Few decisions require so much time and care as whether or not to have children. After all, there is no going back. Knowing this, young couples often plead with friends to be honest: what is it really like? Naturally, the responses vary. For many, children bring more happiness, meaning, and purpose into their life than they ever dreamed possible. Others, however, will describe it as the biggest mistake of their life, telling you how it wrecked their marriage, ended their career, even ruined their body. So before deciding, think hard, speak to as many people as possible, and gather as much information as you can.
Getting to the Truth
It is often said that a conspiracy of silence surrounds parenthood. The British stand-up comedian Jack Dee, for example, once did a routine about the way friends pressured him and his wife to have children, assuring them that it is wonderful and has made them so happy. When they did finally have a baby, however, those same friends re-appeared, this time with exhausted, haunted expressions, saying “god, it’s so hard isn’t it!!”
Though Dee’s routine was meant to be funny, it was obviously based on real experience, and the laughter of the audience suggested many knew just what he meant. The truth is that a great deal of fear and uncertainty surround this decision. Those who do not have children fear that they’ll end up old and lonely while everyone else is comforted by loyal and loving families. But those who do have kids, especially when young, fear that they too will be left behind: that their childless friends will power ahead in their careers, experience fewer money worries, and enjoy happier and more secure marriages.
Another reason for the silence is simple guilt. Because they love their children so much, most parents hesitate to admit how hard it really is. After a few glasses of wine, however, they will open up about those moments of bitter rage and resentment, those days when you feel suffocated and trapped, like the slave of a screaming, selfish tyrant! Raising children is hard. It means sleepless nights, bad smells, physical exhaustion, and plastic toys all over your smart new apartment. But it also means joy, love, and a sense of meaning, purpose, and wonder such as you’ve never known. For some it is worth it; for some it isn’t.
It is a myth that having children always ruins a relationship. Some will even imply that any couple who do stay together do so only for practical reasons, as if love cannot possibly survive. In fact, sharing in the growth and unfolding of a child brings many couples closer than ever. Sadly, there are always those who take a perverse delight in assuring first-time parents that the days of romance and intimacy are over and that it’s bickering and resentment from now on.
Still, there can be no doubt that having children does put pressure on a relationship. According to Rick Hanson, a clinical psychologist and author of Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide to Health in Body, Mind and Intimate Relationships, “Most parents, men and women, say they dramatically underestimated how intensely demanding, stressful and depleting parenthood would be,” adding that, according to research, “on average the greatest challenge to a couple is becoming parents.” Hanson also cautions against the belief that having children will save a faltering relationship : “Some people think they will save their relationship by having children. It almost never happens.” And this is a very important point, one that needs stressing. The arrival of a baby exposes fault lines in a relationship. Indeed, according to John Gottman, a marriage expert based at the University of Washington, couples have roughly eight times as many arguments after starting a family as they did before!
Again, it must be stressed that having children will not in itself ruin your relationship. But it is vital to be aware of the potential pressures. First, and most obviously, you will have less time for one another. Relationships need constant care and maintenance. Once children arrive, not only is there less time for sex, both partners are usually too exhausted anyway (plus, of course, the smell of dirty diapers and disinfectant hardly puts you in the mood!).
More generally, there is less time for the little things that keep people close: the jokes, the hugs, the gossip about friends and neighbors etc. And yet, though parenthood means less time for sex and intimacy, the couple also find that they spend more time in the same room. In their early twenties, they probably led quite separate lives: seeing their own friends, doing their hobbies or classes in the evenings, pursuing a career etc. Now you have two people under one another’s feet but without the time and space to be intimate. And many find that they actually have little in common, or even that they don’t like one another much. Before, when their lives were filled with friends, parties, and hobbies, they rarely just sat, exhausted and numb, talking about dreary, mundane subjects, as they do now.
Women often complain that they no longer feel sexy or attractive. Instead, they are defined, even imprisoned, by the label “mother,” and many come to suspect that their husband views them as a cross between maid and au pair. This is especially galling for highly-educated women who have given up interesting or fulfilling careers to stay at home. Many also tire of the way family and friends ask solely about the children. For example, imagine a woman has been at home all day with the kids, settling arguments and cleaning up vomit. The couple hire a babysitter and go out for the evening with friends. At last, she thinks, I can talk about the latest films or novels. Instead, people ask her about nothing but the children. Extra-marital affairs often begin with a woman seeking reassurance that she is still attractive and that life goes on beyond the walls of the home.
Men, on the other hand, often become jealous. They will complain that their partner no longer shows them any interest or affection, that the baby is now the center of the house and that they feel like an outsider. If they hate their job and their wife or partner has chosen to remain at home, they may begin to resent this and to feel that they are being taken for granted – that they have been reduced to nothing but a source of income. This is why sensitivity and communication are vital. If such resentments are left to fester, the deep, unspoken bond between the couple will fray and snap.
Obviously, the effects depend on the nature of the relationship: how sensible and mature the couple are, how willing they are to share chores and responsibilities, and so on. And, a fact that is often overlooked, a great deal also depends on the personality of the child itself. Children aren’t all the same. Some cry more than others; some are more noisy, wilful or confrontational.
Understanding Your Motives
Perhaps the single most important thing to consider is why you want kids. Try to be honest. People shy away from this question, in part because they often know that their real reasons are different to the ones they claim. Many have children because they fear being left out. For example, friends and siblings start families and talk about nothing else. And, of course, they have virtually no free time. Therapists frequently treat unhappy, middle-aged women who reached their mid-thirties, whose friends started families and drifted away, who panicked, feared loneliness, and so decided to have kids – often against their instinct. This in turn meant they rushed into marriage, settling for a man they would have rejected 10 years earlier. And now here they are, exhausted, unhappy, stuck with someone they don’t even like, unable to maintain a career and full of regret.
The most common motive of all, however, is the simple fear of lonely old age. Again, people will be reluctant to admit this. Indeed, many will vehemently deny it. Interestingly, research has been conducted. Tanya Cox, a professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, surveyed nearly 4,000 men and women aged between 50 and 84 and concluded that “beliefs about childlessness leading to a lonely old age are simply not supported by our study.” Those surveyed were asked how often they had felt lonely in the last week. Cox found that whether or not they had children made no difference. In other words, those with children were just as likely to say that they had felt lonely as those without. Having children did not, in itself, guarantee anything.
Professor Cox concluded that two things matter above all. The first was whether or not someone really wanted children. Those who did rarely regretted the decision, even when the child caused them stress and upset. The second was whether or not they felt they ought to. Women in particular still feel pressured to have children – not just by family and friends but by society in general. And, as feminists rightly point out, whereas a man who doesn’t have children is often considered a free spirit, a woman who chooses not to will be thought cold or selfish.
The truth is that having children, like so many things in life, is a leap into the dark. Even today, the question of what exactly forms a child’s character still divides the room. In every one of us, genes and environment combine in unpredictable ways and, to put it crudely, you never know what you are going to get. You also have no idea how you will respond. Countless people who claim to have no maternal or paternal instinct find themselves besotted with their new baby and unable to imagine life without him, while others, who long dreamed of parenthood, find the reality a terrible shock.