Living

Kidding myself

Why it's impossible for parents to imagine their world without children

Not long ago, a friend asked me whether I could envision myself being happy without kids. The knee-jerk reaction for any parent facing this question is always an emphatic no—and that’s the one I dutifully gave. Of course, she was smart enough to ask me over a beer and not after a three-hour car ride with my kids buzzing on chocolate milk.

When I mulled the question over later—I think it was during one of those long car rides—I tried to consider it more objectively. In the end, my answer was the same, but the reasons were far more complicated than I first thought.

It’s always bothered me when parents look condescendingly on people who choose not to have children, suggesting that their lives must be hollow or, more commonly, that they’re self-centred. Not only is that criticism petty and defensive but it also suggests that becoming a parent is a charitable act—a moral duty that carries no selfish pleasure of its own.

Still, it’s hard not to feel guilty about imagining the wonderfully adventurous life you’d have if only your burdensome offspring and their chocolate milk weren’t holding you back. Playing the what-if game doesn’t have to be guilt-inducing, though, and it isn’t necessarily a red flag suggesting an imminent mid-life crisis—unless you’re dwelling on it every day and it’s accompanied by the purchase of a sports car. Indeed, it may even be a healthy way of examining what’s really important to you.

As a parent, if you’re going to play this game, you have to admit that the grass is sometimes greener on the other side of the McDonald’s PlayPlace. Looking at other people’s lives, we often see what we long for in our own. I have childless friends who are touring musicians, humanitarian aid workers, world travellers, avid theatre-goers and gourmands. Their lives are rich, rewarding and largely unattainable for people with young kids (however, for reasons I’m unable to determine, most of them have cats). Maybe I’m not getting the whole picture, though. I see the glamour of a career in the arts, the adventure of exploring the planet. I don’t see the lonely nights on the couch with a can of Pringles that must be part of that life occasionally.

As for these friends themselves, I wonder what they think about those of us whose lives revolve around children. Perhaps they feel pangs when they hold a baby or watch kindergartners dressed as bumblebees in a school play. Perhaps they see only the tantrums, the orthodontics and the Happy Meals and wonder why anyone would sign up for this gig. (It’s easy to spot the child-free people who don’t understand parenting at all—they compare your kids to their cats, as though they were even remotely similar. I mean, come on. Cats don’t drink chocolate milk.)

True, on the surface, my life story may not seem as compelling as theirs—indeed, several publishers have turned down my memoir, Lumina in the Driveway: Reflections of a Suburban Scribbler—but I’d be an ungrateful fool to argue that my family life hasn’t been profoundly rich and rewarding. It’s just that the rewards are quieter and more personal—and some involve mucus.

Parents can’t be smug about this because we have a huge blind spot, too. Yes, we all started out childless, but imagining our lives without children is not the same as remembering the time before our kids came along. When my friend asked me if I could be happy without kids, I strove to be rational, to consider the question in purely abstract terms. Hard as I tried, though, it always came back to wondering what I’d do if someone took away my real son and daughter. And that’s a question I can’t bear to ponder.