Contemplating parenthood can be like entering the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz. Our rational thinking gives way to a foggy but alluring sense of hope and longing. Even if we know the facts — that parenthood is not easy, for example, or that babies are not the answer to marital stress — we are likely to get clouded in a haze of fantasy when we imagine having a baby.
Even the way we talk about embarking on parenthood reflects and shapes our magical visions of having a child. We say ‘having a baby,’ as opposed to ‘beginning a lifetime of parenting.’ We say ‘if it happens, it happens,’ or ‘if it happens then it is meant to be,’ leaving the decision of having a child up to chance or magic. And, in books, movies, and shared stories, we celebrate the romantic triumph of the new baby who propels everyone in its path into love, support, and clarity of what is really important in life.
Yes, having a child can be amazing and even magical. There is danger, however, when we surrender to the fantasy that having a child is simply a gift from the universe that will transform our lives from the ‘before having the child’ life of dissatisfaction, angst, and lack of direction, to the ‘after having a child’ life of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose.
When we give in to the fantasy that parenthood is a magic wand of transformation, we bring false expectations with us on our road to becoming a parent and our road of parenthood. These false expectations can cause us to pursue parenthood when the whole enterprise of raising a child really isn’t what we want to do. Or, the fantasies can set us up for shock, disappointment, disillusionment, and despair as the reality of trying to conceive and then raise a child descends upon us.
We may also continually feel like there is something wrong with our own experiences, or that we are doing something wrong, when things are not as easy, transformative, or fulfilling as we had thought they would be. We may feel angry and envious as we imagine other people getting the easy and fulfilling version of parenthood. These feelings can then wear us down internally and also spill out, directly or indirectly, as anger or resentment, onto our partner and onto the child.
So, force yourself out of the poppy field, and challenge yourself to examine whatever fantasies about parenthood that you may have. Ask yourself, for example…
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that becoming a parent will ‘just happen’ when ‘it is meant to be’?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will bring me renewal, a fresh start, or a new beginning?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will allow me to finally feel like a legitimate, normal, and valued member of society?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will bring me the support from family and friends that I’ve always wanted?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will prove that I am an independent and fully functioning adult?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will make it easier to let go of my own needs and therefore ease my chronic guilt about not doing more for others?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will turn me into someone who is organized and focused?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will get me to stop worrying about petty stuff and start using my time and energy toward what is really important?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will make the fact of my aging and mortality less upsetting since I will have a living legacy and connection to the future?
- Do I imagine or secretly hope that parenthood will give me a way to finally feel appreciated for my wisdom, knowledge, and skills?
Now, ask yourself: If you couldn’t count on any of these types of fantasies coming true through parenthood, would you still want a child? If you understood that nothing in life, including parenthood, is a solution to sometimes feeling unfulfilled and incomplete, would you still want a child? If you knew that that nothing in life, including parenthood, is a ticket to bypass our own issues and magically become a new and improved version of ourselves, would you still choose to have a child?
If you saw that parenthood often makes us feel less organized, less focused, more upset about our mortality, more isolated from friends and family, less valued by society, more harshly aware of our aging, more stuck in a rut, more filled with regrets, more guilt-ridden, less independent, and more neurotic, would you still want to have a child?
Whatever your decision, you have the power to grow healthier and increase your fulfillment in life. You may actualize that power through a life that is child-free. Or, you may choose parenthood. Either way, transformation does not happen to any of us by the magic of Oz or a child-to-be.
It happens by accepting that life means periodically feeling unfulfilled and frustrated, and then engaging directly with all of the joys and personal challenges that come our way — one diaper, one parent-teacher conference, one hard day at work, one note of our child’s laughter, and one quiet evening with our partner, at a time.