Women worry a lot about how having kids will ruin their lives and destroy their careers. I worried about the same things before I had kids. After all, I was a busy professional with a full-time job. I never felt like I had time to work out or do my laundry or make dinner or anything. I felt like I spent all my time running around in circles just to keep the lights on and stay fed and avoid being buried under a pile of my own filth. And sometimes when I dug out from under that pile of filth, I’d say things like, “It takes so much goddamn time just to SURVIVE. I don’t understand how anyone does it.”
To be honest, I still sometimes dig myself and my kids out from under a giant pile of our shared filth and say the same thing. But when I look back on the old days, I realize that I spent most of my waking hours procrastinating, sulking, obsessing over trivial problems, and engaging in aimless tasks that added up to nothing. I’m going to bet you do the same thing.
But don’t blame yourself for that! It’s exceedingly easy to screw around these days. One minute you’re innocently looking up the weather forecast on your phone, the next minute you’re 132 tweets deep into an existential deconstruction of Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift’s tweet war. You’re only human.
Time-wasting abhors a vacuum. Even in the days before social media, we found all kinds of idiotic ways to fill up our most productive waking hours. I once watched a full season of a show called Paradise Hotel that aired for two full hours each week, and no one even knew what the show was about. It began as a way to get hot people with terrible personalities to make out with each other, but it ended as a way to get hot people with terrible personalities to rip each other to shreds using only their third-grade-level vocabularies. Now look: You just wasted precious seconds of your day reading about a shitty ten-year-old reality show. How did that happen without your even noticing?
There’s something undeniably miserable about your 20s and 30s, even when you’re advancing your career and you’re meeting great people and everything is falling into place as you hoped it would. There’s still a lot of extra time to eat yourself alive using only your own brain. It’s easy to be wildly judgmental and tremendously self-involved, even as you lament the self-involvement of the judgmental navel-gazers around you. People are boring. Parties are a waste of time. The internet is a black hole. The world is going to hell, and nothing is as good as it should be. This is how your brain shapes reality when you’re in your prime, because you’re young and you still look pretty good and feel okay without trying too hard and you have TOO MUCH GODDAMN TIME TO THINK ABOUT EVERYTHING.
When you have less time, that’s when you can finally ask yourself questions like “Is this really the career I want?” and “Do I even like my friends?” Which means you might actually shift your priorities in ways that improve your life for once.
And when the leisure hours you used to spend doing stupid, unrewarding crap are eliminated, that leaves only about three seconds to do stuff you truly love. You’re forced to ask yourself, “Now that I have exactly three seconds of free time, how do I really want to spend that time?” And then something strange happens. You TRULY SAVOR those three seconds of free time, maybe for the first time ever. You savor that time the way your little monster savors sucking on your favorite silk scarf or smearing poop all over your favorite armchair.
After a while, something else shifts: The time you spend at work — which is probably a little shorter now — feels less meaningless somehow. Work constitutes a break from wiping someone else’s butt, doesn’t it? So work starts to feel worth savoring, too. But since you probably have far less time to spend at work now, guess what? You become more efficient. You get shit done faster. You are more productive and you enjoy your work more — which, in turn, makes you even more productive. That increased productivity can lead to better job performance, raises, recognition — okay, let’s not get too carried away, these are brutal late-capitalist times we’re talking about. Your boss probably won’t notice how much more efficiently you’re kicking ass. He or she will probably only notice that your breasts leak every three hours. But you’ll notice, and it might make you feel a little more balanced and fulfilled.
Before I had kids, I had no ambition. None. I didn’t like working that much and I hated talking about work. I tried to think about my long-range career plans, but I just couldn’t. Even hearing the words “long-range career plans” made me want to take 1,000 bong hits. And my leisure time was no fun, either. I would go to parties with my fiancé and I’d leave saying, “Blech. I feel like I’ve been getting drunk and talking to the same assholes for two decades now. I can’t do this for another 20 years.” So mostly we sat around in my king-size bed eating aged cheeses and watching the shitty reality TV shows I wrote about in my TV column each week. Sometimes I picked stupid fights about nothing, because that seemed necessary and important. Occasionally I went on a run with my dog.
After I had my first baby, though, people seemed more interesting because I didn’t get to be around grown adults as often as I wanted to. Running with the dog even felt like a luxury in some ways. I cared more about the world outside of my head. And I cared more about what I wrote. I didn’t want to write anything that was a boring waste of time. That might sound pretty easy to avoid, but remember: I was a staff writer covering pop culture for an online magazine — see also: a Boring Waste of Time expert.
After I had my second kid, I wrote a memoir. Even though life was truly a hellish sharknado with shit and screaming babies where the sharks should go, I was laser-focused on both my babies and my future career as a writer of Not Boring Things. And my writing improved! Sure, I was panicked and angry and sleep-deprived half the time, but I stopped overthinking my work, and started trying new things. The clock was ticking down, after all. I only had a few hours a day to be brilliant; I had to make those hours count. I had to write with conviction. I had to pour my soul into it, or else. I was bloated and unshowered and flinty, but creatively, I was on fire.
Even though I had a small baby attached to my body and a toddler knocking stuff over nearby, I had more energy for new things. I wanted to write about new subjects. I wanted to write cartoons, and novels, and essays that weren’t about hot people going crazy from being idle for too long in paradise.
Now, it’s true that sometimes I look back on my 20s and 30s and I think, Jesus. I was so hot back then, and I was living in paradise. Why was I so angry and bored all the time? If I could just go back and be that sexy now instead of driving small, argumentative humans from one activity to another, I wouldn’t waste a single second of my sexy, sexy time. No way!
But that’s not really true. As the fools of Paradise Hotel proved so many years ago, having limitless free time and no direction and nothing to do isn’t paradise at all. It’s hell. No wonder we all drank so much.
Obviously, if you don’t want kids, having them won’t make you happier. But if you already know you want kids and you’re worried that they’ll ruin your life and destroy your career, think again. Kids don’t just bring a lot of joy to your life by being weird and funny and yes, annoying and loud, too. Kids also force you to decide what’s worth your time and what isn’t. Kids force you to focus on the things you love (yes, like your kids! But other things, too!) and to invest in those things with all of your heart. And as your kids grow up, those three seconds of free time expand into three or four hours of free time that you truly enjoy. Kids teach you how to enjoy your time, in other words, both by modeling enjoyment (usually by gnawing on something expensive or squealing at the top of their lungs) and by squeezing your free time down to nothing.
More important, kids remind you, with the vast expanse of years still in front of them, that your own time on earth is pretty limited. Recognizing that — and savoring the time you have left — isn’t hell, surprisingly enough. It’s paradise.