Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Here's to Having Kids!

One of my guilty pleasures is taking about 15-20 minutes each Friday to read Bill Simmons’ column on Written from the perspective of someone who is a passionate fan, a sports addict, and a recreational gambler, Simmons’ column jumbles together sports, cultural touchstones, mildly puerile comedy, and anecdotes from his personal life in a way that I generally find amusing.

This past summer, however, a couple of his comments rubbed me the wrong way.

Bill Simmons has two kids. While his editors want him to avoid talking about them, every once in a while he can’t help it. Over the summer, he wrote a couple of times about things his young son had gotten into – vomiting in the hallway, slinging dog poop around the house. He prefaced these stories with the line, “Here’s another reason not to have children.” Now I know he was trying to be funny, and in other columns he has talked about how much he likes his kids, but whenever I read that line I found myself getting annoyed.

By employing this kind of light-hearted complaining about kids in a column aimed at 15 to 40 year old men, Simmons is doing fathers a disservice. The line “here’s another reason not to have children” draws upon and perpetuates for his audience a larger discourse of fatherhood that positions ‘dear old dad’ as a largely disengaged parent for whom the kids are mostly a nuisance imposed upon him by his wife. This is the same ‘dad’ who in Hallmark’s humorous Father’s Day cards spends his non-work hours playing golf, mowing the yard, or taking a nap (sans kids). While this is certainly not the only discourse of fatherhood out there, the prevalence and widespread acceptance of this particular trope makes it more difficult for me to be taken seriously when I speak in genuine and caring ways about my children.

Since this summer, I’ve been trying to imagine a counterpoint to Simmons’ “reasons not to have kids.” The statement I had in mind is not about why my kids are great per se, but more about why I like having kids in general. Articulating this general thought has been trickier than I first expected.

The reasons not to have/like kids are pretty easy to capture. They boil down to two logical categories:

1) Kids require you to do things you don’t want to do (e.g. clean up excrement, negotiate over petty things like how many spoonfuls of vegetables to eat, forego sleep)

2) Having kids requires you to give up things you want to do (e.g. lazily reading the newspaper on Sunday morning, taking a spur of the moment trip, sleep again)

The likes are much harder to parse into simple groups. I find the times when I am most aware of how much I love my children come in unpredictable and irrational bursts. Sometimes it’s when they are wandering around drowsily after first waking up from a nap. Other times it’s when I watch them happily work on something together. I also really enjoy hearing them laugh uncontrollably and seeing the pride they feel when they are suddenly able to do something new.

In fashioning a reason to like having kids, it was tempting to group these moments under a label like ‘innocence’ or ‘purity’ or ‘simplicity’ and to pose them against the exhaustion, stress, cynicism, manipulation, and jealousy of adulthood. But this opposition is fanciful and unfair to both children and adults. My children are not naïve actors in the world. They have their demands. They have their desires. They have their strategies to pursue them. In this, they are not pure, innocent, or simple. Similarly, as an adult I don’t find my life to be defined in world-weary terms. Adulthood is so much more complicated and interesting than that.

I’ve found that a more honest assessment of what I really like about having kids has to do with the quality of newness with which their world is flooded. For my kids, so much of what they encounter in the world is new and unknown. This makes the smallest things become a cause for great excitement and investigation. For example, I gave Pip a pair of scissors yesterday, and he spent a solid two hours patiently cutting large pieces of scrap paper into tiny bits. Similarly, Polly spent much of this morning shining a flashlight into various rooms, against different walls, and inside a range of containers to see how the color of the reflected light changed from spot to spot. It’s fun to be taken in by this kind of fine-grained curiosity and experimentation. It reminds me of how intricately textured the world is and how satisfying such mundane things as the click of scissors in your hand can be.

This quality of newness also points towards what I think is the fundamental reason I enjoy having kids. A friend and I were talking recently about the current iteration of the do-it-yourself movement. He was describing to me how enjoyable he found it to create something from scratch that he could have just gone to a store and bought off the shelf. For him, this joy comes from a combination of two factors: 1) learning how something like butter or a radio actually comes to exist, and 2) feeling an inordinate pride at having made them with his tools. Somehow, the butter tastes sweeter and the radio sounds clearer when the labor of production comes directly from his own hands.

