Should you marry and have kids?

In a series of posts, called Ask Berkun, I write on topics people submit and vote for. Here’s an old submission I meant to get to, but never posted.

This week: Should we marry and have kids? From wifeof1momof2.

A fun one indeed. Either one is tricky, but together: FUN.

As many ‘should’ questions are, asking this suggests you are affluent. Historically, marrying and reproducing were necessary for survival, or improving your quality of life. In some cultures it still is: the only way to move away from parents is finding a partner, and the only way to maintain a household is to reproduce. If you have a real choice that’s a good thing. Be happy to have that choice as in the history of our species this is rare.

My take is simple: if it will improve you and your partner’s quality of life, than marriage is a good thing. If it makes you sad, or miserable, or mean to those around you, then it’s a bad thing.

It’s seems there are three kinds of people (these are sloppy but bear with me):

  1. People who are good at relationships and being married
  2. People who are happily independent their entire lives
  3. People who are miserable no matter what they do

The problem is we are slow to sort out which we are, if we do at all. This fact, combined with how Americans (and some other cultures) romanticize marriage, is a dangerous mix. We place enormous pressure on a marriage to solve all of our problems and deny how much we have to grow individually to approximate the imagined superhuman bond waiting for us on the other side of a honeymoon.

Having children is a taboo subject for many. We have deep built in urges to reproduce, as the only reason you exist is you come from a long line of intensely pro-reproduction genes (Your ancestors who thought reproduction was dumb didn’t pass on that opinion). It’s culturally assumed, for that reason, that you will. Your parents and grandparents will default to wanting you to reproduce. Some people who have kids don’t inherently want to do it: they just never stop to think carefully, or spend enough time observing how miserable (some) other parents are, or how poorly a job some otherwise fine people do at raising kids. We don’t think clearly about it or feel comfortable asking all the honest questions. That’s the danger of taboos.

One dumb thing is those who don’t live together before getting married. I bet trial runs at co-habitation lead to lower divorce rates, as either people sort out their real intimacy differences before marriage, and grow through them together, or they don’t and they don’t get married ((This data suggests the opposite, however). For nearly any other major choice we make, we do trial runs when we can. I don’t see why marriage, as a concept, should be different. Same for pre-marital sex. If you hope to have post-marital sex, you should probably have a go before you put on the ring.

Children, as a concept, is an inherently good idea of course. We need them. But that’s not really the question. At an individual level, most reasons I hear for having children are selfish. There is status and ego wrapped up in having children, as your annoying parent friends on Facebook prove.

Logically we have plenty of children around already who don’t get enough positive attention: Nieces, nephews, cousins, and neighbors. Helping out existing kids makes great sense – they’re already here and need help. Adoption seems sensible (recycling for people!), and so does mentoring (like Big Brother / Big Sister), or volunteering in any kid-centric community type thing. Helping children in need that already exist seems far wiser for the greater good than creating more of them.

And of course, we all know plenty of people around us who are lousy parents, and many of us had lousy parents ourselves. But somehow all these factors go out the window when we hit that magical 25-35 age when all our friends start reproducing. Biology takes over and we get busy.

It’s interesting to look at what I call revenge parenting – adults who want children so they can do something for their kids that their parents didn’t do for them. It’s a reproductive version of fighting the last war. If pops was never around for you, your insistence on being around all the time for junior might make you overprotective enough (e.g. helicopter parent) from junior’s perspective that he’ll wish mostly to undue what you did to him, and give his kids more independence, which is pretty much what you had in the first place. Children do not inherent our context – they have their own. Parents who forget this forget it because they make parenting about them, rather than paying attention to the particular needs of the child they actually have in front of them.

