Abundance and Natality
Embracing Risk, Encountering Wonder
I couldn’t help but hear two teenagers talking behind me as I stood swaying on a packed crosstown bus. “Do you think you’ll have kids?” one of them asked. My ears perked up and I could almost feel their eyes on me—the woman with a child on her back, another clinging to her leg, two more chatting in a nearby seat.
They discussed the limitations that come with having children, the trade-offs they expected. I heard the words “tied down”; I heard “bad for the environment.” But also, I heard them say that they would make good parents. I heard in their conversation shadows of the universal push and pull that any important decision brings. The sacrifices, the benefits; the joy, the suffering; the paths that feel familiar, the ones that are full of mystery.
And there I was, on the bus, practically dripping with children. Feeling the abundance of it every day—the busyness, yes, but the fullness and fulfillment, too. My hands are loaded with all the best things, and while there is some juggling involved, like any proper circus it is often accompanied by laughter and delight. (And collapsing with relief behind closed doors when the juggling has been accomplished and everything is safely in its place.)
I chose to have many children because that has always been my heart’s desire. But for others, the choice to have children becomes ever more fraught and freighted. A few generations ago it was hardly a choice at all. For most of our grandparents and great-grandparents, children either came, or they didn’t. Within only a few decades, medical advancements changed what was once a function of biology and opportunity into a decision of morality, ethics, wealth, education, faith, fear, and any number of personal experiences and judgments centering on the loaded question: Why have children at all?
There’s a word for the proposition that we shouldn’t have children: antinatalism.
Antinatalism argues against having children from the moral position that doing so increases suffering in the world and that all suffering, any suffering, is bad. It could be that the children themselves will suffer without ever having given consent to be born. It could be that children will cause suffering as they consume limited resources. In antinatalist thinking, no joy or pleasure that we experience in life can compensate for the inevitable suffering.
Antinatalism may seem like an extreme view held by a few morose individuals until we ask ourselves: To what degree has our society accepted the premises of antinatalism? How much does our culture discourage childhood—or parenthood? There seems to be an invisible tide pulling us individually and as a whole away from the desire to have children.
We can feel this pull on society at large in our collective anxiety about environmental instability, or as governments and economies attend endlessly to capitalist values that place a premium on a person’s economic productivity. We feel this pull individually in more personal decisions—like should I delay family life for the socially-approved pursuit of professional, political, or educational ambitions? Can I financially afford a child? What would I have to give up? Depending on how a person answers these questions, she may be precluded from having a child at all as the biological clock ticks ever forward.
Other modern values, like a focus on unfettered autonomy above all—and the perception of children as a burden—may promote antinatalist attitudes. Take for example that strain of feminism that sees family life in general as a form of female bondage.
But more poignant are those who turn away from family life because they grew up in families full of trauma, feeling like they were at best a burden and were at worst resented and abused. This happens on a very personal level, but also on a macro scale as some people may feel the entire modern Western culture has perpetrated such colonialist atrocities on the world that it should not be continued. Such experiences and beliefs generate a deep sense of inadequacy and unworthiness.
If only these value judgments were limited to the personal decisions of the individual. But as a mother of more than a few children in one of the most dense urban environments in the world, I can testify that judgment about the propriety of having children abounds—as can any parent who has existed with children in places not made specifically for them. There, where children’s presence may compete with or distract from the societal values of productivity and wealth, ease and convenience, parents and children are often treated with disgust and derision, impatience and intolerance.
For further evidence, read the comments section of any personal essay by a mother who expresses any hint of the challenges of raising children. “Should have thought of that before you had kids!” “Stop whining, you brought this on yourself,” and “I’m never having kids,” are not uncommon sentiments. Lacking in these responses is any sense of understanding that mothers have hard yet essential jobs with bad days, or that society compounds their burdens with the impulse to blame and shame.
It isn’t just anonymous internet lurkers who opine on the number of children women shouldn’t have. French President Emmanual Macron commented at the 2018 Gates Foundation Goalkeepers conference that a great way to decrease the birth rate is to educate women because, “what woman, being educated, would have seven, eight, or nine children.”
Implicit in this kind of rhetoric is the idea that women with many children lack education and intelligence, and surely those who are better educated will not choose the kind of difficulty that parenthood offers.
