Baby Daddy

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be a parent. I chose not to have children. My decision to be with Paul was a factor in that, given our age difference (he being 11 years older) and the impracticality of having children later in life. But many people do, especially these days. I recall thinking that Dad was relatively old to be a new father: he was 33 when Erik was born, and 35 when he had me. But nowadays this is normal — nearly everyone I know with children had them in their 30’s.

Probably the most compelling reason to be a father is the opportunity to care for and teach someone so intimately and directly. To watch the child develop, learn, engage in the world. And I’ve always felt I would be rather good at this — I could probably find the right balance between control and independence. I’d want the child to have latitude and confidence to explore.

I’d prioritize travel and languages and art and ideas. I’d camp, go for hikes, teach them to ski and ride bikes at an early age. I’d encourage sports but would let the child seek that out without pressure. I’d encourage participation in social groups, and always promote ways to be creative.

In other words, I’d raise the kids to be like me. I suppose there’s rarely any way around that, we teach what we know. But I also feel I’d have the wherewithal to let the child be free. I’d see my role as creating safe safe spaces and boundaries; from within, the child is free to roam and rest, make mistakes, triumph at times, progress incrementally, experience happiness and sadness.

Probably the good shepherd metaphor is the most apt for parenting. The overseer charged with the safety and welfare of the flock, leading them to healthy grazing areas and protecting them from predators and poisonous plants. Guiding with untethered trust and never with force.

To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.

Shunryu Suzuki

I recall that quote from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book that I saw on Mom’s nightstand for a good part of my childhood. I started reading this myself in my 20’s and, just like my mother, it remains in my library of unfinished books.

In a memorable course I took at Wesleyan on the history of education, I was drawn to Rousseau’s Emile and the idea that children are born innocent and that society introduces corruption and vice. His model for education cloisters children from societal influences and lets their abilities develop through physical exploration of the natural world and to follow their own curiosities to encourage a passion to learn. Radical at the time, Rousseau influenced later educational methodologies that emphasized independence and integration, such as Montessori, which I attended as preschooler in Dubuque, Iowa.

So it’s no wonder that I would seek ways to parent along these lines. Schooling would be emphasized, and I would probably seek out either Montessori or Waldorf education for initial learning. And I’d travel as much as I could — I’ve often admired families staying in youth hostels in exotic locales, the towheaded kids with experiences beyond compare and a palpable closeness in family ties.

Language learning and world travel have taught me the most in life, no question, so this would be the most I could directly offer my children. The rest would have to come from (carefully selected) teachers and from within themselves. And there’s the rub: understanding — and accepting — that there’s very little parents can actually control in the outcome their offspring.

But perhaps that’s also the magic of being a parent: nurturing without the knowledge of outcome, like planting a seed and watering the sprout with a general idea of the flower but waiting in anticipation for the final bloom – the strength of the stem, the fullness of the petals, the colors, the fragrance, the resilience to the elements, the longevity.

So that’s the most important reason to be a parent: to nourish the miracle of life, to watch the emergence of a person who is both of you and separate from you, and to relish the lifelong attachment of parent and child.

There are many more benefits: To witness the child become an adult and find a meaning and place in the world: an identity, a partner, a career, a family. And to be a grandparent with the luxury of occasional playtime and adventures, but without the responsibility for full-time caregiving. And to have children to help care for me as I age — I see how much I helped Mom in her later years, both in Mexico and later as they settled in Palm Desert and she struggled with cancer. And I see how emotionally and physically invested Paul and Mark are with their mother now.

These are all parenting’s intangible “returns on investment”. Yet the financial costs are not insignificant with some studies indicating it’s nearly $250,000 to raise a child through age 17 (and that does not include college). There’s no question my personal wealth has benefited from not having children — not only has the direct costs, but the lifestyle decisions I’ve made over the years would probably be different with the responsibility of childrearing. It’s unlikely I could retire in my early 50’s if I had children.

I don’t think my life has been compromised or suffered as a consequence of not being a parent. In my years, I’ve lived richly and happily and found many successes. Yet I wonder what I’ve missed by choosing this life. This is a fool’s errand, for there’s no way to know what can happen in life. While it’s probable that children will delight, they too can disappoint, injure, or die unexpectedly. And in today’s age with families spread all over the country and pervasive technology that pulls us all apart, the challenges of parenting mount.

As I look at myself at age 51, very much insular and independent, I do find it somewhat implausible to see myself as a parent. I’ve been unable to commit to even a pet due to my chosen lifestyle that values autonomy over obligation. But I know that if I were a dad, I would embrace the responsibility fully and wholeheartedly. And I believe my children would be very lucky.

But that’s not my life — the life I’ve chosen. I won’t have descendants to continue my legacy. Perhaps that’s why I blog: it’s my way of sharing lasting memories. For others. Or no one.

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