Earlier this month The New York Times parenting blog ran a letter from a “Father in Florida” who has two young children but wishes he’d never had any.
This is his gripe: “My life’s focus is now providing for my kids…and I have slowly accepted the fact that all those personal dreams are pushed to the side because of that.” The specific aspirations he’s given up include “working on my master’s degree with evening classes,” “Playing golf on Saturdays and lazy Sunday mornings,” and “personal projects, like the book I wanted to write, or starting a consulting business on the side, or training to run a marathon.” To top it all off, he’s had to move to the suburbs, which has installed a soul-destroying 45 minute driving commute into his morning routine.
I admit, this letter got my blood up. Intellectually, of course, I understand that being a parenting is not for everyone and to each his own, etc. In my heart, though, I was less ambivalent. I find we react that way whenever anyone tells us they can’t stand something that’s important to us. If a friend were to tell me that he finds blogging as a genre to be tedious and self-involved, I’d understand his right to have an opinion, but of course I’d be a little defensive, too.
Anyway, after I’d calmed down I had a few thoughts relating to this regretful dad and the impact becoming a parent has had on my own extra-family aspirations.
The first, of course, is that the regretful dad clearly made a major miscalculation when he decided to have children, one that I think most people are able to avoid. He writes, “No matter how well prepared I thought I was, I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude of changes to my life.” It makes me wonder, though, how well had he really thought about the implications of fatherhood if he hadn’t realized that having two young kids was going to make it hard to play golf on the weekends?
The fact that his cause-and-effect reasoning is weak also makes me question whether his two kids really are to blame for his unfulfilled ambitions to write a book, start a company, and run a marathon. If he didn’t realize that having kids means the end of “lazy Sundays,” I wonder if he understands that training for a marathon isn’t particularly compatible with lazy weekends, either. Life is full of frustrations and unrealized ambitions and it’s unfairly reductive to blame all of his “what ifs” on his kids. Plus, he’s only in his early-40s! There’s time to write that book just yet!
My last point about the Florida Father is probably the least generous one of all. In general I try to be conservative about judging other people’s priorities. Who am I to have an opinion about what stirs your drink? Still, it’s hard not to conclude that his scale is off if it’s really super-duper important to him to be the “go-to guy at work, who can jump on a plane at a moment’s notice to go meet a client.” Isn’t it fair to roll an eye whenever anyone talks about being the “go-to-guy” for anything?
The biggest reason that I took issue with the Floridian’s letter, though, is that it didn’t ring true in my own life. Having kids has actually made me significantly more productive. To continue on the marathon tip, every spring throughout my twenties I’d start to fantasize about running 26.2 miles in the fall. And every year the dream would die of laziness and self-doubt by Memorial Day.
That is, until the spring of 2009 when Jay was born. When I became a father I thought to myself, “I need to become tougher and have endurance.” This thought sounds trite when it’s spelled out like that, but for the first year of Jay’s life it had a strong hold on the way I approached my days. I logged my training miles in the mornings, usually before Jay and Caroline were awake, and that November I ran the Philadelphia Marathon. I think it’s highly likely—maybe even certain—that had we forestalled childbearing a few more years I’d still be aspiring and failing to run that race.
When I was in high school I remember a teacher telling me that he noticed his students tended to do better in class during the months of the school year when they were on a sports team. His theory was that the time demands of playing on a team meant that kids had to be organized about when they were going to get their homework done. He thought students actually did better under these conditions than when they were awash in free time.
I find in most areas the same is true about having kids. When I do get a free hour I realize it might be the only free hour I get all day which makes me a lot less likely to fritter it away on some activity I don’t really care about.
This is not to say, of course, that I don’t have some sympathy for the Florida Dad. The last two years are littered with things I wanted to do but couldn’t because we have kids. The day Wally was born I was scheduled to go with a friend to see “Tree of Life” and now I’ll have to wait for Netflix, if I ever see it at all. I’m not going to a good friend’s bachelor party this summer because it would take years off Caroline’s life to have to take care of Jay and Wally by herself all weekend. And we have friends who just came back from what sounded like a wonderful trip to Beijing. I listened to them tell about it and felt a pang when it occurred to me that it might be a decade before I travel any farther east than home to Maine.
While it’s easy to make a list of the things I’ve missed out on because of Jay and Wally, it’s harder to quantify the ways in which they’ve made my life better. As a list of bullet points, going out to drinks with friends is obviously a lot more fun than pacing around our apartment trying to get Wally to fall asleep (as was the trade-off last night). But the main reason Caroline and I decided to have kids in the first place is that we wanted something more in our lives than a day-in-day-out perspective and in that view the calculation isn’t even close.