No simple answers

There are some things in our lives that no one else really can, or should, decide for us, although other people are usually happy to offer their opinions (solicited or not). There are some decisions that, no matter how much data we gather or how much contemplation we give them, we may never be objectively sure areunequivocably “right.” It seems like a lot of those questions come up in the general arena of family – children and partners in particular.

Children provoke endless questioning well before they’re a physical factor in our lives. Do we want them at all? How many would we want? How do we want to raise them? (That one has far too many sub-questions to get into.) Can we afford them, and is it worth it?

A recent article in Business Week suggested that the answer to the second part of that last question might be “Well, maybe not…” Not in a financial sense, anyway, in modern times. Karyn McCormack cites research suggesting that in modern industrialized countries, where child labor isn’t normally a fact of life and children don’t contribute financially to their families’ support anymore, kids don’t generate any “return on investment” for their parents, other than the intangible rewards of raising them. It’s an emotional investment, but as the article discusses, there can be an awful lot of money that gets put into it, particularly if the children are growing up with many of the things considered part of a normal, middle-class American upbringing today (and you’re trying to set aside money for their college educations on top of all that). That’s a choice, though, and not a requirement of child-rearing, and sometimes that seems to be forgotten. If you really feel like you can’t afford to have kids – maybe you can’t, or maybe what you can’t afford is raising them the way you might prefer to, or think you’re supposed to (because our marketing-driven society says so); but as Carol Lloyd points out in Broadsheet’s response to the article, this isn’t really one of those things that responds well to cost-benefit analysis. In my own experience, parenthood didn’t exactly happen at an opportune time from a financial, educational, or career standpoint, and we made things work out with the resources we had. And if we had waited until a more economically “suitable” time, some other thing might have been off. But in a number of ways, my son wasn’t raised according to the “normal middle-class American standard,” and he seems to have turned out pretty well despite any relative deprivation.

Whether your decision to go ahead and have children is based on economic, emotional, or other factors – or it comes along at a not-exactly-opportune time – it can change the dynamic with your partner. Sometimes that change is a deliberate choice to make the kids a higher priority than the relationship. Sometimes it just happens, and it’s not really noticed until some incident triggers the realization that it’s happened.

Ayelet Waldman wrote a piece for the New York Times a couple of years ago that I’d read about, but didn’t actually locate and read for myself until recently. Her concerns were more along the lines that the dynamic with her husband didn’t seem like it had changed – at least on her end – after four children, and she questioned herself as a mother because her love for her husband hadn’t taken a back seat to their kids. In theory, I’m in Waldman’s camp here. A couple who chooses to make their lives together can lose the focus on their lives together when their children become the main thing between them, and – someday, eventually – when the kids head out on their own, it can be difficult to find the way back to each other. Sometimes it can’t be accomplished, and that’s something I’ve learned from experience. I talked Waldman’s line during my first marriage, but practice didn’t exactly follow it, and that’s part of why that marriage is history now.

My second husband and I won’t be having any more children than we each had when we started, and while that’s not the only reason each of us makes our relationship the priority – various other lessons learned from our respective first marriages come into play as well – it’s no doubt a factor. But those are our decisions, and another couple might do things differently. Hard as it can be to accept at times, most of life’s more interesting questions don’t have one single right answer.

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