Friday, March 30, 2007

Pick Any Two

We have a saying in the graphic design business that is echoed throughout many industries: Good, Fast, or Cheap—Pick Any Two. It's just a way of telling clients that they can't have everything they want. If they want it Fast, it's either going to cost them plenty or the quality will suffer. If they want it Cheap, they'll need to be willing to wait behind priority projects if they want the best product.

The "Pick Any Two" part of the policy is something my husband and I subscribe to when it comes to the idea of childrearing. Raising a child is about sacrifice, and no one has ever claimed otherwise – sacrificing a good part of your life to have this new good thing.

For those of us who would love our careers and would not intend to leave the workforce after having a child, I break down the major parts of life into three elements: Career, Personal Relationships (including the marriage/partnership), and Childrearing. Reigning over all three of these is Health and Personal Well-Being, because it affects all three equally. Stay-at-home and single parents have an entirely different set of issues, but let's focus on families with two working parents.

Break your day into 16 waking hours—after all, 8 hours of sleep is recommended to maintain overall health and well-being. On a typical weekday, consider that a full-time career averages about 11 hours. This includes getting ready for work in the morning and door-to-door commuting time each day. That leaves 5 hours. Figure an hour (conservatively!) for healthy dinner preparation and clean-up, and at least half-an-hour to eat at the dinner table or at the very least together in front of the TV—let's work those personal relationships. That leaves 3.5 hours 'til bedtime. What are we doing with that? A trip to the gym or a nice solid workout at home? Connecting with friends and family in person, via phone or internet? Personal entertainment? Hobbies? Romantic activities? 3.5 hours can fly by. We've covered Career and Personal Relationships. Where on earth is there time for children, especially a young child who needs us to be at our best?

The answer?

There's that word again. But how do you decide what suffers? Do you try to do all these things and let your health—the one thing that matters most overall—suffer by getting too little sleep, relying too heavily on fast and convenience foods, and skipping the physical activity? Do you decide to live a less tidy lifestyle and put off cleaning to the weekends (but wait—there's soccer games and birthday parties and trips to grandma's house and the grocery store and oh my gods when are we going to do the laundry?!), leading inevitably to fights over cleaning and frustration that you can't have company over because the house is a disaster.

"Phooey," some will say, "my husband and I both have careers and we are raising our child just fine." To them I ask, when was the last time you complained to someone that you wished you had the money to take a vacation, or to leave the workforce entirely and stay at home with your children? That you wished your husband would help out more with the baby or with the household chores? That you're living in a 'pig sty' because there aren't enough hours in the day? That you missed going out on dates, or sharing the intimacy you used to have when you first got married? That your boss is not sympathetic to your needs as a mother and 'made' you miss your baby's firsts or your child's mid-afternoon school play? That you panicked about your credit rating, or your soaring credit card balances? These are valid complaints, and they are real; I hear them constantly from even the happiest parents that I know. We childfree aren't without our own problems, but I like to believe we lead a life free of much of this pressure because we have picked two elements on which to focus. Try to do all three and something must suffer.

And what do you do when the child suffers? A show of hands now: How many of you wished one or both of your parents worked less and had more time for you as a child? How many cried because a parent missed a school or competitive event due to work? How many skipped on college or went into debt that haunted you the rest of your life because your parents weren't prepared? How many remember their parents fighting about work, about chores, about money? How many would swear not to screw up your own kids as badly as your parents damaged you through neglect or disinterest? How many wish their parents had focused more on their marriage?

And where does money fall in this equation? GOOD QUESTION. It's no secret that the thing married couples fight most about is money, so I lump that into Personal Relationships.

Money, some will argue, is also the one factor that can change it all. But can it really, and where does it come from? How many jobs pay exceptionally well—enough to pay all the bills comfortably, save for college and retirement, and prepare for emergencies (these are not optional)—while allowing the flexibility to give the children the time, attention and affection they deserve? Where are these high-paying jobs that not only offer flex-time but feature a work environment where people who choose to use the flex option are not chastised as lazy or undedicated? They do not exist. Achieving the zen of balancing Career, Personal Relationships, and Childrearing is nearly implausible without the wealth that most of us will never, ever see. For the rest of us, pick any two.

