"What are the odds that I will regret having children?" and weighty matters that a (post-)modern 20-something ponders

So, here is another one of those interesting posts that has been simmering, written and rewritten and rewritten again, since, um, March. I don't like to post this kind of thing too soon after I have written it, because it's more important for me to say what I mean. I'm also probably a little bit more hesitant to have people I actually know read these more-personal-than-some posts. Anyway, here goes nothing...

"What are the odds that I will regret having children?" is a question that was posted on Google Answers in October 2004. [Via the gameiam. Not surprisingly, there is no answer at this time, but there are 18 comments. I hereby admit that I don't really "get" Google Answers, or why anyone would ask a question on it.]

I must say that I have never seriously considered this question.1 However, I am glad that people who are afraid they might regret having children take those feelings seriously. It would suck for their future kids if they didn't. I was a bit disturbed that one of the reasons given for remaining "child-free" was that it was too much work for the woman because, of course, her husband wouldn't help with the child-rearing at all. Clearly, if I thought I would be married and still have to raise my children alone, I would think (at least) twice before becoming pregnant (or before getting married to a man who planned to be a non-involved father). I never intend to be in that situation (married yet acting as a single mom), though.

Anyway, regarding the "yes/no" question about parenting at all, I was never one of those people who declared, "All I've ever wanted to be is a mother," as some of my high school classmates did,2 but it was always clear to me that I wanted to be a mother along with whatever else I might end up being.

But being an unmarried woman, desirous of children, I have considered some of the questions raised in this New York Times Magazine article from March 19, titled "Wanted: A Few Good Sperm." I didn't think of these issues when I was 17 and first considered the issue of progeny, when it was abundantly clear to me that I would meet my future husband in college and get married at some point soon after graduation, by age 25 at the latest.3 Well, that didn't happen, which, by the time college ended, was fine with me. I learned a lot in college. One of the more useful things that I learned in college was that I was not ready to get married or even date seriously when I was 23 (my age when I graduated from college). I wanted some of the freedom, adventure, and carefree lack of responsibility for others that are described as reasons never to have kids here.

Between then and now, I've given some thought to the issues described in that New York Times Magazine article. I have also discussed it with a few single women friends who are around my age. Did single women in their 20s talk about this thirty years ago? Twenty? Ten? I suspect not.

The essential question is: What do you do if you know that you absolutely want to have children one day, but you're not partnered and don't know if or when you will be? In conversations with other women, these four main questions have come up:
  1. Do I have the social/familial support necessary to do this?
  2. Do I have the financial resources to take care of someone besides myself?
  3. How would I go about having a child?
  4. How do I time this? When in my life should I do this? How long should I wait for marriage?
I think that the answer to the first question is sort of a "yes" or "no" thing, although it's something that you can work on if you don't currently have it.

The answer to the second question might be more complicated, such as "not right now but if I decided I wanted to have kid(s) and that marriage wasn't in the cards then I would get my tail over to grad school pronto." (Note: I'm not saying that if I was married I wouldn't also need to go to graduate school or earn a decent living before procreating, only that bringing children into this world while living on one non-profit salary is untenable given the modest but comfortable standard of living that I want and expect, assuming I'd be paying for Jewish day school tuition and living in a city with a sizeable Jewish community. Two non-profit salaries, it's tenable, or one for-profit or otherwise decent salary. Or no Jewish day school and living far away from friends, family, and multiple synagogues to choose from.) I think being able to answer this question in the affirmative is a prerequisite to getting to the third question.

For the third question, there are more and more expensive, high-tech options for getting pregnant, but they're no walk in the park, certainly once you get past a certain age. (There are also low-tech options, which aren't options if you aren't having pre-marital sex or sex outside of a committed relationship, which, if you had, you wouldn't be planning on having children alone. Presumably.) Regardless, pregnancy and childbirth look pretty hard even for people who have supportive partners and don't need to be artificially inseminated. Adoption is another obvious (and good, in my opinion) possibility.

There is a fourth question, which is the issue of timing, and the one most directly addressed by the NYT Magazine article, which claimed that more and more women are going ahead and having children while they still have a shot at biological children, rather than waiting for marriage. That is, they're having kids first and worrying about the spouse later, since there are practical limits to the time during which you can have or raise children, and no such clear time limits on finding a life partner.

If you are okay with adopting and possibly never having biological children, then timing is not as important. If you want biological children, then you would need to make an actual plan that fit the status of your eggs, or be prepared for the expense, time, and hormonal/emotional roller coaster of infertility treatment. I have no idea what the status of my eggs is (presumably young and plentiful at 27, although studies such as this one, which says that fertility for women peaks in the mid-20s and begins to decline at 27, do not make me happy). The final cut-off for most women seems to be sometime between 35 and 40, though. Assuming that you need close to five years to "get yourself together" enough to make having and supporting a child possible, it would make sense to get serious about this stuff at some point between the ages of 30 and 35. Whew! I have at least 3-8 years before I have to think about this at all (at least not seriously--these kinds of ponderings don't count).4

Some of these feelings have changed as I have gotten older and gotten to see parenting from the perspective of parent-friends rather than from the perspective of the babysitter (i.e., myself). I'm not sure how I missed this all those years of being parented, but right now, parenting looks like a long, hard, selfless slog of sleep deprivation, worry, and always being responsible for someone else,5 punctuated by moments of great joy, happiness, and wonder about the miraculous ways of the universe. Supporting myself by working full-time has also changed my perspective in that I see how little time I have for other things.

