Reasons To Have Children

I was finally inconvenienced by the global health pandemic when my book launch was cancelled. Well, it had been pretty inconvenient to be pregnant during a global health pandemic, and have a brother nursing ventilated Covid patients in ICU while unvaccinated, but whatever, that was 2020.

Anyway, my book came out in the first fortnight of the latest lockdown, and months later, I still haven’t been in a real bookshop with my book. Cry me a river!! It does suck though, even if it’s not the biggest catastrophe of the freakin’ global health pandemic. So I thought I would run an extract here and if y1ou want you could buy the book here.

This is an essay that people constantly reference when writing to me about the book.

Reasons To Have Children

I believe most parents regret having their children.

It may only be for a minute. It may be for a week. It may be for a year. Or more. You are allowed to complain about your children, you are allowed to talk about how difficult it is, but mostly in a kind of noble way. Look at this supremely difficult and kind of selfless thing I am doing, just look at it.

You’re not actually allowed to talk about regretting it.

But most parents do.

Regret it.

At certain points.

So why have them?

Well. It is hard to talk about the good parts of having children without slipping into sentimentality. When I was growing up, I had no particular interest in children. I was surrounded by them: my cousins, my cousins’ kids, my own younger siblings. I had so many babies come into my family so quickly that I remember how completely unremarkable the arrival of my youngest sister, Alice, was. I was in kindergarten and my teacher said to me excitedly, ‘I hear you have a baby sister!’ I didn’t even look up from the paper I was drawing on with red crayon and shrugged. ‘I already have a little sister,’ I replied.

(Alice hates stories like that. She has a complex. Not so long ago, my dad, who is seemingly allergic to memories of and nostalgia about his children, became animated talking about my first steps. He described what I was wearing, what I had been doing, and what the occasion was when I stood up and walked for the first time. We were aghast to see him so thrilled, let alone thrilled about a toddler’s achievement. Alice asked, ‘How old was I when I first walked?’ and he returned to his normal self, looking at her thoughtfully for a full minute. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.)

When I think about why I decided to have a baby, I know the factors that were in play, but I think my reasons were not quite considered. My husband is 14 years older than me and had wanted a baby for years. He never pushed me, though, and one day I said to him, ‘What if I never want a baby?’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘then we won’t have a baby. I can just be happy with you.’

He didn’t pressure me, but his preferences were taken on board. I think what it actually came down to was I grew tired of thinking about it and just wanted to make a decision. For a woman in a heterosexual relationship, it really can be that elementary.

So I went off contraception and, as is customary in my obscenely large family (25 aunts and uncles, more than 30 first cousins), I got pregnant. 

Even when I was pregnant, I had no maternal longings or urges. I remained unmoved by the sight of a baby. (Indeed, one of the most annoying things about becoming a mother is people feel compelled to send you photos of random babies and, really, I still don’t care.)

My mother was a midwife for decades and, though she didn’t tell me until my beloved baby was six months old, she was quite concerned I was a prime candidate for postnatal depression, such was my lack of interest in becoming a mother even when I was eight months pregnant.

But then Hamish was born. The high I had for about two weeks after was unbelievable and incomparable to any high I had had before in my misspent youth. I didn’t quite know how high I was at the time. I loved holding him. I loved smelling him. I loved looking at him. I loved sending photos of him to everyone I knew. It was like living enveloped in jubilation. The only thing that it was remotely like is being on MDMA.

I remember scrolling through Instagram the day after I took him home. I think I had slept for three hours and he had not been off my boob for more than 20 minutes at a time and the stitches from my vaginal birth ached.

I looked at each post feeling sorry for everyone at their Christmas parties, having their cocktails on balconies in the Australian summer, swimming in the ocean at 7.30 pm. I genuinely pitied them, that they did not have a baby, that they specifically didn’t have Hamish. It’s a pretty extraordinary hormonal feat.

