Life

“We Don’t Really Have Language for Telling the Truth About Parenting”

Cheryl Strayed helps a How To! listener decide whether to have a baby.

Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images.

On a recent episode of How To!, a listener calls in with what may be the most important question of her life: Should I have a baby? To help her make the decision, host Charles Duhigg turns to well-known advice giver Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and former Dear Sugar columnist. They talked candidly about the costs and benefits of becoming a parent and the difficulty of talking frankly about them. An excerpt of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is below.

Charles Duhigg: One of your most popular columns was titled “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us.” You wrote about how you thought about having kids and that it wasn’t something that was a clear answer for you.

Cheryl Strayed: Well, basically I loved my life, and I loved my independence and my freedom and my ability to just have the more carefree life that you get to have when you’re not responsible for the survival and well-being of another human being, as you are when you’re a parent. My husband felt the same way. My husband is a documentary filmmaker. I’m a writer. I wasn’t ever one of those people who felt like I will be completed by motherhood. On the other hand, I love those profound human experiences. There’s no question that, by all accounts, having a child is a big experience. I didn’t want to miss out on it, and so my husband and I went round and round.

Charles: In the column, you talk about this idea of this sister ship. You stand on one ship based on the decisions you’ve made in your life, and you see the other ship, the other choices you could have made. You see it sail away. What did you mean by that?

Cheryl: What I mean is we all make big choices in life that take us away from the other choice. What I love about this notion of the sister life is I think that a lot of times when we do have big decisions to make, we’re like, well, should I go to law school or become a veterinarian, or should I marry this person or not, or should I have a kid or not? Those big decisions, they do define the paths that we take, but that doesn’t mean that the life we would’ve had if we’d made that other choice doesn’t have meaning and value.

Charles: Yeah. I want to ask you more about how to help this person make this decision, because I think that she is looking at the two ships. She’s trying to figure out which ship she wants to board and which one she lets sail away, because it is a loss.

Cheryl: Each contains a loss because becoming a mother or a father, it is true, you are forever bound. You are forever tethered to another human being. You lose some freedom and independence and a lot of money and various other things. It is also a loss if you decide not to have kids because of all the things that you would have gained and received. To me, the idea of the sister life is holding that both things are true. Both ships contain loss and gain. Both ships contain beauty and sorrow and all of the many different things that we get.

Charles: Yeah. I asked Megan, our listener in Australia, if that made sense to her, this idea that she’s deciding between two lives, two ships on different paths, and if part of what she’s struggling with is trying to figure out not only which life she wants but which one she’s willing to give up and how she’ll deal with the regret that comes regardless of which choice she makes.

Megan: Yeah, that is exactly the thing. The more I’ve been thinking about this, since I wrote to you and with chatting with my husband about it, I think I’ve been approaching this as which path will leave me free of regret. What I’ve been thinking about over the past week or so has been whether I need to reframe that a little bit, trying to assess what level of regret I’d be comfortable living with, to the best I can work out what I’d feel 10, 20 years in the future.

Charles: Yeah. It’s hard because we don’t know who we’re going to be 10 or 20 years in the future.

Megan: Yeah, exactly.

Charles: I actually asked Cheryl about this because I think when we have these conversations with ourselves or with our husbands, we have this instinct to shy away from the possibility of regret, to either pretend like regret can’t exist or to say, “Oh, no, I shouldn’t make decisions based out of regret.”

Cheryl: I just completely reject the idea that regret doesn’t exist. I just think that’s an aphorism gone wrong or something. The function of regret is a really important one in our lives because very often it will help us make the right decision.

Does it sound really fun to you to spend hours upon hours with a 2-year-old? That is not the question to ask when asking, Should I become a parent? The question to ask is really from that longer view. In 20 years, when you look back upon your life, will you wish that you’d made that leap and taken that chance and made that big commitment and sacrifice by becoming a parent? I think that if she feels that lingering sense that she might, she should listen pretty hard to that.

