Not having a child is equivalent to suicide, evolutionarily speaking. Albert Camus, in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” writes: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Corollary to these two statements is a play on Hamlet’s soliloquy: “To reproduce, or not to reproduce, that is the question.”
This question has been racking my mind. Two months ago, my cousin stopped me during my brother’s wedding in Seoul and asked, “What’s your plan for little guys?”
“What little guys?” I asked, hoping I was wrong about what he was thinking.
“Plan for having kids, duh.” His three children waved to me from under the table where they were playing some kind of iPad-enhanced, virtual-reality tag.
“No plans yet,” I yelled over a waiter as I preemptively extricated myself from a blitz from my relatives.
Apparently, the issue of kids has been on my grandmother’s mind as well. She had a dream about a baby (of course, it was a boy) frolicking on a field of gold coins. My mother promptly bought the dream from her and told me that she’d sell it to me for $10. “You know that 2019 is the year of the golden pig.”
My wife, the only actual participant to settle this question, was thinking about it, too.
“Don’t you think it’d be nice to have a kid before we graduate?” she asked me in bed one night, back in New Haven.
“Yeah, it’d be nice.” I put on my best coaxing voice, one my father often used in Toys R Us. “But you know, it might be too much to handle for us right now. Perhaps we can wait until we graduate?”
“There’s never a right time.”
“Never a right time,” I repeated after her, my voice melodious as a lullaby.
After she’d fallen asleep, I went through the usual arguments in my head. First, there were logistical issues: Where was the baby going to sleep? In our bedroom? Where was I going to sleep? Both my wife and I were still in medical school. How were we going to pay for the baby? My bucket list of “Things to Do Before 30” turned into a list of bad comedy movies if you put a baby in the picture. Could one trek the Annapurna Circuit with a baby-pack? Maybe Dwayne Johnson could do it, but not me.
By this point, the abstract notion of a child materialized into the inconsolable baby on our 13-hour transpacific flight from Seoul to JFK.
But my wife did have a point. After we graduate, we’d both be slaving away as residents. And after residency? Fellowship? I imagined my gray-haired sperm hobbling towards her shriveled egg. There was never a right time. Modern contraceptive methods had created a mind-racking problem previously solved by the 20 percent failure rate of the old school “pull out” (anyone who has tried will soon realize the sheer fallacy of this method.) As I lay in bed counting the portentous beeps of the walk sign outside the window, a frightful question dawned upon me — a question I had not dared to ask: Why have kids in the first place?
Two writers immediately came to mind. Haruki Murakami once said in an interview that he did not have children because he had no faith that the world would get better. Another time, he has said that he did not think he would be happy as a father. The protagonist of his novel “A Wild Sheep Chase” answers the question more frankly: “What kid would want to have anyone like me for a father?” Raymond Carver, whose two children were born before he was 20, describes in his essay “Fires” an afternoon in a laundromat where he suffers a nervous breakdown after realizing “that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.” Needless to say, Carver and his children didn’t get along.
Let’s get more metaphysical. If one does not believe in afterlife, life ultimately is a maze without an exit — a series of choices that leads to a dead end, though it is a beautiful walk. Do I dare bring life into such a world?
On the other hand, everyone I care about in this world, including myself, is a product of reproduction. The human species was optimized for this specific task just like every other. Watching BBC’s “Planet Earth II,” one is blown away by the strategies life has come up with to guarantee successful reproduction. The penguin’s internal compass, the courting dance of Wilson’s bird of paradise and Dwayne Johnson’s deltoids are all optimizations for the same function: the number of genetic copies left behind.