The high didn’t last, of course, and I don’t want to pretend it was all a love bubble. When he was nine weeks old, I was so sleep-deprived that I began sobbing in a food court in front of my mum while I was breastfeeding. She took me back to my hometown and taught Hamish to go to sleep at 7 pm every night. That saved me in ways I probably still don’t comprehend.

When Hamish was a couple of months old, my brother, Séamus, came over unannounced in the late afternoon after finishing his shift at the hospital. He opened the front door and I was sitting in my chair, crying, holding my baby, who was also crying. He walked over and lifted Hamish out of my arms, while I covered my sobbing face.

‘Is there breast milk in the fridge?’ he asked.

I nodded, miserable.

‘Go and have a shower for as long as you want.’

I don’t know how long I stayed in the shower but by the time I came out, my brother had got my baby to go to sleep and had cooked me dinner. As we were eating, the baby started crying, but, before I could be overwhelmed with my own tears again, Séamus got up from the table and went into the room and settled him.

I will never forget it.

Matt was fully present during all of this and cooked all of my meals, did night feeds, and bathed Hamish and settled him and took him out whenever he was home. But he worked long hours in the evenings, the bitchiest time for the baby. It just wasn’t physically possible for him to share equally in the parenting in those early days. I don’t believe just two people can look after a baby at that age. You need more.

All of these sound like pretty good reasons not to have a baby. I’d argue, though, that while they’re not reasons to have a baby, they are not reasons not to. This stuff passes. Parents are quick to tell you about the lack of sleep, loss of freedom, complete and utter surrender of privacy, but they don’t often mention the good stuff.

As I was writing the above paragraph at the desk in the corner of a bedroom, I looked through the window and saw Matt pushing Hamish in the pram in the driveway. My son, now two years old, looked up and saw me and sheer delight lit up his face. ‘Hello!’ he called, waving and trying to jump out of his pram. ‘Hello! Hello! Mama! Mama!’ He smiled and waved and waved and waved.

We had seen each other about 90 minutes before.

Imagine being greeted with so much joy every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I cannot tell you how good it feels, even though I know it is literally what I am supposed to be doing. There are so many small moments in a day, sometimes in an hour, where I can feel the love inside me bulging in my veins.

As I was writing the above paragraph, he stood next to my chair vacuuming the shirt I was wearing with our expensive Dyson. But that doesn’t negate anything.

What a lot of people leave out when they are telling you about the realities of parenting is the daily joys, the enthusiasm for everyday life you are given, how eating a banana can become an event, the relief of thinking so much about someone else rather than yourself.

When I was pregnant with my second baby one of my closest friends, who is allowed to voice such things, questioned how this baby could be as good as Hamish. How could we all love another baby this much? Another baby that isn’t Hamish? Wouldn’t Hamish always secretly be our favourite? It was too much for a baby to live up to. But then Cormac arrived. A completely different baby with a completely different temperament and even different eyes. We were all completely besotted. Again. Against what we thought were impossible odds.

My sons are so good for me. So much better, so much more, than I could’ve conceived before I had them. They are the best part of my day.

I have also lost a lot. You cannot expect to keep all of the good bits of your previous life and only add good bits. And of course Hamish won’t greet me with such glee every time he sees me for the rest of his life. Especially when it’s only been 90 minutes since he last saw me.

In psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s words, ‘There are few loves which are entirely free of ambivalence. … Not only is our love for our children sometimes tinged with annoyance, discouragement, and disappointment, the same is true for the love our children feel for us.’ He also blamed mothers for children having autism so a lot of his work can be safely ignored; but in the case of ambivalence and love, he wasn’t wrong.

I know I will fail my sons, and our relationship is not just about how I feel about them, but also how they will feel about me. There is no hiding from your children. As they get older, they will see all the worst parts of myself, bear witness to my faults in character and probably at times focus on them at the expense of my OK traits.

