To Procreate or Not to Procreate
The decision to have, or not, children—and how many—has been of mild interest to me since I had mine. At no point as a child or twentysomething did I want to have kids. And then I met my husband. And I still didn't. Having had to fend off the horror struck questions when someone found out and the “just you waits” from family, I had all kinds of excuses. My favorite was “Are you kidding? With my nurture and my nature, the poor thing would be fucked!” The family didn’t love that one.
Ten years after the birth of my son, I cannot tell you whether or not I was right. However, I changed my mind, or more passively agreed to let it happen, because my husband wanted a son and I wanted him. And because on a four month date he sat me down and dug through all my bullshit, chiseling into the walls behind it. Dressed to the nines, sipping colorful cocktails, laughing and streaming tears, I realized my issue was that I didn't want to be a single mom, even if I was married. I hadn’t known many men that participated as equal partners in raising their kids. He promised to be a full-time parent and in that moment he chose me and I, though I wouldn’t admit it, I chose him.
Since the economic and medical developments that followed the Industrial Revolution, the need to have large families to survive has diminished. More babies survive to adulthood, and economic survival is not tied to the number people you produce. In fact, large families are becoming detrimental to survival. Even people with good jobs find it difficult to afford a house and food for a family of four let alone more kids. So our views on marriage and family has evolved. Albeit slowly. I still hear unmarried or newlywed people talking about having 2-4 kids. But more and more often after the first born many of those people pull me aside and whisper the question as if God or their communities would smite them for even thinking it. “Is it ok if I only have one?” It is. It’s also okay not to have any kids.
Having a large family has been the morally correct thing to do for generations. While it was first for agricultural labor on the family farm, it became a religious imperative, and then as people moved to cities to work in factories and then offices and became secular, the justification was lineage, to perpetuate the great family name. To pass on our genes, as if they are the family fortune. Unfortunately, most of us no longer have a family fortune (if our families ever did) to pass on or even use to survive today. And the truths of many of our families, the hidden tortures and traumas and mistreatments, the generational trauma, have been revealed, so the moral edict to procreate now rings hollow. Neither do the classic rationales hold water: “My parents did it, so I should too.” Or, “So my first born has a friend to play with.” Of course doing things our parents did makes less and less sense as the world changes drastically from the one they made their choices in. And, now that most people don’t live in isolation, so having a built in friend isn’t a necessity or valid reason either. Besides, having siblings is no guarantee of friendship.
As our cultural awareness of mental health increases and becomes an acknowledged part of our daily lives, it makes sense to include it in our big life choices. So many people I’ve met moved to Colorado for a better lifestyle, better mental health, or left it for the same reason. Most of the divorces I’ve seen were cause by one person, usually the man, not dealing with his mental health. If you knew your family had Huntington’s, would you take the risk? Would you get the test and see what your chances of passing it down are? Whatever you decide, you’d likely consider it first. The same should be true for our mental health.
Having children is hard. And as my therapist has told me more than once, it can bring up traumas from that corresponding age. When my son turned 8, so much stuff that I hadn’t even realized was still poking at me like healed over shrapnel came screaming to the surface despite having been in therapy and done a lot of good healing work over the previous five years. And, as he goes into middle school, albeit younger than I was, I find myself with unstable footing again. Having a kid will not solve your mental health problems, it will exasperate them.
In deliberating on having a child or not, considering what you can emotionally handle is important, just like considering the financial impacts of family size. Are you easily overwhelmed and prone to angry outbursts? Are you already so fatigued that you spend more time in bed than not? Do you have a handle on your anxiety, or does it stop you from traveling, driving, going out in public? Do you have the support system to navigate your metal health issues while you try to raise mentally healthy children?
Our children get the best and worse parts of both parents. (This is a real thing to consider when getting married if you know you want kids—are the worst parts of your partner something you can live with, like a propensity to literalism, or not, like manipulation and abuse?) Sometimes the "worst" parts of ourselves that we pass down to our kids is our biological disorders, our trauma and/or our bad coping mechanisms. Think about what your parents passed down to you. My father’s family legacy was best summed up by one of my cousins, “Someone had to teach you to hate yourself.” My mother’s side taught me to be strong and independent, possibly too independent, and how to numb the emotional fall-out of my father’s legacy and being a woman in America with intense exercise and not eating.
All of this is not to say if you have mental health issues you should not have kids. When my son was three I found myself crying for weeks on end. A happy family picture on Facebook or a “should” from an in-law would set me off. I started what turned out to be a long journey of healing. I wasn't always a good parent, and I still have regrettable moments. But in working through my stuff, I am not passing it down to my kid. I have a good partner in life and in parenting, and we are teaching our tiny human resilience. We are teaching him that life is hard, there is no such thing as perfection, but we can make up for our mistakes, and the bad parts don’t have to be permanently harmful.
It’s fun to fantasize about having kids. Imagining doing your favorite activities with them. Teaching them the things you love to do. But parenting is more than baking cookies, tossing the ball, and riding bikes. And acknowledging the realities of ourselves and our partners can help us keep from passing down our mental health problems.