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We’ve got a great life going. Let’s not spoil it.
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 9, 2009
I had a great childhood, full of country walks and art projects and picture books. My parents loved each other and they loved me and my siblings. I was not, despite all this, a particularly happy child.
I have a great adult life, with a wonderful husband, a demanding but stimulating job, warm friends and a nice apartment in a leafy part of the city. I am not, despite all this, a particularly happy adult.
I don’t think this is a huge problem. I’m prone to introspection, I often find the world confusing and upsetting and at times the human race makes me despair. So I work hard, study for my doctorate in my spare time, take long walks in the fresh air, read novels, look at paintings, choose pretty clothes and love my husband. These things make life meaningful for me. Oh, I’m 38.
My husband had a troubled childhood with parents who never liked each other much and have lived separate lives for decades. He was sent away to a residential school. He was reluctant to get married because his childhood made him cynical about marriage and family. His role models were artists and musicians and he wanted an urban life of coffee bars and foreign cinema and experimental music.
We did get married and it has been wonderful. But now he says he is struggling to find meaning in his life. His old role models don’t look so good anymore. Now maybe he’d like to find a different identity. Maybe he’d like to make a proper family and undo his old cynicism. He wants to do that with me.
Cary, I never wanted to be a mother. I don’t much like children. I don’t want to give my body over to someone else. I’m scared of childbirth. I don’t want to go to mommy and baby groups. I like to read books and I need lots of sleep. I need to work, and not just for the money. I’m not a happy person and I think I might make unhappy babies. There are too many people in the world already.
He loves dogs. I also love dogs. A dog would be good. But not a baby. What should we do?
What should you do? What you’re doing: Think it through. Discuss it. Take your time. Figure out what’s going on, what has arisen in your husband’s life to make him think maybe he wants a kid, what social pressures are at work, what unseen longings, etc. Don’t just have a kid even though you don’t want one just because maybe it might, uh, make one of you a little happier!
Studies cited in this 2008 Newsweek article as well as more recent research indicate that having children does not increase happiness. It’s, of course, a perennial topic here at Salon. You could read the book we published about this. We’ve all weighed in, ad nauseam and to our occasional embarrassment. Our conclusions, though they differ, all rest on the assumption that 1) it is a personal and complicated choice that intelligent people must make consciously and 2) um, in the end, you kind of have to trust your gut.
We all struggle mightily with this stuff, as we struggle mightily to build our new, godless, secular humanist world! This new, godless, secular humanist world has kids in it, but it also has people in it who don’t have kids and aren’t freaked out about not having kids. It has people in it who admit, OK, I’m not the happiest puppy on the block and that’s OK. I think hard about the tragic inequities in the world, etc. I am not a trivial, smiling happy person! It has people like you in it! And people like you do not have to have kids! We just have to stick together on this, because there are social pressures always at work. If you live in a nice, happy, hip neighborhood that’s suddenly full of strollers you maybe start thinking you’re a little off, a little strange, a little out of it, if you don’t have a brood.
Your husband may be having a crisis of meaning, feeling unaccountably empty, disconnected, without grounding and community, without moorings in the continuity of life. When one reaches a point like this, the idea of having kids may well spring to mind. One may look around and think that what makes other people happy will make one happy as well; one may forget that what meager happiness one has eked out so far from life has been hard-won, that the few fragile truces one has hammered out between conventional morality and one’s innermost beliefs were reached through ruthless honesty about who one really is. Well, sure, one feels exhausted. Sure, one feels that other people get all the breaks. They are the majority. We are the minority.
So stick to your guns and have faith in the kind of clear-eyed problem-solving that has worked for you so far. Do not abandon your core principles and beliefs. Rather, adjust. See how new pressures have arisen, new needs, and ask how can your current arrangement meet these new needs? How can you meet these new needs for community, rootedness, a sense of connectedness to the sacred in life, the wonder of childhood, etc.?
When we creative, non-generative folks reach a certain stage in life, we begin to look around to see how we can be of value to our community, perhaps to our country as well. We see that though we are not parents, we have much to offer the future. We try to see how we might become involved.
I suggest that your husband sit down and take stock of his life. List the things that make him happy. You say he wanted an urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars. Does he have that? Why is he discontented? How involved is he in this urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars? Is he directly involved with a creative life or is he an onlooker? The greatest satisfaction seems to come from doing, not observing. If he feels restless and disconnected perhaps he needs to embark on a creative project in which he is deeply, personally involved. Perhaps he needs to be of service to his community. There are so many ways that we secular urban folks can meet our needs for connectedness through unconventional means! We start urban gardens! We organize against injustice! We create public art! We amuse ourselves together! We go to the movies! The dream of happy secular urban bohemianism lives on! It does not require babies!
But in and of itself, not having a kid will not address the deeper question. The question is how to find connection and meaning in life, how to feel more authentic and more “right” about what one is doing. How to feel, like, yeah, OK, what I’m doing is right for me, it makes sense, I’m where I belong, doing what I was meant to do. How do you find that? By doing what you’ve been doing all along, and being who you are.
Does that sound like a cop-out? I mean it sincerely.