Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why Have Kids?

No sooner had I cleaned my seven-week-old daughter’s poop off my lap the other day (don’t ask) than my two-year-old tried and failed to empty a jug of milk into a teacup she had perched atop a stack of art books (you have to understand what a book fetish I have to fully appreciate how traumatizing this was). Why, I tried to remember, did I decide to have kids?

In his new book about America’s declining birthrate, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last calculates that the cost of raising just one child, when you factor in skyrocketing college tuition and hidden costs like lost second-parent income, now tops $1.1 million. “Children have gone from being a marker of economic success to a barrier to economic success.” As if that weren’t deterrence enough, Last notes correctly that “to raise a child is to submit to a staggering amount of work, much of which is deeply unpleasant. It would be crazy to have children if they weren’t so damned important.”

By “important,” Last means necessary for the maintenance of a fertility rate that won’t one day lead us to extinction. But preservation of the species isn’t what motivates most parents to have children; they have them for any number of personal reasons – when they do have them. Pets now outnumber kids in America, Last writes, by more than 4 to 1: “Pets have become fuzzy, low-maintenance replacements for children.”

It’s hard to blame people for preferring pets and freedom. Putting diapers on babies puts a damper on a freewheeling lifestyle. To be a parent – a good parent, anyway – means that from Day One the child replaces you as the center of your universe. “Having kids is, literally, no fun,” says Last. “Researchers have been studying the effects of children on their parents for decades and the results are nearly always the same. Having children makes parents less happy.”

So why have them? What compels people to make such a crazy commitment? I’m going to speak only for myself now, but one of my motivations was a growing sense of purpose. Lamenting the childless trend, Jonathan Last observes that “modernity has made us deeply unserious,” and that phrase resonates with me on a personal level. I waited a long time to have kids – I’m probably twice as old as the average first-time father – and one of the reasons I decided to have them when I did was that I had come to the unsettling realization that my life had been, well, deeply unserious up to that point, and it was now or never to turn things around and justify my existence. And that included wanting a family for the first time in my life.

But what about the studies claiming that children make parents less happy? Perhaps because I got a much later start, that hasn’t been my experience, and a new study actually reports that though parents may be less happy than the parentless in a superficial sense, their lives are far more meaningful. Bringing  little ones into this world who depend on you for everything forces you to take life seriously and to clarify your own purpose on earth. Purpose gives your life meaning, and when your life has meaning beyond the narrow and empty confines of aimless, ephemeral self-gratification, then you have a shot at real happiness.

In a 2010 article in New York magazine about parenting appropriately titled “All Joy and No Fun,” Jennifer Senior points out that

for many of us, purpose is happiness... Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.

Don’t get me wrong – there was a host of other reasons I decided to go forward with a family, chief among them the fact that I finally found myself with the right mate with whom to have one. But choosing to get serious and responsible about life was a driving factor. And despite all the poop and spilled milk, I’ve never been happier or more fulfilled.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/28/13)