Monsieur Macron and the antinatalists may be right in one way: parenthood is truly hard. Unquestionably, it is intense, backbreaking, soul-stretching work. Raising kids is a complex endeavor with countless invisible, unknowable moving parts that take years or even decades to develop. Supporting that kind of black box work is risky and (yes) scary. People can suffer a loss of possibility when they have children. A loss of freedom. A loss of identity. It is easy to feel like a stranger to yourself when, instead of finally taking the time to read Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, you offer up a repeat performance of Mo Willems’ masterpiece Nanette’s Baguette.
But instead of investing in a healthy, hopeful future by easing the burden of childrearing, our society seems to have chosen to accumulate wealth. Perhaps this impulse is driven by the feeling of scarcity: that our world is not up to the task of raising humans, that the earth isn’t big enough to support us, that we, as individuals, will never have the time and the energy it takes to do the job right (and not sacrifice ourselves in the process).
Perhaps these pressures against perpetuating the human race are the starkest evidence of a sick society—and the result is that children are devalued, marginalized, oppressed. The space they take up is too much. The noise they make is in conflict with more important voices.
The more a society orients itself according to antinatalist arguments, the more difficult it is to parent. And here we see how antinatalism accelerates itself: The more we act, individually or collectively, as though children increase suffering, the more they actually do. It’s a great snake eating its tail, until finally there is nothing left. No suffering, but no life.
But this is where the lie of antinatalism reveals itself. Because while it is undoubtedly true that if people choose to have children, they will suffer and their children will suffer, fear and anxiety are not the drivers of full, fulfilling lives. Avoiding risk may be safe, but it is also small. Accepting, even embracing, the black box of child-rearing—and here I include anyone who is lovingly committed to the well-being of a child, for one does not need to be a parent to cherish children and relish the beauty of life—is a literal gift. Raising children blasts us with information, experiences, and perspectives that are challenging to find if we are not bumping up against new and developing people. Taking the risk leads to untold rewards.
But how can we find the courage to take that risk? Perhaps we, as a society, need to re-think our values and how we are trying to live them. Let’s look at the fear and the scarcity, the suffering and the anxiety and try to understand why we are shrinking from it. What does it mean? What can it mean?
If suffering begins at birth, perhaps a closer look at that process can be instructive—but focusing on the moment of birth alone, with its blood and tears and cries of pain obscures the magic of the entire process. A successful delivery unfolds not as a mother resists the painful process of childbirth, but as she allows the pain to work the miracle of that first breath. Birth signifies, not suffering, but transcendence over that suffering, and beyond that, the intense connection to humanity—to the tiny new human, to the partners in the birthing process who witnessed the strength and struggle it took to endure the suffering, and indeed to the whole human race as a new mother contemplates the astonishing fact that every single individual of the eight billion that people the earth was born from a mother’s womb.
And even further on and deeper in, the sense of purpose, meaning, and responsibility that replaces the aches and pains of pregnancy (a grace, by the way, that continues as a baby grows, as evidenced by the practice of wistfully scrolling through photos of children who, though peacefully sleeping now, were forcefully playing all the wrong notes throughout the day). Deeper still, we find that suffering in another sense—simply allowing the pain—delivers love. Love, humility, and the choice—available to anyone, parent or not—to prioritize the needs of someone in need.
It is a great paradox: While children do in fact increase suffering, they also bring with them the way to transform and be transformed by that suffering. Love, a sense of purpose, opportunities to learn and grow—all these can flourish in a family. Behind us lies scarcity, fear, and suffering. Before us still lies scarcity, fear, and suffering, but now we have the means to overcome them: all the unimagined potential of a new life, the constant change of each day, and the love we hold for our child.
Of course, beyond childbirth lie other types of suffering, encased in the process of parenthood. There are expectations for ourselves and our children. There are comparisons with peers or celebrities, the bright and shiny social media versions of others’ lives that glare at our own unkempt and lived-in families. There are disappointments when those expectations are unmet, the status markers unachieved. These, too, we must allow.
Allowing, accepting, and even embracing the risks and uncertainties inherent in raising children requires us to look beyond what can be seen or known. It is a leap—of faith, maybe, or of hope for the future. Perhaps it is an expression of trust in ourselves to rise to unknown challenges. Or a recognition of the gift of existence, of the beauty of the world, and of the expansion that comes from sharing it with others and seeing their wonder reflected back.
In taking the leap, or stepping into the black box, we find that if we are to decrease the suffering, it is not the children that we want to let go of. It is those expectations, those limiting beliefs about what happiness is, those unattainable mirages that distract and detract from what is really happening that must go. We can free ourselves from those feelings of not being enough, or not having enough, or missing out on whatever it is the world has to offer by sitting with what we do have. Then we see and know that our lives are richer and fuller with children than without and are willing to suffer the derision and disdain society sometimes offers because we value them so highly.