It's not that childfree couples don't have relationship issues, or marital problems, or arguments over who's doing their fair share of housework. I'm not implying that we always get a full 8 hours of sleep and we never choose pizza or Chinese takeout over a homecooked meal. But, at least in my household, our lives are balanced. After careful evaluation, we believe adding a child to the mix would upset this balance and make us unhappy in our marriage and our lives.

These are all issues that I would argue most parents never even consider when making the decision to have a child while intending to maintain a career. It's no secret that I have no great desire to be a parent, and the knowledge of these facts is a big part of that. I'm not focusing on the joys of raising a child because that's not the point. Of course there are good times, but so many times I hear about the good times "making it all worth it." It frightens me to consider what "it all" means: the sacrifices, the loss of connection with a spouse or partner, marital troubles, the suffering. Parenting is a noble choice for someone who has the desire and is prepared for this sacrifice. I feel blessed to live in a culture that is finally realizing that to make such a sacrifice is a choice.

(c)2007 TLA & Childfree Me, may not be republished without express written permission

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Changes of Heart… a touchy subject

It seems to be all around, people who never wanted kids getting clucky all over the place. The phrase "I used to be childfree" makes me squirm.

"Oh, you'll change your mind" is a favorite amongst the critics of my choice not to procreate… that or "what if you change your mind?" It makes my blood boil, but at the same time it's a somewhat valid point. The fact is, biology makes us that way. It makes people change their minds.

I suspect it's probably similar to the thing inside us that makes us hate boys when we're kids, that makes us think sex sounds apalling. Some argue that the fact that I am indifferent to babies and I find toddlers mostly just irritating (save for a handful of token really adorable moments) is just a phase that I'll get over "when the time is right."

They said it would happen when I met "the one". Nope. Didn't happen with my first husband when I was 21, and it's certainly not happening with this one. "Wait 'til you've been married a year." Nope — we're more adamantly childfree than ever.

And yet the phrase "I used to be childfree" haunts me. Mothers I know say it. Friends and family say it. Strangers say it. "I used to hate kids, but…" BUT.

I wonder sometimes if I will change my mind. While I get the occasional twinge now and again, I attribute it to hormones because I simply do not want a child, nevermind everything a child involves. Do these "formerly childfree" folks want a baby, or do they want to raise a child? I think that's the difference between us and them — them being the clucky ladies who want nothing more than babies babies babies without ever considering what that really means.

I've been asking myself again lately if I would terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The IUD makes that an easy decision, given the risk of birth defects and my complete disinterest in taking any sort of risks. I realized just recently that yes, I probably would, and for a number of reasons, ranging from the occasional cocktail I enjoy to the fact that we don't want our lives to change. It was a sobering realization, because I've long thought that I wouldn't be able to do it because I'm old enough, financially secure enough, and really have no excuse, but it really came down to three main things:

1. I don't believe life begins at conception. Perhaps it happens sometime between conception and birth, but I don't believe it's in the first trimester. Argue with me if you must, but I've researched it myself and we'll just have to agree to disagree. This is something I've thought long and hard about and I'm comfortable with my beliefs. I believe if I were in this situation I would be terminating a pregnancy, which is not the same, in my mind, as killing a child. You may believe differently and that's okay. (Note: I will not be engaging debate on this topic. Let's just agree to disagree.)

2. Every child should be a wanted child. I don't want to raise a child and have long insisted that an accidental child would be reared primarily by my husband, while I would be a secondary caregiver. But I don't want to have an "accident". This is the 21st century and I am an enlightened woman who knows what I want from my life. There is no reason I should have to go reluctantly into such a life-altering situation with no do-overs.

3. I am completely unwilling to deal with a child that is not the best case scenario. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but there are so many things — physical things, behavioral and emotional things — that can go wrong with a child. I would be utterly devastated if my own child was disabled in some way. Call me heartless, that's fine, but I'm being honest with myself. If I am not willing to potentially give up my career and my own life to care for a child, it is not worth the risk.