Like most major decisions, self-knowledge is the primary tool. People who know themselves well enough to get on well with a spouse, and understand their rational and irrational motivations (for wanting to reproduce), are best suited for successfully pulling off a family. Those willing to study other families to get the context needed to see the flaws in the one they came from likely do much better too. The best parents understand their own biases and urges well enough to indulge them without confusing them for a child’s interests or needs. And they have the means (time, patience and love likely more important than money) to provide a child with the tools and opportunities to decide for themselves what place they want in the world.

But to achieve the points of the last paragraph requires forethought and consideration few people apply to anything in their lives, much less the pleasures of procreation. If you’re seriously asking if you should, you’re well on your way to exercising the kind of forethought required to be a good Mom or Dad.

9 Responses to “Should you marry and have kids?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Nice post. I liked the very last paragraph, thinking it could be heartening for folks.

    Myself, I have only somewhat studied the context of other families and marriages, but I have done something more basic: I spent under two decades living in various shared houses with a view towards scrutinizing what other people are like.

    I remember initially being astounded, in the days before phone de-regulation (lowering rates) at how all my housemates so casually made long-distance phone calls.

    1. Scott

      Moving away from home was the real beginning of learning to see my own family. It helped me have some distance and therefore perspective. But of course therapy is the most obvious and direct path to learning about relationships and how our family of origin defines most of our assumptions.

  2. Sean Crawford

    One of the most educational things I ever did was periodically go for free therapy at my college. Because so many students are reluctant to take advantage, (i.e. fearful) they changed the name to something like “career and life counselling” but make no mistake, the counselling part is priceless. For my first visit, I took a couple of deep breaths and asked a question trying to understand my family…

    Someone told me that in the real world one hour of counselling is worth seven hours of a weekly self-help group. I did the group, but put off counselling for too many years, so that when I finally went I had little left to learn—Too bad, for I could have learned stuff years ago.

    It’s too bad when people say, “I already know what to do, I just have to try harder.” (Sigh!) A second opinion can do wonders for breaking “closed loop thinking.”

  3. Darcey Howard

    I love that I was able to read through your entire statement and still not ascertain if you are a parent or not. That leaves me with the understanding that you approached this from as unbiased of a viewpoint as possible. Bravo. And if you are a parent, congratulations. And if you arent’t, same goes. That’s the beauty of being self aware & unbiased.

    My husband and I were recently interviewed on the Katie Couric show on the very topic of the “Child-Free” lifestyle decision along with the author of the Time magazine cover article on the same topic. My take away was just how surprised I am by the fact that:
    1. People really don’t think about this decision very much
    2. they are almost offended by the fact that you did and chose to opt out. Like you’re insulting them with your self awareness.
    3. The word “selfish” somehow keeps getting applied to the topic of “child free”. As though my not procreating is taking something away from people who did. (Huh?!)

  4. Lauren

    Great post Scott. It’s like you took my thinking but actually made sense of it. Perhaps relationship/family counselor should be on your list of abilities.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Lauren.

  5. Dan Sutton

    Here’s a controversial statement (because it flies in the face of conventional “knowledge” on this subject): if you find yourself having to make compromises in a relationship, then it’s a crappy relationship. In a perfect relationship, neither of you has to compromise, because everything you do is OK, and you never do anything that isn’t OK (from the point of view of the other person) — something about having minds which work similarly. Thus no compromise is required. Unless you’re in a relationship where you don’t have to make compromises, don’t get married. And if you’re married but unhappy, don’t have kids: if two people can’t work it out, adding a third will only make things worse.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I just wonder if such a couple has ever existed. I don’t know of any. I also don’t know of any friends who stay friends without making compromises for each other. There are many different kinds of compromises of course and some are healthier than others.

  6. Supansa

    Hi, I share your view in helping existing kids. Why get more kids on Earth when there are already many that lack the attention? I also have another view that there’s already too many people on Earth. And the result is the lack of sustainability. One human being consumes so much and produces so much waste. I am not saying we should kill off all people on Earth but I think we should not reproduce so much anymore. We have 7 billion people on Earth… that’s scary to think of it.


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