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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 20s were tough—really tough. Two immediate family members became very ill, and I took care of my parents financially and emotionally in a way that really burdened me at the time. Whether reasonably or not, this all kept me from having much fun. I was a nervous wreck then, and worked incredibly hard to provide some stability for a family that had none. Now I’m in my 30s, and the burdens I took on in my 20s haven’t exactly disappeared, but they at least feel more age-appropriate. Plus, with a lot of therapy, I think I’ve done a pretty decent job at making my anxieties feel more manageable.
My husband and I are now trying to get pregnant. I admit that I’m on the fence about it. It’s not that I don’t like kids—I do. And I’m pretty confident I’d be a decent mom. But after feeling burdened by responsibility at a young age, I am only now coming out of the haze of that and wanting to let loose a little and have some actual fun. Maybe not exactly the same kind of fun I might have had in my 20s, but I do feel entitled to a little happiness this decade, and the past two COVID-filled years have put a punctuation mark on this feeling.
I’ve been reading a lot of parenting advice—including this column—in an attempt to get a sense of what it’s actually like to be a parent. And honestly? It sounds miserable. We also have a lot of friends who have recently had children who are enormously cute, and their parents claim that they’re a joy—but the kids seem to have had the effect of removing laughter entirely from their parents’ lives. I often hear parents say, “No one ever tells you how hard it is to raise kids.” But the opposite feels true to me: Everyone tells you how hard it is to raise kids, and they tell you all the time. So that’s why I’ve come to you. If I’m gonna do this, I need some reassurance that there’s joy and humor to be had in parenting. Particularly if you’re a mom.
Surely it can’t all be bloody nipples, worry, IEPs, constipation, missed developmental milestones, boogers, and arguments over broccoli, right? Put another way: Can parenting be fun?
—All Joy and No Fun?
Dear No Fun,
First, I want to address your “admission”: that even though you’re in the midst of trying to get pregnant, you’re on the fence about it. This gives me pause. Does your husband know you’re not sure you want to have kids? If you’re not sure … why are you moving ahead with this? Have you decided that it doesn’t matter that you’re uncertain? That whether you want children or not, you are going to have them? If you’ve been keeping any of this to yourself, I urge you to talk to the future father of the children you’re not sure you want to have. Yes, we all have heard stories of people who weren’t sure they wanted kids (or even were pretty sure they didn’t want kids), then had them and were glad about it. But it doesn’t always work that way. And not everyone has to be, or wants to be, a parent. I hope this isn’t something that you’re giving in to against your better judgment. The people who have children should be people who want to have children. And “liking kids”—even being confident you’d be a “decent mom”—doesn’t necessarily mean you should have kids.
But maybe I’m misreading you. Maybe I’m making too much of your stated doubts. Maybe what you really mean is: I just want to have some fun before I have kids, because I haven’t had any fun up to now! If that’s the case, then why not spend a few years having whatever kind of fun you have in mind? Do you feel anxious about the clock ticking? Does your husband? I would say that if you feel you have not had a chance to experience any “actual happiness” yet, thanks to the burdens you shouldered until recently—and that the thought of having children doesn’t fill you with “actual happiness”—then getting pregnant soon sounds like a bad idea. I fear you’d be resentful of a child conceived in lieu of your long-deferred fun, and that this would spell trouble for that child, or children, in years ahead. If you are well into your 30s, if 40 is nigh, then putting off the decision to have a child might mean losing the opportunity to … but it’s worth thinking about the cost of a lost opportunity versus the cost of child you end up holding responsible for your unhappiness. I can’t imagine this is a burden you would want your potential future child to shoulder.
As to the question you ask at the end of your letter:
For people who want to be parents, parenting can absolutely be fun. I myself loved—loved, loved, loved—being a mother to my newborn, toddler, little girl, balky tween, interesting teen, and young adult daughter. I still love being a mother. I think it is enormously fun. Fun, satisfying, delightful, inspiring—a wild and glorious ride. It hasn’t all been easy (it still isn’t), and some of it has been downright hard. But I remember thinking, when my daughter was a baby, that there was entirely too much talk about the mildly unpleasant aspects of caring for a newborn, like changing diapers—as if that were what early motherhood were about!—and not nearly enough about how lovely it is. And I still think this, about all the stuff you list. Sure, there are worries and troubles and annoyances and challenges. And I suppose that for some people that seems to be all there is. To me, to many—many—of us, that’s nothing compared to the joy.
And the fun.