When we got married, Deb and I thought of ourselves as objective decision makers. We had been trained in mathematics and the sciences, so we analyzed things. Faced with a choice, we would figure it out.
Unfortunately, none of our objective analysis was telling us whether or not to raise children. We made lists of pros and cons, assumed what was assumable, and calculated what was calculable. It wasn’t helping.
The advice columnists and talk show hosts all say you should decide this before you get married, and we thought we had. On our wedding day, we had both vaguely expected a child in a few years. But years had come and gone without that future drawing closer or coming into sharper focus. If we went on like this, we knew, eventually, the biological clock would run out and we would have decided by default. And default seemed like a dismal way to pick a path through life.
At the time I couldn’t have explained what made this fork in the road so different from others we had navigated with ease, but having experienced similar failures of if/then thinking again and again in the decades since—when I left a secure job to focus on writing, when Deb’s year of cancer treatment made us rethink everything, when we had to decide what roles to play in our parents’ decline and death, and several others—I think I get it now.
For me, the final seal of confidence in a decision is picturing my future self being happy with it. Like God after a long day of creation, I want to be able to look back and pronounce my choices good. But a really big decision defies that visualization and ultimately defies objectivity entirely, because the choice itself changes who I will become. And that, in turn, changes the standards by which future me will judge the outcome. The me who recalls a life of fatherhood is just a different person from the me whose life is shaped by other experiences. If the two could meet and compare their lives, with all the unknowns already determined, they still might argue about who had been right.
The Protestant tradition I was raised in had an answer for situations where objective analysis fails: prayer. Take your problem to the Lord and wait for His insight to descend upon you. But neither of us still had that kind of faith in the God of our childhoods. Praying together would feel like talking to ourselves. Listening intently for God’s decision seemed like little more than a device for staying focused on a problem nonjudgmentally, without pushing towards a solution.
Then we wondered: What if we just did that? What if we kept talking to each other nonjudgmentally, without a divine Third Party, but didn’t push towards a solution and waited for insight to arise on its own? That required faith of a different sort: faith in ourselves, in each other, and in the viability of the life we were building together.
The result was a humanistic discernment process that has served us well, not just then, but many times since. Rather than trying to make a case one way or the other, we began fantasizing together in both directions at once. Looking to one side, we pictured parenthood in as much detail as we could: not just the practicalities of childcare, budgets, career compromises, and living spaces, but also the ineffable sense of having carried life forward, and of having a new person to love and to know as we had never known anyone else.
Turning our heads, we pictured how life would change if “maybe-someday” became “never-gonna-happen.” Would we stop enjoying all children once we knew that we would never raise our own? What about the first steps and graduations we would miss? What about getting old? Those spaces in our future we had set aside for children, what would fill them? Would it be enough?
We watched our child-raising friends with new eyes. Did we see ourselves avoiding their problems, or handling them differently? Were we good with their children? Did we like them? How would it feel different if they were ours?
Hardest of all, we waited, hoping uncertainly and sometimes anxiously for one vision or the other to crystallize into a future we could enter without misgivings.
It happened one day in a cabin where we were vacationing with another couple. The night before, we had borrowed their daughter and gone out with a flashlight to examine the legions of crabs that had crawled onto the beach in the darkness. She had been terrified and amazed and happy, just like we had hoped.
And in the morning we understood something: she didn’t have to be ours. It would be OK.
Thirty years later, it’s still OK. Without children we had to be more intentional about finding community, but we were. We wrote ourselves into other people’s lives and gave our hearts to other people’s kids. On the cusp of a grandchildless old age, we have no regrets.
And unexpectedly, that “fantasize-together-and-wait” practice took over not just the decisions too big to analyze, but lesser ones as well: now we picture life with a hatchback and life with an SUV, until one day we nod at each other and buy a car. We fantasize about both Paris and Hawaii, until vacation reservations practically make themselves.
Occasionally, though, I still wonder about that other me, the dad. Is he happy? Does he believe he did the right thing too?
Maybe he does. But either way, he’s somebody else now. And I’m OK with that.