With Father's Day just over a week away, my thoughts have turned again to fatherhood and whether it's something I want in my life.
Of course, in one way or another, hypothetical breeding has been on my mind since I was a teenager. Back then, I wanted to be a dad one day because I thought I had a good one and that I’d be good at it, too. (A couple years later, when self-righteousness kicked in, I decided I could also make a few improvements.)
In my 20s, I thought my life would be incomplete without accomplishing this most enduring creative act and then, later, I wanted kids so that I’d have an ever-replicating brood of younger people surrounding me as I grew old.
Now, I'm not sure any one of these reasons – all of them pretty selfish – is a good one and I wonder what, exactly, is a suitable reason to have a kid. People talk a lot about women wanting children and women talk to each other about it, but guys don’t discuss this so much. It’s not because we don’t think about it, though, especially nowadays when being a father is a more active role than it used to be.
One friend who just turned 40 described his reason for wanting to have kids as a desire to experience the ultimate form of self-discovery.
“You produce this child who reflects everything about you and looks to you as a god for most of its early life,” he said. “You’re its source of protection, its teacher, everything. But then, of course, we all know later it becomes the most fundamental lesson in humility. I don’t think there’s any other thing you can do in life that would give you such a profound test as to what you are, your very pith.”
My friend's yearning to be a dad was all cerebral abstraction, however, until the dissolution of his last relationship.
“I had talked about it before, but it wasn’t until immediately after the break-up that I really felt it,” he said, explaining that he found himself gazing longingly at fathers with their children who passed on the street. “People talk about women having a physical feeling of wanting kids. But I felt that then, too – a deep feeling, like hunger.”
A thirtysomething guy I met recently at a party told me he considered growing old without ever procreating a type of life failure.
“Having a kid is a marker of success,” he said, “along with owning a chunk of land and having a certain amount of money.”
He admitted this view treated children as a kind of “bourgeois accessory,” but explained he can’t help it – it’s an attitude he inherited from his prolifically populating family.
“I have 25 first cousins in this city alone, and I’m the only one who hasn’t reproduced,” he said. “I fear waking up when I’m in my mid-40s having had a successful professional life, but without kids. I don’t want to be left out. I don’t want the music to stop and for me to be the only one without a chair.”
And then there’s my friend who spent his youth to mid-30s travelling, establishing his career and … partying.
“Most of what I wanted to do was get drunk and have a good time,” he says. “But after 17 years of that I thought, ‘Is this it? Is this what I’m living for?’ My life was all about meeting my hedonic needs and I decided there has to be something more.”
Even this reason, like the others, strikes me as selfish, though in a more ironic way – wanting to care for another being as a way of maturing and finding new meaning in one’s own life. But it’s a reason that actually worked – this friend now has a baby boy, and consequently his party nights have been replaced with picnics in the park.
Armin Brott, one of the forefathers of fatherhood thinking, who has authored eight books on the subject, says he’s noticed a distinction between male and female fantasies about parenthood.
“Generally, women will think about taking care of a completely newborn baby, but men skip ahead a few years to playing catch, reading and talking, showing the kid how to fly a kite,” he told me.
When I admitted this resonated with me, he stressed that he tells all the fathers in the parenting classes he teaches that they’d better get involved sooner than that or later be faced “with a strange kid who doesn’t want to spend any time with you because he doesn’t know you.”
When I asked Mr. Brott what’s the most proper and good reason – maybe even an unselfish one – to have kids, he turned the question around.
“Some people have them so that they can have a slave to do chores,” he said, “and sometimes you hear from pregnant teens that they wanted to have a child so that they could have someone that would love them. Those are not good reasons. Pretty much everything else I wouldn’t question.
“If somebody says, ‘I want to have a child so that I can create something in my image and pass on my world view,’ it may sound a little bit snooty but it’s kind of what we do,” Mr. Brott said. “It’s what every living organism does. You want to make copies of yourself.”
I suppose, in the end, my big human brain will just keep coming up with new reasons to become a father until I am one. And according to my former-partier friend, all this self-reflecting about fatherhood will, at that time, likely end. His kid is now 18 months old, and when I asked if his life had been infused with meaning, as he’d wanted, he says he’s not sure. Not because he doesn’t find his new family life fulfilling, though. “I don’t have time now to brood and think, ‘What is life all about?’ ” he said. “I’m living it.”
Micah Toub’s memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.