Human reproduction is a subject I find difficult to have a consistently clear view on. In the grand scale of things, there are more people on the planet than the earth has resources to continue supporting. When the deer population in the UK was nearing 1.5 million a few years ago, experts advised shooting 50% of the population every year because of the dangers of too many deer “eating vegetation of important woodlands” and “reducing the number of woodland birds – especially some of our much loved migrant bird species like Blackcap and Nightingale.” These experts offered up “harvesting the animals for meat, to make a cull ethically and economically acceptable” as their best solution.
And yet, 7.3 billion and growing human beings are working through all accessible bodies of water (the US alone uses an estimated 136.5 trillion litres of H2O every day), acres of land (the estimated annual US grain consumption is 200 pounds per capita) while polluting clean air with various toxic energy sources (global coal consumption has grown faster than any other fuel source since 2000). But no one thinks to intervene.
That’s because we rarely think about the whole world when we make what seem like very individually-driven decisions. Which is why when I am in close proximity to little humans, I can’t help but smile. They are so untainted and curious, I think to myself, full of potential to contribute more than they consume! Unfortunately my smile makes their parents quickly assume I want to make my own. “He’s cute, isn’t he? When are you thinking of having kids?”
“Gosh I hadn’t really thought about it…” I have to lie. The truth is, I have no clue whether having children is something I really want to do at all, and it’s too controversial a response to bring up with already-made parents.
People don’t automatically need to make something if they appreciate it from a distance. Those fancy bakeries with multi-layered cakes in the shape of the Eiffel Tower don’t make you think “Amazing! I need to get home this instant and make one of those!!” Instead, we admire the dedication of whichever baker spent a significant part of his life making this piece of art. Some of the more cynical questions which might be quietly pondered include “does it taste nearly as good as it looks?” (But again, too controversial to ask parents whether their kids are always on such good behavior) and “how many failed cake attempts came before this one was a success?” (Yet again, probably too controversial to inquire whether this is one of those parents who treat their children like products, harboring a secret older son just finishing his stint in rehab, as if parenting is the same thing as being an entrepreneur or a singer, where all the failures don’t count as long as you end up with a one hit wonder to show for it). But instead of asking any of those socially unacceptable intrusive questions, you’re forced to kindly respond to the socially acceptable intrusive question: when are you thinking of having kids?
Perhaps it’s a good time to admit that I don’t necessarily not want a kid, or even kids with a multiple s. I have no doubt that kids can be really fun and rewarding. I have heard (sometimes without asking) the testimonials from vocal parents who claim that your life changes entirely once you have children (“your life becomes bigger than just your own, and you no longer live for yourself!!”).
At first glance, these statements are a beautiful testament to the selflessness which must be embraced in order to become a good parent.
At second glance, these sentiments are a scary reminder that having children means losing the right to place yourself first and to think of decision making in the context of what is best for your individual future (not because you’re a brat, but because most of us have been raised to think this way in order to have reached whatever moderate “success” we may enjoy at this stage in our lives). For us so-called twenty-somethings, even the biggest decisions we’ve made are still reversible. Our careers, our surroundings, our specializations can still be molded and remolded if we feel strongly enough that they ought to be. Yet the decision to have children can never be reversed if it turns out that having a child doesn’t lead to the self-fulfillment anticipated. That means that it is a huge decision to have children, and should not become an automatic or assumed one.
Writing this I am on my second glass of Chablis, my favorite white wine, and it’s approaching 5pm on a sunny bank holiday Monday. I plan to take a short nap, potentially followed by a leisurely walk to the market to pick up fresh meat and vegetables for dinner. Or, given I’m on my own tonight, I may even stay home and scour the fridge for what might generously be referred to as “makeshift tapas.” Either way, following this I’ll continue planning my next trip and read one of the many books piling up on my bedside table. Or maybe I’ll just go to sleep unreasonably early because I didn’t sleep enough this weekend and I have no other direct responsibilities except those to myself.
