the path to parenthood, or not

I am at a crossroads. On the one hand, my spouse and I are excited to begin the preparations for having a second child. We really like our first one, and we’re just about coming up for air now that he is getting close to school age. He wants a sibling, and we always wanted two kids (except for that brief period when our son was 0-3 years old, when we were very very certain that one was plenty).

On the other hand, I am worried. I know full well how much work goes into parenting, and I am not one bit surprised that academic women have fewer kids than other professionals. My spouse is an executive who has recently cut his work week down from 80 hours to 60 in a major feat of will that would make Merlin Mann proud. It is clear that this is as much as he can trim from his work responsibilities. I am proud of him and grateful for the extra 20 hours, but let’s face it; while it’s great that our younger child will recognize its dad, that’s not going to be the basis of an equal parenting situation. One might reasonably ask what the bother am I doing even thinking about a second child?

So, as I sit here, in the shoes of olderwoman before she had that second child: past the tenure hurdle, but not really established in my career, excited about both my work and my family and not wanting to shortchange either, knowing that it’s going to mostly fall on my shoulders to make career sacrifices to raise this child. I’m wondering if she would have done it differently if she had a second chance, knowing that she all but has to say no, she is glad she had two kids.

Waiting is not an option; indeed, we may well have waited too long already, and all the soul searching may be moot. We’ll need the help of the fertility clinic, as we did the first time around, and there are no guarantees. So it’s now or never, and I have to wonder whether I can do it better the second time around, maybe by bringing in the additional childcare I need to be sane. Will that be enough to avoid being overwhelmed? Can I keep that perspective of a lifecycle that has lulls and peaks of productivity, and save myself from feeling the failed scholar if I don’t publish much for a few years?

And really, whom to ask but the blog? This is one of those touchy subjects that lots of academics face, but when it is about you, it is difficult to bring it up with colleagues or even friends. What if they have a strong opinion about your having or not having a child? Too risky, too personal, but of course, this is really a social issue.

6 thoughts on “the path to parenthood, or not”

  1. I’m hardly in a position to give you good advice, seeing as how I don’t have kids yet, but I guess for personal and professional reasons I would encourage you to go to a second child.

    And that’s about as much detail as I’ll give.

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  2. There’s only one part of this I can really answer. No, I don’t regret the second child, and I didn’t regret the second child even when I was most stressed out — I just wanted some help. One issue for me was giving my first child the gift of a sibling to go through life with. She did not initially see it that way. My children are 4 years apart; my daughter was angry and hurt after her brother was born, she hated losing her position as a doted-on only child, and I’m sure that all the stress that was going on at the time didn’t help. She did her best to be as bad as possible for the first couple of years, and for years after she blamed us for destroying her life. But things started changing as they matured, and she came to believe that a younger brother who thought the world of her was a pretty good thing to have. Now they are close friends, and have even chosen to live next door to each other (across town from me). I can’t promise a good outcome however: some siblings grow to hate each other as they age.

    Realistically, a spouse who has “cut down” to a 60 hour week isn’t going to help much with children, so you have to decide whether you are willing to live the life within the feasible option set: some combination of lots of child care and household help, cutting back on your own professional aspirations, trying to get spouse to cut back on his (and remember this is under his control, not yours), and dealing with feelings of anger, frustration, and inadequacy, including the risk of getting so mad at your spouse that you divorce and turn into a single parent.

    All this assumes only ordinary parenting issues, and does not consider the risk that a child is disabled or someone gets really ill or any of the other myriad of terrible things that sometimes happen.

    What’s the upside, you say? Actually, a lot, depending on your view of life. For me, the meaning of life is in the living of it and in the connections with other people. Work is really fun and interesting, and competition and ambition can add to the interest, but it just isn’t the center of life as I see it. For me it never was, even for the long time before I had children. Rearing children was never easy, but it was always interesting and often satisfying, and even in the difficult times I liked seeing myself become a richer and more complex person for the experience.

    So the bottom line is what everyone else is saying: it really is a personal decision and you just can’t make it on the basis of what other people think. You have to play out in your mind how you’ll feel if you decide to stop with one child versus how you’ll feel if you don’t achieve all your career ambitions. You have to think about how you’ll feel if you rely a lot on long hours of paid child care — this is one way people do it.

    One last story to balance the genders a bit. My spouse’s cousin is a hot-shot lawyer who travels a lot and her spouse is a hot-shot contractor who travels a lot. They are quite well off and relied heavily on live-in nannies, who sometimes worked out better than others. After some years, they realized the children had some issues that needed parental attention, so the husband stopped out of his career for a number of years — it was at least five, might have been ten — and turned himself into a full-time dad until the children were launched. I think being self-employed probably made it easier for him to do this, and he claimed to enjoy the years at home. (He built their house while he was “at home.”)

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  3. I only have one child, for mostly personal, but also professional, reasons. With B now 9, he could actually be a big help with a second child, but the thoughts of sleepless nights and securing good infant childcare are usually enough to get me over #2 urges.

    That said, I strongly believe that a lot of parenting is just experience and number two is qualitatively different than #1. Think about all the sleepless nights you had because you had to listen to the wheeze of a sick baby to ensure he made it through the night or the time you spent packing the diaper bag with things you’d never use or running to the store for the things you learned you so desperately need for a newborn.

    I never took the PSAT, but I heard it was a huge help in preparation for the SAT. Perhaps that’s a poor analogy, but that’s the way I see parenting too. You know what lies ahead of you. The same things that make you feel crazy and conflicted about having a second child are the things that make you most prepared for that child as well.

    I agree with OW that what I would worry about is resentment. If you’ve made it this far, though, perhaps you’re in good shape.

    In the end it is a deeply personal decision, but those are my thoughts. Good luck.

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  4. I can’t speak to the motherhood side, being the dad — but I can offer some thoughts too.

    I was resistant to having our second, and my wife really wanted a second; I’m so very delighted that she “won!” My wife is an only child; I have had a conflictual relationship with my brother my whole life; so we felt we had no good model of a sibling relationship. Maybe that insecurity paid off; we came home one day and told Jonah (my elder) that he would have a baby brother in a few months. His response: “a baby brother? That’s what I always wanted!” He was 3 at the time; our boys are 4 years apart (now 8 and almost 4) and the best of friends. And how very, very different they are too!

    I struggle continuously with wanting to do lots of good sociology and wanting/needing to spend lots of good time with my kids. I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t (lots of!) times I’d rather retreat into the study and read AJS instead of being with the kids. But, as a friend said at the time Jonah was born, “fatherhood rocks!” And the second was neither harder nor easier — just different.

    Good luck!

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