In fact, family life is ideally suited to help us transition from a world of suffering and scarcity and competition to abundance. Because children are ever-changing and ever-growing, we are constantly adapting, learning, and letting go—of limiting beliefs, of “easy” paths to happiness, of the illusion of control. Shedding those ideas is transformational.
My own journey on this path included a realization early on when I had three young children and a lot of insecurities about my role as a mother. My life was full of people and places and activities that I loved, and yet at night I would struggle to sleep, thinking about my friends whose marriage was rocky, and the talents I wished I was improving, and the minutes of sleep that were ticking away as I lay restless and awake. Only 5 hours and 45 minutes tonight, I would think. Tomorrow is going to be hard.
The next day, unsurprisingly, would be hard. How was I to deal with tantrums and manage food for three little people or even leave the apartment for some fresh air on less than six hours of sleep?
Then somewhere, somehow, I forgot to count. I didn’t remember how much sleep I got or how much I was missing. Whatever it was, it would just have to be enough. And, surprisingly, it was. Whatever I had was enough. With my focus off the things I lacked, it was easier to see what I had.
What I had were three small teachers helping me identify and re-order my priorities, guiding me through the tasks of helping them become more independent, giving me opportunities to go places I’d never been and try things I never would have before. At every turn were moments of wonder and awe. My empty cup was suddenly running over.
That is where and how our perspectives can change. There is nothing about raising a family that is not a community experience, where all time and paths and belongings are jointly held. A hundred times a day raising children has us facing our expectations and letting go of them, finding new, unexpected ways. It has us humbling ourselves in tasks as small as putting a toddler’s shoes on her feet and as large as advising a teenager on how to approach the rest of his life.
These are moments, not of scarcity, but of abundance. Even a moment as difficult and public as a tantrum in the aisle of a grocery store can be an exercise in empathy, humility, and repair as we acknowledge our mistakes and try to do better. Again, and again, and again, we are being birthed anew with new perspectives and experiences and emotions. With each of those moments come opportunities to learn and become something more than we once were.
Part of that abundance that we feel comes through welcoming the difficulty and the risk inherent in parenthood. The range of emotions on any given day, as previously mentioned, can be surprising—shocking, even—but it can also be instructive. The great scope of experiences allowed in a life in which there are more lives lived in intimate proximity, also allows for more understanding, wisdom, and empathy, for a broader range of colors and tones, for shades of meaning and nuance we couldn’t otherwise see.
In very real and practical experiences we are allowed to see that while we may wish for worldly accolades and material goods, joy can be found simply in helping a child learn to read, or in being the hero that found the baby’s lost pacifier, or getting to sit quietly with a child who is scared of the dark until she relaxes into sleep. Seeing, and sitting with, the suffering of someone else, walking with them through it, can help us see our own suffering differently—not as a meaningless slog, but as important information about who we are and what we are capable of.
Despite its aims of reducing suffering in the world, antinatalist attitudes have increased it. Our society can approach suffering in much healthier ways—ways that do not put children, like those teenagers on the bus, in a position to wonder (subconsciously or not) if they are burdens on their parents and the world. Children who grow in an abundant environment, where their needs are opportunities and their voices are gifts—both in their homes and in society—are empowered to be our teachers. From their perspective they can show us things we cannot see. Unburdened by adult cares, they can blaze trails for us to follow. Parents and caregivers, properly supported, can raise children to meet their potential—not to live, stunted, by a life in shadow and scarcity—but to thrive and flourish. Society as a whole has more eyes and ears and hearts and hands to approach the suffering we find and carry us through to the other side.
I want to tell those teens on the bus that, perhaps, we have it wrong, or backward, or upside down. If every day is growth, and time can stretch and contract, then maybe there is more of it than we have been led to believe. And there is more to life than we can see and feel. People may be a scourge, but they are also the salve to our suffering. It’s possible that your children will lead you through the problems you face. That in raising them, loving them, connecting with them and sharing your lives with each other, you will become more than who you are, and more than enough. And maybe you can have kids and travel too—to places that don’t exist on any map.
Lizzie Heiselt is a writer, runner, and bridge crosser living in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, Micah, and their six kids. She has an MA in journalism from NYU, but she still can’t play video games.
Art by Brooklyn Swenson.