Envisioning parenthood

Sep 30 2010 Published by under [Et Al], [Life Trajectories], the big picture

Recently, someone whose blog I like to read asked me a question by email, and it inspired me to think really hard about this and talk about it in a way that felt like some good therapy. So I wanted to share my reply with you all:

"How far into the future did you envision your kidlet before jumping in?

Here's what I mean: I have been married for [N] years now, and we do not have kids.  This has never been one decision; it is a decision that we make several times a year - we're not having kids this year.  Not this year.  Should we?  No, not this year.  And so forth and so forth.  This year, we are thinking... meh?  Maybe...?  One of the things that is currently terrifying me about the decision is teenagers - I cannot fathom having a teenager.  A baby, a toddler, sure - I could imagine that, and it's not so terrifying.  But the idea of spawning someone old enough to drive a car??  Really?? Hence, my question - did you envision your daughter being a teenager and think, "Wow, that sounds great!"?  I'm wondering if my fear of teenagers is an indication that kids ain't for me, or if nobody really wants a teenager but everyone does it anyway.

Thanks for your input.

(ID redacted)"

You know, if you asked me this question before I had my daughter I would have thought that my 'envisionment' was more thorough than it actually turned out to have been. I had pictured a kind of fantasy land, where I fell in love with her at first sight and she hardly ever cried and happily breastfed or drank a bottle from her daddy and... then was suddenly a toddler going trick-or-treating in an awesomely cute costume and... then was suddenly in school bringing home drawings and I was brushing her hair and she was making friends... and so on and so on like a montage of little lovely snippets of TV childhood/teenagerhood/young adulthood/etc.

That FELT very thorough at the time, it felt like I was thinking it all the way through. My feelings of wanting her in my life FELT very specific, but now in hindsight I can see they were really amorphous. I easily brushed aside those scarier thoughts (teenager: driving, having a phone, being alone with dudes, doing drugs, trying alcohol, SH!!!T!!!) and I still do. The difference between my pre-baby thoughts and post-baby thoughts about it is that now I just take it one day at a time, one milestone at a time, read what I can to try to be prepared for the immediate next step and don't think too far in the future.

Part of that is a weird superstition I have about assuming anything. I am wary of getting my hopes and dreams entangled in the uncertainty of the more distant future. I am not sure where this comes from, and it has only really emerged since having her (although traces of it have been in my brain since my own childhood). Like I described above, I used to freely build fantasy lands about whatever thing I was considering, as part of my deliberative process. But now, especially about her, I am uneasy about that--afraid to set myself up for unthinkable kinds of disappointment. So, I just try to keep up with the most likely next few steps and wait to deal with the rest when I get there.

The other part is just the result of having that birth process/early infancy/etc. fantasy world SO TOTALLY blown out of the water by the reality of labor and taking care of a newborn. JEEBUS was it different than I expected, and my post-partum anxiety hormones sure didn't help. It took six weeks, six whole weeks, before I felt like she liked being in the world, and she wasn't even THAT colicky (only a little). I did not feel that overwhelming satisfaction at caring for my tiny sweetie that I imagined feeling. I just felt tired, hungry, confused, and kind of dead inside every time I had to do another routine baby task that nobody else was around to help with, or for which I was too irrationally-obligated-feeling to ask for help with. That immense disconnect between what I had imagined and what it actually felt like completely changed my perspective on envisioning the future with this kiddo.

Now, we have grown into our love for each other: I definitely do feel those pangs of love and happiness and sweetness cuddling her to sleep, or when she smiles at everybody as we're walking into daycare, or waves and shouts at her gramma on skype. But milestones don't have accompanying trumpets (oh... umm, I guess she's been standing for a few days now, huh?), and she's her own little person so she reacts to each new step in her life in her own way, which doesn't usually match up with what I had planned for it (like solid foods: I was so stoked to get to start feeding her all these wonderful things and she's like "WHAT is this??"). So I've changed from envisioning the (fake) future to just trying to enjoy and do my best at the real present. And it's good this way.

20 responses so far

  • Pascale says:

    As someone whose youngest is turning 18 next month, I feel compelled to give this advice:
    You will never imagine anything remotely like what your child will be.
    I remember those dreams of playing, reading stories, time-out, and even teen year stuff. But at every stage of the game my sprogs have come up with something to make me crazy that no rational person would imagine.
    Having kids? Completely optional. but don't worry about fearing the teen years- cause they are not as fearsome as most people believe.
    Besides, after the commando phase and underwear checks at age 5, the rest seems like a piece of cake.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I can honestly say that I NEVER tried to think about what having a teenager would be like. To me, that is like imagining what the world will be like after aliens show up or WW3 happens. There are so many unknowns and unknowables, what's the point? You can't possibly imagine what YOU will be like in 15 years, let alone a child that has yet to be conceived.