I have a friend who is absolutely devoted to her son and daughter. She works part-time and spends all of her free time developing fun and educational activities for her children and thinking about what is best for them in every way.

I am sure her kids will one day say, ‘My mum didn’t give me enough space.’ Just as I am sure my own sons will say at some point, ‘My mother didn’t give me enough attention, she was always busy with other stuff.’

This is the thing about your children – they see you as you are, entirely fallible but they tend to see your faults too acutely.

Of all the things I lost when I became a mother – time, being a size eight, obliviousness to true terror, an aversion to anxiety, time – I did not lose my identity. Even when breastfeeding and when going to Woolworths by myself was an ecstatic exercise in freedom, I still felt like me. I remember being home with Hamish when he was about three days old and reading the Guardian news app and thinking, ‘Oh, I can still read.’ Of course I could still read. But the way some parents had spoken about it, I had expected my true self to be subsumed, to be drowned.

Instead, I kept across the news because I was still interested in the news. I continued to read books because I still loved books – there is actually a lot of time to read, particularly with your first baby, as there is a lot of sitting around with them attached to your chest and not much else to do.

I had vulnerable points, times when I thought maybe I had been obliterated by motherhood and was becoming boring, but what I feared more than what I thought of myself was how other people now thought of me. I was still funny, still crass, still smart, still part of the world around me. I was desperate for people to see that, worried that they would only be able to see the baby.

Along with my identity, I had also been tricked into thinking my creativity would disappear as I pushed my baby into the world.

‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,’ that English literary critic, writer and prick Cyril Connelly said. Connelly sponged off his increasingly broke father and his first wife’s parents to fund his ‘bohemian’ lifestyle, didn’t have children until he was in his 50s and still managed to produce only one novel. I don’t think a pram had anything to do with that. 

When author Zadie Smith was seven months pregnant, a childless male writer whose identity we can only speculate on (I have my theories) told her she must ‘be worried about falling behind’. She responded: ‘You must be worried about just a complete lack of human experience, that you’re now going to be 40 and then 50.’

Being creative, or being thoughtful, or being whatever it is you were before you were a parent, particularly a mother, can be harder, but it’s entirely possible.

The biggest adjustment I have found is that I don’t get to have my ‘best time of the day’ to write anymore. It used to be that I wrote best first thing in the morning, but that’s when Hamish wants me to make him a dinosaur toast, or read him a book, or stop him from playing with the heater, or just talk to him. Now my writing has to be done at night after he has gone to sleep, or on the train back from work, or in the hour when he’s at the park, or whenever I can. Not when I want to.

You still get to be you, you’re just you with a kid. But how radical to try to apply that to your own mother. Can you imagine her as a fully formed human with an interior life beyond her children? Ridiculous.

***

Twin ideas often tied to parenthood are that of completion and that of learning what love is. It is not uncommon to hear people say, ‘I did not know what love was before I had a child.’

Of course, usually, if your circumstances growing up were not too extreme and grim, you knew what love was. But you didn’t know what it was for the survival of another human being to be so dependent on you. Maybe you didn’t ever experience the illusion you could shape someone (you can influence someone, sure, but shape? Within three months of your child talking, I guarantee they will express desires you completely disagree with and are foreign to you), but that’s different.

Just as loving your sibling is different to loving your lover, the love you have for your child is – as far as I can tell – entirely unique. You probably wouldn’t forgive your sister as many times if she screamed at you for putting the wrong Peppa Pig shirt on her or if she threw the dinner you made at the wall because a sausage touched a potato, but that is separate to ‘not knowing what love is’.

A lot of mothers feel pressure to be completed by their children. Or even go into motherhood with the expectation of being completed. But that shit’s hard. You can’t just have a kid and be completed. You still have to do the work on yourself, with or without parenthood. You let your kid define you and pretty soon, sooner than you think, your new identity is going to leave home or perhaps even come to resent you.

