Recently a friend of mine expressed an aversion to the screaming kids who were attending a summer camp in classrooms close to her campus office. With a laugh, she said she was happy to have further support for her choice not to have children.
The implication was that if she had children, they would seem like the summer camp kids: noisy, bratty, and not even particularly cute. But I’m ready to bet any amount of money that that’s not true. Her own children would seem vastly more charming and precious—even, dare I say, gorgeous and talented.
More important than seeming extra good-looking and gifted, there’s the fact that your own children simply matter to you more. Aristotle described this well when he said children are, to their parents, like selves, but separate. The sheer fact that I am me makes my affairs important to me in a distinctive way, and children have an importance to their parents that’s comparable to that.
Your own children seem terrific, they’re self-like to you, and there’s one more thing: you’re going to love them in an extraordinary way. Not only is there a special intensity to parental love, but there’s also a constancy to it. There’s always a possibility that romantic love will diminish or disappear, but parental love keeps going and going.
In light of all of all that, either my friend was wrong when she said the unpleasantness of the summer camp kids supported her choice not to have kids, or she was joking. I’m pretty sure she was joking, but if I’m right about what it’s like to have your own kids, should I speak up and recommend parenthood? I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her she’s got to go to Iceland, because I love Iceland and I know she’d love it. If I’m just as sure she’d be delighted with her own child, what’s the problem with also recommending parenthood? “You must go to Iceland! And you must have kids!”
But no, such advice would be misguided. For one, Iceland is going to exist whether my friend visits or not. But the decision she makes about having children, together with her husband, is going to cause a child to exist, or not. So she won’t just have an extraordinary set of feelings about the child she creates, she’ll have responsibility for that child. I can tell my friend she’ll adore her own child, but can’t be so confident that it makes sense for her to assume responsibility for a new person’s life.
And then, to be honest, the extraordinary nature of parental feelings brings both joy and pain. Even if you never personally experience tragedy, the possibility of loss hangs over parents. Anne Lamott expresses this perfectly in her book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. She describes her newborn son as sheer “moonlight”, but also has another reaction: he’s ruined her life, because now things could happen that would destroy her. Is parental vulnerability worth it? It’s hard to make the judgment for another person.
The unique character of parental feelings can also have other costs. We love our children in such a way that they seem self-like, and that can make it all too easy to shift our energies in the direction of our children. It doesn’t even necessarily feel like a sacrifice to exchange successes on the work front for more time with children; or to spend more time with children and less with a partner. But these shifts are probably part of the reason why, despite the delights of parental love, people tend to become less happy after having children, not more happy—a phenomenon explored by Jennifer Senior in her book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. The parent-child relationship starts to crowd out other sources of satisfaction, without that dynamic ever being obvious. I can speak to what I think my friend would feel for her own child, but not so much to the way parenthood would alter the whole ecosystem of her life.
Finally, there’s a mutually understood lightness to travel recommendations. You won’t have a worse life if you never go to Iceland. We all know that. In contrast, there is a heavy, normative undercurrent to discussions about whether people have children. The dominant assumption is still that you should—that childbearing is a crucial life stage for everyone. And so there’s no saying, lightly, that you must have a couple of kids, like you must visit Iceland. To recommend parenthood at all is to risk being taken as seriously critical of any other choice.
And so I will stick to travel advice. Though being a parent is more important to me than all the great trips put together, it’s not something I or anyone else can recommend.