Why do we have children?

By Timothy DalrympleColumnist at Patheos.com I hate the memory of it. I hate it. I hate how stiff my daughter’s … Continued

By Timothy Dalrymple
Columnist at Patheos.com

I hate the memory of it. I hate it.

I hate how stiff my daughter’s body felt in my arms that night. I hate how vacant and soulless her face had become, unmoving save for the veined whites of her eyes as the irises fluttered up under the skull.

It happened on a cold October evening, when an early snowfall still covered the streets north of Boston. We parked beside our friends’ home, and I noticed the flush of red in my daughter’s cheeks. I checked her brow–it was hot. I should have done something more, but I thought perhaps she had simply over-heated in her coat and car seat. So I took her inside and watched as she tried to play. On most days our daughter, thirteen months old, was an overflowing wellspring of energy and laughter and fleet-footed enthusiasm. On this day, something seemed off.

We sat down to dinner, and then it happened. Sitting beside me in her booster chair, she turned her head upward–further, further, and then unnaturally far, as though she followed the path of a butterfly along the ceiling and down the wall behind her. Her arms were clamped to her sides, and when I bent around her I saw her rolling eyes. She looked possessed.

A moment later we were back in the car, racing through the snow-swept streets as I clutched her tiny convulsing body against my chest. Her lungs did not inhale so much as they shuddered in pitiful little gasps. I whispered “it’s okay” and “daddy’s here,” but it was not okay. Every time the orange glow of a passing streetlamp brushed across her face, it showed the same rolling white eyes. That’s the memory I hate the most: the memory of what it felt like to be losing her. I was pinned between the immensity above and the miniscule below. The universe of my care, all my joy in the world, was wrapped in this frail two-foot and twenty-pound vessel, this brilliant soul enfleshed. And as the soul slipped through my fingers, I sensed it above me: the endless ocean of grief that would fall and consume me if I lost her.

* * * * *

Why do we have children? The question lies beneath social and political issues we confront today, from abortion and adoption to declining fertility rates in developed nations and the relative virtues of “eastern” and “western” forms of parenting. In 2010 a whole host of articles and commentaries debated the finding that parenthood does not make us happier. So what is the point? Why do we make all the extraordinary sacrifices that parenthood requires?

There was no part of me, as we rushed to the emergency room that night, that wished my daughter gone and my freedom restored. Not the slightest part of me thought I should be happier without her. Instead, I knew with terrible certainty that if this small, fragile, quivering creature against my chest were to leave me, she would take all my joy with her. And no part of me would have preferred that she had never come to be, if she could only be for thirteen months and then be no more. Her thirteen months had made my life worth living.

I had felt a twinge of disappointment when the doctor informed us that we were having a girl. Connecting with boys had always come easily; a little wrestling, a little flying around the room, a few uncivilized sound effects, and we were buds. Yet when I went home from the ultrasound, and sat down alone to write, I dissolved into a spectacular emotional wreck. At the thought of fathering a daughter, waves of joy rolled through me. I loved my little girl long before I met her. I read her stories in the womb, sang to her, prayed for her. It wouldn’t matter what she looked like or what her personality was. She was mine–mine to nurture and protect, mine to train and guide, and mine to love with all my might.

We have children because love overflows. I believe as a Christian that I am created in the image of a God who is Love, a God whose love so desired an object that it brought us into being. Although the wisdom and power of love within us is clouded and twisted by sin, still the image of Love is there. We have children because love is essentially creative, and because our souls long for other souls we can love lavishly and forever.

Love precedes the beloved. That is why it is unconditional. In bearing children we participate in God’s continuing creative act, and in sustaining and guiding and sacrificing for our children we reflect God’s redemptive act. Theologically, then, we have children because we are made after the image of a God who had children, a God who is irreducibly relational and endlessly creative.

