The value of people and community

Not long ago I was telling someone about a story I’d heard, in which a person who had never been a parent had become one later in life. “I hope that makes this person more sensitive to the challenges of people who work and have children,” was basically how I concluded the story.

To my surprise, “I don’t like that,” said my conversation partner. “I don’t think people deserve special treatment when they choose to have a child. And I don’t like how when someone has a kid, the rest of the team has to pick up their slack.”

I felt there was something fundamentally wrong with this argument, but it wasn’t until this morning that I pieced together what it was. This argument hinges on the presupposition that work is the most important thing we do as humans, and that our highest loyalty should be to our company. By having a child, therefore, a worker is selfishly choosing to be a burden on the company and his or her fellow employees.

I can’t agree with that. Companies come and go, but the human race continues. Our most important work is preparing the next generation.

Yes, a person’s career is important. Knowledge is definitely important. But I could never value profit over family, or productivity over community. The former are terms that we essentially made up over time in order to compete with each other, and they have little to do with building a better human race–at least not if they come at the cost of human relationships. Competition may drive us to new heights of scientific achievement, of art, but without the latter components in place–family and community–we have no backbone on which to build these things, no lens through which to evaluate whether or not we should. Only through relationships with other humans can we give meaning to knowledge work. Only through sharing knowledge and fostering communication and empathy can we empower ourselves and our descendants to take the long view, to make choices not simply for our own personal gain but for the good of humanity.

A true human relationship is more difficult than simple business networking. It’s being there during bad times. It’s learning to forgive and forget. It’s trying to understand points of view markedly different from one’s own. It’s hard. The natural instinct might be to run away, from a spouse, from a child, from a friend, and bury oneself in a career. Or it might be that a person is so deep in the trenches of his or her own relationship crises that another person’s problems might not be visible. Whatever the reason, many people choose to be oblivious to others’ pain, to expect people to handle “their own problems”.

This is wrong. In the realm of human relationships, there should be no “them”. If there is a person in front of you who is suffering, and you do nothing, you are not “right”. You are part of the systematic breakdown of community.

We are a global society now. We have ways of learning more about virtually any topic, any culture, any history. But as we’ve gone global, rather than expanding our minds and opening our eyes, we’ve instead drawn ourselves further and further inward, walling others out, expecting everyone to take care of themselves. If they can’t, well, they just made the wrong choices. Them’s the breaks. Luck of the draw. Oh well. Right? This approach is grossly negligent and it’s teaching our children, the future of humanity, to be selfish and cruel. Imagine what a few generations of eat-or-be-eaten will do to our world. You don’t even have to work hard to imagine it; it’s happened plenty of times in our history. Only this time it will happen on a global scale. Do you think the human race will survive?

If someone undertakes the most important human work–raising a child–we should all be eager to help. Rather than sitting around shaking our heads at the next generation, we could be doing something. Fighting for higher pay for families. Working to get decent maternity and paternity leave for parents. Allowing and encouraging breastfeeding in the workplace and in public. Guaranteeing equal childcare support and opportunities regardless of income. Instead we seem to be trying to shame parents into keeping their kids at home in front of the TV, like it’s too inconvenient for us to be around them. We ignore problems that “don’t affect us”, like school lunches and childhood obesity and education. And that’s not right. It all affects us. Even if we don’t have kids ourselves, we must respect what it means to have them. And if we’re so worried about where the world is going, we should be as involved as possible in helping the next generation prepare.

I simply can’t see family, community, relationships, the human race as a “hassle”. Yes, there is a lot of hatred out there, especially if that’s all you’re looking for. But there’s so much beauty, too. Let’s get out there and nurture that beauty wherever we find it. Let’s lift each other up. Let’s talk. Let’s learn. Let’s strive to be better. And let’s prepare our global community for the challenges ahead.

Children: The solution to all existential crises?

“I don’t really remember what it was like before. Whatever I had going on, it was bullshit. It wasn’t important. It’s kind of a nice thing about being a dad. My identity is really about them now, and what I can do for them, so it sort of takes the pressure off of your own life. What am I going to do, who am I? Who cares, you’ve got to get your kids to school. So I like it that way.”

-Louis C.K., from this interview.

It has long appeared to me that kids crystallize one’s purpose. I think that’s part of why I’ve felt so directionless in my adult life. I’d always assumed I’d have kids, and everything I’d do would be for their benefit.

It’s possible we will adopt in the next few years. Sean’s finally not only receptive, but eager to have a child. So maybe I’ll get to experience that crystallization of purpose too.

A challenge changes shape

I have always wanted to be a mother. I like to tell people that I’ve thought about having children since I was a child, because it’s true and because it sounds good. I like to read about teaching methods and childhood development and what effects experience can have on personality and learning. I often think about what sort of environment I want to provide for my children, how I want them to feel comfortable and safe and loved, and how I’d like to foster in them a love of exploration and creation and imagination. To this day, when I hear about a fun trip or project, I think about doing it with my kids.

Two things came along in my life to derail my assumptions. Neither of them managed to snuff out my dreams, no matter how hard they tried. But together, it seemed that they would see to it that my dreams never became a reality.

The first thing, of course, was cancer. I was diagnosed with biphenaltypic leukemia in 1997, and the three rounds of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant I underwent to conquer that disease effectively destroyed my ovaries–or, perhaps, the eggs inside them. I only have regular periods when I’m on hormone replacements, and despite having nothing but unprotected sex throughout my seven-year marriage to Sean, we have never had so much as a miscarriage.

Through my struggles with this reality, Sean always told me to face reality, to try to be happy without my dream. Sean didn’t want children; that was the second thing.

He never wanted kids. Never dreamed about it, never thought about it except when I talked about it. The most he would ever agree was that he’d accept it if I happened to get pregnant; aggressive fertility treatments and adoption simply weren’t things he was interested in. There was a time when I tearfully tried to express just how important having children was to me…he was silent for a time and then said quietly, “I didn’t think it was a deal-breaker.”

It wasn’t, of course. I knew how Sean felt when I married him. I married him because I loved and still love him, not because I expected him to give me everything I wanted. I’ve come to realize that Sean doesn’t fully grasp how much I love him, how leaving him to pursue one of my dreams simply isn’t an option.

And so, over the past ten years as I struggled with the knowledge of my infertility and had doors slammed in my face with every test, I was alone. Sean ached for me, but never with me. He wanted me to be happy. He wanted me to forget about having kids and just enjoy my life with him.

In a way, that made it a little easier. At least that way, if I couldn’t give him children, I wasn’t disappointing him.

But that part of the equation fell away last weekend, when Sean said, as if I’d known it all along, “I still want to have a daughter one day. Just one. Of course, with my luck, we’d end up with a boy. I’d like us to be able to have a kid, but if that’s not possible…I would be okay with adoption.”

We’ve got a lot going on right now. We’re planning to move across town, and Sean’s trying to get a certification and move on with his career. Once that’s settled I will be undergoing elective surgery. We won’t be ready to try expensive fertility treatments for a year after that.

But that’s the plan now. It may be too late…or it may never have been possible. But we’ll try.

And if that fails, it looks like we’ll be adopting.

I honestly don’t know how to feel. This isn’t a too-good-to-be-true situation, but it’s still so much more than I was led to expect these past ten years.

My world view, which for so long has felt so narrow, seems suddenly to have expanded. If I just turn my head, I feel like I could see it all.

But I can’t bring myself to go all-in just yet. Not with all the disappointments I’ve already gone through.

At this point I will clamp down and allow myself only the tiniest cautious flicker of hope.