I’ve never thought of myself as the kind of person who judges the choices of others. This is, in fact, because I don’t actively, consciously choose to do so. I’ve always held strongly to the notion that everyone has different priorities and preferences in regard to how they live their life, and that simply because I would choose or have chosen something different, or even if I outright disagree with their choices, I still uphold their right to make that choice. Of the many life choices we make, the decision to have kids or not is arguably the biggest one, because it changes your life the most and is largely the most irrevocable. You can get a divorce. You can change jobs. You can move to new cities. You can do and undo almost anything – except having kids (unless you’re a monster who abandons your children, but let’s assume none of you are.)
I never thought of myself as the kind of person who judges other people’s choices. But after spending enough of my life with kids and without, I can’t deny what I really feel: It’s a perfectly fine choice to never become a parent, but there is absolutely no chance that your life will be as full or meaningful, or that you will learn as many essential truths about existence, as you would if you had kids.
Because when it comes down to it, there are certain truths about life that you literally cannot know until you’ve become a parent. The list of those truths could go on forever (no, it really could), but the core truth behind all of it is about what human life is about, how we relate to each other, how to care for each other, and the tiny moments that, in the end, are what we do all this other shit to support.
Our lives – our careers and the things we want – are ultimately born from a desire to create a safe, happy space for ourselves within which moments of joy can occur. That’s it. That’s really it. And that – among all the things I just listed – is something that maybe you can learn from other life experiences, but trust me – I’ve had a great many life experiences and learned a lot from them but none of those lessons are illustrated in such stark, bright clarity as they are from your experiences and emotions you have as a parent. They are diluted in comparison to having kids.
Watching a new life come to exist and seeing your child discover everything for the first time, from their nose to snow to seeing Terminator for the first time, and develop language and social skills and the first time they feel an emotion for the first time and you see all of that and a million other thing happen organically…when you get to see first hand what feelings and thoughts and personality traits occur naturally, what we’re born with versus what we are taught…literally every moment of being a parent, if you’re thoughtful and observant, is a mind-blowing opportunity to learn the most basic things about what it means to be human. There is not a single other thing you can do in your life that gives you access to that. It’s like living with a constant reminder of what life is about in a way that gives tangible meaning to that (and every other) cliché.
I’m not saying you can’t have a happy life without kids. Of course you can. You can be happy making all kinds of choices, because people are adaptable and have a remarkable ability to make the best of things. You can also be happy as a racist, but that doesn’t make you an especially great person. I’m not saying that kid-free people are bad like being racist is bad. I’m simply illustrating the point that happiness does not equate to living a great life. My actual point is this: I don’t think people are somehow bad or wrong for not having kids – I just think it’s really, deeply sad. I feel tremendously sad for them.
Why do I feel sad for people without children? Because they’re missing out on this incredible thing that gives you an entire new scope of what it means to love, and to give of yourself, and to care for someone else more than yourself. It’s an insanely powerful thing, and it challenges you to deal with the intensity of that. How do you love someone so much that you care for them more than you care about yourself but still force yourself to have a balance and take care of yourself? What is the difference between being actually selfless for the sake of someone else versus doing things for other people only for the sake of what you might get out of it, even if what you get is just a good feeling? Because with kids, you often do things for their benefit that don’t feel good, and there is no thanks, but you do them because it’s just…what you’re there to do.
Which is another thing: Having kids doesn’t have to be your primary and sole focus in life, although for some people it is, and that’s a valid pursuit for sure. But even if you have a booming career and active social life and don’t focus 100% of your time and attention on your children, they are still the center of everything. They are this centralizing, grounding force that, by the weight of their importance, puts every other part of your life in perspective. When you don’t have kids, the hierarchy of your priorities is constantly shifting, with all the things you care about – friends, career, romantic partners, etc. – always vying for top spot. Once you become a parent, no matter how the breakdown of your day goes, no matter how you apportion your time, your children are undoubtedly, unquestioningly your absolute top concern. Having that kind of focus makes it easier to put all of the other life shit into order. That’s hugely powerful – and actually makes you more efficient at everything you do.
A common argument against having kids is the desire to be as ambitious as you want to be in other regards. It’s the desire to have a huge, full, accomplished life that leads so many people to make the decision to forgo parenthood altogether. My rebuttal – and the experience so many parents would agree with – is that instead of slowing down your life, having kids gives you a monumental incentive to live life with more purpose and excellence than you otherwise would. When I got pregnant for the first time, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to devote the energy to my career that I wanted to. I was afraid I would get bogged down in mommyhood and everything else I had been working for would stall out under the pressing obligation of that new role.
That is the opposite of what happened.
Suddenly, all the plans for how I envisioned my life took on new urgency. Before, I had wanted to create a wonderful life for myself, but now, I was looking at the prospect of creating a life for someone else’s benefit, and it turns out that was like a supernatural fire lit under my ass to get serious about accomplishing everything I had previously thought I had all the time in the world to do. I didn’t stop wanting all the things I had wanted pre-pregnancy – in fact, I wanted them much more intensely, and suddenly had renewed drive and clarity about going after them. I ended up accomplishing more during my pregnancy and in the years after having my first child than I did in all the years before.
And I think that’s what it comes down to: You absolutely have more free hours in the day and less on the line when you’re going through life without kids, but that doesn’t inherently make you capable of accomplishing more. When you have more on the line, you can react in one of two ways: You can crumble beneath the fear of failing and the stress of juggling everything, or you can use the presence of your kids and the compulsion to give them an amazing life as motivation to make your life as big and fantastic and full of lovely things as you always wanted. And on top of all of that, like I said, you get the unique experience of getting to learn so much about what it means to be human, what it means to love, what it means to truly commit to someone, and the incredibly liberating, tragically indescribable perspective that comes from creating another person.