When Parents Say, "How Can You Have a Meaningful Life Without Kids?"
Photos by Jef With One F
If you've reached a stable adulthood but have not yet had any children, you've probably had people who have ask you when the hell you're going to get off your bottom and shoot your own half-clone into the world. This goes double if you're married. And depending on the tact of the people asking, you might get asked fairly rudely.
"One person even told me that I would wake up sad and alone, hating my life, if I decide not to have kids," said a friend of mine on an informal Facebook poll.
"I've been told it's unnatural for a woman to not want kids and that I should 'get help' for it," said another. "I've been told I'm selfish. I've been guilt-tripped for not giving my dad grandkids before he died."
"No matter what reason I give, people always lecture me about having babies," added a third. "I wish that it was not so socially acceptable to be so intrusive in the lives and decisions of others."
The consensus I get is that a lot of parents simply don't understand how a person's life can have any meaning without reproduction. Well, this weekend I had something of an epiphany on the subject.
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My wife and I got invited to a vow renewal, and though the bride and groom already had young kids of their own who would have a part in the ceremony children were for the most art discouraged. It started late, was being held at a fancy Woodlands country club, the food was crab cakes and filet mignon, and there was an open bar. Not exactly the sort of shindig you bring a five-year-old to, so we left our daughter at my sister-in-law's house for the evening with plans to pick her up after church in the morning.
Now, we had a great time, don't get me wrong. In fact, I'll say it's probably my favorite wedding ever outside my own, but certain thoughts started to occur to me as we were getting ready and once we came home.
My wife put on make-up in the bathroom, listening to Nightbreed Radio with no clothes on like she used to when we were young. Because I require far less to be put together formally I simply lounged quietly in the living room reading a book until it was time to change shirts. There was dinner at the wedding, so my only responsibilities were to make sure the dog pooped, feed the animals, and drive safely.
And once we were there we gladly accepted free glasses of wine and champagne, probably more than was strictly good for us. We danced, something I rarely did even when we were young and dating. We stayed out late conscious only of how tired were and a nagging desire to catch Doctor Who before bed.
When we returned home we were tired, tipsy, and relaxed. Deciding that following a time travel plot was too much work in our condition my wife went off to read in bed and I sprawled on the sofa clicking through nature documentaries. Pure, do as thy will sort of weekend.
Yet, the door to my daughter's room was hanging open and empty. I'd had to fight the desire to go check on her several times knowing she wasn't there. When I woke up the next morning I panicked because it wasn't from tiny hands tugging my eyelids demanding Count Chocula. We ate breakfast in an odd quiet. Not silence. We talked, but neither of us was interrupted with a question about camel humps or whether she could wear jammies outside.
Look, they tell you that having kids changes everything, and yeah, you really can't understand the extent of that unless you have them. You really can't. They become as much a part of your life as breathing or going to the bathroom. You learn to live in a constant state of awareness regarding their location and general health. It's like being in a freakin' escort mission level 24/7.
As nice as it would seem for that to be lifted even for a weekend, it's not. Not completely, anyway. You feel like you've lost a sense. Yes, we had a good time out, but it still feels a little abnormal. Why wouldn't it, after five years with the kid?
Even for people like my wife and I who each have growing careers, friends, interests, and hobbies, the sudden lack of constant need is jarring. You feel lost and awkward when it's gone for any significant length of time.
I imagine that most people who lecture and caution the childless on the meaninglessness of their existence are either jerks or people so eaten up with the American dream on the nuclear family that they don't even know they're being hurtful and rude. People kind of suck that way.
On the other hand, I wonder if some of them feel like I did this weekend. The childless life sounds rad, but you can't have both. You can't take both paths. Unless it's time at work, a lot of the moments I spend away from my daughter feel meaningless after what we've built together, just as I'm sure time being forced to care for children would feel meaningless to people who don't choose that path.
Having a kid does not make me better or smarter than someone who doesn't. It definitely doesn't increase my worth as a citizen no matter what the tax code implies. It has, however, forever changed the way I view the world. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as I remember it doesn't have any bearing on the way others do.
So to my childless friends I say this. MY life without my daughter would at this point feel meaningless and wrong. Five years of diapers and calming nightmares will do that to you. But don't let anyone ever convince you that your life doesn't have the same meaning to you just because you chose a different path. Without childless adults there would be no Nobel prize, Cthulhu Mythos, or the wonders of Tesla. Meaning in life is a journey, not a specific state.
You'd think people rearing children, growth incarnate, would remember that more easily.
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