Newsflash: Babies Are Complicated; Not Everybody Needs One

A spate of articles this weekend deal with the ways the modern cult of motherhood does a disservice to women — and men.

Jessica Handler tells Newsweek that she's decided not to have kids because she has a 67% chance of passing on a rare blood disorder — and because children remind her of the sister she lost to that disease. It's a heart-wrenching article not just because of Handler's loss — another sister died in childhood of leukemia — but because she feels stigmatized by a decision that was obviously very difficult to make. She writes, "Our culture presumes that a grown woman's true responsibility is motherhood. We're obsessed with babies, even as we expect career success, hot sex and designer style. [...] While few can pull off parenthood with the glamour of Hollywood stars, the underlying message is hard to ignore: if you're not having a baby and enjoying it, something's wrong with you." It's sad that motherhood has become so fetishized that having kids is about proving your completeness as a person — not about raising complete, happy people.

Writing in a similar vein, Anna Quindlen takes aim at the notion that parenting is "easy." She reports the results of several studies showing that parents who receive training in such skills as discipline and positive reinforcement have healthier, better-adjusted kids. Quindlen argues that good child-rearing is a learned skill, not an instinct, and that our ignorance of this as a culture has warped our ideas of parenthood. She writes,

The prevailing ethos about being a parent is that it's mostly intuitive and uniformly joyful, even though the news, and our own lives, are full of those who found it so conspicuously otherwise that they made an utter mess of actual human beings. This mythology has two effects. One is that parents who don't feel happy or competent are made to feel like freaks-and to just keep quiet about the fact. The other is that this makes everyone believe not only that anyone can be a parent, but also that everyone ought to do it, even those who seem by character or inclination to be ill equipped.

Of course, even the "ill equipped" can learn — but the idea that having kids is a necessary part of a fulfilled life may be persuading people to breed before they're ready. And some people — because of personal tragedy or genetics, like Handler, or because of their desire for independence or the fact that they just don't want kids all that much — may never be ready at all.

But we know what you're all thinking — how does this affect men? Nirpal Dhaliwal of the Times of London has the answer. Men want kids too, he says, but they're often ashamed to say so. So far, so good — the desire to be a dad is nothing to be ashamed of (though Dhaliwal's term "throbbing balls" might not be the best way to describe it), and it's certainly worthwhile to bust the stereotype that women all want babies while men just want to drink beer, slap high-fives, and look at women's butts. It's when Dhaliwal describes how he discovered his desire to procreate that things get a little annoying:

I realised how bereft I am of children while spending the second half of last year in India - a country that is teeming with them. I'd watch young Indian families sitting on railway platforms, the fathers beaming as they cradled their perfectly formed, serenely quiet babies. Seeing people who earn a pittance, whose daily lives are a grinding struggle, take such genuine, uncomplicated delight in their children made me appreciate what a real and uniquely powerful experience parenthood is. It made me want to be a father.

Obviously he didn't run into this guy. But seriously, if your idea of offspring is a bunch of "perfectly formed, serenely quiet babies," you may be in for a shock. Babies get sick — sometimes, as in Handler's family — they get very, very sick. And they are rarely "serenely quiet." Actually, this brings us to a quibble with Quindlen's piece. Most of us know motherhood isn't easy — we have all of pop culture's frazzled moms to tell us that, at the very least, it involves a lot of laundry and yelling. But fatherhood, to the non-father, can sometimes seem kind of simple.

Take a look at the ads for the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse — from these, it looks like "taking time to be a dad" means playing with your kid. And while getting out the Super Soaker is important, a lot of being a parent isn't strictly fun. But because many fathers are still absent from their kids' lives, the bar for dads is still set lower than for moms. Motherhood is frequently described as a full-time job, but you can "take time [presumably out of your busy life] to be a dad." We don't want to rag on dads too much, or to challenge Dhaliwal's basic point that men can have parenting urges too, but let's be honest about what parenting entails. Along with the fun comes a lot of worry, conflict, and heartache, and in a just world (with some exceptions) these would fall equally on the shoulders of moms and dads.

I Won't Roll the Biological Dice [Newsweek]
A Teachable Moment [Newsweek]
The men who are desperate for kids [TimesOnline]