Before I had kids, I was afraid of having kids. Up to that point I
felt about kids the way the young Augustine felt about living
virtuously. I'd have been sad to think I'd never have children.
But did I want them now? No.
If I had kids, I'd become a parent, and parents, as I'd known since
I was a kid, were uncool. They were dull and responsible and had
no fun. And while it's not surprising that kids would believe that,
to be honest I hadn't seen much as an adult to change my mind.
Whenever I'd noticed parents with kids, the kids seemed to be
terrors, and the parents pathetic harried creatures, even when they
When people had babies, I congratulated them enthusiastically,
because that seemed to be what one did. But I didn't feel it at
all. "Better you than me," I was thinking.
Now when people have babies I congratulate them enthusiastically and
I mean it. Especially the first one. I feel like they just got the best gift in the world.
What changed, of course, is that I had kids. Something I dreaded
turned out to be wonderful.
Partly, and I won't deny it, this is because of serious chemical
changes that happened almost instantly when our first child was
born. It was like someone flipped a switch. I suddenly felt
protective not just toward our child, but toward all children. As I was
driving my wife and new son home from the hospital, I approached a
crosswalk full of pedestrians, and I found myself thinking "I have
to be really careful of all these people. Every one of them is
So to some extent you can't trust me when I say having kids is
great. To some extent I'm like a religious cultist telling you
that you'll be happy if you join the cult too — but only because
joining the cult will alter your mind in a way that will make you
happy to be a cult member. But not entirely. There were some things
about having kids that I clearly got wrong before I had them.
For example, there was a huge amount of selection bias in my
observations of parents and children. Some parents may have noticed
that I wrote "Whenever I'd noticed parents with kids." Of course
the times I noticed kids were when things were going wrong. I only
noticed them when they made noise. And where was I when I noticed
them? Ordinarily I never went to places with kids, so the only
times I encountered them were in shared bottlenecks like airplanes.
Which is not exactly a representative sample. Flying with a toddler
is something very few parents enjoy.
What I didn't notice, because they tend to be much quieter, were
all the great moments parents had with kids. People don't talk about
these much — the magic is hard to put into words, and all other
parents know about them anyway — but one of the great things about
having kids is that there are so many times when you feel there is
nowhere else you'd rather be, and nothing else you'd rather be
doing. You don't have to be doing anything special. You could just
be going somewhere together, or putting them to bed, or pushing
them on the swings at the park. But you wouldn't trade these moments
for anything. One doesn't tend to associate kids with peace, but
that's what you feel. You don't need to look any
further than where you are right now.
Before I had kids, I had moments of this kind of peace, but they
were rarer. With kids it can happen several times a day.
My other source of data about kids was my own childhood, and that
was similarly misleading. I was pretty bad, and was always in trouble
for something or other. So it seemed to me that parenthood was
essentially law enforcement. I didn't realize there were good times
I remember my mother telling me once when I was about 30 that she'd
really enjoyed having me and my sister. My god, I thought, this
woman is a saint. She not only endured all the pain we subjected
her to, but actually enjoyed it? Now I realize she was simply telling
She said that one reason she liked having us was that we'd been
interesting to talk to. That took me by surprise when I had kids.
You don't just love them. They become your friends too. They're
really interesting. And while I admit small children are disastrously
fond of repetition (anything worth doing once is worth doing fifty
times) it's often genuinely fun to play with them. That surprised
me too. Playing with a 2 year old was fun when I was 2 and definitely
not fun when I was 6. Why would it become fun again later? But it
There are of course times that are pure drudgery. Or worse still,
terror. Having kids is one of those intense types of experience
that are hard to imagine unless you've had them. But it is not, as I
implicitly believed before having kids, simply your DNA heading for
Some of my worries about having kids were right, though. They
definitely make you less productive. I know having kids makes some
people get their act together, but if your act was already together,
you're going to have less time to do it in. In particular, you're
going to have to work to a schedule. Kids have schedules. I'm not
sure if it's because that's how kids are, or because it's the only
way to integrate their lives with adults', but once you have kids,
you tend to have to work on their schedule.
You will have chunks of time to work. But you can't let work spill
promiscuously through your whole life, like I used to before I had
kids. You're going to have to work at the same time every day,
whether inspiration is flowing or not, and there are going to be
times when you have to stop, even if it is.
I've been able to adapt to working this way. Work, like love, finds
a way. If there are only certain times it can happen, it happens
at those times. So while I don't get as much done as before I had
kids, I get enough done.
I hate to say this, because being ambitious has always been a part
of my identity, but having kids may make one less ambitious. It
hurts to see that sentence written down. I squirm to avoid it. But
if there weren't something real there, why would I squirm? The
fact is, once you have kids, you're probably going to care more
about them than you do about yourself. And attention is a zero-sum
game. Only one idea at a time can be the
top idea in your mind.
Once you have kids, it will often be your kids, and that means it
will less often be some project you're working on.
I have some hacks for sailing close to this wind. For example, when
I write essays, I think about what I'd want my kids to know. That
drives me to get things right. And when I was writing
Bel, I told
my kids that once I finished it I'd take them to Africa. When you
say that sort of thing to a little kid, they treat it as a promise.
Which meant I had to finish or I'd be taking away their trip to
Africa. Maybe if I'm really lucky such tricks could put me net
ahead. But the wind is there, no question.
On the other hand, what kind of wimpy ambition do you have if it
won't survive having kids? Do you have so little to spare?
And while having kids may be warping my present judgement, it hasn't
overwritten my memory. I remember perfectly well what life was like
before. Well enough to miss some things a lot, like the
ability to take off for some other country at a moment's notice.
That was so great. Why did I never do that?
See what I did there? The fact is, most of the freedom I had before
kids, I never used. I paid for it in loneliness, but I never used
I had plenty of happy times before I had kids. But if I count up
happy moments, not just potential happiness but actual happy moments,
there are more after kids than before. Now I practically have it
on tap, almost any bedtime.
People's experiences as parents
vary a lot, and I know I've been lucky. But I think the worries I
had before having kids must be pretty common, and judging by other
parents' faces when they see their kids, so must the happiness that
 Adults are sophisticated enough to see 2 year olds for the
fascinatingly complex characters they are, whereas to most 6 year
olds, 2 year olds are just defective 6 year olds.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris
for reading drafts of this.