I had lunch with a dear friend recently; this woman is happily married but does not have kids. We have known each other for decades, and our conversation, as always, was easy, punctuated by jokes, knowing smiles and playful eye rolls. We know each other well. Once we caught up on the usual topics of work, significant others, mutual acquaintances, and vacation plans, she asked me about my kids – I have two.
Joanna knows my daughters well. She visited me in the hospital after my daughters were born; she has babysat for us; she buys gifts for my girls’ birthdays and Hanukkah; she knows what grades they’re in. In other words, she is intimately acquainted with my daughters, their quirks, and personalities. I was happy to tell her about my kids’ latest news, digging into middle school drama, my oldest child’s desire to start wearing mascara, and so forth. Again, Joanna and I laughed, sighed, nodded at each other knowingly. She got me, she got us, she understood.
In a natural progression, our conversation turned to her having kids. This is a subject we have broached numerous times before. Joanna is in her mid-30s, accomplished, driven, educated. She has a Master’s degree, she runs her own business, she has an array of eclectic hobbies, from playing the tuba to meditation to working with clay. Joanna has traveled the world, having camped in Cambodia, ridden camels in Israel, and eaten croissants in Brussels. She marches to the beat of her own drum, never settling, never assimilating, never compromising. For this, I respect her tremendously. She is not the kind of woman who would have children just because “that’s what people do.” That is not how Joanna lives her life.
At the same time, Joanna, like me, comes from a wonderful Jewish family, complete with a set of Jewish grandmothers who have lived through “the war” – yes, “that” war. These Eastern European grandmothers, as all grandmothers, would love nothing more than to see Joanna have a child in their lifetime – a fact Joanna is very much aware of, a fact that weighs on her heavily.
Many a time, Jo and I have circled around these subjects, me trying not to push, her trying to remain objective.
“Why do I need to have kids?” Jo asks, somewhat rhetorically, but almost not. “I already have everything I want: an amazing life, a loving husband, fantastic friends, a career I love, a home, adventures,” she rattles off, counting fingers. “As far as I can see, nothing really improves when you have a child. Your finances go down the drain, the relationship with your spouse goes out the window, free time becomes nonexistent. I see no pluses – why do it?”
I sit, chewing my food thoughtfully, if thoughtful chewing is even a thing. Throughout my relationship with Jo, I have always been a sounding board, a listener. My role within our dynamic has been not to persuade, not to push, but just to absorb, to support, to affirm. I have always felt that she doesn’t need to be judged or convinced to do something different. She is her own woman with her own views. I’m her friend, not her mother. I provide encouragement, wine, cookies, hugs.
Yet, in this moment, I wondered if I should speak up. Why should one of my closest friends consider having kids? What are the advantages? Articles upon articles in the past decade have been written about the advantages and disadvantages of procreation. Sociologists have analyzed whether having children makes people happier, more productive, improves health and a host of other variables.
Jo has, no doubt, read these articles, as we all have. It’s hard to take a step in today’s world without stumbling on some expert’s opinion stating that you’re taking the wrong step. Opinions pile up, one on top of another, until your view becomes clouded by them, until it’s no longer clear what’s the right thing to do.
In order to try and help facilitate some clarity for my dear, amazing friend, I reached out to my group of girlfriends who are moms and asked them a simple question: why have kids? I wanted to offer Jo a few more opinions – not those of “experts,” but just thoughts on motherhood from regular – albeit bright and accomplished – women. In other words, I wanted to offer her not just my own insight, but other insights from women inside and outside our circle.
My friends, of course, came through, as friends and moms do. Their answers were perceptive, sensitive and discerning. They shared their maternal wisdom generously and vulnerably. As always, I was in awe of their power, their capacity for love, and their astuteness.
My friend M., for example, said that “there’s the weight of someone who is always dependent on you, but then it’s also a sense of purpose and pride that you can shape and guide an actual human being. A little less profound is the fact that no other hug or kiss comes close to the ones from your kids; no one else’s wellbeing is ever more important. I’m not sure I’d ever fight as hard for anyone (not even myself), as I would for my kids.”
She went on to add that “there’s the Jewish aspect, in the sense that after everything our people have gone through, meaning others trying to extinguish our existence, here we are, and I personally contributed with two more amazing human beings.”
Another wonderful friend S. said: “The reason would be to love someone so completely and infinitely as you could never love anyone else in the world. To be amazed daily at their tiny changes. To see not just yourself or your husband in them, but glimpses of all the generations, down to our grandparents. I cannot imagine living without having experienced that.”
Many other answers were in a similar vein, expanding on the thoughts of love and continuity of generations. The question of philosophy was also included: what’s left after we’re gone? What do we leave behind? Who will remember that we even existed? As I stare at my grandmother’s picture night after night, I know with certainty – it’s our kids and grand-kids. They will carry on our traditions, our funny habits, our memories, sing our silly songs, eat our weird foods. Our kids are the ones who would have “seen the tree fall in the forest,” and will thus attest, that yes, there really WAS a tree.
It is nearly impossible, and probably always unnecessary, to try and convince someone to have a baby. Life is full of forks in roads, intersections where one can go this way or that. Sliding doors – pick one life or another, both generally good, both offering their own shares of highs, lows, joys, and disappointments. All we can do for those considering an alternative is try to offer a small glimpse of what another life would be like – a view from the cheap seats, a “behind the music” peek into this wonderous world of parenthood.
Robert Browning has once said: “Motherhood: all love begins and ends there.” This thought by the great British poet can’t be accurately conveyed over a lunch of nigiri and iced teas. What I wanted to do for Jo was to simply lift the curtain and show her a small glance into this world, a membership into which she was only considering. It’s, no doubt, a membership that comes with costs. The proverbial sleepless nights, the constant worrying, the paralyzing fear that you’re messing them up for life – it’s all there for every mother I know.
Yet it’s the love that makes it all worthwhile. Seeing your children reflected in your spouse’s eyes, watching them inherit your best qualities, teaching them your traditions, celebrating their accomplishments – to quote “The Godfather,” “this is the business we’ve chosen.” To be honest, I can’t imagine choosing any other way.