It never mattered who asked. Family, friends, or lesser acquaintances, men or women, married or single, parents themselves or not. I always had the same answer.
Yes, just not now.
During my mid-30s, I began to append a caveat: If I didn’t have any children by age 40, I probably never would. I didn’t want to be an old dad.
But the realization, that I’d rather not be a middle aged gray beard huffing and puffing while I try to keep up with the little rascals, opened a door. Whereas I’d previously assumed I wanted kids, just not now, the 40 year old expiration date I adopted forced me to question my pat answer and ask myself if I really wanted them at all.
After spending a couple of decades saying Yes, but not now, I finally realized something. There was never a “now” because I never actually wanted them. And I probably never would.
The generations that came of age after World War II made divorce mainstream.
As teens, they were still subject to intense social pressure to marry and have kids, which most of them did. But the Boomers became increasingly resentful of their parents as they matured, or in many cases, at least leery of their elders’ mistakes. They and the so-called Silent Generation (Depression and War babies) asked themselves: Must I really spend half-a-century and all of my best years in a bad marriage that I jumped into when I was way too young to know better?
As the 1970s unfolded, more and more of them decided the answer was No.
The U.S. divorce rate steadily climbed during the 20th century, and featured a brief jump after WWII. But it was the post-WWII couples who really destigmatized divorce. It reached an all time high in the early 1980s, when about half of new marriages were failing.
If the generations after WWII pioneered divorce, I’d like to think my generations, which came of age during the turn-of the 21st century, have pioneered not bothering.
We saw all of it growing up. The trauma of old style shitty marriages. The trauma of new-fangled, no fault divorces. And as we came into our own, more and more of us decided neither option was particularly attractive.
During the 1990s, as Generation X reached prime mating age, the marriage rates began a precipitous decline from which they’ve never recovered. As for cranking out babies, X and the Millennials are slacking. The current American fertility rate (births per one-thousand women aged 15-44) is only about half what it was 50 years ago.
More and more of us are fine with fewer and fewer of us.
I get along famously with children. To be honest, I get along well with a lot of people. I’m pretty easy going. But I get kids. Kinda how I get animals.
It’s not that kids are like animals. It’s that neither of them are much like adult humans. And in either case, they’re certainly not smart enough to really get you. So short of raising them, if you’re going to make a deep connection, you have to relate to them on their own terms.
I think that’s like trying to talk to a French person by speaking English with a French accent.
Relating to a kid on their own terms, so far as I can tell, isn’t about style. It’s about substance. Just like anyone else of any age, human or otherwise, it’s about relating to their interests and, more importantly, to the world as they understand it.
So when hanging out with children, aside from limiting my vocabulary, I talk to them more or less the same way I talk to an adult. I talk about what they’re into. And if you’re not generally around them much, that requires jogging your memory.
What was it like to be five, or eight, or eleven? What was funny? What was fun? What was annoying? What did you want to do that you didn’t usually get the chance to?
It can be refreshing to remember that life. They’re so free. It can also be a bit jarring. They’re vicious little sociopaths in some ways. Mean little drunks with quick tempers and short memories.
I just take them as they are.
Be physical, but on their terms. Bring them revelations without being condescending. Be silly, but still take them seriously. Share their joys and sorrows. Show genuine interest, which shouldn’t be hard, because they are genuinely interesting. Actually, most of them are much more interesting than most adults, to be perfectly honest.
Kids love me. And I really dig them. For a few hours at a time.
You know me. I’m the guy who winds your kids up, the unofficial uncle who puts big smiles on their faces, gives them back to you, and then disappears for a few months.
Over the years, various people have occasionally said to me: You’d make a wonderful father.
I’m always very touched. Of all the crafts one might master, there’s nothing more admirable than becoming a good parent.
But that’s not enough for me.
When I was younger, wondering about careers, lots of people told me I’d be a good lawyer. I don’t want to do that either.
Being good at something is very rewarding on its own terms. But that’s not enough reason to do it. Not when it entails spending three years in law school and passing the bar, or spending eighteen years rearing a life form and preparing it to go out into the world on its own.
I’ve never had any illusions about what parenting entails. I’ve always suspected that doing it well requires far more time and work than I want to put in. Christ, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s paying attention, that even being a shitty parent requires a mountain of work.
But at no time in my life have I ever wanted to dedicate about twenty years to the full time job of raising a child, even my own precious child. Hell no. I’m lazy, and I know it. I have a good life, and I know it. And while having a kid would make everything so much better in so many ways, it would also make all of it worse in many ways. So screw it.
Of course, given that attitude, I certainly understand why some people are inclined to think that we, the childless, are selfish for not having kids. Maybe we are; not that I really give a shit what other people think about my life choices. And if I’m feeling catty, I can turn it around very quickly.
Nearly seven and a half billion people on a planet that’s literally burning up from human activity, but your life’s not complete until you produce even more of them? Who’s selfish now?
But when I’m feeling generous, I deflect accusation of selfishness with a more thoughtful rejoinder.
Being a parent is the greatest responsibility anyone could ever assume. I know politicians and business leaders like to fancy themselves the world’s most important people. And far too often we indulge their conceits.
Oooh, you’re so important. You create jobs. You manage the economy. You start and end wars. Oh my. Aren’t you special.
Eh. They’re just the rich and powerful. Way overrated.
But parents? They create people. And they have a profound influence on the people they create, contributing mightily to making them healthy, happy, productive, kind, thoughtful, and all the other good stuff.
It is years and years of hard work, with an unfathomably intimate impact on other people’s lives. But it’s also completely optional.
No one has to have a kid.
So the way I see it, if you’re going to be a parent, you ought to really want to be a parent. It’s too important a job to sign up and then half-ass it once the initial wonderment wears off. There’s too much at stake for you to start down that path, then lose interest and do a crappy job.
So the most selfish thing I could do is have children. To sire little human beings so I could feed my ego, or chase näive fantasies about cute babies corralled by white picket fences. To create people and not be deeply in love with the idea of parenting them.
About five years ago at my sister’s wedding, when I was in my early forties, an elder relative made a last ditch effort to nudge me towards starting a family. Unknown to him, however, his big pitch only confirmed what I already suspected. Having a family, he told me, was both the best thing and the worst thing that could ever happen to me.
I didn’t have to think about my response. That’s a simple one for me, I told him. I’ll gladly pass up the best to avoid the worst.
Deep down in my soul, that’s who I am, and I’m happy with that.
A couple of years later, my sister had a baby. Now I’m no longer just an unofficial uncle. I’m bound by blood as well, responsible to my niece for the rest of my life.
The first time I held her, not too long after she was born, I thought to myself: Man, I am so glad I don’t have one of these.
I stared at my niece a bit, both of us a little dazed and lost in our own worlds as we faced each other’s unfocused eyes. Then I handed her back.
Later on, when my sister asked me what I thought, I was honest with her. At first she was surprised. But then she smiled, and I with her. We were both happy. We had both made the right choice.
This essay originally appeared at 3 Quarks Daily