It’s a little strange to think about “why” you had kids when you’re already six months into gestating baby number four. Sort of like contemplating why you had that fourth Jack and Coke when you’re trying to resurrect your mid-30s inflammatory corpse the next morning. There doesn’t seem to be a point in asking — you’re already here, having to make do with the consequences.
Growing up in a white, religious, working-class, conservative culture, people never asked why you wanted children, only why you didn’t. Having children was the default, and having them young was normal. People who don’t choose to have them must answer comprehensively why, and those who do have them are just swept along in the current of cultural assumptions. No one at a baby shower asks you why you decided to have this one. Before I had children, I never really considered asking myself why.
Maybe I Shouldn’t Have Had Kids
I never considered it until it was way too late. At around 28, neck deep in three children, I realized I should have never had kids. I was just embarking on recovery from anorexia and unable to contain the PTSD and depression from suffering basically an entire lifetime of abuse. Looking into that terrible abyss of my own stunted development as a person, it was hard to face the despair of having brought children into my mess. I could no longer lie to myself that abuse and betrayal done in private didn’t impact them. I had to admit that I could not control my own mental illnesses and coping mechanisms. I couldn’t go back and undo all the choices I’d already made — they are here now! — but I could damn well make sure I didn’t affirm those choices in the future by staying or being silent.
I had decided to stop having children long before I’d realized I shouldn’t have them, and yet it was that choice itself that was the final domino in the decision to leave my ex-husband. Someone brought their newborn to the gym, and while holding it, I felt the despair of being 30 and having all the roads closed and world narrowed.
I wanted to be free. Free to choose to have a child out of something more than just being pregnant, and free to choose to not have a child based on something other than the pain and despair.
Freedom was, unfortunately, why I had children in the first place.
By 21, I had run out of things to do with my life. Closed in by my then-husband’s distaste of my ambition, and a job that was incredibly boring, I didn’t know what else to do and felt caged in by lack of opportunity. In the naiveté of youth, I thought if I had children and became a stay-at-home mom (like my then-husband wanted), I could be free. I could build something of my own.
So, I got pregnant.
But having a child at 21 to gain freedom and a purpose for your life is a well-known recipe for disaster. I was 22, standing barefoot in the grass back home, watching my younger siblings and my husband run off and play while I held a colicky, screaming baby. I’ll never forget that moment, or the intense sorrow and anger that gripped me, realizing: I would never be free again.
There were a lot of reasons I left, but my children were the reason I stayed gone. You may have them for terrible reasons, but that doesn’t make them any less wonderful of people, any smaller a blessing, any minimal an impetus to do the very best you can for them. My eldest, the same crying infant from a decade before, surprised me one day in our new home, a little four-room fishing cottage that I could barely afford. “I’m proud of you,” he said, patting my hand. But of course, there is a grief in that as well, that your then-10-year-old son has the awareness to be proud of you.
Part of recovery, part of healing is forgiving myself for inflicting them with existence, with not having healed before I had them, and with being human myself.
I never expected to have more children. It wasn’t even a question of my own desires, but a question of stability, of trust, of having healed, of finding enough hope. I couldn’t imagine, in that wasteland of grief and struggling to heal, ever feeling capable of making that decision. I couldn’t even feed the three I had, working two jobs and getting donations from the food bank and friends. As COVID hit, schools closed, and the government just turn a blind eye to the struggle of parents — an already-rough situation seemed desperate. There were no answers, only despair. Not just for me, but for so many parents just trying to carve out enough food, enough shelter, enough safety, enough hope to pass along to their children.
In the face of so much institutional and economic injustice, how can we rationalize having children?
To give my children any kind of stability, I ended up having to move away from their father and accept that they wanted to stay in their home and school during the school year. I am now in a custody plan I never wanted or envisioned, and the grief feels unending, but my children are at least, at last, thriving in both homes.
Resentment + The Faith That It Will Work Out
The question of why, and the way we answer it, has as much to do with race and class as it does our own philosophy. If you aren’t white, the question of why you had kids seems more common — and becomes one not of personal philosophy but of public defense. To me and other white readers, one slightly ignorant question may be just another casual irritation, but it comes out of a history and culture that feels like it has the right to the bodies and futures of its non-white populations. It comes out of a country that continues to do everything it can to control the reproduction of its occupants — specifically for the purpose of having a foundation of whiteness that cannot be “replaced” and labor that cannot be competitive. And for those of us who remain vulnerable to institutional control, we can expect that control and threat to extend to the rest of our children’s lives.
It is easy for me to nurse a particular kind of resentment about not having the choices of whiteness and wealth. But even wealth and whiteness cannot insulate our children completely from the risk of suffering, though it certainly tries (and often results in adults who think they can control such things or don’t know how to handle the despair of people who do not have this illusion).
My white best friend of 15 years had children young, to the “palpable” disappointment of her religious, educated, upper-middle-class family, who expected her to have a thriving career, travel and decide later in life to have children.
“So why did you have them?” I asked, and she said she didn’t know, but she sensed the answer was in the doing. In essence, she simply had faith that it would work out.
There’s no wrong answer to this question, but it left me feeling that bitter flavor of resentment in my mouth, and I felt like a bitch to be mad about it. It seems so easy to have faith if you could expect some safety, some stability.
But it’s maybe that I feel guilty all over again for having children. Guilty that I’ve had to think so deeply about it. Guilty that I’m doing it again, despite what I know.
