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S2: I think what we’re both struggling with here honestly is that we we don’t really have language for actually telling the truth. To have clarity and certainty about becoming a parent you know I think most people don’t frankly. You know and even even me saying that out loud to you right now I’m like but but but I’d love that.
S1: I know I love to help you but you know you’re wonderful you’re everything to me. Welcome to how to.
S3: I’m Charles de each week we talk to listeners who are trying to figure out how to solve one of life’s problems. And then we do some research and we track down an expert and we get their advice and usually the way that we learn about a problem is that they send us an email and how to sleep dot com. And in fact that’s how we heard from this week’s listener who had emailed us actually from halfway across the world. Wait wait let’s see is it is it crazy early in the morning in Australia right now.
S4: Yeah I’m in the office at 730 which is you know daily. This is Megan.
S1: She’s a lawyer in Melbourne. She’s 35 years old married with no kids. Which is actually why she’s talking with me on skype today.
S4: So I reached out to you really with the question of how one makes an irrevocable decision because my husband and I are now looking at having kids. There’s definitely no going back once you decide to go down that path.
S5: How long have you and your husband been married. We’ve been married what four and a half years now. OK.
S6: And we’ve been trying for for a significant amount of time and and that’s that hasn’t worked naturally. So we’re looking down the barrel of potentially some fairly invasive treatments and a lot of money and all of that.
S1: So so now that it hasn’t happened naturally now that you’re at this place where you have to you have to make a proactive choice. How is your feelings about it changed.
S6: The lack of I suppose real hunger almost had me second guessing whether it’s actually the right decision. I guess also just thinking maybe we could have a wonderful life without being parents and is that really what we want.
S7: Deciding whether to have a baby is obviously one of the biggest choices anyone makes. But we found someone to help I think. She’s someone who’s thought deeply about this and has confronted it herself.
S8: I’m Cheryl Strayed the author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things and a couple of other books and also the co-host of the dear circus podcast.
S9: I loved Steve sugar so I’m actually quietly fan girling insanely inside right now.
S10: Well in that case we’ll hear more from Cheryl after this quick break.
S1: If you know Cheryl stray it is it’s it’s probably because you read her 2012 best selling memoir Wild or you saw the big Hollywood movie that it was made into starring Reese Witherspoon. But if all those things I did with the things that got me here. Would have.
S11: I was never redeemed. What if I already wax.
S10: But before all of that she used to write this wonderful advice column.
S1: Yeah I wrote in the advice column for The Rumpus called Dear Sugar One of our most popular columns was titled The ghost ship that didn’t carry us. And it was about how Sheryl had made this choice one of the hardest choices in her own life. You write about how you thought about having kids and that it wasn’t it wasn’t something like it was. It was a clear answer for you.
S2: Well you know basically I loved my life and I loved my independence and my freedom and my ability to you know just kind of have the more carefree life that you get to have when you’re not responsible for the survival of well-being of another human being as you are when you’re a parent. And I was in my husband felt the same way. My husband’s a documentary filmmaker. I’m a writer. I wasn’t ever one of those people who felt like you know I will be completed by motherhood. On the other hand you know I love those profound human experiences and there’s no question that by all accounts having a child is a big experience and I didn’t want to miss out on it. And so my husband and I went round and round.
S1: Well let me ask you about because you you talk about in the column you talk about this idea of the sister ship where you kind of stand on one ship based on the decisions you’ve made in your life and you see the other ship that other choices you could have made you see it sail away.
S12: What did you mean by that what I mean is I think that you know we all make big choices in life that that takes us away from the other choice. And what I love about this this notion of the sister life is you know I think that a lot of times when we do have big decisions to make.
S2: We’re like Well should I go to law school or become a veterinarian or should I marry this person or or not or should I have a kid or not.
S12: You know those big decisions they you know they do define the paths that we take. But but that doesn’t mean that the life we would have had if we’d made that other choice doesn’t have meaning and value.
S1: Yeah. And 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 right she’s trying to figure out which ships she wants to board in which when she lets sail away because that is it is a lost.
S2: Each contains a loss because you know becoming a mother or a father. It is true you are forever bound. You are forever tethered to another human being so you lose some freedom and independence and a lot of money and you know various other things right. It is also a loss if you decide not to have kids because all of the things that you would have gained and received and so yeah.