We have children because they make us human. Throughout my teens and twenties, I often went for years without being deeply moved. My friends called me even-keeled or unflappable, but the truth is that I almost never felt–really felt–anything at all. Not joy, not sorrow, not anger or hurt or fear. This might sound like a good thing. It was not. Every few years my heart would return to me, and for no apparent reason I would find emotions falling down like spring rains on parched soil. I was always relieved to feel connected again, vulnerable, alive–but then the season of feeling would fade and would leave me impassive again.

That changed when I learned we were having a girl. Perhaps there is something especially sweet in the father-daughter relationship, or perhaps it was just that the image of my child became concrete. Whatever the reason, I spent the remainder of the day staring at the ultrasound photo and downloading father-daughter songs in a joyous tearful mess.

Blessedly wounded, I never recovered. Lifelong singles can, of course, lead joyful and fulfilling lives and there are other ways in which they are shaped. In retrospect, however, my life prior to parenthood was like a symphony constrained to a single note. In the year that followed my daughter’s birth, I felt–really felt–the whole spectrum of human emotions, the depth and richness of human experience. Through my daughter’s eyes, I remembered wonder. Her laughter and unbridled joy reminded me why the world is good. She was a vessel of grace, a sacrament, and she returned me to life.

She made me human. We make children who make us.

Finally, we have children because children teach us to love. Marriage tests and reforms us, and begins to teach us to give for the other’s own sake, and not in the hope of reward or return; yet marriage promises that the spouse will do the same. Marital love cannot approach the self-sacrificial love of the parent, in which we pour ourselves out for the joy of seeing our children grow and flourish. In loving our children, many of us learn to love truly for the first time.

My daughter wrapped her hand around my finger mere moments after entering the world. She was comforted. I was captured. Although I was finishing my dissertation, I spent the nights in her room, helping her sleep through the pain of a milk allergy, then of colic, and then of reflux. I never asked for a break–not because of any virtue in me, but because I knew I could help her, and because it is sweet to give yourself when your beloved needs you.

My daughter survived that terrible night. As we neared the hospital, her jaw began to twitch, and just when I thought she was choking she was actually regaining control of her body. Her eyes focused on me, and she drew breaths swift and deep, confused and disoriented. Then finally she began to cry–long, deep sobs that were the sweetest music her father had ever heard.

The frigid night air had helped to cool her. Her brain was undamaged, and she has never since suffered another febrile seizure. And I have still never wondered whether I might have been happier without her. I certainly might have indulged myself more. But I would never have known this overflowing, self-giving love that has changed me forever.

We have no choice but to give ourselves for our children, but we learn that in giving ourselves we receive our selves. In the frailty of this little form that called such an immense love out of me, this bundle of winsome life and running legs and embracing arms, I share in the quintessentially human condition of loving recklessly what is fragile, fleeting, and at risk. There is nothing for it; I cannot help myself. Even at thirteen months, my daughter was sweet and vulnerable and of immeasurable sacred worth. She was not perfect, but she was everything that was good in me, and yet so much better, the highest art I had created, my only true thing in a counterfeit world. She was my little girl. She still is, and always will be. And the joy of loving and being loved by her–well, it was worth any sacrifice and any risk.

Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Direct of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos’ Evangelical Portal.

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  • letitbe

    Good News!”Brethren; Since i[WE] art a little tipsy, but that in the Morrow {‘IT’ Willing) Ye Yo etal will Learn something That hath never been Revealed to ye Yo HUMAN(s) about Ye Yo DAUGHTER {pbu Her] and similar situated. includes ALL HUMANs. Note: Most art HUUMATE(s)!Sleep Well (Unnecessarily) Grieving Stranger.SHILOM!

  • PSolus

    Timothy,”Why do we have children?”I can’t answer that question; I am not “we”, so I can’t pretend to be able to answer for “us” – and besides, there are already far too many people, like you, who seem to believe that they have all the answers for “us”.I don’t have children because I chose not to have children.Others are free to choose otherwise.

