The Washington Post

A single word is all that one parent sent: “No.”

On the other end of the spectrum, I got some variation of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” from dozens of others.

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

Last week, on behalf of ­a ­28­-year-old single guy apprehensive about the demands of fatherhood, I asked parents to tell me whether they would still have kids if they could do it all over again.

I heard from hundreds of people. Some sent twinkly odes to sleeping babies, while others slapped their teens’ drug addiction and probation officer visits on the table.

There were single dads, grandparents raising kids, moms who had their children when they were teens, one mother who left an abortion clinic in a last-minute change of heart 26 years ago, a man who adopted a baby girl only to become a single dad when his wife died suddenly, and one parent who said a cat would have been a better choice than any child.

So many amazing stories came in response to Jamel Jackson’s anxious e-mail to me. Jamel, who lives in the District, has a great job, a serious girlfriend and is “scared to death” of parenting after reading my column about the extreme schedules some parents have. He isn’t sure he’d ever want to have kids.

I asked for your advice about what to tell him and received many poignant, eloquent responses.

“My wife and I have three young children, and when our friends and relatives talk about starting a family, we always tell them, ‘Kids are like an amplifier,’ ” said Russell Mullen, a Leesburg dad who wouldn’t change a thing. “They make the good times better and the bad times worse.”

A Fairfax mom, whose kids are grown, said she wants to give Jamel the same advice she gives to her kids on the topic: “Sow a few oats . . . travel a bit, have a chance to discover who you are. Then when children come and take over your entire life, it is a change you will savor.”

No, it is not easy having those needy, little people.

“Parenthood is a gift not offered to everyone. Accepting this gift means giving of yourself — more than you can imagine — and getting back even more,” said a father of two boys, now in their 30s.

Another dad could relate to Jamel’s hesitation. “Oh, how I lusted after a 1979 Buick Riviera that wasn’t financially feasible,” he remembered. “Guess what? I don’t want it anymore.”

Lynne Cuppernull, a working mom from Herndon who still manages to do triathlons, said having kids is “sometimes like a tsunami and sometimes like riding the perfect wave all the way in to the shore.

“I was always on the fence about having children. I was convinced in my 20s that children were not for me,” Cuppernull said. “But in my early 30s, I realized the moment of absolute certainty about having children would never arrive. So we held our breath and jumped in.”

There is no ringing moment of clarity, Jamel. Angels don’t sing; the heavens don’t open up to tell you: “Multiply.”

“We had our fabulous city life for close to 10 years and really enjoyed every minute,” wrote Elizabeth Tencza of Alexandria. “When we got to the point where more nights were spent watching ‘Law & Order’ reruns than doing fabulous city things, we reevaluated and had some kids,” she said. “And it’s great! I couldn’t imagine my life without them now.”

Even parents who had serious tribulations said they don’t look back.

A dad who adopted a baby girl last fall, then watched his wife die suddenly, said he’d do it all over again. “There’s no way I ever thought I could raise a child — a girl! — on my own, but I’m doing it,” he wrote. “So would I adopt a baby again, even knowing that I’d be a single dad? Absolutely.”

Most of the responses were like that.

A few were like this: “If you really for some reason want to give and give and give and not be listened to, appreciated or respected: get a cat.

“You will not need to worry about drugs or alcohol. You can spay/neuter it and not worry about illegitimate pregnancies. You will not need to pay 5 years of college tuition while it ‘finds itself,’ nor will you have to pony up for a wedding that you may still be paying for when the marriage dissolves and the kid boomerangs back to your doorstep with a bundle of joy in tow for you to support.”

This response is more like the folks who wrote to advice columnist Ann Landers back in 1975. She’d gotten a letter from a young couple unsure about having kids, and she asked her readers whether they would have kids if they had it to do over again. She received thousands of letters and about 70 percent of the readers said no.

A lot has changed in 36 years. Parents, though overextended and exhausted while they juggle career and home, are happier. In the 2011 version of this survey, scores of e-mails I received and a couple hundred responses online gave me about a 90 percent positive response.

This could be because there are fewer parents. Only 43 percent of Gen X women have kids. Careers, birth control and changing social structures means people have more choices. They don’t have to go the marriage/house/car/dog/2.5 kids route.

Take the 40-year-old man who wrote to me telling me all about his great life without kids. He travels to the Greek islands and has journeyed to an Everest base camp.

“My quality of life is through the roof, and I really don’t mean to toot my own horn, but someone must speak for the other choice,” he said.

He had one more bit of advice for Jamel.

“But do you really want to know the biggest secret? The deep down in my gut secret that I’ll never tell anyone else? I could still have children if I so chose to do so. Jamel needs to understand that this crossroads he is at is an illusion of life, and he may revisit it anytime over the next 15 or so years. Life’s brilliance is in its unscripted nature.”


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