#4 Is having kids all it's cracked up to be?
To parent or not to parent, it's the question!
My big sister is my big sister in all the ways that count, she’s taller than me, brave, flinty with resilience and she is the Clag that holds our family together.
She used to tie my shoes for me and kick my bullies in the shins.
The fact that she is about to become a mother is at once perplexing and the most sensical thing in the world. Gone is the black-eyed teen with a Peter Jackson Gold in hand and a penchant for ruffling the feathers of any adult who cared to give her an instruction. Here is the passionate and deeply nurturing person who is constantly clearing away people’s shoes and admonishing me for being late.
When I found out my sister was pregnant, I was very happy and also a little sad. The person I used to confide in about the apparent shittiness of motherhood was now about to embark on that journey herself. And for the past eight months of her pregnancy a bell has been tolling in my ears: we are not kids anymore, the clocks are ticking in the halls, everyone’s rushing for the last train, babies are falling from the fucking sky. And yet, I remain so unsure about parenthood I’m virtually impaled by a fence post.
Part of my confusion I think, comes from the synonymousness of parenthood with a happy and full life.
It feels blasphemous to question it and yet that’s all I want to do. Is it really that good? Do you feel further from you dreams as a parent (do your dreams even matter anyway)? Have you considered not procreating? What about global warming tho?
The sense you can sometimes get as a childless person who is of childbearing age, is that you aren’t cultivating a fully formed (complex and nuanced and iridescent with joy) life if you don’t certainly intend to raise children. Like the meal is lacking some crucial seasoning, and it’s just a bit bland.
But there are so many things that would be life altering, that you could do, that would change you forever at your apple seed core– that you’ll probably never do. Like quitting the job you hate, or climbing Mt Everest, or moving to New York. Does the obviousness (or acceptability) of the thing make it more crucial to a fully lived life?
There’s always been a lot of folkloric humming around parents being more fulfilled than their childless counterparts and I think most of my peers would assume this to be a sound précis. I mean, I did. Kids teach you sacrifice, they imbue your life with wonder, they add marrow to the previously hollow bone of your existence. Where there was once just little old you walking down the street, now there is pram and snacks and cacophonous, joyful babbling!
So, after some late-night googling, I was surprised to find that the research doesn’t really reflect that. It would seem there is nothing intrinsic about the experience of parenthood that makes a human more or less likely to experience happiness.
Depending on where they live, parents have actually reported being as much as 12% less happy than non-parents (no der, in Norway of course they’re happier). This seems to be because most western societies treat parents like crap and social policy doesn’t allow for the big job of raising small humans. Villages don’t raise children anymore; one or two stressed out adults do.
NB: I realise scratching around in the shadows of the internet at 11pm after two pinots doesn’t equate to very good research but I found this report by the Institute of Family Studies, this article in the Washington Post. Oh and Reddit threads like this, ad infinitum.
What’s more, as a woman, it can often feel like the role of mother is fetishized so much that it’s understood by almost every person on the planet to be the pinnacle of womanhood. To be a woman is to be a mother. Even women who aren’t mothers are placated on Mother’s Day, “but you’re a mother to Buffy your Pomeranian, Sharlene”. This is not a ground-breaking revelation, it’s not even a revelation. It’s just fact. Women have been raised with some version of a Baby Born in their arms, I had one that weed and pooed actually. Which I recall really loving.
When my own mother found out she was pregnant with my sister, she was 27 and it was 1988. She had just started working in publishing and she bore and uncanny resemblance to Princess Di. When the doctor confirmed what just so happened to be her worst fear, she was distraught. As a family we laugh about this now. Especially because in contrast, my father was so elated.
It’s funny to imagine my mum, young and tightening her grip on a career she loved, absolutely sure she didn’t ever want children, discovering she was pregnant. It’s funny, to imagine her crumpled on the bed, being half-heartedly comforted by my father, unable to hide his own joy at the prospect of being a dad. Her pain, fear, confusion – hilarious.
We’re terrible people.
Like Madonna, mum kept the baby because the alternative didn’t occur to her; she was married, she was 27 (late to the party by all accounts) and she was from a very religious family. These days she assures us that my sister and I are the best things that ever happened to her.
But I can’t help thinking that my 27-year-old mother was onto something; she was railing against the assumption that to be a happy woman is to bear children. And if biology has something to do with all this, maybe I inherited that.
Of course, all this is not to say that parenthood isn’t stunning in its beauty, opening you up to all kinds of sharp new feelings and the kind of joy that makes a chest feel close to bursting. I just don’t think it’s the only way to crack your heart open.
And I guess I’d just like it if we could do away with the absolutes and allow for people to be a little more contradictory, i.e. “I’d die a million times over for my kid, but I find the job of parenting a bit mundane”. The world is mostly grey, and a bunch of opposite things can be true at one time, to expect anything different seems reductive to the point of absurdity.
As you can probably tell, I’m no closer to hopping down from the fence and picking a side, I expect biology, or some mid-thirties revelation will do that for me, or perhaps I’ll die up here.
I am clear about one thing though; the road to happiness isn’t necessarily paved with Huggies.