In her Dear Sugar column, Cheryl wrote about her own decision to have kids, using the ship concept as a guide.

Cheryl: We decided to just do it. I got pregnant, and all through my pregnancy I felt like I was the world’s worst pregnant lady because people would be like, “I got an ultrasound and I heard the heartbeat and I burst into tears.” And I was like, “Wow.” I found it scientifically interesting that I had a human growing inside of me, but I was mostly thinking, I really hope this works out. I really hope that I love this baby because this is probably going to be a big sacrifice.

Charles: Yeah, you keep the baby whether you love it or not.

Cheryl: I know. And we were like, “We sure hope we like this little fella.” And the main emotion I felt in the first week of my son’s life was honestly just this deep, profound gratitude that I had fallen on the side of the fence that was “yes.” Because I realized, wow, it is true that it’s an enormous sacrifice. In fact, way more enormous than I could imagine before I became a mom, but what also was true is that big love—way more than I could have imagined.

Charles: But there is another situation, which is more my situation. When my wife and I were trying to decide whether to have kids, we were on the fence, and we came down on the same side you did, which is to have children. And let me preface this by saying I love my children. I love having children. But I also honestly think I would be just as happy without children. I look at the other ship, and it is not a ship that sailed off to the horizon where I can’t imagine not having these kids in my life the way that you described and that I think my wife would describe our children. It’s actually a little bit of a different experience, which is I love them and I’m so glad we had them, but the sister ship is actually right across the bay. I could be on that ship and, I think, be just as happy as on this ship.

Cheryl: But I’m curious about what you’re saying because on one hand, I know what you mean. I share that feeling that you have. As much as I say I feel so grateful that I decided to become a mother—and that is true—it doesn’t mean that I don’t think that I would have a happy, fulfilled life without them. I just think, wow, the gifts that ended up being on this mothership, if you will, seem to me greater in my life than what I would have found if I hadn’t had them. And what I’m curious about with you is: Are they really the same to you? Are they really equal to you?

Charles: I don’t know. I think it’s a really hard question, and honestly it does cause me not a little bit of turmoil because I think you’re right. On one hand, I am so glad we had children because I think it makes me a less selfish person. It makes me a better person. I love spending time with my kids in general, but I don’t love spending time the same way my wife does, to be honest. And I see the other ship, and I think there is this important work that I probably would have done that I won’t because I have kids.

Cheryl: So you feel, in some ways, like you’ve squandered a certain aspect of yourself during these years of your prime that you might not have if you’d not?

Charles: Yeah, and certainly I have also gained something. But I feel like so many times when we talk about parenthood we talk about it in this almost binary way: where it’s a tough decision, and then you make it, and then everyone’s glad that they had kids. And at least in my experience, it’s actually not like that.

Cheryl: Yeah, I think what we’re both struggling with here is that we don’t really have language for actually telling the truth about things like parenting. It’s not always convenient or fun to be essentially hamstrung by your obligations to a child or children in every way. Financially. Time, energy, commitment, all of those things. I think that this is why so often parents do feel that sense of isolation and despair. I remember, especially in the intensity of my kids’ early years—I had two kids 17½ months apart, so I had two babies and then two toddlers—I rode wild in a state of basically fear and despair because I really thought, How will I ever do this? Because I hadn’t even slept through the night for more than two years. And I love them beyond measure. They are genuinely the best things I’ve ever done. I say that without question. But man, I missed spending Sundays just reading the New York Times while lounging on the couch.

Charles: Yeah, it’s true. Those were good days.

Cheryl: I never got that back. I really miss it. Sometimes I think just maybe I should have put that more prominently on that list when I was thinking which way to go.

Charles: When we’re old and decrepit and our children won’t call us on Sunday, that’s when we’re going to be able to read the paper.

Cheryl: Exactly.

To listen to the entire episode, including Cheryl’s No. 1 tip for thinking through a complicated issue, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.