I Need My Kids

Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter in "Raising Arizona".

Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter in “Raising Arizona”.

Last month, my friend Betsy VanDenBerghe wrote a piece for Real Clear Religion inspired alternately by Pope Francis and the Coen brothers’ 1987 comedy Raising Arizona about Why Children Are Better Than Pets. Her central question was:

What would a society of adults skewed toward childlessness, like the perpetually barren Time magazine beach couple, look and act like without having acquired the altruism, personal growth, and wisdom that bringing up children generally bequeaths on those who undergo parenthood?

Her piece really resonated with me.

My life has not gone at all as planned over the last several years. Without going into any gory details, I started a new job in 2008 and the training materials bragged about inventing the mortgage backed security. A couple of months later the housing bubble burst, and a couple of months later I was part of company-wide layoffs. In the years since then, I’ve worked hard, helped to launch and run a startup, earned a second master’s degree, lost a house and become a renter again, and at the end of all of it I’m not quite back to where I was before it all started. Except for the debt, I’ve collected lots of that.

It’s been one long comedy of confounded expectations, and an altogether unpleasant experience. During this time, two things have kept me going. First, I realize that bad times always feel worse when you’re going through them then they do once you come out the other side. It reminds me of the last time I caught one of those really awful but really fast-moving stomach bugs. It was a few months ago, and I’d helped my kids through it before I got hit, so I knew what was coming. I prepared by making a nest for myself on the sofa downstairs (to not bother my wife) and even lining up a couple of brainless action movies to distract myself. It would be bad, but it would be over quickly.

These preparations were in one sense basically useless. I barely made it through one movie on the couch before I was too sick to leave the bathroom. While I lay curled on the floor in there, my experiential world telescoped down on the bare, physical misery until there was room for nothing else. Some part of me knew that by morning the whole ordeal would seem like just a bad dream, but most of me found “the morning” to be a hopelessly irrelevant abstraction. Time itself seemed to have lost all meaning.

And then morning came and even though I tried to hold onto the euphoric gratitude of feeling well again, within a few hours the hedonic treadmill had done its work. Physical health was once again just the baseline.

In terms of making the ordeal more pleasant: knowing it would be over was meager comfort. But the knowledge was useful in another way because I had a plan and—when I was too sick to trust my decision making—I stuck to it. Stakes are pretty low when you’re trapped in your bathroom, so the plan (mostly: don’t wake the kids or the wife) didn’t matter much. Stakes are a little higher when you’re wallowing through a tough time in your life, but the principle is the same. Perspective won’t make it hurt less, but it can help you grit your teeth and stick it out without making too many decisions you’ll later regret.

The second thing that has helped is the practice of counting your blessings. Here, I’m reminded of research from a book called Redirect I read last year. In one study, people were asked to write about how they first met their spouse or about how they might not have met their spouse. Those who recounted the stories of meeting their spouse didn’t experience any change, but those who wrote about how it might not have been felt much happier and more grateful for their relationship. Sometimes you have to imagine how things could have gone wrong to appreciate what you have. Instead of waiting until you lose something to value it, you run a mental simulation of the loss and get a lot of the same reactions. Except, of course, that when you’re done imagining the loss you get to come back to a reality where you still have the thing you imagined losing. Have your cake. Eat it, too.

And the reality is that my life is, for the most part, really good. My family is free of debilitating illness, we live in a nice neighborhood with great neighbors and a great school, I have a job, and I can imagine things getting better one day soon. I have plenty to be grateful for, as long as I put some sincere effort into gratitude.

But there is one danger that I have faced as I go through my own little series of unfortunate events. The one loss that I believe would be nearly indelible would be missing out on my kids’ lives because I was working too hard to pay attention, to be involved, and to give them my energy and passion. And, until just a few weeks before reading VanDenBerghe’s piece, that’s exactly what I felt like I was doing.

Lemon Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is not my life story, but there are days when it feels like it is.