S13: To me the idea of the sister life is is holding that both things are true both ships contain loss and gain both ships contain beauty and sorrow. And you know all all of the many different things that we get.
S14: Asked Megan are our listeners in Australia if that made sense to her. This idea that she is 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.
S15: Yes that is exactly the thing the more I’ve been thinking about this since I I write to you and you know I was I kept telling my husband about it and I think I’ve been approaching this is which path will lead me free of regret. You know what I’ve been thinking about 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. Yeah to the best I can get. I work out what I’d what I’d feel you know 10 20 in the future.
S1: And it’s hard because we don’t know who we’re gonna be 10 or 20 years in the future. Yeah exactly. And I actually asked Cheryl about this because I think one of the things that happens is that when we have these conversations with ourselves or with their husbands we have this instinct to kind of almost shy away from the possibility of regret right to to either pretend like regret can exist or to say oh no I shouldn’t make decisions based out of regret.
S2: I just I completely reject that idea that regret doesn’t exist. I do. I just I think that that’s an aphorism gone wrong you know or something. I. The function of regrets is a really important one in our lives because very often it will help us make the right decision. And so what I say instead of saying like does it sound really fun to you to spend hours upon hours with a two year old. I mean that is not the question to ask when asking Should I become a parent.
S12: 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 you know made that leap and and taken that that chance and made that big commitment and sacrifice you know by becoming a parent. I think that if she feels really that lingering sense that she might I think she should listen pretty hard to that.
S1: What do you think about that year.
S16: I think that definitely speaks strongly to me and I think that’s part of what I’m struggling with is trying to assess you know what I will feel like in the future based on so much of what is unknowable about becoming a parent.
S6: And and the flipside is if I am ambivalent about it I remain that way. You know is that a good environment to bring kids into.
S1: Maybe you’ll be ambivalent after having the kids right like it. There is there’s no guarantee that two years in you say like oh my gosh I’m glad I made this decision.
S6: And in that scene at age nine I do know people who’ve sort of said you know if I had my time again I’m not sure I would have made this made this decision. Yeah and then I followed that up with you know yeah obviously I love my kid happy but you know they reached regret. So it should be a ghost ship.
S1: Megan told me that part of what’s hard for is that among her family no one has ever question of having kids make sense. Right. Her parents always assumed she was going to become a mother and her siblings most of whom are married and have kids of their own. They never had doubts like this.
S6: Everyone else was so certain that parenthood was very important to them. They oh you know I married young start trying for kids almost immediately like it’s just that clarity yeah that they happen I don’t match yet it has has made me feel like you know am I am I missing something many many many families have these ideas about you know motherhood or fatherhood being you know that thing you’re expected to do.
S17: The thing that you should do the only thing that can possibly be fulfilling and you know we hear these these really bizarre ideas about people who choose not to become parents being selfish which I’ve never understood. What’s selfish What’s selfish about not you know just decided not to bear a child or a father or mother a child. I don’t I don’t get it. But in any case like she really wants to make this decision because she and her partner decide it’s the right thing for their lives not because their parents expected to.
S7: Cheryl has a tip for how to clarify your thinking on uncomplicated issues like motherhood. What she says is you should take all those thoughts swirling inside your head. And write them down.
S8: Most of us get all bewildered and confused because we’re intelligent beings frankly and we have all of these crosscurrents of thoughts and desires and wishes and fears and anxieties and all of that stuff. And this is why we get tangled up sometimes they’re all in our head really.
S18: Meghan get out a piece of paper a big piece of paper and just make less of it in every direction you know.
S8: Oh let those doubts be fully expressed let those desires be fully expressed. Know write your list from the vantage point of now and 20 years from now. Think about what it is you would do if you’d listen to that doubt and didn’t have kids. Think about what you’re willing to go through to have them like that’s a really complicated question. And I think that it’s you know what.
S17: What makes you feel most at peace when you make those lists at the end of all of that writing and reflecting you know what do you feel like literally in your body makes you feel calm when you look at each of those scenarios what would you what would you say to that.
S6: That’s something I’ve been trying to do you know in my head but I think the idea of physically writing it down and sitting with it and trying to feel that physicality is is interesting. Yeah I’m just imagining going home and getting big butcher’s paper and head writing crazy columns everywhere.
S19: Yeah I mean could be helpful. When we come back we’ll look at how once you take all these steps to choose the right ship you can then find the courage to raise the sail.