    Here's the thing. You can't possibly plan for parenthood in a meaningful way outside of having supplies ready. Also, the difference between someone handing you a toddler and watching your baby grow up to be one, is huge. I had no idea what to do with other people's kids a couple of years ago, but now that I have my own, it is easy to deal with her because you get brought along slowly.

    So, IMO, looking at a teenager and trying to picture yourself with one couldn't be a more useless exercise.

  • I don't think worrying about your kids being ghastly teenagers means parenting is not right for you. (If society were recruiting for parents, I think this is the very kind it should be looking for.)

    I think some people are simply better at "filling in" the picture with more realistic details... which can be a real killjoy and cause totally understandable doubts.... ever notice when you get offered what seems to be a great job (because you hadn't really thought about it much, and/or ignored some signs) but then once you start and all the details fill in; the dreadfully boring tasks, a 3 hour commute) then you deflate? (which reminds me that I once bought a house five feet from a train track because it had nice wall colours... imagine my surprise when the first train came thundering by when I was unpacking... I was so caught up in the excitement of buying my first house I didn’t fill in all the details...)

    Thinking about having kids in detail would scare anyone who was able to do it realistically... I think generally people are meant not to fill in the details, at least when it comes to certain relationship situations (perhaps when buying a house near a train-track, then some details come in handy)... I hear a bit of unrealistic optimism (i.e. what I think of as mildly delusional or head in the sand behavior) is what makes people able to withstand setbacks, be resilient enough to try again or take a risk...

    I am rambling now but I guess what I mean is that if everyone filled in all the details of having kids few would do it. Except maybe a dork who bought a house on a train track. I sort of jumped into the parenthood thing without testing the waters intentionally, because otherwise I think I would have chickened out.

    Like chemicalbilology, I take it one day at a time... and pretty much spend my life waiting to exhale (which is the way I think most parents feel because so much of what happens to your kids is out of your control).... it can be fun though, in between the bouts of terror I have a good time...

    I’m pretty sure I did not manage to present an argument in favour of having kids... glad I could drop by and confuse you today.... I'd take the time to edit this comment to make it clearer but I have to pick up my kids, so I'm afraid I don't have time.

  • Nat says:

    I don't think it's possible to adequately predict what having kids will be like. It's one of those experiences that no amount of thinking, reading, talking about can convey what it's like to actually go through it.

    At some level, you're never going to have all the pertinent information, so those who do it, started out taking a leap of faith. "Let's do this, and deal with what comes."

    Is it hard? Hell yeah. Will you cry? Almost definitely. Is it rewarding? Incomparably so.

    And it does get easier. Number 2 was way easier than number 1, beyond their different personalities.

    Now, I have to go pick up my kids, so although I have more thoughts about this, they're gonna have to wait. Because the kiddies can't!

  • Odyssey says:

    I try very, very hard not to think about my kids as teenagers. And they're 12, 10 and 4... Two girls and a boy. In that order. *Gulp*

    Pascale nailed it. What you imagine and the reality will always be two very different things.

  • Dr. O says:

    Thought I'd add my little perspective as a mom-to-be, due in a couple of months.

    Hubby and I have definitely thought about the teenage years, but generally it's a brief passing thought, followed by a shudder then immediate dismissal. Hell, the toddler years scare the crap out of me, and I have no idea how I'll even deal with the sleepless nights that will begin before too long. I've been around loads of babies/toddlers, even worked at a nursery school during college, but I'm scared to death about having one of my own.

    Many of the above comments reflect our entry into parenthood - let's just jump in and figure it out as we go. Even pregnancy has been an adventure that neither I nor my husband could have ever understood beforehand.

    The only thing I thought about when making this decision - if there's someone I'd want to do this with, it's Hubby, and I think we'll probably enjoy at least some of it. And here we are, waiting to see what happens next...

