On Being a Parent
A few years ago, an earnest young friend asked me some rather embarrassing questions:
"Should I have a child? Can I afford the time and trouble?"
I answered bluntly that having a child is like buying a Lamborghini: if you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it.
It's a matter of priorities. Until your children are grown, most of your time, money, and energy will be spent in rearing them. Thereafter, at least emotionally (and sometimes in other ways), children are the gift that keeps on taking. If anyone is not prepared for this -- if they must weigh it against the exploitation of opportunities for pleasure or self-development -- then I don't think they're a suitable recruit for parenthood.
You may be chilled by my comparison of parenthood to the "Muppet Show" account of the ritual of Galley-oh-hoop-hoop on the planet Koozebane The rite is accomplished by the male and female of the species charging toward each other, howling their cries of passion. Upon impact, they are mutually annihilated, leaving a litter of four babies in their place. In the human case, a young man and woman are transformed into a father and mother.
The wonder is that so many people do make that choice. In primitive or rural areas, it's a social security plan and a way of recruiting a workforce. Elsewhere, most people don't really think about it; they do it because it's a thing that is done, But then, astoundingly, a large proportion of them rise to the occasion and do a pretty decent job of it. If it's sometimes done badly, bear in mind that it's one of the hardest jobs on earth and it's left to untrained amateurs.
This implies that the issue of having children should be paramount in selecting a mate. Both must agree about having or not having children. If the former, then each should perceive the other as being first-rate parental material.
"Did you really think about it? Did you have trouble giving so much up? Did you really have any idea what parenthood entailed?"
I didn’t think there was a choice. "Marriage", and "children" seemed indissolubly joined so that that you could not accept one and reject the other. I believed that, for religious, psychological, and biological reasons, sex without the begetting of children is literally coitus interruptus and inevitably entails a sense of incompleteness and unfulfillment.
If “love” is interpreted as meaning a delight in the fact that someone exists -- a desire to see them happy, and a willingness to make sacrifices to make or keep them so, then wanting to have children is a natural consequence of falling in love. When two people love each other, and are happy with each other, there is a tendency to want to expand that happiness to include others --such as by creating others to share that happiness. (This may explain why happily married couples tend to become matchmakers.) I suggest that this urge to expand the circle of love commonly expresses itself in the mutual desire to have children. I wasn't conscious of such thoughts but I may have subconsciously desired to replicate copies of my wife for future generations. As each child was born, my love for her was transferred to them. And as they grew up and developed into individuals, my love for each of them became unique.
"How do you feel about being a father? Are you proud of your children? Is it any fun for you?"
To paraphrase Miss Mae West: "fun had nothing to do with it, honey." That's overstating it; there have been indeed fun moments but that's not what I became a father for.
Love can expand one's joy. I loathe the term "proud of one's children." I take no personal pride in the accomplishments or successes of my children and tend to dislike parents who do so. Moreover, I never had any ambitions for any of my children except that they be good. But I am happy (with a few exceptions) if something happens to make them happy.
But therefore, love is always an acceptance of vulnerability to sorrow. If you love someone, you open yourself to the possibility -- sooner or later, the near certainty -- of being sad if something goes wrong for them. Being a rather pessimistic person, I worry about my children, about their health, their safety, and especially about their making decisions or having ambitions that will eventually make them unhappy. And their mother worries even more than I do; sometimes she lies awake nights with it. In this we are merely typical parents, who now realize ruefully how our parents worried about us. This side of heaven, love entails worry; that's what the word 'compassion' literally means. The only alternative is indifference, which is more soul-killing than worry.
But it's not all worry, by any means. We take joy in our children's existence, in watching their personality open and reveal itself, as a bud opens into a flower. And there is the bittersweet change as we watch a child grow into an adult, who hopefully will eventually become a close friend.
Do you tell your children how much you love them?
First of all, it's difficult to talk intimately in family reunions. There's too much going on, too many people talking at once. And then, although women seem to have no trouble confiding or displaying feelings to each other, it's usually awkward for men. A poem by Kenneth Fearing, written during WWII, is about as close as most men get. There is also a passage in The Curious Savage, that takes place between a delusional young girl in a nursing home and a wise old woman:
FAIRY: …no one has said they loved me this live-long day
MRS. SAVAGE: Why, yes they have, Fairy…I heard Florence say it at the dinner table…She said, "don't eat too fast, Fairy."
FAIRY: Was that saying she loved me?
MRS. SAVAGE: Of course. People say it when they say, "take an umbrella, it's raining" -- or "hurry back" -- or even "watch out, you'll break your neck"… you just have to listen for it, my dear.
And that's how it often is. My father never once told me he loved me, but he got the message across once or twice, with great embarrassment. A few years before he died, I realized I had probably never said I loved him, so I wrote him a long letter. My mother wrote back: "I don't know what you wrote your father but it certainly pleased him." I don't want to think about how I would feel now if I had never written that letter.
Maybe letters are the right way for parents to disclose their feelings. I can say “I love you” to my wife but can't seem to say it to my kids, except in writing.
So… I guess I just did.