It felt like a pity to let down the 20,000 genes betting on me. They had come so far in this game of survival. It felt even more of a pity to let my wife’s genes go to waste, and I wasn’t emotionally ready to let her mate with a stud for the sake of keeping them going. I also felt guilty, like one does when throwing away leftovers, as I recalled those who were trying to have children but could not. While rotating at the Yale Fertility Center, I had seen couples cry from joy over ultrasound printouts, turn into stone at bad news as if they’d seen Medusa. I then remembered the egg donation advertisements in my undergraduate newspaper, the international controversy around Thai surrogate mothers in 2014, a lunchtime conversation at school about the theoretical possibility of a uterine transplant in males.
I decided to let the issue rest. I slipped into sleep, dreaming of a baby frolicking on a field of gold coins.
Several days later, as I was performing CPR on a dummy so beat-up not even Jesus could raise him, I saw a framed sign on the wall of the training center that read: “Next to creating a life, the finest thing a man can do is save one. — ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”
Lincoln had lost his son, at the age of 11, to typhoid fever. To have a child was to live with a part of you held hostage to the world. The sofas in the children’s hospital came to my mind, each one molded to the hunched bodies of sleepless fathers and mothers. “Just wait until you have children,” my mother had told me once after I accused her of treating me like a kid. “Wear your helmet when you bike, and look before you cross,” she had said.
Mo Kids, Mo Problems.
I wanted to see some objective data. My first Google search brought me to a study that showed that the drop in quality of life associated with parenthood was worse than that of divorce, unemployment or the death of a partner. Scary. Another study showed that having one fewer child amounts to saving 58.6 metric tons of CO2-equivalent per year, compared to saving 2.4 tons if you live car-free and a meager 0.8 if you become vegetarian. The best way to fight global warming, the article concluded, was to have fewer, or no kids!
After clicking through several more discouraging studies, I arrived at a blog called “Deciding to Become a Parent or Not: Your Stories.” The topics ranged from being a parent while struggling with mental disorder to dealing with infertility. One reader wrote: “I could have prioritized career or travel or any of the plethora of life-affirming goals, but I am not sure I would be as happy doing any of those things without sharing joy with others. Sharing is something you can do with anyone, but a wise mentor once told me that having a child is the closest thing you can do to reckon with your mortality. You are somehow brought closer to yourself than through any other relationship, including your spouse.”
The night she had asked me about having kids, my wife had taken care of a dying patient. He was in his 80s, suffering from colon cancer, divorced and was childless. He had told her to have kids, the more the better, so that she would not have to face death alone like him.
I then remembered what a taxi driver in Seoul had told me years ago: “Have kids as soon as possible.” He had said, turning around to look at me for such a time that I feared that we would swerve off the bridge. “Cut a hole into your condoms if you need to, so that when you are done with parenting you are still young enough to be their friend.”
Thought experiments as mine often miss the concrete facts that define other people’s lives. For many, having a child is less a moral choice than an economic one. The total fertility rate of South Korea in 2018 is estimated to drop below one. To put this number in perspective, a total fertility rate of 2.1 is required to maintain a population at its current level. The prolongation of higher education, delayed marriage and unemployment have been cited as major causes of the falling birth rate. Young South Koreans are struggling to carve out a home in a world whose best real estate has been gobbled up by their parents’ generation, and life has become a battle royale for the few stand-by seats on the flight to middle-classdom. A child on top of that? “Impossible” is the answer most people give.
But if I’ve noticed anything from my years of living in America, the decision to postpone or forego having children also has to do with our generation’s attitude towards life. As science continues to claim that this life is our only one, we have come to view life as something to squeeze the most juice out of. Sacrifice is no longer considered a virtue. Wisdom is out of fashion too (“Stay foolish,” a modern prophet by the name of Jobs said.) Instead, youth, or even better, the facade of youth is worshipped. We train for triathlons and go on adventure tourism. We act as if aging is a bug that needs to be fixed. We will defeat cancer, conquer heart disease. Botox, Equinox and a gluten-free diet will keep you looking 30 at 50. Having children is what you do when you’ve exhausted your potential. Changing diapers does not fit into the pretense of glamor that social networks have made a norm — although Instagram babies, like well-made trailers of bad movies, have even glamorized child-rearing.