It is a big, big, big love, though. At times a suffocating love. At times the most annoying love you will encounter, ever, easily. It’s one of the main reasons to have a baby, actually. It’s hard, though, because they are never going to love you the same way. They can’t love you the same way.

If our children loved us in the way we love them, then the world would not be able to exist. Everyone would be too paralysed with terror and devotion. They wouldn’t leave home and they would not be able to survive when parents died, and we have to die. (I know some parents outlive their children. I cannot fathom.)

It’s hard to write about the love, because 1) it is a love mixed with so much sacrifice and 2) pretty much everybody sounds deranged when they try to describe the love they have for their children.

I thought it was a love that would become more manageable over time, but a woman told me she feels the same way about her adult children that she did when they were toddlers. It seems impossible. If this is true, how does my father ever stop hugging me? How does my mother survive months without seeing me? How do my parents just go to work, go to the shops, see their friends and have a life, knowing their children are somewhere else, possibly making bad decisions? Drinking? Probably with people who wouldn’t throw themselves in front of a car to protect them? How do you exist knowing they are boiling kettles by themselves thousands of kilometres away, and anything could happen with a boiling kettle? (I will have to ask them one day when I remember to call.)

Sound deranged? It’s completely deranged. That’s how deranged it feels to love your kid. That’s why we all sound so lame when we talk about our kids. Even when we are not thinking about them, we are always thinking about them.

It’s also disconcerting to have them and not feel fundamentally changed. My life is fundamentally changed, but I still feel like the same woman as before. Still wasting time scrolling online, still having too many wines on a Saturday night with mates, still doing stupid things. I somehow thought that would evaporate when I came into the very real responsibilities of parenthood.

Just after my child turned one, my husband took him to north Queensland while I still had to work. I went on the tear. Straight back to my habits pre-pregnancy, pre-breastfeeding, pre-parenthood. Sure, I had work, but that didn’t stop me partying until 3 am, drinking gallons at dinner parties, eating pizza over the sink for breakfast and sleeping in until 10 am when I could. It’s amazing how quickly we can return to our base selves.

I also talked about my son. A lot. About how great having him was, how having a kid is the best, how everyone should have one. I think it’s one of the only times I’ve ever directly said to someone that they should have a kid. Even though this particular person had not asked me.

I am usually careful not to give such advice, even when my friends are talking to me about deciding whether or not to have kids. It’s hard not to sound preachy, or desperately like I am trying to indoctrinate them. Besides, they will never have my kid; their kid could be a dud.

Heather Havrilesky, an advice columnist who writes The Cut’s Ask Polly column, did not have any such qualms when a reader wrote in and asked if she should have a child.

‘It was difficult and also incredible,’ Havrilesky wrote of early parenthood.

‘It was taxing and also glorious. Having kids is hard to describe for that reason. Not that many things are as dramatically good and stressful at the same time. It’s a little bit like a good marriage. You feel some hatred and some love, together. It’s like being with your family of origin, or traveling with your best friends. It’s incredible and you’d also like to murder someone.’

She is right.

***

Not everyone has the overwhelmingly positive experience of parenthood that I had. There are two essential factors not quite within a mother’s control. The first is whether you have a true and equal co-parent, and the second is the baby you are given. I say having a true and equal co-parent is not quite within control because the way some partners, mostly men, can behave after a child is born can be totally different to what was thought and agreed upon prior. At times I have found my child overwhelming, but it was never a constant. That would’ve been different if his father didn’t get up in the night with him. Even when I was breastfeeding, Matt would take the baby afterwards and put him to sleep so I could just go back to bed. After we started mixed feeding, he would take wake-ups before 3 am-ish and I would take anything from 5 am. If there was a wake up between 3 am and 5 am, then we would have the classic stand-off of who could pretend to be asleep the longest (me!).

