Family life

Modern parents: The choice to have kids

Susan Goldberg is gradually becoming more confident in her choice to become a parent.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.

I remember sitting on the couch next to a napping Rowan. He was maybe a month or so old, blissfully unaware of the voices in my head duking it out:

“You’re such a good mother, staying right next to him while he sleeps.”

“What kind of mother are you, letting your baby sleep on the couch? Do you know that he could roll off and die? And he’s sleeping ON HIS STOMACH! Don’t you know that he’s way more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome if he sleeps on his stomach?”

“You’re staying right by him while he sleeps, so he’ll be safe. Too bad that you have to pee.”

“If you really loved him and wanted to promote his healthy attachment, you would let him sleep RIGHT ON YOUR CHEST so your heartbeats could sync. What kind of unfeeling monster are you, putting your baby down to sleep?”

“If you really want him to develop good sleeping habits, he should be sleeping in his crib by himself so that he could learn independence.”

And so on. Fun times.

I won’t sugarcoat it: I had a rough time after my first son was born. Any number of factors—severe sleep deprivation, the recent death of my mother, living in a new city without the support of friends and family, the coldest winter on record (well, until this current one)—combined to create the perfect storm for what I can now fairly confidently describe as an undiagnosed case of postpartum depression.

Read more: Postpartum depression doesn’t care where you live >

“I feel trapped,” I remember confessing to Rachel. “I feel scared of this baby, like he’s some alien from outer space and I have no idea how to make him happy.” She nodded—she felt the same way.

One of the hardest things about that hard time was the fact that I really thought I’d be more fulfilled in being a mom. I mean, I’d given it so much thought. Coincidentally, I had ghostwritten a parenting book in the months leading up to Rowan’s birth: I thought I knew exactly how to be a parent.

And then there was the fact that, as queer moms, Rachel and I had put so much soul-searching and effort (not to mention time and money) into having a baby. At the time, same-sex marriage had only recently been legalized in Ontario, and two women having a baby with their gay male donor still seemed like a fairly political act. But it was our act: our right, our decision, our choice. It was hard to reconcile my depression and anxiety as a new parent with the fact that I had actively chosen it.

Paradoxically, though, the very fact that having kids was such an exercise of choice may have been one of the reasons it was so hard. I just read an interview with Jennifer Senior, the author of All Joy and No Fun (out this week), which examines the innate contradictions between the highs and lows of parenting. Senior says that we’re in the middle of an historic shift in parenting: up until the middle of the 20th century, people had kids to help on the family farm or work in the family business. But once having kids became a choice rather than a necessity, and children no longer provided financial support to their families (giggle), the roles became scrambled—and fraught.

As Senior puts it, we now see children “as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives.” In other words, if parenting is a choice, we want to know that we made the right choice—and we expect more from the role. And as a queer parent—for whom having kids is so clearly and visibly a choice—maybe I expected more from myself.

Things got better. Spring came. Sleep—eventually—came. I made some new friends. We became more confident as parents. We even started to like the gig—enough that we decided to have a second child. (We made that decision the morning after Rowan first slept through the night, at the age of 10 months. It’s like we had amnesia.)

Read more: Sleep solutions for all ages >

It’s funny: You would think that the more thought you put into having kids, the more fulfilled you’d be as a parent. But, like so many other things with parenting, how you think it’s going to be is very different than how it actually is. I love my children, and—especially now that we’ve moved into what Senior calls the “latent” phase of parenting, with a six- and a nine-year-old, both of whom more or less sleep through the night—it’s definitely easier and much more fun than it ever was. I’m increasingly confident in my choices.

But I do admit that it does burn a bit to know that the very act of exercising those choices may have, paradoxically, made me less happy as a parent.