Perhaps having kids saves you from mourning the person you might have been

Laura Hazard Owen
Apr 29, 2016 · 5 min read

This story is from I’ll Be Right Back, my parenting email newsletter that comes out on Fridays. Subscribe here.

It’s kind of a trendy sub-genre right now — as trendy a sub-genre, perhaps, as niche email newsletters — to write about the choice to not have kids. There’s so much good stuff to consume on this — see for instance this (plus Daum’s entire book), this — and it’s impossibly tempting for me, who did have kids, to read it all with a nervous mixture of being sure that I did the right thing for me and worrying, shit, what if there is something they know that I don’t.

Once you do you have a child, stressing about whether you’d be better off if you hadn’t seems like a pretty dangerous vein of self-investigation, and in the related genre of writing about how you thought you’d never have children and then you did, the conclusion is usually “yes, there are annoying things about having a kid but overall I just can’t imagine not having THIS kid, he makes my life so much better, etc.” I have never heard anyone brave enough to write the opposite with the exception of this one guy who responded to Laura Olin’s question (“Do you have kids? Do you have plans? Do you have regrets?” in her newsletter last year in this way, which has haunted me since:

Yes, we have kids. Two.

My wife and I (I’m male) discussed The Kid Question for a couple of years. She generally wanted them, I generally didn’t, and with the help of some couple’s therapy and other resources, I decided kids could be good.

We have two now, and I love them dearly, but even early on, when people would ask “Can you even imagine life without your kid?” I thought that was a strange question. Because yes. I have a good imagination, and it was really, really easy to imagine being able to go to a movie when I felt like it again, or go out to dinner, or whatever else. To have options, and more resources.

We’re almost 10 years in, and I have to say that yes, I do regret it. Don’t get me wrong; I love both kids immensely. They bring great joy. I want them to be part of my life forever.

But if I were able to travel back in time and make the decision all over again (and not remember the kids that I have), I wouldn’t have kids. I love my kids but I don’t really like being a parent, and more and more often I feel like the immense sacrifices of parenthood are almost worth it — but only almost. On balance, I wish I’d decided differently, even if it cost me the marriage.

I suspect my wife feels the opposite.

This is a bold and terrifying thing to say. (All of the responses she got, by the way, are here, in what has to be the deepest Google Doc you’ll ever come across, and you can subscribe to her newsletter here.)

I never questioned whether I should have kids. I was playing pregnant lady at the OB-GYN by the time I was four. (I made my little brother be the doctor! Weird!) I drew elaborate pictures of my family of eight children (husband: Keanu Reeves). By the time I graduated from college I was down to claiming I wanted four. I now have one and one more on the way and am fairly confident that two will be it, not least because I dislike my pregnancy boobs that are larger than a newborn’s head and I do not want to pay crippling daycare tuition into infinity.

In the past month I’ve gone on a couple childless/child-free work trips and it’s on these trips that I most feel my old not-a-parent self brushing up against my current parent self. It’s fairly trite to point out that there are annoying things about having children that are nonetheless outweighed by the benefits of having them. I mean, would I like to take an ice cube tray out of the freezer without someone ambushing me yelling “NEED AN ICE FOR MY BOAT!”? Would I prefer that my contact case not have been in somebody’s mouth because she was “drinking tiny waters” out of it? Would it be nice to leave the house without having four fights about how many pairs of underwear it’s acceptable to wear layered on top of each other? I mean…actually, I don’t know! Shouldn’t we all be doing more creative things with nature’s miracle ice? Isn’t it nice to be reminded that contact cases actually need to be sterilized once in awhile? Might it actually be practical to wear three pairs of underwear at once, just in case?

But it’s during solo travel, especially in New York City where I lived from the time I was 22 until the time my daughter was 18 months old, that I find myself feeling most nostalgic about life before kids. If there was ever a time when I felt so free, when every single path was still open to me, it must have been then.

Maybe it wasn’t, though. I’ve come to realize that what I’m mourning is not my actual past but the past of the person I might have been, if I’d been a totally different person. If I’d gotten up early to write novels, if I’d booked one-way tickets to other countries on a whim, if I’d ever really really really wanted anything as much as I’ve wanted to lie on a couch reading in a beautiful house. If there’s one thing I come back to, it’s that my dreams have always, at least if I had a few hundred thousand more dollars, been attainable. Further more, how far can you ricochet back in time to determine your actual, freest starting point, and how many decisions would need to be unmade for you to start afresh? I’m not going back and telling my four-year-old self to lean in.

Last week I watched my daughter and my college roommate and her husband walk together around the Harvard Museum of Natural History, happily telling each other that each animal was “gross,” and the main thing I felt was gratitude that my favorite people of past and present could be with each other, talking about how disgusting God’s creatures are. “They are very funny!” my daughter said of Elizabeth and Dave after we left. “They are very talking!” (First time she’s ever commented retroactively on someone else’s personality, and how perfect is it that she was speaking of the very person with whom I’ve had the most satisfying gossip sessions.) Perhaps if there is one thing you definitely gain by having children, it’s the chance to release yourself from any hazy, unfulfilled past expectations you held for yourself: For you to have the exact child you do have, it’s undeniable that that exact egg and sperm had to meet at the precise moment that they did. How could you ever fault yourself for not doing things differently, if the point was always to end up exactly here?

This story is from I’ll Be Right Back, my parenting email newsletter that comes out on Fridays. Subscribe here.

Laura Hazard Owen

Written by

I’m the deputy editor of Nieman Journalism Lab and mom of two.