I sat at my work Xmas party the other night between two twenty-somethings and two forty-somethings. I nursed a cranberry juice and an unplanned-for 6 and a half month pregnant belly and played the Berlin Wall as the conversation bounced back and forth about the pros and cons of having kids. (Me: quiet as stone. Them: each trying to understand what life was like on the other side of the divide, but getting nowhere.)
The fresh-faced ones said, “I think there’s a bit of a conspiracy of silence around motherhood. No one really tells you the truth about it. I mean, I just want to see a list of pros and cons, like I would make with any other life decisions.”
The veterans of working motherhood exchanged a knowing look.
They tried to explain that, once you’ve made a person, you can’t ever articulate regret over that because that would be like committing some kind of existential genocide: you just can’t undo a person that you’re responsible for creating. You can’t do that to them, you can’t do that to your own grip on reality. Any other bad decision you’ve made in life, to enter an ill-advised relationship with a lover, with someone else’s husband, a toxic boss, or a back-stabbing friend, whomever, you can wish undone. But not a human being that you actually brought into life. (At least, that’s what I think the knowing look meant.)
I’ve got a pros and cons list. I’ve been scratching notes into it for almost 20 years as people would make throwaway remarks (Me, at 26, jumping on a trampoline. 46 year old friend looks on ruefully and says, “I haven’t been able to jump on a trampoline since I had kids. My bladder just isn’t up to it.”) From the scary toll on your physical self (haemorrhoids, incontinence, sleep deprivation, varicose veins, stretch marks, sex life down the drain) to the evident toll on a relationship to the daily drudgery of taking care of another (thankless) human being, to the financial impact, loss of freedom, absence of Instruction Manual, terrifying prospect of having to go through high school vicariously all over again, loss of identity, and insurmountable challenges balancing professional development, self-actualisation, and the practical demands of parenthood, my list skewed pretty strongly ‘against’.
Last winter, I stumbled on this article, All Joy and No Fun, by a woman who broke the Code of Silence and told the truth:
Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. The effect of children on the life satisfaction of married individuals is small, often negative, and never statistically significant.
Which just confirmed my disinclination to have kids.
I had read an anthology of essays by writers debating whether to have children, Maybe Baby, and my conclusion was pretty much the same as the executive editor’s: remaining childless means you are more likely to be able to travel, live abroad for work, take physical risks, or inhabit the world of your fictional characters without being pulled into the demands of real ones.
“There was a richness and texture to their work lives that was so, so enviable.” Lori Leibovich
So, for 16 years, my partner and I were officially “ambivalent” regarding Destination Parenthood. We put off making an official decision, and as we got on with our lives, that procrastination was on the verge of making the choice for us. People stopped asking. No one, least of all us, expected us to get pregnant.
Creating a human wasn’t an act of will for us, but when the Universe made us the butt of a cosmic joke and those two little stripes appeared on the pee-covered dipstick, we committed to make it an act of willingness. At the end of the day, proceeding is our choice. So, we’ve spent six and a half months making psychic space, and physiological space, (“really? that’s my stomach?”), trying to open our minds and to hold physical space for a new person that we are (so irresponsibly) responsible for.
And I’m looking at that pros and cons list as closely as ever. And scratching into the ++ column:
the chance to touch Mystery.
That’s the thing about that Xmas party conversation. In the debate between “It just doesn’t seem very convincing or appealing” vs “You just can’t understand until you do it” – everyone is right.
That’s just how the Ineffable rolls.