Friday, February 05, 2010

Having children or being childlike

Sometimes when I'm walking around my house I find myself thinking for a moment something like, "hey, this is really nice, I'd like to live in a house like this" because on some level I still think of myself as a youngish person who has plans and ambitions. And then of course I laugh at myself to have been thinking such a silly thing.

I was wondering why, at an age when most people are having midlife crises, I'm still feeling young. I am certainly an organized, responsible person, who isn't spontaneous much, who has an exhaustive to-do list, and who makes sure things that must be done get done. Hardly the model of fun-loving and childlike. And yet hardly a day goes by where I'm not doing something that to most people in their mid-40s would be considered frivolous. I don't just play games, I still structure my life around games. Most of my Christmas wish list is stuff that a kid still in school might say "When I'm a grownup, I'll be able to buy that whenever I want" -- and I have made that true. I didn't just get a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas (a quite respectable and "old person"-compatible kind of fun), I also got some computer games, a children's science-exploration building kit, and a Hot Wheels racetrack.

An unblinking analysis of how I can be responsible yet childlike runs up against one fact: I don't have children. This is the kind of thing that's very dangerous to say: people who have children can get defensive about it quickly. But if you're brutally honest about it you can't help agreeing that, for most people of limited means, there's a choice between having children, and having a lot of other things, including the free time and money to spend on a lot of the silly and fun and childlike pursuits.

To head off some of the defensiveness, I want to say clearly that I certainly don't object to the decision of those who have children, nor do I diminish that their choice is, for them, fulfilling and important and wonderful and all that. I've heard all the statements about how it changes everything and makes everything else seem trivial by comparison. Maybe I'm the one who feels defensive: instead of having that experience that parents insist is transcendent and transformative, I'm playing with Legos and roleplaying games and a bicycle and Rock Band. Am I throwing away my life?

It's hard to defend my life without seeming like I'm attacking theirs, but I'm not. Sure, I didn't go have a child so I don't know if, having done so, I would be saying now "I'm so glad I did it because it's wonderful in ways I never imagined." But I don't think so. For me, I would have all the stereotypical bad parts of being a parent. I'd be stressed, frazzled, exhausted. I'd feel like I never had time or money to do anything fun. I'd be having that midlife crisis in spades, wondering where my life went and whether I'd ever get to do the fun things I want to do. I'd probably be the guy who comes home from work and is too drained to do anything, and who has so much to do around the house on the weekend that it's hardly any relief from work.

Having chosen not to have children is why I have this house, it's why I can spend some of my time on things as silly and fun as Rock Band, and ultimately, it's a large part of why I like my life. Maybe kids would have been transformative, but I think it wouldn't be worth the risk.

So yes, I suppose I do feel defensive because I have no way to refute the "you would feel differently if you had them" argument -- and because that seems to most people more persuasive than the "and you would feel differently if you hadn't had them" counterargument does (because of an analogy, false I think, with the "how do you know you don't like broccoli if you haven't tried it?" argument).

Plus I think society still has lingering traces of the ethical argument that used to make sense centuries ago, when families and nations needed numbers to ensure their survival and strength. (I don't think there's any ethical argument that still holds water now about having children or not, but if there were, it'd be on my side: not having children is probably better for the world than having children right now. Of course, that's countered by the idea that adopting children is certainly better for the world than not adopting children, but you can chase the tail of that argument forever and end up back where you started.)

All told, I'm not trying to convince anyone to adopt my life, but I'm glad that I chose it all the same. I'm not in the slightest bit embarassed about the idea that I play with Legos. I think of the stress-cracked midlife-crisis guy in a tie who passes out on the sofa every night, and I think, maybe playing with Legos is at least as healthy. For me, certainly healthier. So I'm proud to still be childlike. It works for me.

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