Dear Clementine #1: The Other Picard
My wife and I just got married in September. We’re both 32 and childless, which naturally means a lot of our conversations now consist of raising children: Is this as crazy as other people make it look? Do they ever sleep? Is the toddler stage just something you have to get through before it gets awesome? Will I love my kid WAY more than any other kid that I basically just tolerate at this point? Should we do this? Will we regret it if we don’t do it? Do we really want to give up all of our wonderful, amazing, beautiful time with each other (and ourselves)?
We’ve pretty much run the gamut.
For about a year leading up to the wedding we kept saying we’d start trying as soon as the wedding was over. It came, and we didn’t start. It’s four months ago now, and we’re not even close to thinking about trying. We’ve decided that we definitely don’t want kids now, but we realize there’s a bit of a soft deadline on this sort of thing. We have to decide at some point. Likely soon. But we’ve realized that we’re just so fulfilled with one another that we don’t think a child is really needed. If either of us found out we couldn’t have kids, I think we’d be okay with it.
I guess my question is: how do you know if you’re ready? How do you know if it’s something you should do? I know that people always say “You’re never ready. There’s never a perfect time.” That’s true, but it’s also a pretty empty phrase. There’s definitely a moment when you decide, “Okay, I’m ready to do this.” What kind of signs should we be looking for?
And to be frank: “Maybe you shouldn’t have kids” is definitely an okay answer here. It’s where we’re at right now, anyway.
Thanks for any advice you can give.
Looking for a Sign
Dear Looking for a Sign,
One of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes is 125, “The Inner Light” (I know it’s 125 because I bought it for my mom as a standalone VHS, lo these many years ago). The Enterprise encounters an alien probe whose energy beam knocks out Captain Jean Luc Picard. He wakes to find himself on a planet he’s never heard of. On this planet he’s married, and his wife Eline and his best friend, Batai, persuade him that no, he’s never been the captain of a starship; he’s a flute-playing iron weaver named Kamin, whose scientific experiments often land him in hot water with the local authorities.
Eventually, Picard/Kamin accepts his new life, though he never loses his interest in science and the stars. He and Eline start a family, and he lives a whole life on this world—which, he determines through his experiments with his daughter, will soon be consumed when its sun goes nova. The civilization doesn’t have the ability to evacuate its people from the planet, but they are able to launch a probe, as Picard learns as a very old man. Batai and Eline, long dead, reappear to explain that the probe was sent out in the hope that it would connect with someone who, by “living” as one of them, would preserve the memory of the people of Kataan.
Picard wakes up on the bridge of the Enterprise; though he’s lived a lifetime on the planet, only twenty minutes have passed on the ship. When the probe is brought onboard, Picard finds the flute he’d learned to play in his other life; wistfully, he picks it up and begins to play a melody he’d learned as Kamin. (The flute reappears throughout the rest of the series.)
Sometimes I think of myself as the other Picard, the one whose life is grounded (quite literally) in family, work, reading bedtime stories, building forts, cooking supper—the one who sometimes looks up, a bit wistfully, and wonders what it would be like out there among the stars.
If my life had gone another way, without the forts and the bedtime stories, I imagine that I would have been happy (as I am now), content, still working, still part of a family, still cooking supper. But my version of the Enterprise Picard’s life would not involve world travel, space travel, international intrigue, non-Internet-based social activism, or other grand adventures (it would, I suspect, involve more brunch, fewer Chewbacca lunchboxes, more movies in the theater, more sleep, more quiet reading—but then, so will my retirement).
Your Enterprise life may well be much more exciting, more fulfilling, than the one I imagine for myself.
Still, I think that raising a child or children (and I mean throughout this answer biological children or adopted children) is its own grand adventure, a chance not only to shape the life of another human being in a profound way, but also to face your own mortality, to find you care more deeply than you did before about every issue facing humankind because someday you will not be around to protect the being you’d cheerfully give your life for. My husband and I say that our son is the greatest gift we will ever give each other.
It’s also a chance—and I think an underestimated one—to pass along what has made you happiest in your own life—Star Wars, Jane Austen, that one doughnut place—to a captive audience.
