Written for my son’s first birthday
Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on why I chose to have a child.
I realize this sounds backwards. To make the decision first and then subsequently come up with reasons for it smacks of after-the-fact rationalization. However, in my case, I’m convinced it’s an accurate description of what happened.
Make no mistake, parenthood wasn’t something we jumped into without preparation. Elizabeth and I thought about it a lot, discussed it at great length, even debated it with ourselves and with each other. But there are some questions where reason can only take you so far, and this is one of them.
You can sit down and run the numbers to work out whether you’re financially prepared for the costs of having a family. You can ask yourself whether you have the maturity to respond calmly to the vicissitudes of a child. You can reach agreement on how to divide up parenting duties, what arrangements you’ll make for childcare, or what hobbies of your own you’ll have to give up to take on the huge time commitment that children require. But the decision to become a parent means accepting there are more contingencies than you can ever plan for.
Before our son was conceived, I was haunted by the thought of having a severely disabled child who’d never enjoy the independence or the quality of life I wanted for him. I worried about having a bad seed, who’d turn out to be a criminal, a sociopath or a failure in life despite everything we tried to teach him. I feared some unforeseeable tragedy striking our family, where all the love and hard work we put into raising him could be snatched away in an instant. But more than anything else, I worried that I would be a bad parent: that I wouldn’t know how to respond to his needs, that I wouldn’t be able to handle the responsibility, that I’d become bitter or resentful.
I know that to some people, this isn’t even a dilemma. I have friends, both men and women, who’ve known all along that they wanted to be parents more than anything else, and who willingly accepted the risks and the burdens that came with that decision. In a way, I envy their certainty. It must make the path so much clearer and straighter. But that’s not me. (I also know people who are certain they never want to be parents, and that wasn’t me either.)
To be clear, I did want to be a parent. Our son was very much wanted, and we were overjoyed at his arrival. But I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t also a lot of ambivalence mixed into this decision.
In the first few days after his birth, those feelings, the good and the ambivalent, were both hugely magnified. Holding him in my arms outside the delivery room was one of the happiest and proudest moments of my life. But in the first few days, and especially the first few sleepless nights, I had flashes of self-doubt and dread, vertiginous emotional moments that swallowed everything else. More than once, I grappled with the thought, “Oh shit, what did I get myself into?” As much as I told myself, in the cooler rational part of my mind, that millions of people from all walks of life have babies each year and the vast majority of those kids turn out just fine, it was hard to feel emotionally convinced of that.
But it did start to change, so gradually I didn’t notice it at first. Some time in his first few weeks, in that patchwork of moments of exhaustion and exhilaration, frustration and tenderness, a quieter feeling started to intrude. It was a creeping sensation of wonder and love and terror, born from the knowledge that there’s a new life in the world and it’s utterly dependent on you for everything. By the time I noticed it consciously and could put words to it, it had already overtaken me.
The only thing I can compare this feeling to is a gravitational pull, invisibly reshaping time and space and drawing everything into itself. Like an explorer surveying a strange new planet, you don’t feel the strength of its gravity until you try to break away, and then you find yourself caught in its orbit. It reminded me of what I’ve always said as an atheist: that the power to shape our lives is in our own hands, and this is a vast responsibility and a joyful liberation all at once. It’s the same feeling with children, only more powerful by an order of magnitude.
I don’t put much stock in evolutionary psychology in general. Nevertheless, it’s true in a deep sense that the reason for our being here is to reproduce ourselves. To the extent this can be said about anything in nature, it’s what we’re “meant” to do. It’s the impulse that drives all creatures, the thread that links us all to our ancient common origin in an unbroken chain of life’s continuity. And it ties us not only to the past, but to the future as well. It’s a statement of hope that the world will continue and that we have a part to play in shaping what comes next.
To be clear, I’m not saying that there’s a duty to reproduce. Evolution’s purposes don’t have to be our purposes. I’ve always said that all children should be wanted, and that no one should become a parent unless they’re sure they can shoulder the responsibility. Now that I’ve become a parent and have firsthand experience of how heavy that responsibility is, I believe that more than ever. But for those of us who do choose it, it’s the gateway to an entire realm of life and love that you’d never get to experience otherwise. When you learn to embrace it, gravity’s pull is a reassuring stability. It lets you know where home is.