The cover of Aug. 12's Time magazine was (by clever design) instantly polarizing.
Entitled "The Childfree Life," it shows two young thirty-somethings splayed out on a white sand beach, relaxing with arms intertwined, not a care in the world evident on their tan, happy faces.
These people, we're led to believe, are "having it all [by] not having children."
As important as what the image depicts is what it doesn't: parents keeping a wary eye out to ensure that the kids don't drown, leap headlong into a bonfire, or try to pick up a dead seagull; kids pestering the parents for ice cream and throwing tantrums when their demands aren't met; parents so exhausted from travel with young kids that rather than smiling angelically at the summer sun, they sleep on the sand with their mouths open, snoring audibly.
The staggering statistic upon which the story hangs is as follows: "The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history. From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there's data, the fertility rate declined 9%."
Not surprisingly, the cover has touched a lot of raw nerves. Without reading a word of the story (which explores new paths to fulfillment and acceptance trodden by childless women ... men are somewhat of a sideshow, as per usual), you are swept up in a tidal wave of emotion.
You’re reminded of the love for your own children and defensive over your choice to procreate, perhaps, or of the love for your adventure-filled, childfree life and defensive over the people who keep insisting that "you'll change your mind, and it'll be great when you have kids, you'll see."
A sort of complement to the story ran on BBC this week – the piece was entitled "Your post-pregnancy tales: Stretch marks, scars, and 'breasts like zeppelins,'" but it may as well have been called "when you have kids, you turn big and stripey and then it's sort of up to you to make the best of it or forever bemoan your choice."
Like the Time magazine story, it put the onus (or credit) for childbearing on women (not men), and it stirred up strong emotions by acknowledging the universally known and historically not-commented-upon downsides of childbirth, traditionally downplayed "for the good of society."
This is probably the part of the post where, as a new parent, I should proudly defend me and my wife's decision to have a baby and explain that, while we're tired, we're throbbingly certain that we've made a wonderful decision, and we can't understand why everybody else of child-bearing age wouldn't follow in our footsteps.
I won't do that.
Instead, I'll just say the following: We love our son very much, and we are very, very tired. Anybody who chooses to skip the expense, the health risks, the sleep deprivation, the work-life-child balance discussions and the general anxiety of having a child strikes me as eminently rational. I'm feeling a lot of things right now: joy, love, stressed, tired, exhausted, proud, spent, knackered, and fatigued – but "rational" is not one of them.
But of course, on some level, reason did play a role. Back when we decided to have a kid, we made the (arguably) rational choice that we'd like to have kids grow up and explore the world so that when we're older, we have family around us and connections to younger generations. Naturally, having kids isn't the only way to accomplish these things, but it's a classic option.
We have chosen to live our lives with the difficulty setting changed from "Novice" to "Expert," and now even simple things are complicated – having breakfast, or mowing the lawn, for example. The flip side is that when something goes right – and sometimes it does – it feels amazing. An efficient trip to the grocery store with everyone in good spirits is exhilarating – really, it is – and watching our son smile and coo is, thankfully, inexhaustibly rewarding.
And something else: watching a wife become a mother or a husband become a father is kind of amazing. It's hard to put a dollar value on it (I'd personally skew high to account for the damage this experience has done to our personal finances) but it's something just as good – but very different – from lounging on a beach in childfree splendor.
At least I think it is.
It has been a while since I've done the carefree beach-lounging thing, and it'll probably be a while longer before I do it again.