As my friend talked, I realized that the feelings he was describing were very close to how I feel about having children. First, I get to experience how a person is made. I have watched as my own children learned to crawl then stand then walk. I have listened as they moved from babbling to words to sentences. I have seen them develop particular interests and the infinite idiosyncrasies that sculpt a human into a person. I have even had the chance to tinker with these processes by introducing Pip and Polly to a whole variety of words, ideas, and activities.

And then, when things go well, I get that intense feeling of pride. Everything Pip and Polly accomplish was achieved better or quicker or smarter than anyone else’s child could have done. It’s a bit silly, but after investing such large amounts of time and energy in something or someone it’s hard not to become overly emotional about their successes (and failures). I understand now why professional athletes cry at the end of championship games.

And so, here is my counterpoint to Bill Simmons and his reasons not to have kids: Raising children is the most intense and personal DIY project you can ever imagine. Each child is different, and you have to figure out a tremendous amount of stuff to make your parenting work. But, in the process, you can develop a relationship with this person unlike any other. You can also come to understand much more clearly why people are who they are and how they come to do the things that they do.

And if all goes well, there is no feeling sweeter than parental pride (whether it’s deserved or not).

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Unknown said...

I agree with you 100%. Sometimes I whine and complain about what I've given up as a parent, but that's just the CHILD in me. I know that no matter what they do that leads to annoyance, I could have never lived my life fully without having kids. Particularly my kids. I am a proud parent, and I love having kids.

Tim Atkinson said...

Maybe Bill's kids need to post their 'reasons for not having a parent like ours'?

Jay Palter said...

Guys can be dicks. We are raised to be that way and all our social conditioning reinforces it. But at some point, we need to grow up and decide what we want from life.

That's where kids come in. They are among the most fulfilling investments of your time and energy that you will ever make. You can learn from your kids and have a blast growing up with them. Sure, at times they can be a pain in the butt. But so can your sports buddies.

Kids rock. Primary parenting is the best. Don't leave all the "mothering" to your partners, guys - seize the day!

Anonymous said...

I am a proud parent, and I love having kids. That said, I also have a running joke with my husband, "Let's not have kids."
I think the joke in the ESPN column you read is indeed hackneyed and out of touch/out of date, but I don't know that it carries the freight you say it does. Would it rub you the wrong way coming from a mom? said...

I won't say it's a problem, but one thing I notice in this post is a unstated requirement to have a reason. A rational explainable reason. A reason that exists without the sexual structure that is the proximate cause of children. A PG rated reason. Will anyone here say, "I have kids because I really enjoyed knocking my wife/partner up"?

Why have kids? Because I want them. Why get married? Because I want to. Why have the next dish of ice cream? Because I want it. The language is so cool and rational. Where is the burning romance of life? Children as a way of cheating death another generation. Is my name mine, or just something I hold for a while? Something that binds me to all who have been and gave rise to me. An heirloom precious for it's intangibleness. Something I must pass on. Is is right to hold your newborn and think "You exist as the only cure for the pain of wanting you". Why isn't passion reason enough?

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Anonymous said...

I liked this post.

There is a principle in philosophy about how many people make the decision to have a child by looking at it only from the perspective of being a parent and not from the perspective of the child as well. For this reason, many people have a child to meet their own needs/wants and don't think about whether they are prepared to meet the child's needs and deal with her/his wants as well. This causes many problems down the road of course and a lot of family dysfunction as well as the child begins to recognize the unfairness and impoverishment that this exposes him/her to.

I get the sense this author has reached the point where he finds joy in meeting a child's needs and helping him/her with his/her development. I think this is great.

Dadigo said...

I think its pretty healthy to blow off some steam about how difficult it is to raise kids sometimes. I also think its kinda normal that when men are with other men (or writing to mostly men) they become alittle more likely to use locker room humor because its easy and universal. I love my kids but its nice to hear when other dads are dealing with crazy situations too.

Margus @ Polish food said...

I know that this post is quit old but still makes a lot of sense with me and it was a great help. Thanks for sharing it with us. Kudos!