Why I'm not letting tragedies stop me from having kids

May 16 | Guest post by Ashley Lauren
Photo by Catherine Abegg
Photo by Catherine Abegg

I drove home in a daze, both listening and not listening to NPR, wondering how anyone could be talking about anything other than the bombings at the Boston Marathon. I knew they had no new information to report just a few short hours after the explosions happened, but I just wanted to hear all of the old information over and over again. There is comfort in repetition.

When I finally got home, my husband, Tim, was in his recliner, petting the dogs and watching ESPN. Surprisingly, they had some of the better coverage in the early hours of this tragedy, probably because they were already there covering the marathon.

I didn't say anything. I just stood there, next to his chair, and watched. He put an arm around my legs and I flopped on the armrest.

I'm never having children, I thought. How can someone bring a child into this world? This world where, just a few months ago, someone walked into a grade school with no reason to be there — no connection to the school or anyone working or attending there — and brutally murdered first graders and school staff. This world where planes crash into skyscrapers and they fall to the ground. This world where someone walks into a movie theater and shoots people just for the fun of it. This world where someone shoots people worshiping in a temple because he mistook Sikhs for Muslims; this world where someone would want to shoot Muslims because they are Muslim.

My thoughts turned to my friend at work who had given birth that day, and her baby who would always share a birthday with this tragedy. I thought of my other friend who is planning on welcoming twins into this world in October and taking the rest of the school year off to be with them. I thought of my childhood best friend whose daughter is almost a year old. And I thought, I am so lucky to not have children. Granted, their children are all too young to understand these heinous events, but they will grow older, and if this year is any indication, the world will only get worse. How do you deal with questions from a young child about why and what happened when these tragedies inevitably take place? I wasn't even sure what I would tell my high school students in class the next day.

They say the eight-year-old boy who died in Boston that day was waiting for his dad to cross the finish line. They say his mother and sister were critically injured, as well. This could have been us. My husband, a marathon runner, has always wanted to run the Boston Marathon. We could have been there, and being in our late 20's, we could have easily had a couple of kids in tow. We could have been cheering Dad on. And all I could think of was that I was so glad we weren't.

My gratitude toward living without children is not a new thing; I never wanted kids. I remember being five years old and playing at a friend's house. I looked up from the baby doll I was playing with to my mom and said, "I don't think I want to have kids." She responded, "You don't have to, sweetie," and it was decided; I was going to remain child-free for the rest of my life.

Tim, luckily, felt the same way, and we started planning trips and thinking about our life with just the two of us. We adopted two dogs thinking they would be the only babies we would take on. We went to California on a whim – twice. We even went to Boston last summer. Basking in the summer glow while eating the best seafood in the world on restaurant patios, I fell in love with the city. Stopping in every bar we thought looked interesting and trying all of Boston's famous beers, I fell in love with our life — we didn't have kids and we could do whatever we wanted.

When we got home to the house we had just bought only a month before, things started to change. The doors to two of our four bedrooms remained constantly closed because we didn't know what to do with them. We finally turned one into a guest room, but the other — the one between our bedroom and my office — remained empty. I don't remember who first started it, but we started calling that room "the void in our lives."

We filled the time — and the "void" — with dinner parties and date nights, books and dog walks, but something was different. Somewhere, it had been decided that we were going to have children, and probably soon.

But that Monday, looking at graphic pictures of lost limbs strewn about streets we had just walked not even a year before, knowing that this could have been any marathon anywhere — it could have been Tim ––and hearing about yet another child dying senselessly, I changed my mind. Better not to open yourself up to that kind of heartbreak at all. I might have started to think that raising a child well could be the ultimate good deed for the world, but how can anyone go on doing good in a world that is so disgustingly bad?