S1: In the column that Cheryl wrote a number of years ago about deciding to have a baby. She talks about this idea of how to look at our lives from a distance.
S20: OK. Do you want me to read it. Yeah go for it. Dear undecided.
S21: There’s a poem I love by Thomas transformer called the Blue House.
S18: I think of it every time I consider questions such as yours about the irrevocable choices we make.
S21: The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house when he looks at his house from this vantage point. He observes that it’s as if he’s just died and he is now seeing the house from a new angle every life transformer writes has a sister ship one that follows quite another route than the one we ended up taking.
S22: We want it to be otherwise but it cannot be the people we might have been live a different phantom life than the people we are. And so the question is who do you intend to be.
S10: For Cheryl. She and her husband eventually decided to be parents.
S18: You know we. We decided to just do it like we. I got pregnant and all through my pregnancy I felt like I was like the world’s worst pregnant lady because you know people would be like you know I got an ultrasound and I heard the heartbeat and I burst into tears and I was like wow like I felt it scientifically interesting that I had a human component inside of me. I was mostly think you’d like. I really hope this works out. I really hope that I love this baby because you know this is probably going to be a you know my love it’s going to be a big sacrifice. Yeah you keep the baby whether you love it or not but I know we were like We sure hope we like this little fella.
S23: And you know what happened is we did a lot a lot a lot a lot like you know I was you know the main emotion I felt in the first week of my son’s life was was honestly this just this deep profound gratitude that I had fallen on the side of the fence that was yanked because I realized wow you know 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 what also was true is that big love. Way more than I could have imagined.
S1: But there is another there’s another situation which is actually kind of more my situation right which is very much like you 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 like I look at the other ship and it’s not a ship that sailed off to the horizon where I can’t I can’t imagine not having these kids in my life the way that you describe and then I think my wife would describe our children it’s actually kind of 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 like it’s it’s right across the bay. Like I said I could be on that ship and I think you’re just as happy as on this ship.
S2: But you know I’m curious about what you’re saying because I on one hand I know what you mean. I mean I I share that feeling that you have you know as much as I say I you know 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 what you know the gifts that the gifts that are that ended up being on this mother ship if you will. Seemed to me greater for me in my life than what that I would have found you know 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.
S1: I don’t know. I think it’s a really hard question and honestly it actually does cause me not a little bit of turmoil because I I think you’re right I think on one hand I am so glad we had children because I think it makes me a less selfish person and makes me a better person. I love I love spending time with my kids in general but I actually don’t love spending time the same way my wife does. To be honest and I see the other ship and I think actually there is this important work that I probably would have done that I won’t because I have kids.
S20: So you feel in some ways like like you’ve squandered a certain aspect of yourself during these years of your prime that you might not have if you would.
S1: Yeah and certainly I have also gained something right. But it’s. But I feel like so many times and I think this actually gets to caller so many times when we talk about parenthood we talk about it and it’s almost binary where you wear it. 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.
S2: Yeah. No I think I think what we’re both struggling with here honestly is that we are 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 you know energy commitment you know all of those things. You know I think that this is why so often parents do feel that that sense of isolation and despair. I know that I remember especially in the intensity of my kids early years I had two kids 17 and a half months apart so had two babies and then two toddlers and you know I wrote wild in a state of basically fear and despair because I really thought you know how how will I ever do this because I mean I hadn’t even slept through the night for more than two years. Yeah and I love them beyond measure and they are genuinely like they’re the best things I’ve ever done and I say that without question.
S20: But man I miss spending Sundays just reading the New York Times while lounging on the couch.
S17: Yeah that’s true. Those guys never got that it. I never got that back. I really miss it. I really miss it. Sometimes I think just maybe I should have put that like more prominently on that list when I was thinking I to go when we’re old and decrepit and our children won’t call us on Sunday that’s going to be able to read the paper exactly.
S14: We should acknowledge something we haven’t talked about in this conversation so far which is that part of making this decision is a practical question right way.
S10: When my wife had our children and we became parents together it had a huge impact on her career. Much more so than mine. If Megan gets pregnant has a baby it’s going to impact her life and her career a lot.
S16: To yet look that certainly played into the calculus I suppose.
