‘What is the point of having kids if your life ends when theirs begins?’

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 22, 2011

It sounds awful, parenting.

Besides those hateful shelf elves, there is Barney and endless holiday concerts of squawking clarinets and painful parent-teacher conferences and potty training and driver’s permits and orthodontist bills and bath salts that get your tween high and the recession that won’t end and a bazillion other reasons not to have kids.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

That much I made clear to Jamel Jackson, a 28-year-old single guy from the District.

Jamel wrote to me for advice after I completely unnerved him with my column about the wretched lives of busy moms.

I described my manic nocturnal pursuits: up at 4 a.m., housekeeping, baking, doing office work, getting the kids’ stuff lined up for school. “That really spoke to me,” wrote scores of moms who read the column, in which I admitted to gardening at 1 a.m.

That kind of crazed, overcommitted life, Jamel wrote, “scares the hell out of me.”

Ha! He should’ve heard the reader who recounted her midnight home-improvement projects, frightening her neighbors by “emerging from the darkness covered in Quikrete. Yep, out pouring a concrete slab for the deck I’m building. At midnight. On a weekday.”

None of this amuses Jamel, a communications manager at a trade association in Arlington who wrote that “the thought of having kids scares me to death. Children are expensive, needy, and time consuming. . . . What is the point of having kids if your life ends when theirs begins?”

A really good question, Jamel. And you aren’t the first one to pose it to a columnist. Back in 1975, a young couple on the fence about parenthood wrote to Ann Landers for advice about whether to have kids. So Ann asked her readers: “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” Thousands responded, and the results were stunning: 70 percent were broken, bitter parents who said, “No way.”

That’s the stuff that haunts Jamel. So I thought I’d talk to some men who have already taken the parenthood plunge. What would their advice be?

I found Phil Saputo, 55, of Alexandria in the toy aisle of Target late one night this week as he was trying to get his Christmas shopping done. He wore expensive-looking shoes and nice work clothes. No outward signs of a haggard parent. He was, however, confused by the overwhelming selection of Lego sets. He had to choose one for his 7-year-old grandson and wasn’t finding it easy.

I suggested the Ninjago series or anything “Star Wars” and asked him to give advice to a 28-year-old guy unsure about parenthood.

“Other than the pain and suffering,” he said, with that remembering-the-teen-years wince, “I have no regrets.”

His kids are 25 and 29 now, and he’s in “the reward phase,” enjoying grandchildren.

Over and over again, I ran into dads like him who told Jamel, “Do it!”

“It’s not the end of life,” a father of a 6-year-old girl told me. “It’s just the start of a different life.”

Of course, it could be that the glow of the holidays fuzzes away the downside of being a parent. Or it could be that fathers who head financially stable families are far less likely to voice regrets.

So I headed to a place where I knew I’d find fathers struggling with unemployment, unpaid bills and bad decisions: the shelter for D.C.’s homeless families.

Outside in the cold rain was Juan Jordan, 45, pushing a stroller back and forth, trying to soothe his fussy 8-month-old daughter, Kai.

Jordan, 45, lost his job as a building engineer and can’t begin a new one until he can get a child-care voucher for Kai. Her mother has disappeared, and he’s the primary caregiver — one of only two single dads at the shelter. Before the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless fought to get him a bed at the shelter, he and Kai spent two months sleeping on friends’ couches, on the street or in abandoned cars.

I tried to imagine Kai sleeping on the street, in her pink knit cap, with her huge eyes and fat cheeks. Her pacifier fell when she opened her mouth wide to smile, and she kicked her feet in that joyous, baby glee.

I looked at her father. “Any regrets?” I asked him. “If you had to do it all over again, would you not have had her?”

“Nah. What else would I be doing that means anything?” Jordan replied. “You just change your priorities. And now, she’s my priority.”

I got the same story from James McClain, the other single dad at the shelter. He has sole custody of his 6-year-old boy. “Before him, I knew nothing but the street,” McClain said.

Parenthood was transformative for these dads. While it may be crushing day to day, their kids give these men a compass, a purpose.

I don’t think Jamel needs that. He just needs more certainty about what his life might look like five years from now. He told me that he has a girlfriend he’ll “probably” marry but that he already has cold feet. “My trepidation has nothing to do with her,” he said. “It has everything to do with the subject matter of your column.”

So I think Jamel needs to hear from all of you.

Are the incredible rewards of children — those moments of total love that sweep over you in that endless existence of exhaustion and frustration — worth the obliteration of your old life?

Tell us, readers: Amid all the wrapping paper, tears, dreidel fights, hot chocolate spills, pouts and 5 a.m. wake-up calls, would you do it all over again?

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