  • lufrank1

    Humans have children BECAUSE they, like all sexually repoducing species, are GENETICALLY programed to have offspring. Simple Fact!

  • lufrank1

    People have children because they, like all sexually reproducing species, are Genetically Programmed to continue their line.

  • chkpointe

    People have children for two reasons, one they know the joy of watching a child grow into a responsible, caring adult, second they behave selfishly and just breed. Children are a privilege, not a right. That means not everyone should have children. Not everyone should bring a child into the world because they can not afford financially or emotionally to nourish a child. The planet is far too small for the numbers being bred. Americans complain about the lack of jobs refusing to recognize that their are just enough jobs to meet world needs but far too many children wanting to access those jobs. Musical chairs applies to jobs too.

  • VAharleygirl

    My (then) husband & I decided to have a child because we wanted to share the lessons we had learned, and knowledge & traditions passed down to us, to another generation.That said, after trying for 3 yrs with no pregnancies before or since my fertility-treatment-assisted pregnancy, I could have gone either way.With no child, there is a type of love I would not have known, and experiences I would have not had. Instead, I would have left my abusive husband sooner, and while with him, as well as now post-divorce, would have the time-freedom & money available to travel & do & buy things I cannot do as a parent.As a mother, there is no greater love I have known. There is something so calming as smelling a baby’s cheek, so powerful as that child is held by you while taking their sustanance (dads know this as well). To teach your child how to say words, to draw, the interests you had as a child & share with your own – all this is something a parent can experience in a way non-parents cannot.Would I be happier if I had remained childless? In certain ways, yes. In others, no. I felt complete prior to being a mother. It was another decision with long-term experiences, choices & both gifts & sacrifices to be made.After staying home w/ my son for 2 yrs (1st yr intentional, the other not) then returning to the work force – that’s been a 2-edged blade. I’m glad I saw his first steps, heard his first words. But I also wonder where I would be in my career if I hadn’t put him first. I know my career would be very different, and the travels & people I’ve seen without him. But with him, I have met other wonderful people, done fun things, and have a great reason for visiting DisneyWorld as a grown person ^_^I don’t know if I’d do things over the same way if given the chance. But that’s OK – cuz for now, I have a beautiful, intelligent son who I love more than I ever thought I, a non-feminine type of gal, ever would.

  • pacotheus

    “We” have children for many reasons as different as each of us and our circumstances are different. And we can enrich our experiences, as parents and childless people, by listening to what each of us have to say. THANK YOU for your story!For me, I would say that one has children for the same reason that one plants a garden or engages in any other creative work. And sometimes when the work goes wrong or what we have created and loved is lost, we discover new meaning in what we have undertaken. Life is complicated, but the discovery of it and its meaning offers endless rewards.Again, thanks for this very moving story of what happened to you and how it made you feel. (P.S.: I am an atheist and do not believe that god-belief is necessary to appreciate deep meaning in life, though, apparently, you find it useful.)

  • lepidopteryx

    Some people have children simply because their preferred method of birth control failed.Some people have children in order to carry on a family legacy of one sort or another. Some people have children because they wish to be parents. My daughter’s conception was not some reenactment of God’s creation of the earth – it was an accident. After carefully examining my resources, I decided to have her. My daughter did not complete me. Had I not been a whole person before she was born, I would not have been an effective parent.My daughter did not make me fully human. Again, if I were not fully human before she was born, I would not have been an effective parent.

