Graduation day

Graduation day

Parenthood makes life serious and challenges you to push past limitations you have accepted too easily. But those issues don’t go away when you decide not to have children.

Doug Muder
graduation mortarboards

© Steve Debenport/iStockphoto

© Steve Debenport/iStockphoto


Like a lot of people in their forties and fifties, next month my wife Deb and I are going to a high school graduation. We’ll be watching Meg, who (at least to my biased eye) is a perfectly wonderful young lady: smart, pretty, poised, caring, articulate, thoughtful—and probably embarrassed to read that list.

I expect that as I watch the robed-and-mortarboarded teens file up to get their diplomas, I’ll be paging through eighteen years of memories: The time Meg and I went up into the attic to hide from nobody-in-particular while I read her stories by flashlight. The unexpectedly rough and rocky bike trail by the river; she handled it fine, but I nearly didn’t because I kept looking back to make sure she was OK. The speculations we traded until midnight, as we waited to get our hands on the new Harry Potter book. Her amazingly detailed description of the social structure of her eighth-grade class, or her unimpressed summary of a typical college visit: “There are things to eat, places to sleep, and professors who teach you stuff.”

Even some memories that sound hellish are strangely sweet to recall, like the night when 11-month-old Meg was inconsolable. (I can date it exactly, because she was screaming in the background when friends called to tell us that their child—our godson Josh—had been born.) Eventually there was nothing to be done but hold her tight enough that she couldn’t kick me, let her scream in my ear, and bounce her up and down until she finally fell asleep. Not until the next morning did I realize I had pulled every muscle in the left side of my chest.

Undoubtedly, at some point during the graduation ceremony Deb and I will touch hands, look into each other’s eyes and think: “Should we have had children?”

We didn’t. We decided not to at the same point in life where many of our friends—like Meg’s parents and Josh’s parents—made the opposite decision. Did we do the right thing? What were we thinking?

Being a writer, I can almost always answer the question “What was I thinking?” because I probably wrote it down somewhere. This answer is particularly easy to find: One of the first essays I ever posted on my website was called “Childlessness.” Meg was two, Josh was one, and they were both toddling advertisements for parenthood. The essay explains why Deb and I decided not to have children, and what we were planning to do instead.

How does that thinking hold up 16 years later, from the perspective of Graduation Day?

Even before I re-read the essay, I was happy to know that we had made a definite decision. On our wedding day, Deb and I had shared foggy thoughts of parenthood in two or three years. But by our third anniversary, the fog hadn’t lifted. We knew we liked children, and had no reason to doubt our fertility. And yet, there was no child-shaped hole in our lives. We liked being a couple, and we liked having time—time for each other, time for ourselves, time to devote to our careers and our community.

But would that always be enough? And how could we give up Baby’s first step? Baby’s first word? Watching her graduate from high school?

We soon realized that we couldn’t make a win-win decision out of it. Whatever we chose would mean giving up something important. So it would have been easy to leave things up in the air until either Deb got pregnant by accident or we realized it was too late. In retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t.

But did we make the right decision? If in ten years Meg is facing the same choice, will I suggest that she do what I did, or not do what I did?

“Childlessness” has three main points. First, our parenthood decision was uniquely our own. I knew I hadn’t been swayed by any of the generic arguments on either side: A childless life didn’t strike me as necessarily selfish or shallow. The idea that children hold a marriage together had died in the Seventies. (Even so, Younger Me’s assessment seems a bit harsh: “Short of an affair, having children is one of the worst things you can do for your relationship with your spouse.”) Living a thousand miles from my own parents, I was skeptical that our child would be any kind of old-age insurance. I also doubted that he or she would carry on in my footsteps or cheat my death in any other significant way. And while I could imagine someday looking back with pride on my child-raising efforts, I could also imagine looking back with regret on all my mistakes and how badly things had turned out.

The usual anti-parenthood arguments fared no better. What personal guilt I felt about over-population or the strain our child might put on the planet was not heavy enough to tip the scales. I didn’t see the world as a vale of tears or believe that our child would hold the gift of life against us. And I was also unimpressed by the sheer expense of raising a child. “Compared to what?” I asked. Whether we had children or not, we were going to spend our time, energy, and money on something. Why not children?

