Recently a writer told me that she was feeling ambivalent about having children. She said she wasn’t planning to have kids, but her friends were having some, and now she was starting to feel doubts. She asked if I had any advice for her.
I don’t have a dog, yet, but I’ve been looking. Ryan and I have an invisible dog, Chipotle — we sometimes take her for walks with us. Often Chipotle rides in the back seat of the car when we drive to the lake. Chipotle, my invisible dog, likes to run four feet ahead of me when I jog through forest trails; she pauses now and then, so I can catch up to her.
Sometimes, I also enjoy daydreaming about having a cat.
My point is, I have never imagined having a child of my own. So that’s where this advice is going to come from.
I don’t know what writing would feel like for me if I were a mother right now. Certainly I’d be more afraid about financial security. Probably I would have to hire child care, at least part time, to get my writing done. I am content and happy about my decision not to have kids (current political and environmental situation notwithstanding).
Also, almost all of my dearest friends have children, and many of them love parenting with the whole of their being — I can see it. Some of them are writers. They seem happy with their decision, too.
So: there’s clearly no right or wrong answer here. Therefore, I’ll give some advice on the biggest argument I’ve heard for parenting (at least in our privileged Western culture, now that childhood exists as a concept, and people don’t have children to create more possible income) — which is, of course, giving love.
Parenting is one way to practice giving unconditional love. But it is not the only way.
In my meditation practice (which I don’t write about much, I know, but maybe I will write more about one day), I do it the way Thich Nhat Hahn teaches it, which has to do with paying attention to your breath and sending love out, with your mind. You start out small — with yourself — and then practice going bigger, to people you know and love, strangers, and eventually even hard-to-love people.
When I started understanding love the way Buddhists know it, I began to see that when you’re careful and vigilant, everything you do can be an act of unconditional love. Parents feel this love, for sure. But I can feel it when I’m writing, too. And when I spend time with Ryan. When I talk to my friends. Gardening. Being in nature. Paying attention — to anything, including myself.
What if the question is not should one have kids, but — how can one love?
Would that relieve some of the pressure, and soothe some of the doubt?
For instance: when your writing doesn’t feel good or quality enough, what if you treated this as a flag to give it more love? Instead of turning away and doing something else. Same thing when someone really gets on your nerves. Or when you’re frustrated with something your partner is doing, or not doing.
The crunchy times, the uncertain times — these are the very times when we get to see what happens when we act differently toward the situation. Like an ideal parent, one might say.
Doubt and confusion are painful feelings, just like grief, anger or fear.
You don’t want to make a decision based on anger or fear; you don’t want to make a decision because of doubt, either.
When you feel doubt, it’s actually a call for stillness, rest, and care. Give it some love!
When we have doubtful, angsty, dissatisfied feelings, that’s an invitation for us to get quiet and clear. It’s not always time to change course, or add something else to our life, just so we don’t have to feel that feeling.
This past year, staying clear and not changing course meant finishing writing my book, even though I didn’t know if it was any good at all. The closer I got to finishing it, the more doubts came up for me.
The funny thing is, if I didn’t listen to specific doubts about my writing, they would pop up in other categories: doubts about where we are living (did we do the right thing, buying this barn?) doubts about my lifestyle (am I too isolated? Should I join more community organizations?) doubts about the writing school (am I reaching the right people? Is online learning a good thing?) — you name it. The confusion wanted to take hold of me, wherever it could gain purchase.
If you’re embarking on your literary life and you get hit with a case of the doubts (Should I really write this book? Should I really move to another apartment? Should I really take this job? Should I really not have kids?), know that there might not be a problem you have to solve right now.
Before you make any decisions, try this:
Be aware of your confusion as a swirling feeling. Sit with it for 7 minutes. Stay calm as you watch it bustle around you.
Imagine you’re a small furry animal: you’re freaked out because you’re in a noisy, unfamiliar place, and it smells like fear. Be nice to yourself, and say soothing things to that furry little guy.
Should you have children? I don’t know. You certainly don’t have to have them. Life can be good with them and without them.
Should you be writing? I don’t know. You certainly don’t have to write.
Or do you?
Love and clarity,
ps- Here is a reading and listening list for other writers who are feeling doubts about having children:
- Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum
- “This Dog’s Life” found in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
- Spinster, by Kate Bolick
- Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, by Sharon Salzberg