I don’t remember a time in which I didn’t know having kids was difficult. Playing house even seemed to be a reminder: “Oomph, this is a lot of work. I need a nap.”
From my own mother, from the television shows I watched, just from that sort of societal osmosis that occurs, I knew children needed a lot of time, attention, care, things. But it never once occurred to me that all of that time and attention could amount to stress and unhappiness. When you’re a child, yourself, becoming a mom or dad when you grow up is just what you do. It’s what the grown-ups do.
Something has changed in our culture, though. It’s not just that women are having kids later and often not at all because of their careers and a greater acceptance of just deciding not to go down that path. It’s that the demands of having children are being portrayed as increasingly soul-sucking on every TV show, in every movie and in every magazine article.
The 2011 release of “Friends with Kids” was, for me, perfectly timed with my entering my mid-20s. Since we never seem to actually feel as old as we are, the realization that in a few years, I would have to start really, seriously considering whether I wanted kids was starting to hit me, like an out-of-body experience. As an adult, I had no idea how I felt about having kids. Playing house and seeing happy families on TV as a child had evaporated into the self-obsessed, spontaneous years of college, job hunting, moving out on my own, making a new life for myself. Even as I evolved, how would a family fit in?
I saw “Friends with Kids” and thought oh, that’s how a family would fit in. Whatever relationship I would be in when I had kids would be effectively killed - and not a quick, merciful death, but a long, dragged-out ordeal rife with mental warfare and verbal torture. I would never sleep again, or have five minutes to eat a meal at a table or put on mascara. I’d never see my friends again unless they were willing to scream-talk over my kids’ wailing while dodging flying toys in my living room. Why would anyone do this?
A string of similar movies followed “Friends with Kids,” just as the new trend in TV was to document the agony of parenting, like on the FX show “Married.” The show centers around Nat Faxon and Judy Greer as Russ and Lina Bowman, a married couple trudging through stress, debt, lost dreams and wavering attraction toward each other, all of which seems to have stemmed either directly or indirectly from their having kids.
The show is smart and funny, so it’s not easy to write off as an exaggerated view, and instead it seems like a painfully real reminder that having children can cause you to give up your treasured career goals, your hopes of affording a nice home, and your intimacy.
And then, there are the essays. The “Why I Chose Not to Have Kids and Now am So Incredibly Fulfilled I Can’t Even” essays. Have you seen this one, for Harper’s Bazaar? Or this one, for Huffington Post? Don’t forget the lists, too. 10, 50, even 100 reasons not to have kids or to be glad you didn’t have kids or to be jealous of people who didn’t have kids. These lists are even more effective in their arguments because of their cold, cutting reality. They are short, right-to-the-point examples of concrete situations you can imagine yourself in all too easily.
Sometimes these stories and lists end in fable-esque twists like “but every single one of these 214 reasons is worth it when my little bundle of joy smiles,” or “none of it matters when I think of the fulfilling bliss I’ve brought into my life,” but that insight seems like an afterthought, even if the author didn’t intend it as such. The damage has been done. The scales are tipped way into the opposite extreme: it’s nice that every now and then, a lovely sentiment about having kids is shared, but it’s not nearly enough to hold up the argument for procreating against all the reasons not to.
Oh, I’ll love my kids? That’s cool. But I really don’t want to, oh, I don’t know, according to the whole internet, never sleep in again, never shower again, never spend a day not covered in projectile vomit again, never grab a cocktail with my friend again, never splurge on that something I’ve been dying for again, never read for a few minutes in peace again, never eat chicken that isn’t breaded and cut into the shapes of cartoon characters again. Some of that seems selfish, sure, but some of that is also just about wanting bodily fluids to remain in the body.
Besides, it’s the whole movement toward not seeing women who decide not to be mothers as selfish that’s opening up the airwaves for all these opinions. And that’s a great thing - nay, a fantastic thing. It’s a vital step forward for women that motherhood be seen as a calling that some are strongly pulled toward and some are not, no judgment allowed, instead of something all women have to do be considered women. The side effect, though, has been this sort of relief to be free to express anti-parenting thoughts in an overwhelming explosion.
We’ve gone from the more repressed years where you had to pretend the idea of having children simply thrilled you to pieces to now, when everyone seems to be saying “Finally! I can tell you why kids are THE WORST!” Where is the middle ground? Presumably, scores of women had kids when they maybe didn’t want them so much back when it was just the thing you did according to society. Everyone said you should and everyone said it was great. But now that everyone seems to be saying you shouldn’t and it’s not great, will women who are on the fence get cold feet and decide not to have kids, and then regret it later? We need both sides of the story so we can make an informed decision, one that is right for us and only us.
I need more perspectives and more possible outcomes from shows, movies, essays and articles. I think a lot of us do. I’m nearing the big 3-0 and I work as a writer in New York - read: none of my peers are even thinking about having kids. We’re so far from a decision that it feels too stressful, so we just don’t talk about it. Our careers, friendships and relationships are more pressing and so much easier to deal with, even at their most complicated.
All I have to go on are my own parents, who are obviously biased. They wave off all my fears, every time I meet them for dinner having just read a new article, telling me that yes, they still had time for phone calls with friends (“You napped, like, perpetually,” my mom says – some things never change) and no, neither I nor my brother ever vomited in a path that cut clear across the room and onto the drapes. But they’re my parents, and aside from my teenage years, they’re not going to tell me if I ever made them miserable. Besides, they’ve got a horse in this race: they want grandkids.
So, I look to the media, entertainment, and frankly anyone who would like to stop me on the street and tell me their honest experiences. Tell me what will be an absolute nightmare but tell me what will be an absolute dream, too. Give me the pros and cons I can start to make my list with so I can decide what’s right for me, so my friends can do the same, so undecided women everywhere can do the same.
We don’t have to pretend having kids is the only way anymore, but that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it’s totally lame and awful and not worth doing in any case, either. If there are any women out there who are totally harried, frenzied and stressed, who have lost a lot of sleep and a lot of budget space and a good amount of sanity, but who still see their friends every now and then and get to carve out, say, fifteen minutes of “me time” sometimes and still feel like they probably won’t murder their significant others any time soon, give me a shout.