My university experience, like that of so many others, was rich. I was a college athlete and editor of a campus paper. I had discovered a love for philosophy, and I was thinking seriously about going to graduate school. Life was great, an ocean of potential.
And then I got the phone call that changed everything. Only one sentence of the conversation really mattered: “I’m pregnant.”
With these two words, Jennifer turned my world upside down. I had no income, no degree, and no set future plans.
When the phone line went dead, I put on my running shoes and took off into the night. It was cold, Boston cold. And it was raining. I ran hard for eight, maybe ten, miles. My legs raced; my mind raced faster. I screamed at the sky.
Of course, you can’t run away from your problems forever, so within days I settled into stage two of my reaction. I pouted. I pouted through my new summer job, painting houses in the hot sun. The previous summer I had taken a course in creative writing; now I was on rooftop gables, taping up windows, and scraping away peeling paint. I pouted through Lamaze classes and prenatal appointments.
I even pouted through Jennifer’s early labor. At one point, I actually told her to “pull herself together.” (Future fathers, do not do this.) The nurses, luckily, were more sympathetic and were keeping a close eye on her. They watched the baby’s internal heart monitor and noticed that it was dropping rapidly. Suddenly it flatlined, and within seconds the entire room was filled with scrambling nurses and doctors. Jennifer was prepped for an emergency C-section, and I quickly put on a sterile gown to join her. The tiny little family that I had resented was in mortal danger. Jennifer was possibly dying. My unborn baby was surely dying. I was horrified.
Until that moment, I had bought into the myth that children are nothing more than a drain: a financial drain, an emotional drain, a dream-killing drain. I viewed children as little more than vampires, sucking the lifeblood out of their parents. I feared becoming one of those pale, shaky, duty-deadened adults. Only when I thought either Jennifer or my unborn child—or even both—could die did I realize how important they were and how destroyed my life would be if I lost them.
And then, suddenly, the baby’s heartbeat returned. Minutes after the knife had been poised above her abdomen, Jennifer pushed, and our daughter, Elizabeth Anne, was born.
It was the happiest day of my life. Elizabeth was perfect, gorgeous. I smiled so much that day that my cheeks were sore, and a joy surged through me that has never been equaled before or since. On that day, I learned something vitally important. Having a child is the most wonderful experience you will probably ever have. Children are not vampires. They are lovable, exasperating, insanely cute gifts. They don’t drain parents of their life force—they enhance it. What do I mean?
One of the most important gifts that Elizabeth gave to me was a radical increase in gratitude to my own parents. I wanted to thank them right away. With Jennifer stable, I carried Elizabeth out into the waiting room. I was still in scrubs—sweaty and shaking. My parents were there. I was so happy that I just sort of fell into their arms. We were all overwhelmed with joy. Only when I had a child of my own did I truly begin to appreciate all that my parents had done for me: adopting me, raising me, and helping me through the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy.
Gratitude and humility arise together. We do not feel grateful for what we are entitled to, but rather for what comes to us as a gift. Humility comes from the Latin humilis, meaning “inclined to the earth.” The humble person is a grounded person, a person who realizes he or she is not master of the universe with power to define the meaning of life. Humility is often gained through humiliation, and children are inadvertent experts at humiliating their parents.
When Elizabeth was getting potty-trained, we were invited to an acquaintance’s house for brunch. It was a lovely morning, everyone joyous. We showed Elizabeth where the bathroom was and instructed her to make sure to make it there before any accident. In the course of the meal, she told us she had to go and wandered off. Minutes passed, and she returned. “Did you make sure to wipe?” I asked. “Yes, Daddy.” Just to make sure everything was in order, Jen checked the bathroom. Yes, indeed, Elizabeth had wiped her butt, but not with toilet paper. Apparently, she thought it would work better to use the white cashmere sweater of our host. Of course, we offered to have the sweater cleaned. Of course, the offer was declined. Of course, we never heard from the host again.
Although we never were invited back, my relationship with Jennifer did survive. One of the reasons that I was so scared when Jennifer told me she was pregnant was that I took marriage so seriously. I really, really, really did not want to get divorced. Children, I had heard, were a tremendous strain on a relationship. Raising children is stressful. That is true, but it is not the whole truth. Some stress divides, but other stress binds. Consider army units. While in battle, they probably experience the most stress a group of people can endure. And yet they come out of it emotionally closer, as a band of brothers.
The relationship between raising children and spousal bonding is quite similar. Evidence suggests that children strengthen rather than undermine marriage. In his book The Evolution of Desire, evolutionary psychologist David Buss notes, “According to a United Nations study of millions of people in forty-five societies, 39 percent of divorces occur when there are no children, 26 percent when there is only a single child, 19 percent where there are two, and less than 3 percent when there are four or more.”
Perhaps the best gift that children bestow on their parents is the opportunity to reengage with the world, to relive life. I’m not talking about the psycho father who terrorizes his son on the football field and the creepy mother who heaps mascara on her five-year-old pageant princess in deeply misguided attempts to relive their own lives. I’m talking about the exciting, delightful ways in which parents get to teach their children, encourage their children, and play with their children. Before Elizabeth, I was passionate about running. After Elizabeth, I have continued to run, and I’ve competed in a mud run with Jennifer and Elizabeth—having more fun than I ever thought running could provide. Before Elizabeth, I valued education and wanted to be successful. After Elizabeth, I still value education and success, and I’ve gotten to see her also adopt these values. Before Elizabeth, I loved to travel. Since Elizabeth, I still love to travel and have gotten to live with Elizabeth for two years in Europe. In other words, having a child isn’t an “end” to the good things of life; it is an “and” to the good things of life.
Twenty-two years ago, I thought that having a baby was the worst thing that could have happened to me. I could not have been more wrong. Late this spring, Elizabeth graduated from college. A delightful tradition at my university is that faculty members may accompany their children on stage as their children receive their degree. While I was waiting for her name to be called, I remembered choosing that name with Jennifer. “Elizabeth Anne” is perfect, she had said. “It’s sophisticated, feminine, classic, and strong. It’s the perfect name.” I had agreed, and so she was named. As I waited, recollections of Elizabeth’s childhood overwhelmed me: teaching her to ride a bike, coaching her soccer team, taking pictures of her before prom. I started to weep quietly. But this was Elizabeth’s day, and I didn’t want the focus to be on some professor in tears, so I pulled myself together, made it to the front of the stage with her, and beamed with love and pride as she accepted her degree. I was not alone. The sunken gardens were full of parents all doing the same thing—glad not to have fallen for the myth of vampire children.
Christopher Kaczor is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. His latest book, The Seven Big Myths about Marriage, is coauthored with his wife Jennifer.