Would Enterprise Picard give up his chosen life for the one he lived as Kamin? No. Would Kamin give up his life on Kataan for life as Enterprise Picard? I don’t think so.
One of the most annoying things about becoming a parent is starting to realize that every cliché about parenting is based in fact. It’s true that there’s no good time to have a baby. And it’s also true that even if you think you’re ready, you cannot be prepared for what’s coming your way.
Still, in an attempt to respond concretely to your question, I unscientifically polled friends and relatives about how they knew they were ready for kids. Unfortunately, none of them mentioned a sign. Some made detailed pros and cons lists and tallied them up; others had simply wanted kids their whole adult lives; some just liked kids and came up to the soft deadline you write about; a few took stock of their circumstances (jobs, health insurance, housing situation) and decided it was a “safe” time to go for it. A few, like me, caught baby fever.
This last might happen to you, by the way: In my early- to mid-twenties I was studying for a PhD in English, with a very unlikely focus on maternal mortality in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and the earliest English obstetrical handbooks (I’ve read ‘em all.). The side effect of this truly niche field of study was that I learned about almost everything that can go wrong in pregnancy and childbirth (spoiler alert: ALL OF IT IS TERRIFYING) and decided that yeah, no thanks. Not ever.
My then-fiancé (now husband) was fine with that. Then a month or so before the wedding, the fever hit: I wanted a baby right away. I can’t explain it—I love babies but have always been happy to return them to their parental units, and spending time with children is not exactly high on my priority list unless they are quiet, well mannered, and willing to be read stories—but there it was: I wanted a baby of my own. Very, very badly.
We celebrated our first wedding anniversary with a two-month old. (My husband is a very sweet guy, and an absolutely wonderful father. I still don’t have a PhD.)
My point is that it’s possible this burning desire for burbling progeny will hit you or your wife tomorrow or next year, but let’s assume that it won’t.
I admit to being taken aback when I first read your letter, since it strongly resembles one sent to Cheryl Strayed in her capacity as Dear Sugar; the column, “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” is poetic and moving and references Swedish poet Tomas Transtömer, and it’s an unbelievably tough act to follow. I commend it to your reading. I’ll wait.
Essentially, I agree with Dear Sugar’s advice—you must choose the trajectory of your future life based on what might be a difficult examination of your (plural) fears and deepest hopes.
But if, after all the self-examination you can muster, you’re still on the fence, I hope, for completely selfish reasons, that you’ll have kids.
Here’s the rub: I want my son to grow up in a better, more just world; I want him to do something, like Miss Rumphius (one of the great childless heroines of children’s literature, just to make this more complicated), to make the world more beautiful. And that would be a lot easier for him if he has peers who are raised to be thoughtful and kind—raised by people like you, who (regardless of creed, race, gender, political party, position on J.J. Abrams as a director or the Oxford comma) think deeply about big questions.
[To answer your first four questions from personal experience:
Is this as crazy as other people make it look? Yes and no. It won’t feel crazy when you’re in it, most of the time; it will feel like your life. But every once in a while you’ll look up, turn to your spouse or the air in front of you and say, “Holy shit. This baby is still here and we’re still responsible for keeping him/her alive!”
Do they ever sleep? Depends. I have a friend whose babies started sleeping through the night—I’m talking 10- or 12-hour stretches—around three months (don’t worry, I got over hating her). Our son didn’t make it through a full 8 hours until he was 2. Most babies fall somewhere in-between. You might ask your parents if you were a good sleeper or not—I’m convinced there’s some kind of cosmic payback involved in the sleep equation. Also, I’ve found that dwelling on how often I’ll wake my son up as a teenager to mow the lawn on Saturday mornings is hugely helpful in dealing with sleep deprivation.
Is the toddler stage just something you have to get through before it gets awesome? No. The toddler stage is tough in some ways (tantrums, and the realization that one’s tiny irrational offspring is mobile) and bloody marvelous in others (naps in your arms; talking, which means hilarious baby neologisms and declarations of love; tiny Converse sneakers).
Will I love my kid WAY more than any other kid that I basically just tolerate at this point? YES, a thousand times YES.]