I’m not saying that these simple pleasures cannot be had with children (barring the nine months without wine, per child, bit) but rather that it is a lot more difficult, and probably less romantic, when it’s no longer just you, or you and your partner, sashaying through life. Bank holidays are no longer an extra vacation day, where you can sleep in late with your significant one, enjoy more time indulging in your respective hobbies, work through the film or book archive, and visit distant friends. It’s actually an extra day which you need to fill with activities for the children. And indulgences are no longer direct rewards for working hard at your job, but rather the opportunity costs of not investing more into your child’s education or experiences. Once your life is “no longer just your own,” finding the right balance of investing time and money into your children versus yourself is difficult. How does one ensure they create a good environment for their children, while maintaining enough resources for themselves to not resent having missed the chance to (for example) indulge in more glasses of Chablis in the future?
Bank holidays are a small part of it. Those of us who truly enjoy putting ourselves first (before you shake your head to say “not me!” consider whether you enjoy the rewards of your day-to-day work – be it the income, recognition, or intellectual stimulation, whether you have hobbies or passions that you devote time to, and how few times you failed to volunteer to babysit the children of your friends) – most of us it seems! – will know that time is the scarcest commodity we have. Further, if we are already under time pressure doing things we find valuable and rewarding, it will be particularly difficult to divest it from those activities in order to risk creating something else, despite that something else also being potentially valuable and rewarding. The logical conclusion then is not that only those without passions and individual pursuits should have children, but rather that we must as a society acknowledge that the more individually-driven people are, the more difficult a decision to have children might be.
Some women hear where I’m coming from, yet this dilemma is frustratingly difficult for a man to understand. Even the most sympathetic of them, who plan to be excellent egalitarian parents once their children are born, will never have to pay the upfront incubation cost. A fault of biology which didn’t grant the gift of choice to prospective parents: akin to two people deciding whether they want to have a cake, despite only one of them owning an oven. Of course ambitious women can still finish a beautiful novel or run a business and give birth to twins in nine months, just as much as it’s possible to sift flour while writing, or watch the clock to ensure the cake doesn’t burn while managing projects under deadlines – it’s possible, it’s just not very easy.
So perhaps the frustration is more a consequence of the way our institutions have responded to this lack of choice. Instead of imposing paternity leaves and aiding couples to manage children together, many firms still only provide maternity leave, sending an implicit message that women are the only ones who should take time off to raise their children, while men don’t miss a working beat. Perhaps there is a problem with giving credence to “faith-based reasoning,” which argues that every seed (despite being many weeks away from resembling a flower!) deserves to be incubated, instead of educating parents about the financial and emotional investments which are needed to raise a healthy, intelligent and well-intentioned child. Perhaps the problem is that we’ve been lousy as a society to empower mothers and fathers to feel that they can actively elect to become those roles when they are ready, instead of passively accepting them as a must.
Yet despite inherent and environmental inequality, smart and ambitious women continue to choose to have children. Many of them accept a number of sacrifices, meanwhile seeking strategies for continuing to pursue their individual interests. We can only hope that they have partners who work just as hard to do the same, withstanding the anticipated relationship stress and volatility to grow new members of their home in partnership.
These exemplar partnerships are encouraging. I’m not a role model of patience and I get distraught when things don’t come out as imagined, so I’ve rarely attempted baking difficult cakes. However I’ve become more open to trying recipes with my partner, who has enough patience and forgiveness to compensate for that which I might lack. We do recipe research ahead of time, decide which one we can challenge ourselves to make, and walk or cycle together to get all of the ingredients. When we’re baking, one of us might forget a step or get tired, but the other is always there to help and take over. Once the cake is done and out of the oven, it sometimes doesn’t quite look as we had pictured, but it often tastes better than we imagined. Over a glass of wine, we occasionally debrief on what went well and what could be improved on for next time. Creating with another person helps ease my strive for perfection and encourages an openness to simply making something which we can remember as being our own. And sometimes, I even forget that we’re always baking in my oven.