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?
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