Lemon Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is not my life story, but there are days when it feels like it is.

My wife and I both work pretty much around the clock. Chores don’t get done, meals don’t get made, family activities don’t happen, and the kids are sometimes a little more free range than optimal. We’ve been in a kind of survival mode for years.

But I decided nothing is worth missing out on these years. I started quitting work when my kids got home and forcing them to play soccer with me outside. I also gave in to their constant demands to tell them a story every night, and thus began the epic tale of Jesz and Kai. (They have defeated Blue Wing and Red Belly, but ten of the Dragon Master’s twelve dragons remain, so the kingdom is a long way from being freed.)

Our family situation has not gotten measurably better since then. In many ways, we’re worse off than ever. But the bitterness and resentment that I had felt growing are basically gone. My kids are saving me.

And this brings me back to VanDenBerghe’s article. Kids make everything harder. But they also make everything worth it.

It’s not a miraculous, one-time turn around. I have a good parenting success, feel like a pro, and then start to cut corners and have what I refer to as “not an A+ parenting day.” There’s no happily ever after. There’s just this insight that the medicine of love and service works for only as long as you keep taking it. If I stop, the darkness swoops in again. But if I attend to the two little flickering candles of childhood in my life, I can keep the shadows at bay. I need my kids as profoundly as they need me, but in different ways. They need to be loved, taught, and protected. I need to love, teach, protect, and sacrifice.

32 comments for “I Need My Kids

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s an interesting look back at how it was to have young children. Good for you, making the conscious decision to be involved in their lives.

  2. Thanks for this. Was just telling my wife (after our oldest had a particularly bad time in a Primary presentation), “You know, my joy in parenting is not in the sense of continuing my lineage or ticking off some kind of checklist. We’ve brought two awesome people into existence and even if they have an off day, they’e still awesome people and they make this world a better place.” They definitely get me through the worst of it.

  3. This was great. I can’t think of another post in the last year that I more closely identified with. Thank you Nathaniel.

    On a personal note, I too have found a drastic increase in happiness as I’ve taken things out of my life that conflicted with being the type of father I want to be. For me, I take no real joy in providing or presiding, and frankly not that much in protecting. I do those things because they need to be done. But my real joy comes in nurturing.

    About a year ago I was reaching a tipping point and came to the prayerful conclusion that church was hurting my family more than helping. I spoke with my stake president about how best to transition out of my calling (bishop) and I stopped killing myself by trying to attend the temple every month (5 hour round trip). I am still quite active, I have a manageable calling, and I use my temple recommend frequently. But for the first time in years I am really putting my kids FIRST and I can say that I am proud of my efforts as their father.

  4. This takes my breath away. My story is so similar. It’s been very difficult letting go of what what my husband and I had planned for our family. We’re in a better place financially than we were last year, but still not close to where we were several years ago. Thank you for sharing your struggles and insights. I draw much strength and comfort from your story.

  5. Nathaniel, this piece was poignant for me for two reasons-

    1. I’m in a place right now where I can’t buy shoes and milk for the kids and still see them for dinner/bedtime and its really starting to get to me.

    2. Elder Nelson came around our region recently with an interesting message – basically, children don’t need their fathers around that often, so we ought to accept long church hours in addition to our other jobs. Still trying to make sense of that one.

  6. So, we just had the primary program a couple weeks ago, and the kids basically screamed the chorus: “God gave us families, to help us become who he wants us to be.” A week later in testimony meeting one of the primary teachers mentioned that line again, and I was struck by something:

    Often we talk about how adults should be raising their kids in righteousness, the families are teaching the kids to become who God would like. And the line in the song always seemed to be a reflection of that. But last week in testimony meeting, I realized (again) that I’m a better person *because* of my kids. Meaning, it’s my kids who are helping me become who God wants.

