A confluence of things has recently had me thinking more about children than I normally do: one of my coworkers recently became a father, four TV shows I watch had episodes that touched on the theme of children and family, and my Chinese(-American) parents have badgered me, a single twentysomething yuppie, about "expanding the family". Combine this with some of the magazines that I read (left-of-center or hardcore progressive/liberal) and all the anti-children stuff they constantly churn out and you can forgive a guy for thinking about children more than usual.
I do want kids. And I want them for very selfish reasons. Everything we do is rooted in some form of selfishness. The person who wants kids is just as selfish as the person who doesn't want kids. But the difference between the two is that the person who doesn't want kids is adhering to a form of solipsism. But the person who wants kids is somebody whose selfishness extends to those around him. His family is an extension of himself, and thus the fruits his selfishness must also extend to them as well.
There is a very popular show on HBO called Game of Thrones, and it depicts the political machinations of the great aristocratic families of a fictional kingdom called Westeros. And one of the most important themes of the show is the importance of family and the legacy that you and your family leave behind after you die. Because, inevitably, all men, their children, and their grandchildren must die. But the family name lives on.
That desire to leave something behind when you are gone is the reason why organisms procreate. Every species on the planet is genetically driven to replicate themselves. And it's what makes people who don't want children so unique. For them, the only sense of existence is literally their own self being. They actively deny their instinctual desire to leave behind a legacy because they believe in only living for themselves. Once they are gone, the show's over for them. What good is leaving behind a legacy if you never get to see your legacy?
Another show on HBO, Veep, which is a comedic take on the inside-the-Beltway happenings revolving around a fictional Vice President and her staff, has a scene in which one of the main character reiterates her desire not to have children. It's just one minor scene, but when the entire show is about incredibly narcissistic politicians willing to go to silly lengths in order to further their own individual gain, it highlights something else.
Behind the excuses and justifications of why people don't want children, the real reason is ultimately rooted in solipsistic selfishness. And I know because I have those same impulses. There are so many things that I want to buy (a luxury condo, sports cars, tailored suits, expensive watches, pricey consumer electronics) and do (travel the world, eat at fancy restaurants, pursue beautiful women). If I were to settle down, get married, and have children, most of my time and money would be spent and invested in my family and not myself.
And there are real opportunity costs, even if you become rich later on. When the kids have flown the coop and the father has suffered his midlife crisis and buys a shiny red sports car, he finds that although he very much enjoys the car, something's missing. Because he wants to buy what the sports car represented to him when he was younger. And now he only has the car, not what it represented. That is why so many upper middle class yuppies want to "live life" in their 20s by traveling the world, partying and drinking most nights, and blowing money on outrageously extravagant things because they won't get the same thrill from doing so once they're in their 30s and 40s.
Some of them will eventually settle down. Although I predict a growing number will not. Many in the media have talked about an extended adolescence and what they're really referring to is the fact that you're not truly an adult until you take care of somebody other than yourself. Almost every day in Slate or The Atlantic, I read the self-pitying lamentations of twentysomethings who express anguish at the fact that their every need and want isn't being taken care of by other people. They are incapable of taking care of themselves, let alone another person.
Another show I watch, The Americans,
is about two Soviet spies who are embedded into American society. They
have a secret identity as KGB field agents but to the society they live
in, they are ordinary Americans with normal American children. Their
children have no idea who they really are, and the parents go to great
lengths to make sure they never find out.
In one episode,
there is a scene where the KGB officer who oversees the spies lectures
the female lead, who is emotionally stunted, about love. He asks her why
he loves his dog. He answers his own question with: "He (the dog) isn't
particularly smart. He isn't pretty. But I love him. Do you know why?
Because I take care of him. Every day. And he, in his way, is taking
care of me. If you take care of something, Elizabeth, one day you will
discover that you love this creature. And that your life would be empty
Again, I'm being heavy handed and liberally referring to TV shows. But you can see where I'm going with this. There was this one article on Slate that went in the opposite direction of what they usually publish. And it was about the love that a mother had for her daughter with Down Syndrome. Not that she wanted to have a child with Down Syndrome. She admits that had she known her daughter's condition while she was still pregnant, she would have had an abortion.
We are different people after we become parents. As so many wedding speeches love to remind us, love is patient; love is kind. And our capacity for love increases infinitely after we have children. I remember reading, a long time ago, an article where the author advocated cities to structure themselves around parents rather than yuppies. Among the arguments they made were that parents made their communities stronger. Because parents are much more likely to volunteer than the average twentysomething. And I suspect a strong reason for the increased proclivity in volunteering is because of the effect their children have had on them.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying all parents are like that. My parents certainly weren't. But I've worked with plenty of people who fit that mold exactly. Almost all of my coworkers are married with kids. And it's very humbling to be around them, knowing that they're working for more than just themselves.
The last show, Mad Men, is about New York ad executives in the 1960s, had their latest episode featuring the main character bonding with his middle child. Later, he is seen with a glass of whiskey in hand slumped over a bed. He tells his second wife about how he never loved his children. And although he went through the motions of what he thought being a good parent was, he essentially says he did it because it was convenient, not out of love. And then he bonds with his son over a day at the movies, suddenly feeling a great love for his son that he never felt before. And it felt like his heart was going to explode.
I am nowhere near that. I'm still stuck in solipsistic selfishness. I don't donate to charity. I don't volunteer. I'm focused mainly on building up my financial assets and I keep a list of things that I want to buy. And if I had a wife who was pregnant with a child diagnosed with Down Syndrome, I would probably advocate an abortion (slightly in contra to my previous musings on the subject). But I don't want this to be my entire life. I want children because I do want to leave behind a legacy, even if I don't get to live to see it. And I'm not saying it's a noble thing. It's completely selfish. It's just a different form of selfishness.