Some people think that women considering having and raising children alone has increased the number of single women, since women now have other options for having babies. That is, women are rejecting marriage since that isn't a prerequisite for what they really want, which is children.

My answer: If you're only getting married because you want to have kids, that's a problem. That is, marriage as an institution is in trouble if women get married less because they can have children sans marriage. Obviously, marriage and children are related--some couples live together for years and only get married before starting a family--but sometimes I think that it's not a bad idea to separate the two. There are people who desire a life partner without desiring children, and there are people who desire children with or without a life partner. Obviously, it's easier to have children with a life partner, assuming the life partner is helpful and supportive and also wants to be heavily involved in his/her children's lives. But pursuing marriage with the sole or primary aim of having a co-parent doesn't seem fair to the person who ends up with that job.

One last question (or three): Is there any man alive who knows or strongly suspects that he wants to have children, regardless of whether he has a life partner or not? If not, why not? Wouldn't it make sense, evolutionarily, for men to like children as much as women do? I mean, propagation of the species and all of that?

One final note: As much as I know that I want kids, I sometimes feel that I am not cut out for parenting at all, and I am certainly not convinced that I am cut out for doing it single-handedly. Hopefully, I won't have to.

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1. At least since I was 17, when I decided that I absolutely must become a mother one day.

I don't remember ever not liking kids (caveat: not a big fan of loud kids or seat-kicking kids on airplanes, or rude or wild kids anywhere--I used to be more tolerant of such behavior), and I've been a regular babysitter since I was thirteen, even long past the age when most people would baby-sit. (This is at least partly because of my current profession and resulting lack of cash, but it's also because I enjoy being around kids. Well-behaved kids.)

But the strong feeling that I got when I was 17 and babysitting for a sweet little two year old was a bit startling. It was a strong, sudden desire to raise little people into big people one day. The little girl was fighting off sleep and so I had been holding her on my lap and reading to her, until at last, thank God, she fell asleep in my arms.
And she was so sweet and warm and soft, and all I wanted to do was to take care of her. As I sat there holding her, I wondered if I had been co-opted, unawares, by the biological determinists who thought that, as a woman, the urge to bear children should take precendence over anything else in my life. Did I want this so much because society wanted me to want this or because of some deeper biological urge to raise children? (It was more of a general procreative urge than any other kind of urge. And it was more of an urge to raise children than to birth them, meaning that adoption has never seemed strange or undesirable to me.) What did it mean, I wondered, to have an urge to have children totally independent from whatever desires I might have for a life-partner, a long-term relationship, or even for sex? I thought it was weird. I was only 17, for God's sake! (I know, in some places, 17 years old regularly bear children, but not in my world, then or now.) I knew that this wasn't something I wanted at the moment, but that it was something that I wanted at some point in the future. I decided that it was okay to want to be a mother, though. Even the feminists among us would support that, regardless of whether the particular urge that I had when I was 17 was biological or sociological in nature.

And, yes, I thought too much, even when I was 17. Thinking is a very pleasurable activity for me, even though I can sometimes drive myself crazy doing it. I do not want her life, although I don't think there's anything wrong with anyone who does.

2. Ten years out of high school, now a mother of two or three, and has a part-time job on the side. Also, as one might expect, a husband in finance, a house in the suburbs, and a mini-van.

3. Based on a survey conducted by our 11th grade English teacher, it seemed that most of my high school classmates expected to find their spouses in college--more boys than girls outwardly professed this desire, interestingly enough.

4. This would all be easier if I wasn't sure that I wanted children, and I could just say, "Well, if I meet the right person in time or ever then I will have children, and if not, not."

5. Some people have told me that all of this is much easier with one's own child than with someone else's child. I've heard that you actually want to get up to take care of your child in the middle of the night or at 6 am, wipe up vomit, chase your child around the playground on Shabbat afternoon, change diapers, and generally not mind all of the personal sacrifice so much. I wouldn't know, but hearing this gives me some hope.

1 comment:

Avi said...

Nope, it doesn't make evolutionary sense for men to want to raise children as much as women do. Men can play the odds by just having hundreds of children, whereas women don't have that option.

There hasn't been a change in women's desire to have children in the past 10, 100, 1000, or 10,000 years, while society has changed quite a bit over that time, so it's unlikely that society is imposing this upon women. However, if it makes you feel more in control of your desires to suspect that society might be pressuring you instead of your own biology pressuring you, by all means, go for it.