    When you think about how God is a father to this entire crazy, dysfunctional population, and how our goal is to become like Him, you realize that every. single. virtue you learn as a father (patience, gentleness, forgiveness, meekness) is just one more step along the path towards exaltation. And I wouldn’t learn half this stuff half so thoroughly without my kids.

  7. Nathaniel,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post. These few paragraphs have very much captured my experience over the last few years as well. Thank you. And, hopefully something comes of the Dragon Master series.

    Dave K (#5): I always appreciate your comments on these threads. Thanks.

    Let me see if I can add something of worth to the discussion …

    Raising children has enabled me to nearly abandon societal expectations, in a good way. After a child screams, “There’s poop on my swimming towel” in a lobby full of parents, you realize that everyone else is in the same boat.

    Raising children has brought me out into nature with a new perspective. Everything is new and interesting to my children. It’s been a wonderful blessing to feel that again myself.

    My wife and I have been blessed with great flexibility in how we balance the nurturer/provider needs of our family. Loosening the gender roles and expectations a wee bit has really benefitted our relationship and our children, as I see it.

  8. Nathaniel,

    Thanks, as always for your insights and the interesting and engaging peek into your life. I respect and admire all those who choose to become parents and I appreciate the sacrifices it takes to consciously, on a daily basis, put great effort into raising good, well-adjusted and capable children.

    However, I’m also a bit leery about the rhetoric of the article and the assumptions behind it. Claiming that being a parent somehow, just because you’re a member of that club, makes you into a more altruistic and empathetic human being is, IMHO, a claim of staggering arrogance. Choosing to have children is one thing, but shaming or denigrating those who either choose not to or who cannot have children is simply incomprehensible in the context of Christian love and charity. Parenthood is not the only, or even the chief way to grow into a more empathetic, less narcissistic (are all childless people narcissists?) human being.

  9. Whoa JohnnyS. You must be reading a different post than I am. I can’t see anywhere in this post where Nathaniel has denigrated non-parents or suggested that love and charity can only be developed through parenthood. His post is a very personal view of how *he* has become more empathetic through his children. It’s not a reflection on others (parents or non-parents) at all.

  10. “shaming or denigrating those who either choose not to or who cannot have children” JohnnyS, I don’t know your situation, but as someone who just had his wedding 15th anniversary without having had children (and not by choice), I neither felt shamed nor denigrated.

  11. Ben S. and Dave K. Fair enough to your comments and apologies to Nathaniel for my overreaction. Having worked with childless singles and couples who both remain childless by choice and not by choice, I might be hypersensitive to some of this. I’ll quit the internet today and come back tomorrow.

  12. @14 I think Johnny S is indeed reading a different post. This post (by Nathaniel Givens) is fine. The problematic shaming occurs in the linked article (by Betsy VanDenBerghe) as stated @13.

    If you don’t see it, read it again. She repeatedly suggests that childless adults are narcissistic and selfish and that they don’t develop altruism, empathy, and humility. If you’re happy with your decision to have children (as I am, for example), it’s not necessary to frame it in terms of the inferiority of those whose experiences are different.

  13. “The second thing that has helped is the practice of counting your blessings.”

    Very good practice.

    Being involved with your kids enough to see how their experience of the world differs from your own is a something to look forward to also. Our kids were nearly grown before we realized we were “fighting the last war” in some ways with our time with our kids.

  14. The first time I tried to reply, the Internet ate my comment, so let me give this one more shot…

    chanson wrote:

    [Besty] repeatedly suggests that childless adults are narcissistic and selfish and that they don’t develop altruism, empathy, and humility.

    I realize that by focusing specifically on my own experiences, I dodged this issue, but I want to stick up for Betsy’s article anyway because I think you’re misreading here. It’s an understandable misreading, but it’s an important one to work out.

    First of all, Betsy took several opportunities to disavow the notion that having kids is the only route to altruism, empathy, and humility, including (among others) a reference to Mother Theresa: both a paragon of those virtues and someone who was childless by choice.