If one of us was particularly exhausted, then they would get to sleep and the other would take the baby. Matt was working full-time but it was an office job. Any parent who has stayed home at any length with a child can tell you which is harder – going to the office on almost no sleep or looking after a baby for the entire day and evening. Going into the office can be like Christmas when you have a kid. I’ve heard a lot of women say their partner has to work and that’s why they don’t get up at night. To those partners I say, if you are not operating heavy machinery or doing surgery on someone, suck it up and have five coffees. You’re a parent. You’ll deal.

The baby you are given is much more difficult to reckon with.

If you have a high-needs baby, then I cannot help you. Not many people can. Sometimes you have a baby that will not stop screaming, for months, and refuses to sleep. Often those babies have undiagnosed reflux, but they also can just be high maintenance. My deepest sympathies are with you and I honestly think we should honour those parents with some medals. Plural.

Most of the time, though, if you have an average baby, they scream in the first three months and then it gradually lessens. You can teach them to be OK with various people holding them. Some form of sleep training will eventually work. You can teach them to cope with sitting by themselves.

The most valuable lesson I learned was you can ignore your baby. You can put them down to eat lunch even if they don’t like it. You can put them down and let them amuse themselves for a bit. You don’t have to give them constant attention. They’ll be fine.

In a pretty short space of time, parenting has gone from something that pretty much everyone did to a project. One of the fantastic upsides of this is that children are often listened to a lot more now than even just 15 years ago. They’re believed.

A downside is an absurd amount of pressure piled on parents to do everything that is best for the child, quite often at their own expense. We have a duty to the child, for sure. But it’s also OK to do things because you want to do them. Because you enjoy them.

I know one woman who, when her baby was three months old, would listen only to The Wiggles and podcasts for babies, do projects with the baby, read only books for the baby, and start the entire routine again the next day. 

Let me assure you: you absolutely do not need to do projects with a three-month-old.

Cuddle the three-month-old, feed the three-month-old, get the three-month-old to sleep however you can, talk to the three-month-old. That’s pretty much all you need to do. I would read some kids’ books to my baby, but mostly I would read out whatever I was reading, if I read it out loud at all.

Once her son was two years old, my friend would often say how differently she would treat the first six months if she had another child. Mainly she would listen to the music she wanted to for as long as possible.

I didn’t play kids’ music for my kid until he could ask for it. You have years of listening to The Wiggles ahead of you, so keep playing Kanye for those first few months.

Boredom is good for the kid, probably. That’s what I’ve often told myself. I did not burden myself with trying to keep my baby engaged for all the minutes of the day.

The secret to happy parenting is having low expectations of yourself. You don’t have to raise a genius. Your kid doesn’t need to know the alphabet at two years old. Feed them and listen to them and, most importantly, love them (actually, maybe feeding is most important), and they will be fine.

When parents regret having their children, which every parent does, they are mourning not just a former life, but their youth. They are mourning something they could never go back to, even if they never had children. It is just one of many things they mourn that they wouldn’t have had, even without children – except for money, they would absolutely have way more money if they didn’t have children.

It’s the same as when people don’t know if they are unhappy because of their long-term relationship or if it is just easier to blame their partner instead of looking too closely at themselves.

As Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in Fleishman is in Trouble:

‘What were you going to do? Were you not going to get married when your husband was the person who understood you and loved you and rooted for you forever, no matter what? Were you not going to have your children, whom you love and who made all the collateral damage (your time, your body, your lightness, your darkness) worth it? Time was going to march on anyway. You were not ever going to be young again. You were only at risk for not remembering that this was as good as it would get in every single moment – that you are right now as young as you will ever be again. And now. And now. And now and now and now.’

It has always been worth it. What was the alternative for me? A quiet house? An ordered life?

So have the baby. Love the baby. Fight with the baby (juvenile, but you will do it). Read to the baby sometimes. Ignore the baby sometimes. Cuddle the baby. Choose the baby’s outfits while you can. Enjoy the baby. Regret the baby, sometimes. But have the baby.