You don't hear many people admitting this, but on our 5th wedding anniversary I'm ready to commit it to writing:
I chose to have kids because my now-husband wanted them. Full stop.
It's not that "the patriarchy" got to me, or anything else structural or abstract. I had spent my entire adult life planning to remain childfree by choice. My parents hadn't pressured me for grandchildren. I faced no apparent stigma or rejection as a non-mother.
But I met Byrne (thanks, OkCupid) and fell head over heels within days, if not hours, if not minutes. In getting to know each other, I came to learn that he definitely planned to have children. The thought of him continuing on to form a family with someone else made me feel like I was about to lose my lunch. So I suggested in various casual ways, such as lengthy impassioned email, that we ought to get down to it.
After all, since I'd dropped out of grad school a few years prior to that, I hadn't done much with myself: mostly dabbling at a revolving door of freelance work, surfing the internet, and drinking heavily on weeknights.
This is the way I thought of it at the time: upon reflection, I didn'tactually have some pre-existing, weighty undertaking that I ought to protect from the likely effects of parenthood. If Byrne's kids ended up crowding out some of my random bullshit (while also arriving along with other kinds of value), then ok.
(The way I'd put it now is that there was a meaning-shaped hole in my life. The pain from these meaning holes isn't always acute. But meaning holes don't tend to go ignored forever).
The details having been settled, there was no point in treading water. I moved into Byrne's apartment a few months after we'd met. We eloped at lower Manhattan's City Hall on our first dating anniversary, ripped the bandaid off our fun "spontaneous" lifestyle, and started "trying" immediately.
I strongly suspected that the kids would seem self-justifying post-production, but conceiving on purpose felt weighty to me. I harbor a deep streak of melancholy. I suspect I have a lowish baseline happiness setpoint, and I know I encounter a considerable amount of emotional turbulence. Moreover, I cannot dismiss anti-natalist arguments out of hand, like so many of even the most admirable thinkers seem to.
The first month following our wedding, I got pregnant - and promptly miscarried. Had I dodged a bullet? Lost a "baby" or a "clump of cells"? Did my reaction to this experience reveal that I really did want a baby? Or maybe that I really didn't? I still don't know. The event was physically unremarkable, but that almost made it more confusing.
That miscarriage was only the first chapter in my ongoing saga to understand life and death. You can try to think about these things on your own timeline, but most of the most poignant life & death lessons arrive at the doorstep instead.
Before I ever had a baby to hold in my arms, my body had first become a site of something or someone's demise. As my second successful pregnancy took root a few months later, I wondered each day: so will this one die in there too? Or will she wait until she gets out? Dark.
Well, almost 4 years ago now, the baby (my first daughter) was born alive. In for a penny, in for a pound - my second daughter was born almost 2 years ago. Weary from anticipatory grief and flooded with a surprising natalist fatalism, I briefly resolved that it'd be a good idea to produce lucky #3 in the middle of my dad's terminal illness. Biology complied, and that pregnancy stuck more firmly than did my ephemeral confidence in pursuing it. My son is now 6 months old, a living timekeeper of how long my dad has been dead.
At first the roads not taken appear vividly in the mind's eye. It's easy for me to point to the large and well-priced studio apartment I gave up to get married, and the rewarding job I quit to "stay at home." I'm not the first mother to notice that giving birth bifurcates a woman in some sense, sending her day-to-day life afield while her real, higher self remains glued in the past or in the clouds. Or, think of the baby as a tiny magician who cuts that smiling lady in half, sending her brain one way and her leaking boobs and hugging arms and tired feet the other.
But, only 5 years into this whole parenting enterprise, I no longer have any grasp at all on where I'd otherwise have gone, what I'd otherwise have done, who I'd otherwise have become.
Some of my counterfactual childfree life probably would have been great. On the other hand, I shudder at the thought of having faced my father's decline and death alone in that fantastic studio apartment, still dating on OkCupid. Everyone notices that responsibilities hold you down. But only some people ever come to appreciate that responsibilities also hold you up.
The reasons people have kids seem diverse, but at the end of the day they're all cut from the same cloth. Choosing to have biological children is always and everywhere a confrontation with mortality and the meaning of life. Parenting contributes to many individual and social technologies for managing the supremely peculiar task: living self-aware and with a shimmer of godliness, stuck in the broken bodies of beasts.
I knew that my children would become a way of striking some kind of deal between my animal and distinctly human parts. I felt determined to make an intellectual journey of it. I couldn't foresee the depth and directions this would take. So much has changed for me, and yet it's only just begun.
A few years back, people sometimes used to ask if I "liked" "being a mom." Words escaped me in answering such a straightforward yet simultaneously ill-formed question. My alternatives have been fully lost to the sands of counterfactual time. I can only look through my motherhood anymore - not at it.
Pamela J. Hobart - Philosophical Life Coaching Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.