    I can still see where you’re getting the implication, however, and that’s because Betsy does believe that in aggregate, having more and more people opt out of the experience of having children will lead to a society that is in general less altruistic, less empathic, and less humble. I think she’s right. And I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to hold that position without judging individual couples who remain childless (by choice or not, it’s not like a stranger would have access to that information anyway).

    After all, Betsy also argued that parents of special needs children are particularly likely to develop altruism, empathy, and humility. I think this is true. I don’t think that it follows from this that we ought to condemn parents who don’t intentionally expose their children to lead in order to create developmental problems. Betsy never says this, but the basic logic would also suppose that more kids may also lead to more virtue than fewer kids. I think this is true, even though my wife I only have two. I don’t think it follows from this that anyone who isn’t using IVF to have multiple setts of triplets or quadruplets is therefore narcissistic and selfish.

    Look, we have a command to not run faster than we can. What that means is going to be different for every coupe. We also have a command to judge not. There’s no reason Betsy can’t make her case for kids in general and still acknowledge (as she does) that the general rule doesn’t apply universally and that we have an obligation to refrain from judging.

    That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is to observe that parenting makes us better (when and if it does, it’s not automatic) as a particular case of the sense in which all trials make us better (when and if they do, it’s not automatic). But an appreciation for the sense in which trials are an important part of our experience doesn’t mean that we should become masochistic, voluntary martyrs. One can appreciate the important role trials play in our moral development without adopting self-flagellation.

    It is a bit paradoxical–which is why I don’t blame anyone for being sensitive to the issue–but I don’t think that parenting is at all an exception in this regard. All things can work to our good, but that doesn’t imply we should hurt ourselves, hurt others, or that we should judge anyone who doesn’t self-inflict the trials that we happen to face in our own lives.

  15. In a slight defense of JohnnyS, Nathaniel did say, “Kids make everything harder. But they also make everything worth it.” This does then raise the question of whether a life without children is really “worth” much at all. It is not a direct insult to the childless, but it is a common kind of phrasing that could lead those without children to think that they are somehow “worth” less than others, or at least that their life experiences are worth less because they don’t have children who “make everything worth it”.

  16. Let me put it one more way: for the single person, what is it that “make[s] everything worth it”?

  17. I read that not as “kids make life worthwhile,” but “kids make the ‘everything harder’ parts of having kids worth it.” Different claim: they’re worth the extra effort.

  18. But I still think that may mean a few different things:

    (1) The cost-benefit analysis of having kids is about even
    (2) The cost-benefit analysis of having kids results in a net gain in relation to the extra effort

    If (1), then one has no basis for saying having kids is generally better or worse than not having kids, so claims that “my life would be meaningless without my kids” (a refrain I’ve heard often) have no real basis. If (2), then one can say that the single person’s life is “worth” less than the one with kids (again, speaking in generalities, since there are obvious examples of parents who resent both their kids and the effort of raising them). For those who are single in the Church (for whatever reason), that difference is immense and has direct implications on their felt sense of worth. Most statements about how children are a “blessing” to their parents strongly imply (if not outright state) (2), often saying that the net gain is *infintely* more than the extra effort, so that the single person without children in their lives is *infinitely* impoverished.

    I might be splitting at hairs in relation to Nathaniel’s actual words above (I’m not claiming he is making a hard case for (2)), I do think the words we use when we talk about this have cogent everyday effects.

  19. KevinW,

    This post is a personal essay about how one individual finds spiritual meaning and purpose in raising children. Many parents have found similar meaning, so we posted comments.

    Next week Nathaniel may write a post entitled, “You Too Should Need Kids So You’re Not So Damn Selfish.” Then you can post about the wide variety of life’s experiences that have nothing to do with child rearing, that are nonetheless beautiful and meaningful. Until then, …

  20. Josh Smith: but *how* one talks about the “spiritual meaning and purpose of raising children” has implications for others who do not share it. The very use of “need” implies a necessary lack in those without: it has an exclusive necessity that cannot be negated without cogent consequences. Word choice has consequences and I’m worried about how this particular word choice (repeated over and over again by well-meaning members) might affect those singles in the Church who already feel like they are insufficient because of their single status. I think Nathaniel’s comment above helps with that, but I still worry…it may be inspiring to those of you who “have found similar meaning”, but to silence someone who questions it because they do not share that meaning is somewhat callous.