In the end, we stopped trying to find a “right” answer. We visualized life-with-children and life-without-children in as much detail as we could. Eventually, life-without-children just looked better to us. It was a choice, not a Truth: “If someone else envisioned the future differently, or looked at the same two visions and liked the other one better, there would be nothing we could say to convince them, even if we wanted to convince them.”

The essay’s second point is that “No” just leads to another question: If not children, what? Parenthood isn’t just a bonfire of resources. It’s an attempt to seek fulfillment and to become part of something larger than yourself. It pulls you into the community. It makes life serious, and challenges you to push past your quirks, idiosyncrasies, and the limitations that you have accepted too easily. Those issues don’t go away when you decide not to have children. What are you going to do with your time and energy? Watch a lot of TV? Climb the corporate ladder? Buy a new car every year?

Finally, independent of our own choice, we knew that our generation was going to devote most of the next two decades to raising children. Did we want to hold that collective project at arm’s length, or find some role in it? And as our friends, two by two, defected from the ranks of the childless, what would we do with them? Write them off? See them every six months or so when they could get a babysitter? Check back with them in ten or twenty years?

We decided to think of ourselves as extended family and form our own relationships with their children. And so we babysat, made play-dates, went to birthday parties, and took collective vacations. Josh’s family has a framed photo on the wall: Mom, Dad, Josh, and his newly adopted Chinese baby sister Tory. They’re in Guangzhou and the Pearl River is at their backs. “You know where I am in this picture?” I asked someone I met at their Christmas party. I mimed pointing a camera at the photo and snapping the shutter. “I’m here.”

As you probably guess from the story-snippets I’ve been scattering, it worked. We stayed close to our friends. We had a ringside seat to watch their kids grow up. It’s been fascinating.

I wish I could tell you that my freedom as a non-parent led to accomplishments no parent could match: inventions, best-sellers, Nobel Prizes, world peace, and so on. It didn’t, but I’ve done a few things I might not have otherwise. When Deb battled cancer (twice), I was glad I had only her needs and mine to worry about. (Though when I needed to escape the hospital, I also appreciated being able to drop in on a houseful of boys and play games.)

Rather than plunge deeper into our careers, we backed off: Both of us reduced our hours, and I eventually moved on to my current fulfilling-but-less-than-lucrative career as a writer. I don’t think we’d have done that if we had been saving for college.

Through hard times and easy ones, our relationship has enjoyed the twin luxuries of uninterrupted conversations and uninterrupted sleep. We’ve had time for friends of all ages, time and money to travel, quiet time to think, and energy to put into our church community. No doubt I’ve also missed out on many important experiences, but I don’t feel cheated.

A few things surprised me. I hadn’t realized just how important my connections to younger people would be after I turned 50. If everyone you hang around with is over 50 as well, the world seems to be winding down. Conversations drift towards dying parents, illness, nagging injuries, and other depressing topics. You forget that somewhere people are still trying out for the baseball team, imagining their first kiss, or deciding what to pack for college.

I blame biology for the second surprise: When Meg and Josh got to be teenagers, Deb and I suddenly noticed that babies were interesting again. For several years, they hadn’t been. We already had a girl and a boy; we weren’t looking for more. Even their younger siblings hadn’t gotten the full measure of our attention. But right on the tribal schedule, our grandparent urge kicked in. So recently I’ve been jingling keys in front of strollers again, and playing peek-a-boo in restaurants. I’m sure I look silly.

I’ll probably look silly on Graduation Day, too. No doubt my eyes will tear up, and then I’ll try to pretend that they didn’t.

You can never know how the things you didn’t try would have turned out. I might have been a great Dad. Maybe my daughter would also be smart, pretty, poised, caring—or not. Nobody really knows what makes great parents or great kids. And if we ever puzzle out the recipe, I suspect we’ll find a cup or two of luck in there somewhere.

You make your choices and you roll the dice and you get the life you get. That’s what I did, and—in spite of occasional attacks of wistfulness and envy—the life I wound up with seems pretty good.

So if she ever asks, I guess that’s what I’ll tell Meg about not having children. And then I’ll probably tear up, and pretend I didn’t.