  • becca says:

    From the perspective of a mom of a one year old, I kind of agree with what others have said about general difficulty in *accurately* envisioning parenthood. I think most of the individual parts of it are fathomable... but it's either an emergent system, with the sum being more than the parts, or there's just so many differences that you can't keep track of them all, they just keep sneaking up and surprising you.
    Earlier this week I was shocked to realize it's time for an annual festival we took the little guy to last year. It's like "whoa, all of a sudden there is Tradition" (and *not* happy fall holidays of going to get apple cider donuts, or christmas trees, or latkes, or any of the other things I imagined becoming traditions... nope, this is the bug festival). It threw me a lot- it might not sound like much, but the transformations in one year are staggering. So yes, what you imagine won't be what you get much of the time.

  • Between these comments and Arlenna's post, I'm baffled how anyone decides to have kids. I mean, the summary seems to be "We have/had no idea what we're getting into; it's wildly different than our meager expectations; it has turned our entire lives upside down and inside out."

    If you have absolutely zero idea what you're getting into (and in fact, less than zero, if you count your preconceptions against you), why on Earth would you do it?

    • chemicalbilology says:

      Because it's so freaking interesting!!! It's like a monumental experiment--like ScientistMother says: "raising my own little experiment." Between the DNA mixing and the gestation process and the neuro/behavioral observations you get to do on this little person, it is pretty freaking awesome to watch. When you don't have the bonding in place yet, and haven't got the memory store that helps create the bonding (i.e. pre-kid or early post-birth), it's that curiosity and interest in the experiment that kept me positive about it.

      Even on the third day in a row that you have to stay home from your office and take care of them when they have the stomach flu, have it coming out both ends and need to be kept carefully hydrated. (she's mostly better, in a good mood, and we were supposed to be able to go back today, but then she puked her breakfast up all over me so no daycare today). Still interesting to watch her babble around and learn how to clap, even when it means I'm missing some meetings I actually wanted to go to, and missing another day of getting my manuscript closer to done.

    • Nat says:

      If you only did things you could predict the outcome of, how would you ever try anything new?

      Really it's more like Becca suggested: there are bits and pieces of it that you can imagine, but there's no way you get the totality of the experience without doing it.

  • becca says:

    "If you have absolutely zero idea what you’re getting into (and in fact, less than zero, if you count your preconceptions against you), why on Earth would you do it?"
    uhm, wouldn't that argument also apply exactly to scientific research?

  • Look, hey - I don't mean to suggest parenthood isn't awesomely rewarding: I'm pretty sure every single person I know with kids has done their damndest to convince me & the husband that it's the greatest thing ever, and we have no idea what we're missing out on, and sure it's difficult but bla bla bla. I'm sure all y'all with kids have given that speech to some of your kid-free friends at least once.

    But (and I think I'm right here) everyone who's said that it's fantastic has great, healthy, normal kids.

    Let me give you two examples that have scared the shit out of me with regards to having kids. Example 1: my second cousin & her husband had wanted kids since the second they got married, and got pregnant with twins. One twin died just after delivery, and the second was born with some astonishing genetic defects that we couldn't have predicted from two normal, healthy parents. They are mortgaged to the hilt, and are collecting money from all corners of the family to try and support their little one and the massive amount of medical care he needs on a daily basis. He probably won't live to see ten years old.

    Example 2: friends of my parents had four sons. Three of four were model kids - helpful, smart, fun to be around (in fact, I dated the oldest of the four). The fourth son never fit in. He was constantly in trouble with the law, dropped out of school, started cutting himself and doing a ton of drugs, and ended up committing suicide. He was 15.

    These possibilities are just as likely as having a kid who is healthy and happy. Don't all of you know someone who had something like this happen in their life? Didn't that terrify the living hell out of you? Am I the only one who is terrified of the possibility of bad shit like this happening to their (theoretical) kids? Or at least, I certainly feel alone in the sea of friends having babies and trying to convince me that it's so fucking spectacular and I should definitely do it.

    I should apologize for the tone of this comment - it sounds really vicious when I'm writing it, and I didn't mean it that way. It's hard to communicate how frigging scary kids seem to me, and how people ever make the decision to do it when there are so so so so so many unknowns. I mean, I think if you were to look at the decision abstractly (jumping into something completely unknown, that you cannot take back, that will certainly scramble your life, and will be stupendously amazing and remarkably awful all at once), it just seems like no sane person would make that choice.

    • chemicalbilology says:

      I get you--that's what I mean by my paragraph where I talk about not being comfortable thinking too far out. I just don't think about those things, even though the possibility is there in my mind. My cousin dying last year at age 27 from a very rare cancer, and watching her parents go through that, brings this home to me. But the enormity of the bad situations creates a kind of perceptual bias that looms hugely in our minds, even though they are statistically very unusual and rare.

