When I was in my twenties, I used to dream about having a big family–four children to be specific. Raised as an only child, and having friends who came from big families that seemed a lot happier than mine, I foolishly thought that if only I had siblings, my childhood would have been happier (in actuality, it probably would have made things even worse!) Entering my late teens, unlike most of my peers, I didn’t have any real career goals or ambitions. My only real desire was to marry and have a bumper crop of babies. This wasn’t exactly fashionable in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my desire for domestic bliss was at its most intense. Back then, if you were a woman who preferred starting a family over having a career, you were seen as some kind of throwback to the 1950s.
In retrospect, I understand why my desire to have a family–preferably a large one–was so strong. I never felt like my family was a “real” family. Because of the toxic family dynamics that made me feel like an outsider in my own home, I had a strong desire to “make up” for what I perceived to be a non-family, and create the kind of ideal family I wanted to be a part of so badly. But it doesn’t work that way. Having kids won’t cure a toxic, abusive, lonely childhood. The number of children you have doesn’t matter; what matters is how able you are as a parent.
Adult children of narcissists seem to come in two flavors: those who never want to have children at all because they don’t want to foist their own issues onto any potential offspring; and those who, like me, want to “make up” for what they didn’t have, who want a childhood “re-do.”
I never had those four children. I didn’t even marry that young. I married at age 27, and didn’t have children until I was in my early 30’s, and then I only wound up having two. In 1999, I became pregnant for a third time, but had an abortion because my then-husband’s abuse was at its peak and we were struggling badly financially too. There was no way he would have accepted another child and I knew in my bones this third child would wind up being abused far worse than either of the previous two were, so abortion was the only choice I felt I had. Sometimes I wonder what that child would have been like and I sometimes have regrets, but I still think I made the right choice. There really wasn’t another choice under the circumstances.
I remember the day I went in to have the abortion, I asked the nurse to show me the ultrasound (I was right at the end of the first trimester–12 weeks–so it was almost too late to end the pregnancy). She said, “are you sure?” I said yes, that seeing it and knowing the sex would bring closure. She turned the screen around toward me. It was a boy. I stared at the image for a few minutes and cried a little. The nurse was very kind and empathetic. She said, “are you sure you still want to go through with it?” I wiped my eyes and said, “yes.”
Although my religion opposes abortion I don’t regret my decision, even though I sometimes think about what that little boy might have been like. I know he would have been abused by his father. I also was pretty mentally ill myself at the time (I had just been hospitalized twice not too long before that pregnancy). I highly doubt I could have coped with a new baby, with no support from anyone, not even my husband. It was hard enough for me with the first two. I think that poor baby would have had a miserable childhood.
Over the years, I realized something surprising about myself. I really don’t care all that much for children. Of course I loved my own two kids dearly and would have done anything (and would still do anything) for them, but I wasn’t a very patient mother and I found I really didn’t enjoy too many of the tasks associated with motherhood. I was disappointed to discover how mind-numbingly dull and frustrating much of parenting can be. It can also be extremely triggering for someone who came from an abusive background, but I had no awareness of this.
I realized too late that I’d idealized parenthood, seeing it as if it was a Vaseline-lens commercial, not the sometimes ugly and painful reality it actually is. Maybe if I’d had younger siblings to tend to, I might have had a more realistic view of what motherhood actually entailed, but as I did not, I entered adulthood with a romantic, idealized picture of perfect motherhood and the perfect mother I would become–when in reality, I never had the right emotional tools to be that ideal mother. I do care about children in a general way; I hate hearing about children being abused or neglected and I want what’s best for them, but when it comes to dealing with babies and young children on a personal level, well, I’d rather not.
If I had to do it over again, yes, I’d still choose to have my kids. They’re the best thing that ever happened to me, even though raising them was much more difficult than I’d anticipated. I’d try to be a better mother to them and a lot more patient with them. I’d also set better boundaries. I would have taken them away from their father when they were much younger, instead of remaining in a doomed, toxic, abusive relationship that only proved to be as detrimental to them as to me. I would have made different choices in other ways too. I wouldn’t have allowed my 11 year old daughter to live with her father just so she wouldn’t hate me. I would have been strong enough to say, “Hate me all you want, but you will not live with your father.” I’d also go into parenthood knowing that it would be a job and not a Pampers commercial all the time.
When I was in my twenties, I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to have children. To me, it seemed like the most important and exciting thing anyone could do. I remember a friend told me she was thinking of having her tubes tied (she was 24 at the time). I was horrified and begged her not to do it. She didn’t (but not because of anything I said) and several years later had a daughter. Today I don’t think I would have told her not to do it though. I can certainly understand why some people choose to remain child-free. Parenthood is a hard job and it’s definitely not for everyone. Some people just aren’t cut out to be parents and there’s nothing selfish about making the choice not to be a parent. It’s a lot more selfish, in my opinion, to bring a child into the world for selfish, narcissistic reasons. I also get tired of all the baby-worshipping I see on Facebook and everywhere else. Frankly, I’d rather look at pictures of people’s pets than people’s babies. I really don’t know why that is, but I know a lot of people feel the same way. Babies just aren’t that appealing to me anymore. A lot of my peers are becoming grandparents but I have no particular desire for grandchildren. Of course if I have grandchildren, I know I’ll adore them, but the idea of having them isn’t something I care about one way or another.
When I was young, I think I liked the idea of having children more than the reality of it. I was trying to make up for something I lacked in my childhood. That’s never a good reason to have kids. Liking children and enjoying their company is really the only good reason to have them. Any other reasons–extending the family line, appeasing the relatives, duty, pressure from a spouse, wanting a mini-me, wanting a childhood do-over, wanting someone to care for you when you’re old–none of those are good reasons to have children. But I wonder how many of us actually had our children for the “right” reasons. Most of us probably didn’t, and still did the best job we could because we fell in love with our kids when we met them and wanted the best for them, in spite of everything.