One parent’s response to Time’s “The Childfree Life”

“When having it all means not having children.”

I read that subtitle from Time Magazine’s “The Childfree Life” and I thought:
When did having it all mean becoming as self-centered as the two-year-olds these non-parents sneer at?

Then I thought: 
When did having it all become the purpose of life?

I don’t think that’s a question many people worry about anymore, but it’s a most important one.

But let’s leave that aside for a moment and look at the question of, What’s the purpose of having kids?

I don’t like the answers of “As a duty to our society,” or “To perpetuate the species,” or “So someone will pay for my social security when I retire.” (That’s my reaction when people accuse me of being “overly reproductive.”)

All of those answers smack of some washed-out diatribe, a dull and pessimistic penance for being on the earth. But parenthood isn’t about passing on misery or fulfilling a duty. It’s about becoming an adult, with attitudes and understanding worthy of the definition of “maturity.”

I’m sure most of us didn’t become parents because we wanted to become “mature,” though. It’s a secondary and unexpected benefit, like panning for gold and finding diamonds as well.

As a young married I wanted a baby because I thought they were cute. I had the same affliction as many people whose pets double as their children: I wanted something to dote on, to dress up, to call “My Widdle Wiggy-wums” in public.

And then I had the baby.

It was nothing like carrying around a pet/pretend child (which we pathetically did with a cat for the year before).

Now, some who choose to be childless may defend their position by claiming their animal is like their baby. And I know they feel love and affection for it, but to believe a pet is the same experience as having baby is like comparing spending the afternoon in a wave pool with a vacation in Hawaii. The difference is miles apart.

I knew I would love my child, but I was completely unprepared for every aspect of the world to suddenly change. (And to also feel stupid for dragging my cat to stores.)

Parenthood causes a shift. I’ve seen it in nearly every new father and mother. The shift may occur as early as during pregnancy, or may not happen until the child reaches the first birthday, but at some point a person shifts from being a self-centered mere grown-up to a full-fledged adult.

What’s the difference?

Mere grown-ups (and it’s easy to become a grown-up; just don’t die before you’re around nineteen) look at the world and muse, I wonder what it can give me today.

Full-fledged adults (a much more fulfilling accomplishment than merely aging) look at the world and cry, Dear God! How do I make this a better place for my baby!? And everyone else’s baby?

It’s a drastic shift, a necessary shift.

The shift makes you forget about your own petty needs and wants (such as a shower and a decent night’s sleep), and makes you rabid about your child’s.

It’s the shift that makes you stop reading the sports page first and start paying attention to the headlines about education.

The shift that makes you more interested in local and national elections, in crime rates in your neighborhood, in safety in transportation, and in how the future will look in twenty years.

The shift moves mountains. Ask any parent whose child has been diagnosed with a mysterious or even fatal disease. They’ll rearrange all kinds of geography and even defy the laws of physics for that child.

In fact, I’m willing to submit that the vast majority of improvements to society—any society, in any year—was started by someone who was a father or a mother.

Because they felt that shift, and realized the world wasn’t about “having it all”; the world is about making it better for everyone.

The surprise of parenthood is that life becomes so much more meaningful when it’s lived for those you care for, rather than just for yourself.

Maybe avoiding this shift is why a certain segment of the population, not only here in America but in many parts of the world, rejects parenthood. They want to stay children themselves, always indulgent. That may sound like a flippant evaluation, but I’m sorry to say that each deliberately childless person I’ve encountered has had the same trait of, “It’s all about me, dear. Now would you tell that child to be quiet? I’m on a conference call here in the park.”

That’s why I submit that childlessness doesn’t solve problems, but it increases them.
I don’t believe that we should have children because one of them may change the world– someday–but I submit that we when we have children we feel the need to make the change–today.

Now I agree that parenthood isn’t some magical bullet that shoots maturity into people.  They are those who have no business having children, who still regard their Chihuahuas with more affection than they do their tweens.

And there are also some true adults who are childless not by choice but by biology, who do more than just send a couple hundred dollars to a children’s hospital and think they’ve done their part for the future of the world. These full-fledged adults dote on their nieces and nephews, volunteer to coach little league and scouts, and teach the children in Sunday school.

I’m worried about the grown-ups who forgot to outgrow the “mine!” period of toddlerhood. Perhaps the most disturbing element about “having it all” is that it resonates with the increasingly pervasive entitlement that seems to be overtaking the developed world. At some point we need to realize that the more each of us tries to have it “all,” the less there is for everyone else.

And when, in the history of the world, was anyone ever happy when they got everything they wanted? Even Alexander the Great cried like a baby (and threw a tantrum like a toddler) when he realized there was nothing left in the world for him to “get.”

Joy has always come from giving more than we get, from serving more than demanding. That invaluable understanding is what parenthood gives you.

And that also, by the way, is the purpose of life.

“My children have me tied?”
The thought had never occurred to Mahrree. True, her life was completely different now. And she didn’t participate in anything outside of the house. And she hadn’t thought about the condition of her hair in nearly two years. Or the condition of her clothes. Or her house. Or garden.
But caring for these little children, who she thought were funny more often than frustrating, loving more often than loud, was an honor. It said so in The Writings, and she’d chosen to believe it from the moment she knew she was expecting her firstborn. And choosing to believe it had made all the difference in her attitude as a mother.
Were they difficult?
For some reason that word just didn’t seem right. 
(Soldier at the Door, Book Two)

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