S24: You know it’s it is much harder. My husband is 100 percent on board to be as equal as possible but also there is no biological fact that the one he has to stay home focused on I’m the one who has to be the kid his love is possible if you breastfeeding and that sort of thing. And culturally there are just there are many more impactful on women than men. There’s no question that you know for for almost every professional woman I know myself included that that having children has.
S18: You know impacted our careers but it’s also when you really look at it just to an era of your life it’s just a short time when you take the longer view.
S17: I mean all of my best writing happened while two little babies were sleeping in the next room you know and I know there’s something about that that like that I can say yeah you know it was hard but I did it. And in some ways it clarified my ambitions because I was like this is harder than it ever was before I really did talk about regret. I think what did I do all those years before I had them like I said you know I should have written 10 books and then you know so it clarified my my purpose that’s really interesting.
S1: So let me take a step back because I think the biggest thing that Megan is asking and we have assignments for an hour right. She’s going to go write the list. She’s going to think about what is actually meaningful to her. She’s going to sort of think about where the journey on each ship would take her. But she says that that she has been thinking about this and she’s been going in circles and I’m sure this is going to help. But she says what she really needs is she needs some way of framing the question or the decision making that helps her and her husband break out of this like circular endless conversation that they keep having. And so if if she was sitting in front of you and you could only sort of tell her one thing about how to think about this differently that that gives her the freedom to to see it in a new way.
S17: What would you tell her I would say relinquish the notion that you feel certainty when you make this decision. Most of the time especially with something as that is as complicated and fraught as becoming a parent or an or deciding not to be one you do just have to at the end of the day say this feels to me like the truest thing not the only truth.
S25: But at the end of the day the truest thing it. It’s risky. It’s scary.
S12: It requires frankly a lot of courage on your part Meghan but I I know that you can do it and almost always when we do that when we like get to the place where we trust the truest thing what’s revealed are really all of the things that we couldn’t possibly put on those lists because we don’t know them yet. And that is the beauty of you know boarding that chef and venturing into the unknown because of course you can imagine the landscapes you’ll see in the things you’ll feel but there’s nothing like being there in real life. And whatever you do whichever choice you make that ship will take you someplace beautiful. I know it.
S26: What do you think of that.
S5: Yeah. That was beautiful.
S16: I’m sitting here now crying at my office desk so hopefully no one walks past any time soon. Yeah I think I think she’s absolutely right it does take a lot of I suppose courage and that spoke very very truly to me.
S1: But it’s hard to be that courageous all the time. Right. Being courageous is exhausting.
S5: Yes precisely. And that’s you know that’s certainly what I’m grappling with.
S1: Where do you think you are on that fence right now.
S26: Look I I don’t know.
S16: I. I feel like at the moment I’m probably slightly more on the kid’s side of the fence than the other side. I’m much more optimistic about being able to reach a decision that will feel you know. Right.
S1: Well thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us.
S6: No. Thank you. This has been been so helpful. And now my husband is in the Army Reserve. He’s. He’s actually off in our Australian ski fields doing like some search and rescue training right now. So he’s literally like sleeping in the snow.
S9: And so I’m going to hang up from you and start texting and freaking out. You know Cheryl Australia has you know spoken to via the magic of podcasts and that’s really been very special.
S10: A quick update a few weeks after we talked. Megan sent us this voicemail. Hi Charles and everyone.
S27: You asked for an update on how I’m thinking and my husband thinking about the whole question of kids and all of that. So yeah we had a lot of really good heart to heart discussions a few tears. But go ahead. We’re going to go for it. We actually had our first appointment with a fertility doctor just this week.
S28: Yeah where we’re at least starting the baby steps to to make that happen. So that’s that’s where we are.
S29: I’ll keep you updated I suppose. Thanks Megan.
S10: We wish you and your husband all the luck in the world. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. And thanks to Cheryl Strayed for her heartfelt advice and beautiful beautiful writing. Make sure to look for Cheryl’s books including her latest one brave enough. In one more quick note before we sign off just in case my children ever do listen to this podcast. I love you guys so much and having you was the best choice I ever ever made. Do you have a problem that needs solving wherever you are in the world. You can send us a noted how to it’s late talk home and we might be able to help. How tos executive producer is Derek John Mary Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts. And Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Special thanks to Asha soldier. I’m Charles Duhigg. And you can find me on Twitter at C A do HIG.
S30: Thanks so much for listening.