‘Should I Have a Baby?’

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Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty Images

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Hi Polly,

How did you decide you wanted kids? I’ll be 32 soon and am still on the fence. I’ve always been on the fence. Until a few years ago, I always said I didn’t want kids and that I even hated kids, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that I actually like kids. They’re usually funny, and smart, and cute and look at the world in an upside-down way that is great. My husband says he would regret never having a child, which puts pressure on me. I’ve always felt pressure to have kids, which used to make me angry and obstinate. Either way, I’m still JUST NOT SURE. Some days I think it might be a good idea and other days it’s the last thing I want to do. My two main worries are (1) I will regret childlessness when it is too late but (2) will dislike motherhood and regret having a baby. Also, I just don’t feel “incomplete” without children like a lot of women describe when they talk about building their families. I feel content now.

Part of what I think would be awesome about parenthood is teaching my kid stuff and having fun with them. When I was little, my mom would lie in the grass with me and find shapes in the clouds, let me bread the fried chicken for dinner, teach me about vowels when I was in preschool, and tell imaginative bedtime stories. When I grew up, we would have deep, serious conversations that taught me how to think. Some days, I think I’d like to be a mom like that.

But there are parts that are terrifying: (1) being pregnant (no thanks), (2) screwing up my kid because of my own screwed-up-ness, (3) screwing up my kid because of my husband’s screwed-up-ness. What if I don’t like my husband’s parenting style? What if I can’t balance my kid, my marriage, and my job? What if I lose my identity as a fully formed adult with interests and skills in the vacuum of mommyhood? Do I want to be a mom, or am I just trying to ease the pressure I feel to have a baby?

I don’t know what to do. I still have time left to decide, but the decision weighs on me pretty frequently and I would like to get the question settled. Please help!

To Baby or Not to Baby

Dear TBONTB,

Have a baby. Babies are great. You’ll love it.

As far as I can tell from your letter, the main things holding you back from having kids are your worries and fears. You aren’t saying to me, “I would not enjoy being a mother.” You suspect that you would enjoy being a mother. You’re just saying you’re worried that having kids will open up a world of scary nightmares. You’ll lose control of your life and lose your identity and mess everything up.

Such worries and fears are not entirely unfounded. You won’t be in control. You will mess things up. Your life will not be entirely your own for a while. But these are also good things. The chaos of children improves your ability to savor the day and tolerate the uncertainties of life. Personally, having to face down these kinds of challenges and obstacles has made me a more resilient and happier person.

But even “lack of control” or “chaos” is just one small dimension of having kids. Kids have an enormous impact on everything you do, every choice you make, every way you think and feel about your life. I don’t even know where to start.

Sometimes it’s easier not to write about kids at all. Because it’s such an emotional subject. It’s so big and hard to get your hands around. Sometimes I think, “This is so personal and so intense and so hard to describe. Maybe I should just write to the woman with the bad boyfriend instead!”

That’s how it can feel to consider whether or not to have kids, too. When you start thinking about “babies” and “children” in the abstract, as someone who doesn’t have them, what the hell can you possibly conjure beyond scary nightmares? “So let’s see, I will become swollen and enormous and my back will hurt and then a sentient being will emerge from my most tender regions and immediately attach itself to my other tender regions and I will somehow magically produce food and then what? Then I’ll be a dairy cow with no life? And my husband will stand back and make me do everything? And my career will be ruined? And my childless friends will disappear? And maybe in a decade I’ll go out again but I’ll just be a dairy cow, out for a drink? Or maybe I’ll go back to my job but I’ll just be a dairy cow with a job? Jesus, am I really so empty and sad that I would trade in everything I have just to become a dairy cow forever, just for one stupid pointless meaningless baby?!

Imagining a baby without having one is like imagining moving to a llama farm to raise llamas having never met a llama. After an experienced llama farmer tells you all about what to feed the llamas and how to care for the llamas and how to clean out the llama stables and how expensive and tiring it will be to deal with all of the llamas, all you can possibly think is WHO THE FUCK WANTS LLAMAS ANYWAY? I mean what kind of a soulless tragic sick fuck would ever go near a fucking llama for any reason?

And even if I try to describe the joys of llamas to you now, it’ll only scare you. That’s just how it is. Parents are terrible at describing the pleasures of having children to other human beings who don’t have children. We alternate between sentimental clichés and laughing about racing to the ER with a kid who can’t breathe or is bleeding out. We sound downright unhinged and pathetic when we form words about our offspring or anyone else’s offspring.

So this is where I will start: I hated other people’s kids before I had kids. I didn’t like babies, either. I really thought toddlers were deeply slimy and gross and not remotely charming. I had a brand-new stepson, and I thought he was entertaining and also very annoying. I just happened to love his father. And I, like you, had good memories of my childhood, even though it was also scary and fucked up. My mother was a very good mother even though she was also young and temperamental. Both of my parents had big issues, but they also had a sense of humor and they knew how to have fun. They were unpredictable, but they loved their kids a lot. This makes a difference, I think, when you’re considering having kids. Having good memories, even if they’re mixed in with bad memories, is important and helpful.

