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An Adult World
In our tech-driven world, the basic drive of society is to make life easier, more convenient, as frictionless as possible. I suppose it’s the nature of a service economy. You can talk to your friends (or total strangers) around the world at any moment. You can find any piece of information with a simple search. Any show or movie you want is available in your home theater (or on the bus or in your car). Lunch from any restaurant can be at your door in fifteen minutes or less. You can have your dog food and toilet paper delivered overnight for free. We already have self-propelled lawn mowers and self-operated vacuums. Self-driving cars are fast on the way.
It’s a natural progression, and mostly a good thing. Making life easier and more productive is what technology does, and it’s the expressed purpose (if not the actual result) of all software, the medium of our modern lives. I work at a software company that makes it easier to enroll in your work benefits. Do you have any idea how much paperwork that used to require? And once you had all that paper filled out, collected, and collated, you had to fax it to the insurance company, one page at a time, using an actual, physical fax machine, itself a vast improvement over the mail. Now you click a few buttons on a website and it’s done. Easy peasy.
We love efficiency. We gush over convenience. We demand speed. If the website doesn’t load within one second, we click away. I frequently get upset at the McDonald’s drive-thru (for the kids, I swear) taking longer than 5 minutes. In a age and a country where our wealth is overflowing, we value our time above all else. We spend gobs and gobs of money on services that save us time, and we demand a good value for our efforts. It is a very practical concern, and we are a very practical people.
I’m not going to debate all the various benefits and risks of a such a society. I tend to be rather attached to it, mostly because it’s the only one we have. I only want to point out that this orientation will inevitably give all its attention to one particular group: adults.
We live in an adult world. Maybe it’s always been one. Adults will always everywhere have the political power, the financial resources, the institutional authority. But you can imagine, at least, a society that was built by adults but for children, for the next generation, for the future. It might have an emphasis on forging strong families, investing in long-term goals, valuing self-sacrifice and saving, prizing innocence and youth. That’s not our society. It’s more nearly the opposite.
All our messages are directed at the autonomous individual, the singular unit of consumption. Pursue your dreams. Be your authentic self. Do what makes you happy. Find your inner strength. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can do. Strive to make your life better, more productive, more fulfilling, more relaxing, more convenient, more whatever you want. It’s a message you’ll hear in every movie and television show, that you’ll read in every book or news article, that you’ll absorb in every commercial from cars to soft drinks. It’s the message of a million psychologies and self-help gurus, politicians and popstars, pastors and parents.
It’s not even a bad message, in the proper context. But it’s a message that only makes sense to people with a certain level of control over their life. It’s a way of thinking that imagines everyone as a solitary actor on their own quest to make their singular life as good as possible, and modern society is happy to sell the tools necessary to make that quest as easy convenient as possible. It’s been very successful as a practical matter. But it does have a tendency to elevate the concerns of adulthood.
Children, as you know, are not very practical. They take up an ungodly amount of time, especially the first few years, and it never really gets better. Financially, they’re less of a long-term investment and more of an unending money pit. It’s not like they are going to make it up to you in retirement. They pay in love and affection, at least until they are teenagers. They make everything you do, from working to vacationing to eating out to shopping at the grocery store, much more difficult. If you thought having a dog tied you down, imagine you could never leave it at home. And at least the dog pretends to be happy when you get home. The baby just cries while you’re trying to sleep.
Having kids makes everything harder. Especially all those things we’ve been told are the most important. It’s harder to work on your own career when you have to worry about a spouse and kids, doubly so for women. It’s hard to run off on some grand adventure or take a riskier job you might prefer. You’re hobbies are likely to take a massive hit, and forget about passion projects. You have to spend your time changing diapers and cleaning spit up and rocking the baby back to sleep and taking naps when you get the chance. Or you are playing the same game for the hundredth time in a row or performing in the same little skit on repeat or getting them the thousandth bowl of goldfish. You will do things your old self would never have imagined or wanted. Parenting absolutely consumes your life.
It’s little wonder, then, that convenience culture often treats children, if not with contempt, then at least with annoyance. The concerns of adults are supreme. Children are an obstacle to all the things we are supposed to want. So we ship them off to daycare as soon as we can (guilty). We plop them in front of the TV or tablet so they will let us get stuff done (very guilty). We put off having them, despite the risks, until we’ve accomplished everything we want, until we’ve made enough money, until we’re bored with life and looking for the next challenge.
It is any surprise that so many consider it a fundamental right to end a pregnancy rather than face the inconvenience of a child? That’s the reason you usually hear. The mother (or couple) isn’t ready. It will interfere with her career. It will be a financial burden. It’s her body, so she can do as she wants. You can put it a thousand different ways, but with rare exceptions, the argument always back to a simple fact: children are really inconvenient.
I can confirm it’s true. Wherever you are in life, you are not prepared to have children. Raising kids is not a quick process, and it doesn’t make your life any easier. I understand why it is such a hard decision for many women or couples, planned or unplanned. My wife and I agonized over having a second child. Frankly, we couldn’t afford it, and the first pregnancy had been a disaster. Whether you first, second, or seventh, a child makes your life harder, messier, trickier. Also, wonderful.
It’s a good thing that kids are hard. Doing hard things makes life meaningful. It forces you to consider what is important and what is disposable. It prevents you from sliding through life on the slippery path of ease and comfort, pretending that nothing is worth your effort. Putting your time and money and care—your life—into something outside yourself is the surest way to find the fulfillment and satisfaction you’ve been searching for in your job or hobbies or activism. Having kids isn’t the only way to get that in your life, but it’s a proven method, available to everyone. We can’t all have our dream job doing what we love, pushing our limits, changing the world. But almost anyone can be a parent one way or another.
There’s a reason so many of us parents do it, even those of us who know how difficult it is in the best of times, even those of us for whom it represents a period of genuine hardship. The love of a child is a life-changing feeling. It will push you outside your comfortable habits, will turn you into a different person, caring about things you never cared about, doing things you never thought you would do. In our adult world, that probably sounds terrifying. Yes, it's a major inconvenience. It completely messes up your life. But it messes up your life in all the best ways. It forces you to focus less on the worries of being an adult, and more on the joys of being like a child.