My baby daughter was just hours old when a nurse clipped a plastic bracelet with my name and hers onto my husband’s wrist.
“That’s the most expensive piece of jewelry you’ll ever own,” she quipped. “It’ll cost you $250,000 before she turns 18.”
Quite the wake-up call for freshly minted parents. As I care for my now eight-week-old baby, I am sometimes struck by the permanence of my choice to bring her into this world. She is perfect and beautiful and innocent. And she represents years of self-denial that lay ahead of us as we choose her happiness and well-being over our own career prospects, wealth, and comfort. My baby was the answer to a long-held heart’s desire. Even so, sometimes I’ve wondered: with all the hard work, inconvenience and sacrifice, why choose a child?
When my friends and I were freshmen in college, few of us talked about having children someday. That seemed normal; we were young and busy, and parenthood seemed a long way down the road. But now, ten years later, many of my peers still are not ready to consider children, and more than a few are sure they don’t want them.
A study released this year by the Urban Institute confirms my observations. The birthrate for American women in their 20s is lower now than at any point since the nation was founded.
I can’t speak for all the reasons that cause people my age to put off having children or skip child-rearing altogether, but I can guess at a few of the influencing factors. We, Millennials, like our free time and space to travel, pursue a career, or indulge in a hobby. Having a baby ties you down and dramatically reduces leisure time. Hiking Kilimanjaro or changing diapers at home? Many 20-somethings have no idea why anyone would choose the latter.
Even the idea that people do something good and contribute to society by bringing up a child is fading fast. The concept of contributing to something bigger than yourself and raising a future generation is now dwarfed by concerns about overpopulation and carbon emissions.
I recently came across an article that demanded, “Can you have kids and still be a good person?”
As I hold my infant in my arms, the very question hurts my heart.
Not everyone will choose to have children, and that’s all right. But I fear we are becoming short-sighted in our thinking about parenthood. My little Laura may represent hundreds of dirty diapers and thousands of dollars to be spent on braces and swimming lessons, but she may also be an artist whose works will reach the masses, or the scientist who finds the cure for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or an agricultural engineer who will devise better ways to feed the world and its growing population. Almost certainly, nurturing her life will be one of my own life’s greatest accomplishments.
And regardless of what my baby grows up to do, parenting her is an investment in my long-term happiness. Today it’s sweet, warm breath and toothless smiles. Tomorrow, swinging on the playground and stories at bedtime and phone calls from college and wedding dress shopping. As I mark her milestones and celebrate her joys, my own life will be enriched. Being a mother to my daughter is already teaching me to love in new ways and to feel more deeply.
As I was leaving Trader Joe’s last week with my hands full of grocery bags and my baby strapped to me in a wrap carrier, a man who was also leaving the store saw me and smiled.
“That looks comfortable,” he said, nodding to the wrap.
“It is,” I replied, “though I wish I were the one sleeping.”
“Ah well,” he said. “someday she’ll be holding you.”
Photo: Flickr/Paolo Marconi