I don’t think anyone looks at my life and thinks, “Yes, a good choice will be to have a fourth child.” So, maybe I find myself asking this question not for personal discovery but to fight the shadow of defensiveness. To find an answer that makes me worthy of being a mother again.
Living + Healing + Growing
If I’m very honest, there are a mix of reasons. I had wanted a fourth before I left my ex; my partner now is a great stepdad, and it would be nice to have one together; my three older kids would love to have another sibling; and — most of all — I am still grieving the loss of my older children growing up faster than I expected. But even though I’m able to feed my children now, have a stable job that pays decently, and am both loved and love myself, it’s still a cruel, terribly unjust world. I’m still vulnerable to all the same things I was before. My partner brings no extra resources or stability to the situation. Our child won’t even have active, safe grandparents in their lives (unlike my other three who have the privilege of my ex’s parents). I can never shed the despair of knowing, the scars of all I’ve been through and the heaviness of our collective burdens.
I do not feel, like my best friend, any faith in it working out.
How do you ever answer the grief and pain that is waiting for these newborns? How do you say, to a child — who must face for the first (or millionth) time the injustice of racism or poverty or violence — that this is worth it?
I suppose the real reason I’m asking is not for myself but for the child still in my womb. Why did I have the pride to think I could pull you, this little jumble of bumps and kicks that I love more than life itself, from the gentle ether of unbeing, just to live through the raw pain and despair of life? And the answer, after much thinking (and a lot of getting the kind of angry that feels like tears choked in your throat), is hope.
I don’t know what there is to hope for, not with our rights as humans and our ability to support our children being eroded daily. Not with children gunned down in classrooms and our choices being held by rich men with power.
But some days you wake up before work, and it’s a cool summer rain and the coffee is hot — and you’re still living after all this time. Living and healing and growing, and you can hold the pain easier than you could before (but you’re only 35 and know now there is more pain ahead). And yet, it means something to have this choice, this new life growing in you after everything, because it means that you believe in a world you cannot yet see and a hope that you cannot yet feel.
Despite my irritation with my best friend for her faith, I have the same hope it will all work out.
Her hope is one I used to share — the quick reply, “Our hope is in God!” and the foundational belief that there is a God and everything will work out the way it’s intended. I feel disillusioned about God and his control in the face of so much suffering and injustice. I can accept that I do not understand, but that means accepting that I no longer have faith there is ultimate meaning in all this pain. My hope then — my faith — is less a solid principle of religion and more this ephemeral flame in the darkness that I can’t explain or really grasp.
It’s just there.
Unlike my best friend, I cannot think of a reason to hope. Only that I have it. And the longer I try to find reasons, the more I consider that maybe hope is only the reason I don’t give up and kill myself.
If I ask myself, then, why I made the choice to carry this baby and give birth to him when I didn’t need to and had so many reasons not to and, for the first time, felt free to consider it deeply — a freedom that was short-lived thanks to the impending fall of Roe v. Wade — no answer leaps into my head.
What comes instead is the memory of his anatomy scan. I remembered the way he would react to and interact with the pokes and prods of us trying to get him to cooperate for the tech. I remembered his little punches and kicks and the showing off. It is not prescriptive to ascribe personhood at six months pregnant, but it is instead like the feeling of seeing someone you could love and hoping for the joy of getting to know them and watch them grow old, without the assurance of what that will be or what it will look like. “He was such a joy,” the tech said as she was leaving. “And I don’t often say that.”
Not A Source Of Happiness — A Source Of Joy
I had never fallen in romantic love before my current partner, and long before I had any kind of hope for our future together, I watched him sleep in my bed with the kind of joy that comes from knowing someone simply exists. And maybe it is hope that stays my hand on my own life, but it’s joy that takes my hand for the lives of my children.
My elder three are not a source of happiness, but they are a deep source of joy — three individuals with their own ways of going through the world, their own minds working and their own hearts beating. If you have children, you know they do not arrive as blank slates but as little grubs with their own consciousness they are already grumpy about (my oldest), indifferent to (my middle) or offended by (my daughter). I cannot change the world, or what has happened to me, but I get to know and be the mother to these little people.
Once, while trying to coach my then-8-year-old daughter through her fiery anger, I wearily suggested she paint how she felt instead of screaming about it. She slammed her door and reappeared 20 minutes later with the canvas in hand — an angry red-and-orange heart spattered across the paper. It was done with vision. With force. With emotion. All the things that make great creations. When I think of why I chose to have this fourth, I think about that heart. I think about creation — this decision to begin again, the process of growing him and the future of raising him — as a vision, a force, an emotion wrought out of anger and sorrow and a desperate attempt to find a way through it. I framed her drawing and put it on the wall, and every day I walk past it. Even when she is not here, I know she was once and will hopefully be again, and that while maybe I didn’t — couldn’t — change the world, she and her siblings have changed mine.
I wish, in the end, I had better answers, not just circles of longing and joy and bitterness and sorrow.
I wish I could say I have contributed as much to my children’s worlds as they have to mine; it feels so unfair that their existences have saved me more than I could ever hope to save them. I guess having children is like falling in love: There are many reasons and lifetimes not to, and yet to have done it (especially more than once) means you have already chosen it, hoped for it, long before it arrived.
I think that is why, no matter how old they get, we sneak in to watch them sleep — lingering over someone we love, with uncertain hope for the future but joy that they exist.