But primarily, it's this: We're adults. We don't need an excuse. It is our lives, our consciences and our gods we have to answer to; no one else can make the decision for us and it is no one else's business. Just because my infertile friends would be devastated if they knew I did such a thing, why would they have to know? It has nothing to do with anyone but my husband and me.

I do not want a child. I do not foresee myself ever wanting a child. Will that change? Who can say. There's precedent enough to say 'maybe'. But that's something to deal with if it comes up. Otherwise I live my life for me.

Do it; call me selfish.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Perfect Weekend and the Tyranny of Fun

The perfect irony, really. I was preparing to post on my primary journal about my wonderful weekend, a perfect weekend, really, when I read my best friend's post entitled, strangely enough, "A Perfect Weekend". I was thrilled to see this — she deserves a perfect weekend, and it's a joy to read that she's happy and things are going well. Her post did underscore the vast differences between what she and I believe constitutes perfection.

My perfect weekend involved spending some quality snuggle-time with the husband, taking care of each other after dual dentist appointments on Saturday morning. Saturday evening I went to a friend's house to enjoy a buffet of Thai food, followed by Girls' Night Out, featuring dancing and delicious martinis at a gay bar in the city. After the club, the boyfriends met us at a nearby diner for coffee and snacks, packed 7 of us in one Chevy Impala, and drove home. The morning paper sat on my doorstep as I walked in sometime around 4:30am. Today, Sunday, was spent sharing chores and making real progress on the house and laundry, ending with some yummy pizza and a 24 Marathon before I went to work on some freelancing projects. It wasn't without its flaws (the dentist, for instance), but after the last few weeks, this weekend was a real breath of fresh air.

My best friend's weekend involved family time with the extended family at a scouting fundraiser, where she and her boys toured a farm and learned how maple syrup is made. Later, more extended family came to her house to prune her lilac bushes and install a family firepit in the backyard. Then the family took a trip to Door County, Wisconsin (where she was disappointed that the shops she loves to much aren't kid-friendly, so she had to pass on them), and they picked out a new puppy. I am not dissing her weekend — it sounds perfect for her. It's just so not what I consider the perfect weekend.

I think it's fantastic she gets along with her extended family so well, and I'm envious of that in a way, though I know we'll never be doing the thing that will forever endear us to the judgmental ones on my husband's side.

As a Christmas gift, my in-laws bought everyone tickets to a waterpark lodge in Wisconsin Dells, and I can't think of a worse place to spend an entire weekend. "We can all go swimming!" my father-in-law squealed. No, the kids can go swimming. We can babysit. These places aren't designed with grown-ups in mind AT ALL. I'm sure the kids will have a blast, but after chaperoning a birthday party for my niece at a place like this, I can say with near certainty that it will be loud, annoying, and most important, No Fun At All.

Our saving grace was going to be the ability to retreat to one of the posh hotel rooms at the lodge. Recently, however, I found out that sanctuary will not exist.

My husband's step-mother (the control freak), in a step to encourage togetherness, has booked a cabin. That's right folk, all 15 of us, including a handful of poorly behaved nephews and one baby, crammed into a single cabin. KILL ME NOW.

That's not all of it, of course. We're celebrating one of the nephew's birthdays, which means we have to bring gifts for all the boys so the others don't feel left out (a stupid, STUPID tradition — teach the boys that when it's not their birthday they don't get presents… but we don't say no to these boys). There's also the family photo, for which we've been assigned particular colors to wear, and a whole host of meticulously planned activities.

I really wish I was looking forward to this. I'm fine playing with the boys, but not in a waterpark setting surrounded by no fewer than a couple hundred screaming kids. The fact that they're not used to hearing "no" or being scolded for anything makes me reluctant to be around them because I constantly feel the need to discipline them and teach them some manners. We're going into the Midwest's Disneyland for the weekend, in a resort filled with little centers of the universe. I have no desire for this, and it does not sound like a good time.

Our distaste for the situation will surely bring our childfreeness to the forefront. It sounds like a miserable time all 'round. But it was our Christmas present. It would be rude not to go. *sigh*

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Almighty Dollar

I am very intrigued by the life of a particular friend of mine. A mother of two, she’s always been prolific in her blogging and seemingly very honest about her experience as a housewife and stay-at-home mom, the mostly good stories tempered by the occasional crazy or bad one. She’s pregnant again with their “trying for a boy” baby (in my experience parents only have three children when their first two are of the same sex; then they have the “trying for a [blank] baby”.)

