He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
Tim Kreider in the Times has a whimsical but spot-on piece about how we go about appraising the choices we--and no less important, others--have made in life. We seem destined to be comparative creatures, and while one wants one's life not to turn out disastrously, one may want even more that it turn out at least slightly less disastrously than the guy next door. Kreider wryly terms this mid-life look to the side "The Referendum."
I'll go out of my way here not to luxuriate in existential exhalations. His article though raised the question for me of what, really, is the single most salient, consequential, and true yes-or-no decision that one makes. I would suggest that in terms of classically fork-in-the-road life choices, the matter of children takes them all.
There is, of course, much in life that we have surprisingly little control over. My temperament and personality have been what they are as far back as my memories go; I can no more change them than I can turn around and look at the back of my head. Have I "chosen" my religious inclinations or the lack thereof (in any conventional sense anyway)? No, not really. I have in fact chosen to expose myself to a wide spectrum of religious ideas and experiences to make sure that I haven't missed anything, but the fact that these either have--or more commonly have not--impressed me is not really under my control. My sensibility is what it is.
Can I choose who I'm attracted to or fall in love with? It appears not. One likes what one likes, full stop. And the fact that one is attracted to the same qualities or types over and over again only drives this point home. The fact that these attractions can be spectacularly problematic, especially for long-term coexistence, does not however suggest that they are truly or existentially chosen. But I'll grant you that whether and whom to marry are significant choices, because one hopes at least to bring the unchosen nature of attraction somewhat in line with prudential considerations of what is likely to produce happiness over time.
But bachelorhood can be reconsidered, and marriages overturned. Similarly with where to live and how to work. These are weighty matters, of course, but none of them irrevocable. Move. Go back to school. Reboot. A friend of mine of a conservative bent not long ago lamented that American culture maintains the fiction that one can be forever pluripotent, like a walking, talking, middle-aged embryonic stem cell. We know it's not that easy. One differentiates; doors close. But freedom is real, isn't it, and not just self-indulgence?
The problem with freedom, conceptually, is that while we often consider specific choices or dilemmas in isolation, they really are subtly influenced by countless other decisions already made, whether by us or for us. The decision of whether to marry is influenced by who one happens to be attracted to, by how one went about about meeting people, by where one chose to live, etc. No decision enjoys a vacuum.
But to get back to the issue of procreation, I would say that child-bearing is the single greatest decision made in a life, for two reasons. It is a true either-or decision, even if one can quibble over degrees such as numbers of children, biological vs. adopted children, etc. (and of course there is the tragedy of infertility). But even more than that, becoming a parent is arguably the most irrevocable decision one makes.
I've long puzzled over why people have children. Many reasons throughout history present themselves: raising labor for the farm, populating the fatherland, generating prestige through marriage alliances. In evolutionary terms, the drive to have children is indispensable, to put it mildly. And sociologically it often just amounts to keeping up with the Joneses (although this suggests that if the Joneses ever stopped having kids--as they have in some European countries--procreation could theoretically grind to a halt). Or maybe people, pathetically and misguidedly, have kids for the same reason they may have pets, because they crave love from a dependent.
But why would a self-aware, thoughtful person in 2009, putting aside all of these automatisms, choose to have children, who after all are a massive drain of time, money, and emotional energy throughout the prime years of one's life? It seems to me that the wisest and best reason is to engage in a relationship with another human being that is like no other, really, in its intimacy and permanency. I mean this in no icky or enmeshed sense, of course, but in no other kind of relationship does one gain a closeness with a human being as one sees him/her come into the world and develop into a person.
All other relationships are reliably finite. Parents grow old and die. Friends move away or choose other paths, as do siblings. Spouses may grow estranged or, even worse, strange and unrecognizable. But children are forever. If they die, or even if they move across the world and don't call, they are not gone, but burn painfully in memory. Yes, there are people, fathers more often than mothers, who can and do forget their children, but I cannot ultimately understand or relate to them--they are beyond the pale for me.
I have nowhere implied I hope that having children is somehow desirable or praiseworthy in any general sense. Needs vary. And I realize that whether or not to parent, like all choices, is also never ex vacuo, but is influenced by countless social, familial, and psychological factors. But to my mind it is the decision that ends up dominating any life, and a decision in which, ironically, one freely (or as freely as it is given us to undertake anything in this world) chooses to anchor oneself--or less charitably, bind oneself--to a system of irrevocable relationships projecting into the future.