    • Dr. O says:

      I totally get what you're saying DGT, but there's always the possibility of something terrible happening when you take a leap of faith in any aspect of your life. I moved far away from a very tightly-knit family unit for my postdoc, and that scared the hell out of me. But I ended up with a job that I absolutely love and marrying the love of my life. I know others who have taken even bigger chances with their careers, marriage, and other life-altering decisions. Some have failed, sometimes with awful outcomes; others have found great happiness. It's always a gamble when you jump into something not knowing the outcome, but the payoff can be huge.

      I, for one, know nobody who regrets having kids, even those who have had very sad experiences. Would they have done it beforehand knowing how it would end up? Probably not. But that's why I personally don't mind not knowing the outcome of how things might turn out. I've been told your heart no longer lives inside of you after seeing your child for the first time...that you're changed forever in that respect. I've heard it described as overwhelming and terrifying and completely wonderful all at the same time. I can't speak to this personally (yet), but I do know that some of the best experiences in my life came from rolling the dice. If you avoid those experiences on the off chance that tragedy might strike, I argue that you're not really living and may miss out on the best thing that ever could happen to you.

      Not to say that everyone should have kids...I even wonder if Hubby and I are really cut out for it. 😉 But fear of the worst case scenario just doesn't seem like the right reason to not have kids, IMO anyways.

    • Nat says:

      I've never given the "you should have kids" speech to anybody, ever. It's a personal decision, and not everyone wants to. (of course, there's no shortage of assholes out there who WILL give childless couples that speech. Which always made me want to punch them in the mouth when my wife and I were dealing with infertility).

      If you interpreted my comment as suggesting you should have kids, it wasn't meant that way.

  • I'm fascinated by how many people seemed to be most frightened by the thought of a teenager.... while children aren't even on the table yet for discussion (we refuse to entertain the thought until we are living in at least the same state), I'd love to skip right to oh... 11 or 12 years old. Maybe it's because I was such a ridiculously well-behaved teenager that never got into trouble (I broke driving curfew ONCE by 42 seconds and my mother acted like I was knocked up, so I sure as heck wasn't ever getting into trouble again!) that I don't quite understand the terror... but a baby? A helpless infant/toddler who is entirely dependent on ME for every little thing? Now THAT is a scary thought!

    • Nat says:

      Yeah, but toddlers will sometimes come up and kiss you, saying "I love you" spontaneously.

      I don't know about anyone else, but I didn't do that much while a teenager. 🙂

      • chemicalbilology says:

        Yeah DJ, it IS scary! Especially at first. But then I got used to the routine of it all and it was less scary, more boring. I also realized the magical usefulness of baby sleep: when first born progressing to until they're crawling or so, they're generally happiest if they only stay awake for 45 min-1h at a time, then they sleep for a bit, wake up and repeat the cycle. If you keep them awake longer than that, they get all crabby. So as soon as ~45 min would go by, I would start bouncing her in her little bouncy seat and poof, out like a light for a bit and I could get some work done. Now that she's 9 months, she stays up for 2-3 hours at a time, and she wants to play, and also wants to crawl all over the house pulling up on things and cruising, so working doesn't 'work' as well anymore. Hence the wonderfulness of good daycare, where she loves all the teachers and other kids.

  • becca says:

    "These possibilities are just as likely as having a kid who is healthy and happy. "
    Well, technically, numerically speaking, no.
    But more importantly, those things *are* common enough to be legitimately concerning. I'm not trying to tell anyone they should have kids, and indeed I'm still not sure if I am not regretful in some respects (and nothing terrible happened- my son is quite wonderful. I just miss my old life). But I think overstating the "you can't be prepared for what will happen" (which is literally true, but not always because Terrible Things will happen) makes things even scarier than they need to be. It can be hard to make good decisions when you're driven by fear alone.

  • anon says:

    actually we never imagined our kids as teenagers at all. We just leapt in and did it. It seemed exciting and it was exciting. although I was a vegetable for a few years while they were babies.

    I have grown hugely as a person because of the kids. I can't even imagine being the person I was before, again. I think about the possibility of one of them dying from time to time- because they are so precious- but I would much rather have had them for a short time than not at all. Even horror children help you to see the world in such a different way and appreciate different things in life that you might never have noticed before (although for some families it is overwhelming, depending on the issues, and my heart goes out to them).

Leave a Reply