I did know that I wanted kids, mostly because my mother repeatedly insisted that I would love it and it was the best thing in the world. She told me this when her marriage was falling apart, and she also told me this when she was divorced and in debt, and she still says it. My mom is very convincing.

But I was petrified about actually having kids. I figured my life would be destroyed by them. I thought my marriage would suffer. I assumed that I would disappoint myself with my inadequate love for my kids. I was too selfish to be a good parent, probably. I wasn’t as sentimental as these unhinged parents with their sappy clichés, and I also wasn’t as tough as those parents who laughed about harrowing trips to the ER. I was sure that I would be the worst of all worlds: Uncaring but also fearful and neurotic. And even once I got pregnant, I was still filled with dread. Kids seemed so loud and gross. I told my husband I hoped that I would give birth to a puppy.

And then I had my baby and she cried this tiny little baby cry, Waaaa! It didn’t seem real. When they handed her over, she was wrapped up like a burrito with big blue eyes and a big round head and she blinked up at me, blink-blink, like ARE YOU MY MOTHER? I mean that was her facial expression, like IS THIS REAL WHAT AM I SEEING? And I felt the same way.

It was like being very high and on fire and spiritually saved all at the same time. Was I empty before that? Did I have a hole in my life that needed to be filled? Not really, I was just your regular asshole with a bad attitude. I’m just telling you what happened. It was glorious. I couldn’t sleep that first night. I had this little human BITING my nipple with her vicelike sucker of a mouth and it was just the greatest thing. I was a dairy cow and it was amazingly perfect to be a dairy cow. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I was so lucky! I went home after a few days, barely able to move, having been cut open like a fish, no dream birth, just a scary operation and a big scar and sore nipples and it should’ve been a horror show but it was the best, the best, the best.

That’s how it is. Having babies is the best. Objective fact.

I assumed I would have postpartum depression. Many mothers do. I assumed that I would feel really sick and shitty. I assumed I’d have mixed feelings about babies. I would feel trapped.

That’s not how it was. It was difficult and also incredible. It was taxing and also glorious. Having kids is hard to describe for that reason. Not that many things are as dramatically good and stressful at the same time. It’s a little bit like a good marriage. You feel some hatred and some love, together. It’s like being with your family of origin, or traveling with your best friends. It’s incredible and you’d also like to murder someone.

Being close and connected and invested is hard. It’s particularly hard when you’re invested in someone who can’t do anything at all, a needy throw-pillow human who screams a lot. But it’s also so good, so very rich and delicious and good.

Some advice: Don’t quit your job if you like working. Don’t become a stay-at-home mom if you suspect that it won’t suit you. It’s not like being on a long vacation, unless you take vacations to day-care centers. Don’t believe for a second that you have to become a different kind of person just to be a good parent. Don’t change everything. Live the life you’re already living, except with a baby there. Teach your baby about the things you already love. Don’t try to make your baby into some higher species of being than you are. Kids need to see the things that their parents care about more than they need to be the most sophisticated, multilingual athletes on the Earth. Kids also need to spend time with adults who really enjoy their company. If you love your job a lot and can’t imagine being around kids 24 hours a day, the adults your kids should see during the day are adults who love the job of taking care of kids.

I could say a lot more. Being pregnant isn’t as bad as you’re imagining, or at least it’s hard to remember that part later, when you have the baby and you’re glad you went through with it. Definitely go see a doctor and discuss genetic screening in detail before you get pregnant. Don’t go on bed rest without reading a ton about the health risks involved. Doctors are sometimes reckless with pregnant women, because our culture is reckless with women in general. Make it your goal to be exceptionally well informed.

And yes, you will disagree with your husband and you will screw up some things with your kids because you are screwed up. This is normal. Forgive yourself and don’t try to be perfect. You won’t balance your job, your marriage, and your kids that well. No one does. Things and people get neglected, here and there. You will have to experiment, recalibrate, check in with yourself, your husband, and your kids to see what needs to give. Resist the temptation to fill in all of the gaps yourself. Let go of control, step back, and let your husband step up his game. You will fall behind at work. You will escape to work. You will cry while you’re using your breast pump in some bad closet at work. All of this is perfectly fine, actually. It’s funny and disturbing and terrible and it all works out. It’s good for you. Being a parent is horrifying and demeaning and thrilling. You will fucking love it.

Have a baby. Then have another baby! Two babies are even better than one. Babies are the absolute greatest. Be brave. Trust that you will manage, because you will. Yes, the world is dark and scary. It will be easier with a baby, and harder, too. Babies make things better and a little worse, too. Babies are good for you and sometimes also a little bad for you. Be a dairy cow. Mmmm. Watch your whole life disappear. This column is not a parody, I swear. The big scary challenges of having to redefine your whole life are good for your soul. Your life will come back. They told me it would come back, and I never believed them. It came back. I enjoy life so much more than I did before. You can land here without a baby. But why not have a baby along the way? Babies are fucking delightful.

I love my big babies. When they walk in the door, home from school, it’s like I’m high and on fire and spiritually saved all at the same time. They smell so good. They’re such brats. They say the smartest, strangest things. Here they are, they just walked in. I have to go squeeze those babies. Have one of your own. You won’t regret it.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Should I Have a Baby?’