My answer came in the unlikely form of a former student, who had written me that evening in response to a Facebook status of his I commented on, telling him his tolerance in spite of tragedy made me proud. He wrote to me and told me that it was my teaching that allowed him to be as tolerant as he was, and it was my teaching that gave him a strong sense of right and wrong. And it occurred to me: We go on doing good in the face of horrible tragedy because we must. We raise children who do good things for the world — whether those children are our own or our students — because, if we don't, we risk facing an even worse world.

It wasn't the Boston Marathon bombings that had me thinking I didn't want kids; it wasn't even the sum of all the national tragedies I've experienced from Columbine to now. It was a deep fear that opening yourself up to a love like that can only lead to heartbreak. It's the same fear that had me convinced I'd never get married when I was in college, and that fear made me tell my now husband that I would never marry him or anyone when we first started dating. It's the same fear that made me want to run from the permanence of home-buying and rent apartments in the city for the rest of my life.

The politicians and essayists keep saying that we can't let the fear win, and they are right. My life doesn't look anything like I thought it would when I was younger, but that's because it was one born out of fear, not desire. Letting that fear go can be a very cathartic experience. It sounds cliché, but there can be no greatness without taking a few risks.

Tim and I probably won't have a baby any time soon, but we will, and when we do, I'll still be scared out of my mind, probably for the rest of my life. However, I'll love my family more than I can even imagine, and we will raise a fantastic child. We will teach our child to grow up and do well, but more importantly, grow up and do good.

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  1. I got pregnant in August 2002, just as war was starting, just as the US was marking the anniversary of 9/11. I felt the same thing. How can I have a baby in this world? How can I justify this decision? I read an editorial that I actually clipped and put in my daughter's baby book that said something like every baby born is a vote for hope. Choosing to have or raise a child is a way of saying, "The world should go on." Even though I sometimes think the world would be better off going on without us humans, I think of that vote for hope every time I look at my beautiful girl. She's going to make this world a better place. I really believe that.

    13 agree
  2. Thank you. I live in Boston (moved back from Chicago, another great city, a few years ago). This was luckily the first time I have been in a city affected by tragedy.

    Unlike you, I have always known I wanted to have kids. Tragedies like this make me pause and question that. How could I bring a child into this world? Will I be able to stand not seeing my children all day and trust they are okay?

    Ultimately though, I know that I will do my utmost to raise kind, empathetic, passionate people and the world needs more people like that.

    1 agrees
  3. I posted an entry on my personal blog awhile back compiling the reasons I hear that people have or do not have kids. Someone left a comment that they did not want to have kids because the world was such a rough place. I think they may have been coming from that place of fear, but I really got the sense that it was that the commenter felt the world unsuitable to raise children in.

    Honestly, the response dumbfounded me.

    No human being has ever existed in a time that was free of tragedy. No human being has had a life without struggle, heartbreak, and terrible things happening. Fortunately that does not tend to be the only defining characteristic of life, but it seems to me that any expectation that one would live in a world that was different is ignoring a fundamental truth the human experience: sometimes we suffer. We cannot avoid it.

    I feel like the inclination to deny someone's potential existence because it will require living in this messy world is misguided because the world has never been clean.

    Should we work to improve this place? Yes. Always.

    Should we mourn the terrible things that happen? Yes.

    Should this be the reason not to have kids? Well, unless our standards of parenting will not accept anything short of perfection, I don't think it is.

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    • True that. And when I think about it, I can't come up with any time in the past where it would have been "better" to have kids. Medical progress has practically eradicated a bunch of diseases that used to be a huge risk for babies and children. So many of us now have access to clean water, food from all over the world, heating/air conditioning, and technologies that let us learn all kinds of things and connect with people who are far away. We have coffee machines and roller coasters and beanbag chairs and airplanes.

      All in all, the modern world is pretty awesome.

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      • I totally agree, I think this is the best time to be alive so far and I feel made to be alive in this time. I hope everyone can feel that way about the time they are alive.

