I regretted having children because children fundamentally altered my entire life in a way I never expected they would. For literally the first time in my life I was afraid of the future and unsure of what would happen next. I had willfully, foolishly, unthinkingly, given hostages to fortune.
It was just the two of us driving aimlessly along a New England country road, meandering like a Vermonter’s drawl, enjoying the bucolic farmland all about us. It was the summer of 2003 and my daughter Alessia had just completed her junior year of high school. Since at that time we were living in Manila, we had left the rest of the family behind and had embarked together on what has now become a common odyssey for American teenagers and their parents: Floundering from campus to campus like a listless ship buffeted by conflicting winds, enticed by the siren call of academia, and striving to find the perfect university fit for their perfect child. And learning, if they are lucky, unexpected things about each other along the way.
I am not sure what exactly compelled me to tell her that day. Perhaps it was the notion that if she were soon to go off to university on her own, she must already be all grown-up. Or perhaps it was because the day just seemed so auspicious with the sunlight glistening on the ponds and lakes and seeping through the trees overhead, that I felt confident to confess. Perhaps it was simply that I was raised Catholic and had an overwhelming craving to confess what probably should have always remained hidden. Whatever the reason I turned to her and noticed she was smiling brightly, and she was so relaxed that the timing seemed just right. “You know, Alessia, I love you more than anything.” She looked at me and glowed; what I said was nothing new; it was probably something she had heard a thousand times before. But she didn’t respond; she just waited patiently for whatever would follow. “So, you should know that there is only one thing I truly regret in all my life.” At this, she looked at me with that concerned, motherly face I had grown accustomed to and she asked me sympathetically what I regretted. Well, it really did seem like the right moment to confess, so I just blurted it out: “I regret ever having children.” The motherly look of concern on her face changed in a flash to child horror and sorrow and she burst into tears. The tears were so bountiful and forlorn that I needed to stop the car and try to assuage her sadness and reassure her. To this day I don’t think I have ever adequately explained to her what I meant, and even now that she is herself a parent, I suspect she still shakes her head in disbelief about my confession.
I learned of Francis Bacon’s clear-eyed commentary about having a wife and children only much later in life, far too late to change my course, but I think Bacon’s analysis falls short of the mark anyway when he says, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprise, either of virtue or mischief.” Of course there is some truth to Bacon’s view: certainly in my own career having children has impeded the assignments I could choose because of a due regard for their safety and security and even more certainly there have been times—particularly in March 2003 when we criminally invaded Iraq—that I would have resigned except for concern about paying school bills. But these are minor matters compared to the overpowering and frightening reason that Bacon fails to touch upon in his brief essay.
What I meant by my bizarre confession to my daughter those many years ago was, I thought, the greatest compliment I could ever give another person. Simply put, I regretted having children because children—at least for me—fundamentally altered my entire life in a way I never expected they would. I was not at all surprised that I loved them so much; that is something that most every parent experiences. And it was not that they were an economic burden or, as I have mentioned already, because they limited my ability to advance in my career or to travel to places too dangerous for children. These were minor, indeed negligible, concerns. What had changed for me was far more devastating and surprising: I began to worry. For literally the first time in my life I was afraid of the future and unsure of what would happen next. I had willfully, foolishly, unthinkingly, given hostages to fortune. I had handed over to sheer luck and happenstance complete power over my future happiness and I was completely impotent to control the outcome. As parents we can set a good example for them, we can teach them to be careful and we can help them be strong and kind, but there is always the possibility of a stray bullet, a drunk driver, or a treacherous friend that they cannot be shielded from. I suspect other parents compensate for this feeling of impotence and dread by becoming what today we call “helicopter parents,” swooping in to save their children from ever growing up, but that option is worse than any other. The latest scandal about widespread corruption in college admissions is a cautionary tale against overbearing parenting. (One of my proudest moments as a parent was when I suggested to my learning disabled son that he could legitimately qualify for an extra hour of time to take his SAT and he shook his head in disdain, saying that giving extra time was unfair to all the other students; that in the real world you wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be given extra time to complete a work task just because you have a learning disability.)