This kind of hedonistic self-aggrandizement partly has to do with what we were told by our parents and teachers. Our parents’ generation saw a man walk on the moon. We, their children, were going to solve poverty, eradicate disease, achieve permanent peace on Earth. The important thing, they said, was to believe in yourself. J.K. Rowling single-handedly managed to convince us that each of us was a wizard or witch in disguise. But we discover that we have no magical powers. Our bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees will not cure the world. We grow old in our Ikea-furnished studios waiting for Hagrid to come knocking on the door with that letter from Hogwarts. Even those of us who make six figures and post selfies from infinity pools discover that the “work hard, play hard” way of life is like a cookie-eating contest where the prize is more cookies. So we, all of us, keep searching, scouring the world for a destiny that does not exist until we turn it into a desert.
Tolstoy, in his later works, writes that it is impossible to live without faith. After wagering big and small blinds on man’s intellect, Dostoevsky goes all-in on God in his last novel. Even Camus, who once wrote “it is essential to die unreconciled,” talks about hope in his later essays. In fact, religion persists in our secular society under various pseudonyms. Prayer has become “mindfulness”; Mother Earth, environmentalism. A man high on molly at an EDM rave experiences the visceral sense of belonging that his mother had felt when singing a gospel song with 300 other believers.
And I am no exception. After masquerading as a Marvel hero for years, I find myself wanting to believe in something other than myself. Despite what science says, I want to hope that we are more than bags of gene-parasites hurtling down a mathematical gradient like vomit down a toilet. Having a child — isn’t that a kind of religion? A form of afterlife?
“Isn’t she so cute?” A few weeks later, my wife showed me a Facebook video of our friend’s 1-year-old daughter dressed up for Halloween.
“Wow, she already has teeth?” This girl could barely crawl the last time we saw her, and now she was rocking a pair of pigtails and pushing her Trick-or-Treat cart like a boss.
I watch plenty of adorable dog videos on Facebook, but this video was different. It had flipped a biological switch in my brain. Neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, you-name-it) flooded my cortex and became a voice in my head, chanting “Baby! Baby! Baby!”
I regained my composure and tried to think rationally. First came to my mind the crying, the diapers, the missed hours of sleep, then the arguments about who was going to pick up the kid at day care, the money I’d have to shell out on gifts every holiday. Then I saw the university pennants on the wall of our living room. Was it too late to start donating for legacy admissions? Envelopes from Yale or Stanford usually went straight into the recycling bin. Should I dig those back up? Actually, I was certain I would get another one next month, along with the Comcast ad marked “URGENT.”
“Should we have a kid?” My wife asked as she changed into her pajamas.
“Should we?” I asked back, this time genuinely confused. I looked at our reflections in the bedroom mirror: two creatures still learning how to survive on Planet Earth, the creases on our skin like the first signs of autumn.
I tried to imagine what the child might look like: a mix between the two of us, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, like pecan pie and vanilla ice cream. Could there be something as precious as one’s own child?
“What do you think? Do you want a boy or a girl? You know that it’s up to you. I pass on an X chromosome no matter what.” My wife turned around and looked at me.
She was right. I would be the one doing the coin flip. I looked at the five stuffed animals by the foot of our dresser. Each of them had a name, was a landmark for an era. Only if human babies were as well-behaved.
A flurry of questions spun in my head. Where will I sleep? What will happen to trekking the Annapurna Circuit? Will I be a good father? Could I accept the fact that what I consider most precious will one day leave me? Or will I be a helicopter dad reenacting Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings”? Will my child consider life, with all its suffering and absurdities, a gift?
We were standing at another fork in the maze. Footsteps had worn each of the two paths to a shining surface. The walls gleamed from the grease of human palms.
She stood still, waiting.
“Yes,” I said as I began undressing. “A daughter like you.”
Wyatt Hong | firstname.lastname@example.org .