My house is quiet. Quiet and clean. My daughter just left (again) for college, and my son left for a three-night retreat with his high school class. My husband and I, in anticipation of a rare weekend of faux childlessness, have planned the ultimate staycation: great restaurants, horseback riding, margaritas on the beach and the other thing that parents do more of when their kids are not around. In fact, we look very much like the happy and relaxed bathing-suit-clad couple that was featured on Time magazine’s Aug. 12 cover under the headline “Having It All Without Having Children.”
Ironically, I first saw the Time cover when I was sitting in the orthodontist’s office waiting to hear how much it would cost to redo the braces on my daughter’s teeth, which had returned to their pre-braces twisted existence. The orthodontist had just informed me the redo was less than the first go round, but still stunningly expensive. Think long-weekend-for-two-in-Honolulu expensive. More money flushed down the Child Drain.
And I knew that my fate — bored to tears in another waiting room while my child racked up another expense — was exactly the fate that the childless-by-choice interviewed by Time were actively trying to avoid. But I also knew that those potential mothers and fathers did not “have it all” as the title suggested. Not even close.
The married women who were interviewed for the article gave very rational explanations for choosing not to procreate. One said, “It takes all of you, and I don’t know that I want to give it all. If we decided to have children, we’d have to grieve the life we currently have.” Another explained, “I get to do all sorts of things: buy an unnecessary beautiful object, sleep in, spend a day without speaking to a single person, send care packages to nieces and nephews, enroll in language classes, go out for drinks with a friend on a spur of the moment. My plans — professionally, daily, long term, even just for vacation — are free from all the contingencies that come with children.”
Essentially, these women did two quick calculations.
Calculation No. 1: Life Without Children = absolute freedom to focus solely on oneself = having it all.
Calculation No. 2: Life With Children = loss of absolute freedom + financial restrictions = not having it all.
In short, the math didn’t add up.
Because the equation these women are performing includes the loss of freedom that parenthood causes, but does not add back in the benefits of motherhood, “smart” women are choosing more and more to opt out. And it is no wonder that these women don’t quantify the perks of becoming a parent: In one of life’s greatest catch-22s, it is impossible to understand what parenthood is until you actually become a parent.
People who don’t have children think they understand parenthood because they had a pet, or baby-sat their nephew, or worked at a camp, or saw a bored mother sitting in the waiting room of an orthodontist’s office. But that is like saying that you know what a kiss is like because you saw one on TV or that you understand what war is like because you read a book about it.
One woman interviewed for the “Having It All” article complained, “So many women take my choice personally.” It is not that mothers take your choice personally. It is that we have been both childless and mothers, so we are in a better position to compare both lives. It is not that we are judging your decision; it is just that we feel like you may have made a decision without considering what you are giving up.
We want you to consider a few other things when calculating the Great Life Equation and then decide. Things like:
• When you are a parent, you appreciate your own mortality because you have another person relying on you to live.
• When you become a parent, your emotional bandwidth expands. No high compares to the happiness you feel when your child is happy. No low compares to the sadness you feel when your child is sad.
• You get to witness one of life’s great miracles: the transformation of a baby into a person.
• Children make you start caring about the future of the planet in a different way.
• You can (partially) repay your parents for the gift of your life by giving them grandchildren to love.
• You finally have something in your life that is more important than you, which (hopefully) makes you grow up.
• When you are someone’s parent, you get to feel important every day.
• Parenthood pushes you to be your best self because you know your child is watching.
So my house is quiet and clean, and I was able to write a column without any interruptions. I got a small taste of what my life used to be like before my life was changed for good. And I have to say, it wasn’t bad. But having it all? Not even close. A loud, messy house, a dwindling bank account and being a parent — now that is having it all.