Those who have known me for a long time know that I never worried about anything, ever. When the Cuban missile crisis shook the world, my 10-year old mouth just yawned knowingly; I knew everything would turn out fine. Later, when other students worried about the military draft and being sent to Vietnam, I smugly, even eagerly, awaited my lottery number. Others might worry about being popular in school or having good grades and getting into a good college, but I couldn’t. Others might worry about getting a job or finding the right career, but that never occurred to me. I heard some people worrying about the health of their aging parents or a sick sibling, but I always seemed impervious to all these worries. I would like to pretend that my youthful, unworried attitude was all in keeping with the Sermon on the Mount and a fervent desire on my part to be like one of those lilies of the field, but I know that it had much more to do with my shallow, cavalier mindlessness and had nothing at all to do with any sort of deeply held spiritual conviction.
And then one day my wife gave birth to our firstborn, Isaac, and my life was shaken to its core and has not yet—and never will—recover. This tectonic shift from never worrying to always worrying has had a crippling impact on my daily living. From the day Isaac arrived home with his mother from the hospital, I could not sleep restfully, fearing he might stop breathing. For countless months I would surreptitiously get up several times each night to check his breathing, and only stopped after my wife threatened me with death if I didn’t stop waking up the baby! Children fall and scrape their knees, but it was far more painful to watch them fall than I ever remember it hurting when I fell. Children get poor grades and don’t succeed at sports sometimes, but somehow it was nearly unbearable to watch it happen to them. And, of course, everyone experiences instances when a lover or a friend betrays them, but watching helplessly as it happens to your child is a thousand times worse than any pain I ever felt from unrequited love. I am reminded of that brilliant insight by the novelist Anne Lamont: “There really are places in the heart you don’t even know exist until you love a child.” I still have trouble sleeping nights.
A Hostage to Hostages
Just as I have given my children as hostages to Fortune, so too my children hold me as hostage. I have only belatedly pondered that final word in Bacon’s dire warning against having children because they can also be an “impediment” to “mischief”. Childless Bacon discovered this harsh truth toward the end of his own career when he was found guilty of bribery, fined, and sent to the Tower of London. In this sense, at least, children have literally been a godsend to me and have ensured me a fuller and more honorable life. Were I a better man, I would be more naturally inclined toward doing good, but I have never been such a person. In one peculiar way I had a charmed childhood: I never once felt that I had disappointed my parents. It didn’t seem to matter how often I was punished by the nuns, or had to stay after school for detention, or how many subjects I failed, or how many letters went home complaining about my behavior, my parents never seemed disappointed in me. I never doubted that my parents would always be proud of me no matter what I did or who I became. The same goes for God: my fervent belief in God begins and ends in the firm conviction that no matter what I do, regardless of how craven or appalling my actions, I can never disappoint or offend. Having such parents and believing in such a God, all of whom are infinitely forgiving and understanding, has been a source of great solace, but not much of an incentive to do better. Then these children came along like a Visigothic onslaught, wreaking havoc on my sturdy foundations of amorality and amusement. The three of them are like a Triumvirate of Tyranny over my entire life. They made me want to be better than I am. I catch myself always thinking: What would my children think of this or that which I am doing? Their expectations of me are unreasonably and cruelly high and each time I don’t live up to their expectations, I am crushed.
Someone once said that having a child is like wearing your heart on the outside of your chest. I’m pretty sure it was a woman who said it. It seems it was spoken with a certain pride and confidence that I find incomprehensible. It is nothing to boast about; it is something rather to make one tremble. We have a ribcage for a good reason; our hearts don’t belong outside our chests. Children render us frightened, impotent, and overwhelmingly distracted. I have always, even before I became a father, found Paul Simon’s verse about the father who deserted his son poignantly disturbing: That much love is something that many men would seek to flee as much as embrace. I certainly felt this desire to both flee and embrace. But I am grateful I never left. At least for me, paradoxically, having children ruined my life and in ruining it, saved it.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Saint Joseph and the Christ Child” (1640) by Guido Reni, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.