The selfless-parent myth

Given that my wife and I wake up most days at 6 am, throw our 5-year-old and 2-year-old’s lunches together, feed them breakfast, get them dressed, get them out the door to pre-class violin practice then kindergarten and pre-school, work, pick them up, feed them pre-dinner snacks, cook dinner, feed them dinner, feed them post-dinner snacks, referee their fights, praise them for their good deeds, corral them for baths, put them to bed, then repeat this, nearly every day, it might seem odd to ask:

Is having kids primarily a selfish act?

As in, for whom do we choose to procreate, primarily?

Whose interests do we, as prospective parents, have prioritized highest when we choose to have a kid?

Our own, that’s whose.

Sure, most responsible adults figure, sort of vaguely, that they’ll be adding another responsible human being to the planet, that the person they make will roll up his or her sleeves, put his or her brilliant mind to work, and help solve the world’s problems. And parents know that having a kid will involve work. But we figure that this work will be offset by benefits — for us. (And, okay, for the kid, too. But mainly, for us.)

How many future parents actually think: You know, there simply are not enough good people in this world. I must procreate and take on this monumental challenge of parenting so that I can bring another quality human being into existence in order to make the world a better place. If making the world a better place was the goal, after all, there are much better ways to go about it.

No, future parents are thinking: Look at my friends — they have such cute kids! That day when my child is born — it’ll be so great! All those milestones! That first laugh! That first step! All the pictures I can share! The videos! That first hit in Little League! College graduation! What a thrill all that will be! I’ll be so proud!

When we think about having kids, we consider things like time, money, parenting strategy. Virtually no one tries to see it from the kids’ perspectives, as in: Would they want this? What are the positives and drawbacks for the kids? Would the kids come out ahead, or behind? Those might be passing thoughts, yes, but if anybody has a sheet of paper with a line drawn down the middle — one column for “Good for prospective child” and one for “Bad for prospective child” — I’d like to see it. (And if you think it’s a slam-dunk that the ‘good’ column would outweigh the ‘bad,’ you probably don’t pay much attention to world events. There are even some fairly thoughtful arguments out there that choosing not to procreate is more ethical than procreating.)

Why don’t future parents look at things from the kids’ perspectives? Because having kids is primarily a selfish act, that’s why. I’m not the only one who thinks this. I’ve read other bloggers who say not having kids is no more selfish than having kids, and that parenting for selfish reasons is natural but that we need to be honest and accept it as such. But many of these opinions seem to be written from the perspective of people who just don’t seem to like kids very much, and often come with the suggestion that adoption is closer to a selfless act. We’ve done adoption (what’s up, Amanda?), and I agree it’s different, but still not purely selfless.

What I’m saying goes beyond these arguments: I’m saying that, as a parent, it’s hugely important to acknowledge that we didn’t selflessly decide one day to do the work of enrolling a quality person in the human race, that our kids didn’t get born in debt to us. Quite the opposite: Since we had kids essentially as a gift to ourselves, we start out in debt to them.

So when we wanna scroll through Facebook when our kids want us to play tag with them in the park, or when we’re tempted to let them watch ‘just one more show’ rather than play a board game with them so that we can finish our Netflix movie, we should remember: Our kids didn’t ask to get born. We got them born — for the joy of touching their soft skin for the first time, for the thrill of seeing them hit a Little League home run, for the satisfaction of seeing them win the spelling bee, for the pride of witnessing their first recital, for the pictures, for the milestones.

For ourselves.

The least we can do is try to make sure their lives don’t suck.

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