Perhaps I’m oddball in my obsessive budgeting of savings, considering it an integral part of our family budget, but I’ve noticed a disregard—or at the very least, apathy—in the families I know with children. I know my friend and her husband may not be struggling with her staying at home, but they’ve been concerned about money for sure, recently purchasing a house and now a new mini-van for their growing brood. I often wonder how they intend to send their three children to college, how they plan for an emergency, if they’re prepared if her husband takes ill again and cannot work for an extended period of time.

Of course I can’t claim to know what’s best for their family, and to be honest I’m not even sure what her husband does for a living or how much he makes. I’m mostly looking at them as an average young family making the decision to add another baby, and I honestly can’t imagine raising a family of three on a single salary.

But having a family is about sacrifice! You sacrifice for your children! But what if it’s stability you’re sacrificing? At what point are you endangering your future or that of your children? When you have three kids and no money for a college fund? When Daddy has a recurring illness that can occasionally become severe and potentially job-threatening, nevermind the potential for jobs to be lost at any moment due to economic or other reasons beyond anyone’s control? When all the groceries and the mortgage are tossed onto credit cards — just this month, ‘til we’re back on our feet.

Selfishness. We childfree folk all know the word well. It’s the word to describe our desire to see our retirement account fat and healthy, our savings comfortable enough to float us for a month or more should one of the partners in the relationship be out of work for one reason or another. The desire to carry no balances on high-interest credit cards, to pay in cash when possible and to have enough lying around to pick up a new pair of glasses in an emergency, or a new suit for that big interview.

Childfree couples certainly aren’t all wealthy. My husband and I do okay, but we live what I consider a modest lifestyle. Even so, we D.I.N.K.s (Dual-Income No Kids) take a lot of flack for “hoarding” cash or being big spenders. But aren’t we doing what we’re SUPPOSED to be doing? Preparing for our futures? I’m not talking about extravagant vacations, expensive luxury items or impractical but beautiful cars and homes. I’m talking about what I’ve come to consider basic needs.

When did saving become optional? We’re living in a world where savings is the first thing that suffers and credit is looked upon as cash-on-hand.

Although my husband and I make a comfortable living, I do not believe we can afford a child; this is unrelated to our lack of desire to have children. When I consider the expense of a child, from the endless needs of an infant that go above and beyond basic childcare and diapers, to the birthday parties and holiday gifts, to the school supplies, clothing, medical care, braces. And that doesn’t count the food or allowances when the kids get older.

And what of schooling? In the areas where we can afford to live comfortably, the schools are sub-par. Do you pay for private schooling or spend the money moving to a more upscale neighborhood? Or perhaps you hire a private tutor? If you do all that, where does the college savings come from?

Am I being alarmist? Dramatic? I don’t think so. And that’s why I get concerned when I hear my friend is adding another child to her family. Is it sacrifice, or is it irresponsible? That’s a decision between she and her husband and based upon the lifestyle they want to live. I honestly cannot understand how or why they do it. It’s not a reflection upon them— she certainly doesn’t understand my lack of desire for children either. We’ve just made very different choices in our lives.


The last few months has been tense. I’ve dealt with my grandfather’s serious illness, my father’s depression and trips to Oregon to see him, I traveled to Portland as well, where I saw him on his deathbed and spoke with his wife. We learned how heartbroken he was that his two other children, the ones he spent his life doting on most, did not travel and were only concerned about his estate, while his middle son, the one neglected—(because he did alright for himself), and his neglected children (because we had the benefit of parents with our heads on straight)—were the ones there for him on his last days. His other sons? They never even called, then chastised my father for “not keeping them informed”, as if leaving messages that said “you have to call me” was not sufficient.

So yes, it’s been a hard couple months. My Gramp-Pa passed last week, a month before his 85th birthday, and things are finally leveling out. My apologies to my dedicated readers for the delay in posting; I’ve got a lot to talk about, so expect a bit of a deluge in the coming weeks.