A fun question indeed. Either one is tricky, but together: FUN.
As many ‘should’ questions are, asking this suggests you are affluent. Historically, marrying and reproducing were necessary for survival, or improving your quality of life. In some cultures it still is: the only way to move away from parents is finding a partner, and the only way to maintain a household is to reproduce. If you have a real choice that’s a good thing. Be happy to have that choice as in the history of our species this is rare.
My take is simple: if it will improve you and your partner’s quality of life, than marriage is a good thing. If it makes you sad, or miserable, or mean to those around you, then it’s a bad thing.
It’s seems there are three kinds of people (these are sloppy but bear with me):
- People who are good at relationships and being married
- People who are happily independent their entire lives
- People who are miserable no matter what they do
The problem is we are slow to sort out which we are, if we do at all. This fact, combined with how Americans (and some other cultures) romanticize marriage, is a dangerous mix. We place enormous pressure on a marriage to solve all of our problems and deny how much we have to grow individually to approximate the imagined superhuman bond waiting for us on the other side of a honeymoon.
Having children is a taboo subject for many. We have deep built in urges to reproduce, as the only reason you exist is you come from a long line of intensely pro-reproduction genes (Your ancestors who thought reproduction was dumb didn’t pass on that opinion). It’s culturally assumed, for that reason, that you will. Your parents and grandparents will default to wanting you to reproduce. Some people who have kids don’t inherently want to do it: they just never stop to think carefully, or spend enough time observing how miserable (some) other parents are, or how poorly a job some otherwise fine people do at raising kids. We don’t think clearly about it or feel comfortable asking all the honest questions. That’s the danger of taboos.
One dumb thing is those who don’t live together before getting married. I bet trial runs at co-habitation lead to lower divorce rates, as either people sort out their real intimacy differences before marriage, and grow through them together, or they don’t and they don’t get married ((This data suggests the opposite, however). For nearly any other major choice we make, we do trial runs when we can. I don’t see why marriage, as a concept, should be different. Same for pre-marital sex. If you hope to have post-marital sex, you should probably have a go before you put on the ring.
Children, as a concept, is an inherently good idea of course. We need them. But that’s not really the question. At an individual level, most reasons I hear for having children are selfish. There is status and ego wrapped up in having children, as your annoying parent friends on Facebook prove.
Logically we have plenty of children around already who don’t get enough positive attention: Nieces, nephews, cousins, and neighbors. Helping out existing kids makes great sense – they’re already here and need help. Adoption seems sensible (recycling for people!), and so does mentoring (like Big Brother / Big Sister), or volunteering in any kid-centric community type thing. Helping children in need that already exist seems far wiser for the greater good than creating more of them.
And of course, we all know plenty of people around us who are lousy parents, and many of us had lousy parents ourselves. But somehow all these factors go out the window when we hit that magical 25-35 age when all our friends start reproducing. Biology takes over and we get busy.
It’s interesting to look at what I call revenge parenting – adults who want children so they can do something for their kids that their parents didn’t do for them. It’s a reproductive version of fighting the last war. If pops was never around for you, your insistence on being around all the time for junior might make you overprotective enough (e.g. helicopter parent) from junior’s perspective that he’ll wish mostly to undue what you did to him, and give his kids more independence, which is pretty much what you had in the first place. Children do not inherent our context – they have their own. Parents who forget this forget it because they make parenting about them, rather than paying attention to the particular needs of the child they actually have in front of them.
Like most major decisions, self-knowledge is the primary tool. People who know themselves well enough to get on well with a spouse, and understand their rational and irrational motivations (for wanting to reproduce), are best suited for successfully pulling off a family. Those willing to study other families to get the context needed to see the flaws in the one they came from likely do much better too. The best parents understand their own biases and urges well enough to indulge them without confusing them for a child’s interests or needs. And they have the means (time, patience and love likely more important than money) to provide a child with the tools and opportunities to decide for themselves what place they want in the world.
But to achieve the points of the last paragraph requires forethought and consideration few people apply to anything in their lives, much less the pleasures of procreation. If you’re seriously asking if you should, you’re well on your way to exercising the kind of forethought required to be a good Mom or Dad.