        All these tragedies are horrific, but like other posters have mentioned, it is not like prior times existed in some tragedy free zone. Some types of crime in the U.S. are at historic lows. There is plenty to get bummed out about, but this world is such a beautiful place with a lot going for it.

  4. My parnter always said he didn't want children, and one of his reasons was "This is such an awful world, people that can't even raise children properly are having too many children as it is." I phrased my wish to have children as "Well, then we can't just leave the world to the dogs. If anything, we have a RESPONSIBILITY to raise amazing children that will HELP the future of the world!". Eventually, he came around. His brother's partner just got pregnant, and I think he's now getting a bit clucky (and I'm not ready yet!).

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  5. "How can someone bring a child into this world?" This seems to be such a common sentiment, but I personally don't understand it.

    To me, the world is a wonderful place. Yes, there are awful things… but that's what makes life/the world so amazing. There's such a spectrum of natural wonders and of human experience. The mantis shrimp is so fascinating because not only is it beautiful, but an incredibly adept predator. My relationship with my partner is worth having not only because he makes me happy, but because he supports me in hard times and makes me appreciate how wonderful my life is compared to how it could be.

    Not sure whether I've explained my point of view very well (I have my daughter sitting on my lap trying to grab my laptop)… but I guess for me, tragedies etc. don't make me think the world is a terrible place. As a previous poster mentioned, the world has never been free of these things. If anything, the horrible things which happen in the world only make me appreciate the wonder and beauty of life and the universe even more.

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  6. ******This world where, just a few months ago, someone walked into a grade school with no reason to be there — no connection to the school or anyone working or attending there — and brutally murdered first graders and school staff.*****

    Actually, the guy who walked into the school and shot the kids was the SON of a school employee! (Not sure if she was a teacher or an office person) He did it with his mother's gun!

  7. Right before my daughter was born last August (possibly even the morning of the day I went into labor), I was walking my dog and saw something (I don't even remember exactly what) that made me have the thought, "This is the world we're bringing a child into?!"–but then I immediately answered myself, "But it's the only one we've got." Admittedly, it's kind of terrifying. But you're completely right; we can't let the fear decide our lives for us. And I do believe that we can help improve the world by how we teach and love our children.

    3 agree
  8. This is beautifully written. Thank you! You said in your essay that you have a lot of fear when it comes to permanance and the risk of loss. But I think sharing your story and facing your fear shows a lot of courage. Your students are lucky to have you and your kids will be too (if and when you choose to have them).

    1 agrees
  9. I found out I was pregnant during that terrible week in April when the Boston Marathon bombing and the explosion in West, Texas happened. My husband and I were full of mixed emotions, but overwhelming joy and hope dominated.

  10. "Granted, their children are all too young to understand these heinous events, but they will grow older, and if this year is any indication, the world will only get worse."

    The good news is that there is less violence now than there's ever been. Fantastic news, really.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/books/review/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
    http://www.freerangekids.com/murder-rate-down-fear-up-why/

    Now, I live on the Gulf Coast (below sea level) and the state of the environment is terrifying, but apparently things aren't as violent as we perceive.

    1 agrees
  11. I saw a GREAT Quote yesterday (at the zoo of all places) that goes a little something like this…

    "Nobody makes a greater mistake then he who did nothing because he could do only a little." Edmund Burke

    I know it's a little cliche – but – it hit me right in the face yesterday because I can completely empathize with the fear descriced in this article. I'm afraid to bring children into this world not because I don't want them (I do) but because this world is not good enough for my children. But how will it ever get better if I don't do SOMETHING?!? If I'm not willing to act, then how can I expect anyone else to act in my place?

    Maybe the best or only thing I can do is raise good kids. Maybe that's just the start. Maybe my kid will be the next great equal rights activist or maybe they will just raise their own good kids and continue that cycle.

    I'm still not sure it's right, and I'm not ready to start, but I'm with you, I won't let fear make that decision for me. My husband and I will make it together.

    1 agrees

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