  • jimcowles

    We have kids because evolution drives us to the perpetuation of the species. Evolution has also selected into us the ability to remember our childhoods selectively. I agree with Freud: there’s no such thing as a happy childhood. If we remembered our childhood accurately, we would take a blood oath never to inflict childhood / adolescence on an innocent and unsuspecting human being. Result: no one would have kids and the human race would die out. But evolution will not tolerate such an outcome, and so enables us to preferentially remember the pleasant parts of our childhood and to forget, or at least deemphasize, the bad parts. In consequence, we have kids in the mistaken beliefs (1) that our own childhood was happy, and that therefore (2) our children’s childhoods will be no less happy. In reality, however, almost no one is competent to parent. In a well-managed universe, i.e., not the universe we live in, parents would be about as rare as Army Rangers or Navy SEALs or Yitzhak-Perlman-class violinists or Richard-Feynman-caliber physicists. That would not render childhood and adolescence happy, only the misery of both more sparsely distributed. People who remember childhood accurately, accurately enough to renounce having kids, are also about equally rare. This is usually because the abuse they suffered in childhood / adolescence was intense enough to break through the evolution-instilled happy-childhood mystique, and provide a disincentive to have kids — which, statistically, they are probably not competent to parent, anyway. Bottom line: it’s evolution all the way, except in those rare abuse-driven instances where the exercise of intelligence is strong enough to trump the reproductive instinct. JC

  • jckdoors

    Drivel.

  • edbyronadams

    JIMCOWLES, alas your perspective is no longer moot. While most everyone has a sex drive, the urge to have children is not as universal, especially among males. The fact that technology has decoupled mating and reproduction puts us in a new era. I’m sorry for your troubled childhood. For most of us it was a mixed experience, as is life in general.

  • letitbe

    (2 of 2): SERMON Continued:Keep in Mind That [“IT”] as Apocalyptarians or Eklahti-On’s that the “UNIVERSE = CONSTITUTION” & [ITs] “CLAUSES = [OUR] LAWS-OF-NATURE”: Else Ye & Yo’s will Never Understand Nor Believe [IT]. So, Looking at this link, is a Real example of a sort of “DIVINE-INTERVENTION!” These KEPLER (Probe) Photo’s are in themselves a Miracle. ANDAmazingly (via GRACE) THIS is only 1/400th Of OUR innate Holyi Galactic FRONTIER. And the “Probability” (On Other EARTH alikes) roaming with Other similar Huumate(s) is well Beyond TRUTH(opposite MYTH) Now. So,it has now come to pass (like a Prophecy) [Today] That The “SINS OF THE CHURCH(s)”, Not The Sins of The Parents [aka SECRET: Every [HUUMATE] “Gamete” is “Fixed” under “FURTHER EXPLANATION: Like “LIGHT-BULBS” (in Carbon-Based//BIOFINITE forms) analogy in part 1 of 2; WE[i] All Expire. So WE[i] Huumate-as-Bulbs, GET REPLACED [Here] But Not There!!. Soo, Ye Yo may Ask; How Does a HUUMATE get Replaced. Again;i-Bulbs (SPERM//ZYGOTE//HUUMATES) are “FIXED” and Not Unlimited. Which is Why “IT” (Not a HE nor a She, Not ‘GOD’) has to RECYCLE-THEM [i.e, Ye Daughter] else REALITY/LIVING for “IT” & “IT” living In and Out Of US All for Naught!. THEREFORE:besides the “As Living Beings, Eklahti-Made Us ‘Fixed-gametes’ such that, WE[i] Huumate’s never shall know that i[WE] was Recreated from Old.! ANDnow, as LIFE IS A MIRACLE! And by appearing, justly for-a-time(clock) via Holyi TIME (Temperature; i.e. 98.6 degrees Body heat) all [THIS] is via the Holyi “DUE-TO-BE”…. Phenomena/ON Moment. Again;”IT” is in the Recycling thing/Biz Of (Gametes). “IT” In Essence, Has to Follows IT’s Own CONSERVATION OF PARITY” Rule also. Else if “IT” DOes NOt the thing Then No One (IT nor i [WE]) will Hath POWER or Experience [This]. Being (Visible and or Invisible)!Secret: OUR tiny sub-atom-size-HEART Follow or is in Sync with “IT”s Cosmic Heart (Universal Contraction and Expansion).WE Come & GO via “IT”s Holyi Cosmic