Coworker, early 40’s. He and his wife are very successful. Graduate degrees, leaders, two homes, first class travel type successful. Genuine person. Extremely good listener, present when in discussion, very intelligent, wants to make the world a better place. Basically, everything anyone could ever hope for… modest prosperity and wealth, anchored to genuinely good and compassionate values.
As a single person and good listener, I am often the target of people’s confessions about life. Something about my nature and lifestyle makes me a magnet for this — I think my slight deviation from convention makes people recognize their own inner freedom… and they want to share.
“Mom, Dad, Why Didn’t You Tell the Truth About Having Kids??”
This was the confession, to me — a question he literally asked his own parents recently. His children are 6 and 9 years old. He obviously loves them, he obviously devotes his life to making sure they are loved and protected and supported. His confession though, was that being a Dad is much harder and challenging than he expected. If he could have done life over again, it seems he would not have had kids, or maybe would have planned things differently. He spoke enviously of his brother — unmarried with no kids, and free time to live his life. My impression is that being a father consumes nearly all of him.
I know questioning the idea of romance and children can be very triggering. I know for many, it seems so totally obvious as a “point of life”. Of all the things humanity does — romance and children seem like the biggest “DUH” goal.
Yet — this is the third time I’ve had someone, well into parenthood, spill their guts without me even asking about it. People who seem to have all the reasons to be happy with what they have, seem to yearn for their pre-parenthood days, or even pre-relationship days.
To anyone who reads this as a claim that romance and children are universally unwise — that is not the lesson. What IS the lesson, then?
I believe our default expectation for what it’s like to fall in love and start a family, are quite different than reality. It seems there are two fantastic illusions that collude to push humans into this misleading dream. Seeing these illusions for what they are can foster a healthier attitude toward them and what we spend our lives craving.
Illusion 1 — Our Unfillable Void and Loneliness
First, is the unfillable void. For whatever reason (likely a Darwinian feature) we are psychologically endowed with a great feeling of dissatisfaction inside. This dissatisfaction sends us flying toward all sorts of desires and goals throughout the course of life — perhaps none so great as wanting another person to make us feel complete. This is the greatest mirage of all — going all the way back to the days of Plato and his caution on “soulmates”. Here is the hard truth: We are alone, and will always be alone. No thing or person will ever fill our void. The only hope is to understand the void and realize it can be a great source of peace.
Illusion 2 —Sex = Bait on a Hook
How wild is sex? Orgasm? The majority of the human population craves sex either as a source of pleasure, or fun, or emotional intimacy, or all of the above. I know it seems impossible — but just try for 30 seconds to pretend you are an alien — watching all of humanity run around craving sex. Sex is only fulfilling for moments at a time — yet we often architect our lives around having it regularly with one or many partners. And — culturally, we manage to disassociate sex from making babies. It is abstracted away entirely! Thanks to birth control and cultural ideas about sex being this isolated fun, maybe even a “necessary” part of life — which is not at all about children unless you want it to be. And this is the the joke. Sex is ALWAYS about children. It’s the only reason sex exists. And, going back to illusion 1 — sex will NEVER fill a psychological void.
Writing on the Wall
All it takes is some light perusal of philosophy, science, psychology, even novels and art, to see these conventional goals are different than we might expect. A couple favorites here and here. Essentially — humans are wired to seek pleasure, yet, the pleasure never endures. Additionally, loneliness is a great motivator to “need” a life partner — yet — loneliness is impossible to conquer this way — in the long run.
Love and Kids Are Great! But Cannot “Complete” Anyone
Again — this article might be easily misinterpreted to suggest that love and sex and children should be avoided. That is not the case. I am certain there are many people who ARE fulfilled by parenthood and/or have managed to develop very healthy expectations about it. I am certain there are people who engage in sex and are not totally oblivious to its fleeting pleasure. And that is wonderful. Even so, this is obviously a great source of suffering in the world. This is simply (another) anecdote of a person who ran into love and parenthood and was really surprised at how it permanently changed their life and did not deliver exactly what they thought. It is a challenge to look inside and see how your own wiring works — a challenge to see how some of your deepest desires might not fulfill you in exactly the way you expect. In reflecting on these things, we can take some of the pressure off of ourselves to find “fulfillment”, and truly just enjoy the experience of being alive — as we are.