Jun 21, 2024

Beyond the Biological Imperative: Having Kids When Everything Sucks

Father Time | Poliphilo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Father Time | Poliphilo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Jonathan Kass

You are programmed to want children. You’re past thirty now and the cajoling from your genes is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Do it, they wheedle. Everyone likes you. The world needs more people just like you.

That may be true, you think. You have always been a sucker for flattery. You remember the other day when you dropped a glass and slowed its fall with your foot. Neither the glass nor your foot broke, and your wife seemed mildly impressed.  Maybe I should have kids. You begin to like the idea. There are way worse people than me doing it.

Suddenly, a whisper from your shoulder — Psst.  It’s your Existential Guilt, wearing Father Time robes and a doomsday clock necklace, the minute hand directed nearly upward. Here is the embodiment of your apprehension. Here is the misanthropic revulsion that strengthens every time you read the news. He looks at you with the face your mother used to make: not mad, just disappointed. 

Remember climate change? He asks as he pokes your neck with a single-use plastic straw.  Remember the race riots, the climbing national debt? You’re all running out of food, running out of water. What’s the plan for global antibiotic resistance? What about the impending A.I. explosion? Also, you do remember we just climbed out of a global pandemic, right? And wasn’t there something about UFOs? Are you so selfish, so base, that you would let that (he gestures vaguely to your pelvis) convince you to pluck a soul from the warm embrace of nonexistence and bring it here?

Your stomach tightens as the guilt gurgles inside you. You know there is truth in his screed: You have met the enemy, and he is us — he is you. Humans are a parasite out of balance with its host. You have accepted this fact and repeat it every morning at the bathroom mirror. I am a parasite, you tell yourself resignedly, failing to meet your own gaze. How then, can you justify reproducing? How can you justify bringing new life to a world so fraught with danger and uncertainty? The berobed figure now at your shoulder smiles at his handiwork and checks his clock. So, listen, he says, I’ve got to run. Just remember you and everyone you love is a plague! Byeee!” 

He disappears in a cloud of chlorofluorocarbons.

Perhaps, dear reader, I can alleviate your guilt as I attempt to assuage my own.  Consider this: The youngest generation is growing up politically engaged and outraged. Since birth, they have been bombarded by signs of our species’ collapse. They know that they have the most to lose from it going wrong. These young people, if sometimes misguided in their vitriol, are critical to the future of the species.  

Having children not only provides an opportunity to produce new critically thinking, solution-oriented humans, it induces pre-existing humans to find less virulent ways of existing on this planet. Becoming a parent in the current political and cultural milieu is akin to gambling on the future of the species. You are wagering the happiness and well being of your entire bloodline on the hopes that we pull ourselves back from the brink. With stakes so high, a parent could be hardly faulted for trying to influence the outcome. Surely it is preferable to take the uncertain risk than to sit resignedly as we approach our imminent demise?

On a more personal note, children bring opportunities to reconnect with an uncomplicated life you once knew. The unrestrained pleasure of an ice cream cone on a hot day, the countdown to the last day of the school year — these simple joys are lost as we age and burden ourselves with stresses both existential and mundane. Adulthood involves a preoccupation with the past and future, but little time is spent appreciating what is in front of us right now. You are older and have learned many things, but you have forgotten some as well.  Having children, despite its new responsibilities and terrors, can reinvigorate a youthful joy you have likely lost.

Maybe this reasoning makes sense to you and you begin to feel a little better. Sensing your relief, the Existential Guilt reappears on your shoulder. You can tell he is gearing up for a reprimand, but now you are better prepared for it. Yes, there is work left to do — adversity looms large on the horizon and we as humans face many big challenges in the years to come, but this may be the only life you have. Go easy on yourself, and do not let fear deprive you of the joys of parenthood.

Jonathan Kass is a physician and new father located in the Tampa Bay area who writes to fend off the existential dread.  He loves a surprising chess move, a new bird species, and a well timed joke.

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