It was April, 1986. I had just turned 24 and was walking with a friend in downtown Santa Cruz, pushing my eight-month-old son in his stroller. We stopped at the corner and glanced at a newsstand. Splashed across the front page was news of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.
My friend and I were anti-nuclear activists; we knew what this meant. Our conversation shifted instantly to prevailing winds, and how long it would take the fallout to reach the placid breezes of the Monterey Bay.
On both of our minds but unspoken was what this meant for Bowen, the cherubic boy in his stroller. We’d had variations of this conversation for over two years: how could I even think about bringing a child into this messed-up world? In the face of this unfolding nuclear nightmare, neither of us had to say that my leap of faith now looked like the height of folly.
“The Heart wants what it wants ” —Emily Dickinson
I knew I wanted to have children young long before I knew what I wanted to major in in college. Having a baby was a primal urge, but it was accompanied by a nagging sense that it was best to start a family before… I didn’t know what, but it felt like something big was going to happen soon. Mixed in with all those hormones, I wanted my kids to be old enough to survive whatever the future held.
In preparation for getting pregnant, my boyfriend and I shocked both my staid parents and our hippie anarchist friends by having a big wedding in 1984. Because why not? In the year of Orwellian discontent, flagrant displays of optimism seemed like the best move. And even if our activism failed to change the culture, at least we were meeting the unknown with courage and joy.
A year and a half after Chernobyl, I was in San Francisco with my new baby girl, waiting for a ride from my housemate. He pulled up to the curb with a wide-eyed look, saying, “It’s really happening—the Dow has crashed!”
Our collective house consisted of five adults and four children. None of us had any investments, so Black Monday didn’t wipe us out, but once again the grim conversations took place: were we well-situated enough to survive an economic collapse? And what were we thinking, bringing a new generation into this mess?
Finding my own answers to these questions took decades. Meanwhile, the world did not end. By some crazy miracle we did not suffer a nuclear winter, a game-ending California earthquake, or a complete financial apocalypse. And while there is no end to the doomsday scenarios that today’s prospective parents can worry about, here’s why those fears should not determine your choices.
Safety is an Illusion
Raising kids is hard, and takes more time than you can even imagine. It also makes you much more vulnerable to disasters of any sort. But the biggest tragedies you will likely have to cope with will be from out of left field. No matter what your income level, you can’t insulate yourself against everything. So stop measuring your readiness in terms of protection, and find realistic ways to mitigate risk.
When my son was eight—old enough to read the “Missing” signs on every storefront in Northern California—teenager Polly Klaas was killed. This horrifying event caused every parent I knew to restrict their children’s outings, keeping them close and not letting them out of sight for an instant.
Bowen chose this moment to announce that he wanted to walk a mile to the store. He had figured out the streets in our quiet neighborhood, and wanted to set off on his own for a short adventure. The right thing to do under normal circumstances was to let him go. But now? We would be lucky if no one had us arrested for letting him walk alone.
I didn’t want to be reckless, but at the same time I thought the local climate of fear was vastly overblown. Giving in to it would send the wrong message to Bowen just as he was learning to be independent. So I found a middle way: he took a kids’ self-defense class to sharpen his awareness and learn some powerful moves and language, and I let him walk to the store.
Find a Way to Move Past Fear
If your habitual response to the unknown is fear, you will probably not have a lot of fun raising children. On the bright side, the regimen of parenting is an excellent way to overcome it. Because no matter how bad things are, you will need to get off the couch and make dinner or put the kids to bed. And while they sleep you’d better find a way to sleep, too.
Kids are not harmed by adversity, and they learn from our example that humans can rise to any challenge life throws our way. If they see us facing the unknown with as much courage and intelligence as we can muster, they will instinctively know to do that in their own lives.
Here’s the key: the more courage and joy you bring to raising a family, the happier your children will be in the long run.
Dig Deep to Find the Gold
Looking back, that foreboding I felt about having a family was not a premonition of the Big One. It was not a sign that we should move to the backwoods and start growing sprouts. It was simply fear, and in some ways that’s the good news: at least I was smart enough at 22 to know that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
What I learned is that the daily struggle to move past fear, to release anxiety and tolerate uncertainty, is not just good for our kids to see—it’s when parenting really starts to change us for the better, too. Each time we have to dig past exhaustion to bring forth some love and caring, we tap into a vein of gold. Our old reactive habits gradually get worn away through this practice, and we find reserves of strength we didn’t know we had.
If we let it, parenting increases our emotional resilience and makes us more attuned to luck and serendipity. As one year passes into the next, we gradually see the value that accrues from every small courageous, joyful act: amazing, strong, vibrant young adults who are more than capable of living their own dreams.
It’s a ridiculous investment, especially when times are hard. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.