I’m at that age  where some of my friends have teenagers, some have newborns and some haven’t arrived at the question: should I have kids?
And then everything in between – friends who are decidedly no, friends who tried to conceive but couldn’t [how can I tell you, tenderly, how sorry I am that there won’t be a piece of you, more of you in this world], friends who have lost infants and small children and friends who are in communication with their partner or a fertility clinic about how and when they’ll try to conceive.
It’s an age where many of us end up doing a lot of explaining our choices. I’ve seen one end of this in the subtle reactions to my friend Kat, who is 37 and visiting us with her youngest child, 15-year-old Luka.
Kat is graceful at introducing herself and alleviating the quick, curious glances between mother and daughter. “My son is nineteen,” she’ll explain, “one of the benefits of teen pregnancy is that my kids will both be out of home when I’m 40.”
Although I’m grateful that we live in an age when people in the western world mostly get to choose when to conceive [you can read my post about that here: Contraceptives: the real measure of inequality] – or not to bear children at all, I also think that such a wide window leaves many people reeling.
Kat and I met a couple in their early thirties with no kids last week that I knew a little and she had never met before. After Kat had said her above introduction, the woman cast a pointed, sideways glance at her boyfriend and said firmly “I think 32 is the perfect age to have kids.”
When I asked her why she thought that, she answered that she has really good health insurance right now with her job.
So this is America, where people base when and whether to have kids on how good their health insurance is.
But this woman had a point – when it comes to a big life decision like having kids, the idea that we are making a reasonable, calculated choice is a facade because we can never know what it’s really like to be a parent until we are deep, deep into the swan dive.
So we cling to some vaguely pragmatic reason like “I’m 32” or “I have good health insurance.”
When I asked him later if he wanted kids, on a blue inflatable raft floating lazily down the Kootenai River, the woman’s boyfriend looked around him and said “I’m not sure. My life is pretty good.”
Five years ago, I would have said something encouraging about having kids but lately I take pause in this conversation: I work hard at saying nothing. Because this guy and everyone who is looking at kids realistically deserves to be listened to: their message is clear.
Why would we have kids?
The next generation of fertile people in the USA is not stupid – according to figures from the CDC in 2017, birth rates have hit an all-time low of 62.0 births per 1000 women aged 15-44.
Americans already work so much, too much, and one thing you can say about having kids is it is work.
Our friend and housemate, Laura, has lived in our basement for the last two years. Laura moved in pretty certain she wanted kids one day, but has since has referred to living below two kids as “excellent birth control.”
Sometimes the contrast between our lives is comically different: while Laura uses her superpower of rolling out of bed five minutes before she has to be at work, I am up and working instantly: called to wipe a bum before I’ve made it to the bathroom myself.
I don’t say this with any bitterness or regret but have kids if you love to work from the minute you get up to the minute you fall asleep.
Parenting work isn’t just the physical labor of hauling our children around and doing the housework and work to bring in money to look after them. It’s also the hundreds of tiny decisions we make about our children every day, which start well before our kids can ask these questions:
Can I watch a show? can I watch another show? can I sleep over with a friend? can I have an apple? can I have an ice cream?
Parents need to become excellent at delegating because a huge part of parenting is taking care of yourself so you can function, which means outsourcing childcare and housework as much as you can.
I’ve noticed there are two camps when it comes to advice about having kids – the 50-60-year-old women who tell you to “cherish every moment” and “relish the little angels” [how did they forget so fast??!] and the realists, of which Kat definitely is.
Kat, a parent herself for 12 years then, told me before I got pregnant: “having kids is like being the designated driver. Your kids are off their faces. You have to guide them across roads and make sure they don’t stop to look at shiny things for hours in the alley. When they throw up, you clean it up and make them food. Then you put them to bed while they cry.”
Asking people whether or not they plan to have kids, and if so, when, is one of those questions that falls into the category of it ain’t my business – at times I’ve started my enquiries, genuinely interested and Haakon has melted away in a way that tells me “you are being nosy and overstepping the mark.”
I’m convinced asking people about their reproduction plans can be helpful – I want people to know that it is a choice, and they can get out of the riptide of societal expectation that children have to be part of the plan.
That it’s OK to not want to add work to an already full life.
The hard part about parenting is that we don’t get to jump into it fresh every day- our kids may well be angels from heaven but we can’t treat them like that because we are so.damn.tired and emotionally wrung out.
I do see the moments of glee and love between the endless bowls of uneaten oatmeal and tiny decisions and barrages of guilt.
But when you have kids, at some point the exhaustion will catch up and your responsibilities will hit you like a speeding train. The train is coming whether you are 18, 28 or 38.
The train will change your plans, as it did for me last week when a quick dip in the creek on a hot day turned into a counselling session for Atticus, who is six and worried about moving to Australia next week.
As Atty shrieked and kicked the water and trains screeched over our heads in the pool under the railroad trestle, I tried to find a minute to dunk under the water and cool off as planned.
Kids don’t wait until you are in a good mind frame to break down – they do it when everyone is stressed and we have to step up and be there for them, which sometimes feels like the hardest thing in the world.
After three long days of random screaming and being irritable and argumentative, Atticus said to me as we were driving: “I’m just scared.”
“Of what?” I asked.
“I don’t know, just scared,” he replied.
Those three days were rough – thank goodness for Kat, who laughed at me gently while I cried, so confused as to why my kid seemed so angry.
As we work towards our big move back to my hometown [Bega,Australia] next week, we’re doing it with our kids –
Serious, scientific Atticus wants a book about Australian insects as soon as we arrive and Calllie is mildly worried we’ll fall out of the plane and narrates everything with song.
And Haakon, who I loved so much I wanted there to be more of us. I remember vividly telling Haak in bed in the dark that I was pregnant with Atticus and the words hanging in the silence for awhile.
While I waited for his response, I told myself I could do it by myself.
And I heard a slow smile spread across his face and he said “well, that’s exciting.”
I wanted to have kids so we could have those moments of exchanging glances because our kids are so cute/infuriating/amazing/hilarious.
We do get those moments, but I never knew how hard we’d work for them.
Maybe if I’d really known I would’ve opted for no kids and weekends in bed with frothy coffee followed by long hikes and hours of uninterrupted netflix.
But the decision is behind us and I’m so very glad because it’s one that humans have not yet been well equipped to make.
It’s just so big.
3 thoughts on “Why having kids or not is the hardest decision you’ll ever make.”
Wow, Elka! You have an awesome gift for writing. You shined a perfect light on parenthood, the serene moments and the challenges. Having or not having children is the most important decision we will ever have to make. We are not only making a decision for ourselves but also for our children. Only, we do not get to ask them ahead of being born if they think it is a good idea to make us their parents. Luckily, some children are fortunate, like yours, to have parents that stand by them during easy moments and the difficult ones, too. Kudos to you and Haakon!
I love your honesty around the hard work that is parenting. I have met a couple of brave souls who have said that if they had their time again they wouldn’t have kids. It shocks people because it’s like they’re saying they don’t love them. But I know for a fact that they do; in fact they are excellent parents, they are just being honest. Mind you, they don’t tell their children!! Me personally, I definitely find it exhausting, but I could not imagine my life any other way.
Thanks for your thoughtful response Claire. It really is a taboo to express regret about having had kids, but I too, really admire those who do, as it opens up the conversation to help people who haven’t had kids make better decisions. So different for everyone! xxx