  21. KevinW: You’re right. And, you’re thoughtful.

    Here’s the legal issue I have to work on after lunch:

    Woman: I need you to pay for the kids.

    Man: I’ll pay for OUR kids, but I won’t pay for YOUR kids with him, and I certainly won’t pay for HIS kids with her.

    Judge: For the love of Odin, forced sterilization may be society’s only hope at survival.


    I guess I’m just thinking, “thank God for righteous parents.” Again, I’m sure your comments are thoughtful and needed.

  22. Just a thought…maybe it wasn’t written for those who don’t share that worldview.

    We oughtn’t water down our feelings about how we have been blessed in order to spare those who haven’t been, or don’t want to be.

    Is it not callous to try to silence someone rejoicing just because you don’t rejoice the same way?

  23. I’m not trying to silence Nathaniel: I told neither him nor Josh Smith to only comment when certain conditions were met (“Then you can post about…”). I’m trying to place his comments in a wider context. You may feel like your life has been greatly blessed by children inordinately proportional to the extra difficulties they have created in your life. That is fine and legitimate; I’m not questioning that. But how you frame that comment might have other implications for those within your own faith community (who share your “worldview”) who have not. It might further reinforce the feelings of worthlessness, of a lack of valiance, of people not “fullfilling the measure of their creation”, and so do not “measure” up because they do not fit into the powerful social norm expected of them as “good Mormons”. I’m not at all talking about people outside the Church, but how these kinds of topics, *if approached and worded in a careless way* (please notice that caveat, and I wouldn’t say Nathaniel failed in this regard, especially with his clarifying comment above), can harm those who already feel marginalized.

    Perhaps you feel that having children actually does make your life richer than any single person’s life could be, more meaningful, more joyful. But if that’s the case, then say it, but don’t be surprised when it hurts others either. And if you don’t think that, then find words and colloquial phrases that don’t diminish those that do not share in your experience while also being true to your own experience.

    Yes, not the direct topic of this post, but certainly relevant.

  24. BYUTV has a nicely done program on the coming “demographic winter”, that the low birth rates of current generations mean that world population will start to drop swiftly by 2065. It has already created millions of men in China who have no prospect of a wife and a normal family life, the kind of life in which humans are most sane.

    I am constantly amazed by the contradiction in the views of secular humanists, who insist on the one hand that humans were “invented” by nature and the process of random mutation and natural selection, so that not only our physical characteristics but also our behaviors are the result of natural processes important to our survival as a species. On the other hand, they think they can abandon the model of human life that came out the winner in the evolutionary competition, and it won’t affect our survival as a species and our contentment in our own roles. If you are a secular humanist, shouldn’t you have more respect for the accumulated “wisdom” of nature in creating humans through families? After all, we go to great lengths to populate ecosystems with “natural” species of predator and prey so they can behave in the way that nature found, through trial and error, to be optimal. How do we get the idea that we can disgregard the natural way for humans to live, without disrupting our lives and our ecosystems?

  25. Raymond,

    (Disclaimer: I’m typing with my opposable thumbs. This may come off a bit jumpy.)

    This is a fun discussion. I’m interested in understanding your point.

    Let me see if I understand the apparent contradiction?

    Secular humanist: humans are primates. We are hard wired to behave as we do.

    Raymond: I don’t know if I agree with that, but if I did, that would mean that we’re hard wired to live in family units because primates evolved to best survive in family units, no?

    Secular humanist: No. We should abandon the family unit.

    I’m sure I’m missing something, but I genuinely want to understand your point.

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