deemed far beneath my own special self—had been doing successfully for a very long time. Indeed, that was the only reason I existed in the first place.
When I finally changed my mind officially, it was not that children had suddenly become so appealing, but rather that the alternative began coming into focus as objectively worse. Thankfully, my wife ended up coming to a similar conclusion around the same time. So, certain of what was wrong but still uneasy about what was right, we decided to take the plunge. Our son was born almost a year ago.
Becoming a Father Felt Like Dying
As my first Father’s Day approaches, I thought it fitting to offer those who are now where we once were some reflections about life on the other side of parenthood. Much of what follows will, no doubt, sound bizarre to older generations (and those youth who are better than I). They will probably consider it the whining of one who is over-pampered and naive. Admittedly, that will contain quite a bit of truth. Yet speculating about what a generally over-pampered and naive generation might accomplish if only we weren’t generally over-pampered and naive is pointless; we are what we are. If we ever grow up and move forward, it will be by cutting a path through that, not by wishing it were otherwise.
So I will be completely blunt: Becoming a father felt like dying.
All at once, all the habits and routines I built up were broken; all the talents I had admired about myself were tabled; all my pastimes and hobbies were dropped. Everything I looked forward to was taken away. Especially with a newborn, there was never the sense that “my work for the day is done; now I can sit back and relax,” because that no longer happened.
When small chunks of free time cropped up, that just meant it was time to do some dishes. When larger chunks of free time cropped up, that just meant it was time to take a nap in hopes of hitting at least three or four hours of sleep for the day. Even as my son got older and began to develop his own routines, I found that these new routines were broken on a regular basis and quickly gave way to still-newer routines. It was chaos punctuated by brief periods of equilibrium.
Many will say that having children shouldn’t be so traumatic, and they’re entirely correct. It was anyway. The more foolish among us say that this is because there’s something wrong or abnormal about having children, but the truth is that it’s because there is something wrong with us. A self who cannot come to terms with actually putting another self first is simply broken.
A Child Means Resurrecting Hope
Perhaps the biggest difference between the joy of raising a child and the anguish of someone who can’t stand being in the same room with one is the state of one’s hope. When one becomes too exhausted to think about anything more than the present task (trying to squeeze in a two-minute shower, trying to soothe a fussy baby, etc.) or too frustrated to care about anything more than the present turmoil, joy departs and the anguish sets in. Those raised to approach every big question about life merely by asking “what does your heart tell you” are often too blind to see any hope past the moment. Sometimes, all the heart can manage is “I’m tired” or “I can’t stand it anymore.” If one’s world stops at his heart, then so does his hope.
Likewise, the nature of the hopes one has cultivated before becoming a parent heavily impact their ability to pull one through the harder times. Life goals like unrelenting devotion to career success, having fun, being flexible and independent, or being that one special person who changes the world (once the world finally recognizes your specialness) will be so distant as to be utterly imperceptible. The self-sacrifice necessary for loving and taking care of an infant clashes painfully with such self-centeredness. The more selfish one is—the more his hopes revolve around his own personal self-actualization and satisfaction—the more brutal parenthood is. Given how nearly all Americans are instructed to be selfish in this respect, it shouldn’t be surprising how heavily parenthood falls on us.
Thankfully, that’s not where the story ends. Inasmuch as it felt like a death, it also became a resurrection. There’s no doubt that we spent a figurative three days in the tomb, but we did not stay there. We slowly began to get a handle on childcare and come to terms with the fact that for any single parenting question, there are myriad experts who will vehemently argue for each mutually-exclusive answer and say it’s the only way. In the end, everybody and nobody knows how to raise a child, and everyone slowly figures out how to raise their own.
The old dead set of habits and hobbies was replaced by a leaner and healthier set. What remains is what’s genuinely important. There’s no room for mindless Internet surfing or addictive mobile games that weren’t really enjoyable in the first place. I also discovered any number of new talents once my old familiar ones were given a break. And the old ones didn’t pass away entirely. I still write, for example, but I’m more judicious about it—when I have the opportunity, I do all I can to make it count rather than puttering around.
Breaking My Addiction to Myself
I also found myself becoming less self-centered. Although parenthood seemed more like an imposition for me than it has for the rest of humanity, I needed it more than the rest. Parenthood helps to break a person out of self for the sake of another. When a parent submits to that process, it changes him for the better.
After a while, when I saw something that needed doing, I became more likely to just do it rather than procrastinate and hope that circumstance (or someone else) would take care of it eventually. Everyone is way too busy for that, and the moment you have now could very well be the only moment there will be to do it. Everyone needs some personal time now and then to recharge, but I no longer felt like me-time was the real point of living. It was like breaking an addiction to putting myself first.
Most importantly, I came to understand the difference between raising a child and raising my son. Before actually going through with it, parenting was always an abstract task for the sake of an abstract child—and it is hard to generate any real care for abstractions. But my son is not an abstract child; he’s our own flesh and blood, with an actual personality who we’re enjoying getting to know. This fact makes the whole endeavor fun despite the chores and the tedium.
It’s pure joy when he starts laughing hysterically at some random thing when I goof around with him. It’s amazing watching him take his first step or teaching him to play a game like rolling a ball back and forth when a few months earlier he couldn’t even hold his head up. I love it when he listens with rapt attention to the book I’m reading him and recognizes favorite passages without the book in front of him. It’s adorable watching him get transfixed by a ceiling fan or really noticing the cat for the first time. While it’s not going to last, the way his face lights up whenever I walk into the room is endearing.
Family is huge help towards enjoying parenthood (even those families who aren’t too big on pitching in and helping out, though those who are deliberately helpful are treasures beyond price). In one sense, making time for visits and taking trips to visit family is burdensome for parents because it adds so much complication to an already-complicated situation.
Nevertheless, grandparents always perform one vital service: They constantly remind you of what a wonder your little one is. When a parent is exhausted, hungry, unkempt, and knee-deep in messes, it becomes difficult to see his child as anything more than the hardest burden he’s ever had. The joy over their first smile, their growing ability to play or lift up their head, their own wonder over encountering a new song—all these can become buried by the crying, sleeplessness, and helplessness of it all.
Despite the temptation to resent friends and family looking at your child with their well-rested eyes and unharried countenances, they can help a parent see and respond to the joys of parenthood that he has already momentarily forgotten. Those friends and family who delight in your child without getting their own hands dirty are valuable precisely because they are showing you what you can’t see rather than affirming everything you feel.
In some ways, it’s never been easier to be a parent—there are more tools, technologies, and resources available now than ever before. In more important ways, however, it’s never been harder. More important resources, like bigger families that ensured most grew up around babies and the expectation of parenthood that lead most to aspire to raising children, have largely been lost in America. No amount of sleep sacks and white-noise machines can make up for that.
Whatever the peculiarities of the American situation, however, our challenge is nothing less than the challenge of civilization itself. If we simply consume civilization rather than produce it, it will not last. That’s a pretty powerful reason to learn to get over our fears.