The Trials of Starting a Family

My wife wants to have a baby. So, we are trying this week to have a baby. The first time went well, the second time went ok. I made it through the third “try” also. The fourth try was a challenge. I cannot muster any enthusiasm, and she knows and reacts with bitterness. But in the end it worked out.

“Do you want to have a baby?” asks the theoretical reader.

I don’t know. In theory, yes, I want a family. I hope I’d make a halfway decent father with some practice. But anxieties have accumulated:

  • Will my marriage suffer as my temperamental wife becomes more stressed?
  • Will we disagree significantly on how to raise children? If so (and the answer is probably yes), the pattern of our relationship suggests her position will usually prevail. What will this mean for the children’s development and my relationship with them?
  • Will we be able to balance our more-than-40-hour-a-week jobs with the 24/7 responsibility of family life?
  • Will I be able to stop drinking and swearing so fucking much so the children don’t learn bad habits?
  • Will I be able to tolerate the stench of baby formula, baby food, shitty diapers, random toys in every room for on and on?
  • Will I be able to tolerate the jibber-jabber of toddlers (then adolescents, then teenagers) in my house, as a naturally quiet and solitary person?
  • Will all these tensions and the unknown-unknowns associated with parenthood widen the rift between my wife and lead to divorce 10, 15, or 20 years from now? How much compromise is too much, and what about myself am I, or should I be unwilling to compromise?

Perhaps my anxieties are ill-founded. Becoming a parent is a “transformative experience” that would change who I am, and who my wife is. People commonly and successfully adapt to this life change successfully. Of course, as a warning, others do not. It would by extension change the tide and current of our relationship as experienced so far. I’m accustomed to almost 10 years of childlessness. The question is, for better or for worse?

A few months ago David Brooks wrote in a discussion of L.A. Paul’s book “Transformative Experience” that we cannot know how to make this decision from a purely utilitarian standpoint:

The decision to have a child is the purest version of this choice. On average, people who have a child suffer a loss of reported well-being. They’re more exhausted and report lower life satisfaction. And yet few parents can imagine going back and being their old pre-parental selves. Parents are like self-fulfilled vampires. Their rich new lives would have seemed incomprehensible to their old childless selves.

So how do you make transformational decisions? You have to ask the right questions, Paul argues. Don’t ask, Will I like parenting? You can’t know. Instead, acknowledge that you, like all people, are born with an intense desire to know. Ask, Do I have a profound desire to discover what it would be like to be this new me, to experience this new mode of living?

Brooks later recommends that we go a step further than wondering whether we want to find out what life will be as a parent (in this example). Instead, I should ask myself if I admire parenthood as a matter of moral principle. If so, applying moral logic I should try to become what I admire.

Most important, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our desires change all the time. The strongest questions may be: Which path will make me a better person? Will joining the military give me more courage? Will becoming a parent make me more capable of selfless love?

I hope it does make me more capable of selfless love. In some ways my major unhappiness with myself as a person is my inability to think beyond my own desire. Sure, being a father I might not have any time to get drunk and watch sitcoms. But I might find new ways to help the world and become a better person. Once I learn to function on zero sleep without arguing my wife while tolerating the olfactory sensation of dirty diaper mixed with spoiled milk and Cheerio crumbs.

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