In which I unexpectedly think about grandchildren and realize why.

Why parents want their kids to start families.

When kids grow up, their parents often start pressuring them to get married (or de-facto married or whatever equivalent is on offer) and have kids. Those who don’t pressure, almost always hint. If the adult children don’t feel like marrying, their parents are willing to give ground. The son- or daughter-in-law is optional. The grandkids aren’t.

The adult children often resent this (I know I did). Some of the resentment is unavoidable. Life without kids contains a lot more freedom; a childless life is much more common, and in some circles more accepted, than it used to be; and even people who intend to have kids someday often don’t feel the urgency about it that their aging parents do.  But some of the resentment stems from a suspicion of bad motives. According to conversations I’ve had, some young adults think their parents perceive their childlessness as an insult to their own parenting and are indignant, since no such insult is intended. Some, especially if one of their parents was a homemaker, think that they’re being asked to pay in their own happiness for their parents’ resentment towards freedoms they themselves never had. Worst of all, some think their parents are being immature: wishing they could live forever, through descendants, when they can’t.

Watching my nine-year-old son reading peacefully the other day, I realized that all this was wrong and yes, that I’d been unfair to my own late mother when she wanted me to have kids sooner than I was ready to. I don’t think Benji resents my parenting (yet). Much as I sometimes miss the freedom of childlessness, there is not a moment of my life in which I would give up Benji for it. And I don’t think I get to live forever, regardless of what I do or he does. Yet I found myself fervently wishing that he will have kids someday.

Here’s what, in watching him, I suddenly understood; and I wish more young adults could understand it themselves. I don’t want my son to have kids because I wish I could live forever. I want him to have kids because I wish he could live forever.

I’m sure I’ll noodge Benji to have kids before he wants to. The motive for the noodging will be unconditional love.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

16 thoughts on “In which I unexpectedly think about grandchildren and realize why.”

  1. Sweet. The motive for my noodging will be that I wish my parents could have lived forever.

  2. The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren can be very special. I was not at all sure that I wanted children, but my relationship with my grandfather (dad’s side) and my knowledge that my own dad is a real character helped nudge me over to, “why not?”

    Now that my son is here and as fine a man as I could have asked for, I am ever so glad I accepted the nudge. And I look forward to his daughter(s) or son(s) in due time.

    Thanks for the wonderful story, Andrew.

  3. My son told us that the mother of his best friend’s fiancee is leaning on her to have kids in the near future. To provide some incentive, she reminded her daughter that women in her family generally experience menopause quite late and that if she (the daughter) does not comply, she (the mother) will seriously entertain the thought of having another child in the near future (@ age 50).

  4. Heh. Maybe if my mother had been able to articulate this I wouldn’t have been pissed at her for being pushy. Except, you know, she didn’t appear to have this motivation. She flat-out told me I was selfish for not wanting to have a kid (more accurately, questioning whether I wanted to have one). It was about her wanting a grandkid. Just as her having me was about her wanting a kid.

    I’m a father now. I will try very, very hard not to pressure my daughter to produce a grandchild. Perhaps I’ll even succeed.

  5. Wonderful post.

    I never felt much pressure from my parents. But much of this likely had to do with my uncanny knack for setting the bar low and then leaping wildly over it. I was the first sibling to marry (albeit in Vegas). I was the first to have children, albeit on the wrong coast.

    I’ll never know whether it would have happened naturally with age, or it’s because I’ve had kids, but I understand so much more now about what their life as parents were, and subsequently what my life as a child was. In turn, I now see my children through my parents eyes.

    My eldest is seven, and I can’t imagine yet her having children. But I know it will be one more lens coming into place.

  6. To me this sounds like you are preemptively justifying the pressure that you will put on your son and his hypothetical partner to use their time, money, and bodies to produce a child for the satisfaction of your psychological needs. That pressure will be rude and manipulative no matter what you think motivates it.

    There are millions of perfectly healthy and functional adults who, like me, are happily and intentionally child-free. I believe that good parenting benefits society much more than it benefits those good parents, and I support any and all programs intended to assist parents financially, socially, psychologically. But when I hear or read posts and comments like this, I shudder. I think people will say and believe anything to prove that they love being parents once the kids have arrived. Life is short, and money scarce, and the last thing I want is a helpless dependent eating up twenty-plus years of my existence. Parenting sounds like a nightmare, and I assure you that for me it would be. If you really, actively, want to not have kids, then you are not one of those people who will think the kid is great once it arrives.

    So when your boy grows up and you want to harass him about producing a grandkid for you, don’t. It’s possible that he will really, actually not want to be a parent, and you should not push him to do something that will make him unhappy. Once he has produced a child in order to shut you up, it’s too late. My advice for young men is to get a vasectomy the day after your eighteenth birthday, and if it turns out you want a kid for some reason, domestic adoption seems to be the most ethical option.

  7. Andy

    This is a wise observation. Parents have an inbuilt horror of their children’s death, and often find it harder to accept than their own. But we can trust that even though we can’t accept their death, if and when then grow to our age, they can learn to accept it with equanimity for themselves.

    Keith

  8. I don’t get it. I mean I love my kids but whether they have kids (one does) is something about which I’m completely indifferent.

  9. Nope. It really isn’t unconditional if it’s expressed in noodging and pressure. It’s about the parent’s idea of how the kid’s life should be lived, whether in the abstract or to repair particular shortcomings in the parent’s life. Of course, I say this looking at my 7-year-old with a noticeable burden of physical and cognitive issues, thinking that parenthood — especially early parenthood — could be a disaster for him and any family he might form. And thinking about just how many different kinds of abuse I wold have inflicted on my children had I fathered them on the timetable that my parents implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) expected. I want him to live forever (just as I want to live forever), but I want him to live whatever kind of life he chooses and is best for him, and I have no clue at all what that might be.

  10. I can’t say that I relate to the ‘live forever’ desire. But I can say that my two-and-a-half year old daughter has brought me the greatest joy I’ve ever known, even while she is often being an unbelievable pain in the tushy for the many reasons that every parent can relate to.

    I think it’s an excellent design of nature that we experience the (magical) former in spite of the latter. For me, I’m happiest when I see her happy – and when I imagine her having kids, it’s because I want her to experience that same magic – that joy.

  11. On the Birth of Grandchildren

    In gratitude and thanksgiving,
    Humbly and on bended knee,
    We offer praise to You,
    G-d Most High,
    For the gift of grandchildren.
    Bless them with prosperity and health,
    Wisdom and strength,
    Grace and happiness.
    Bless them with well-being
    And a sense of well-being.
    May they thirst for Torah and Mitzvot,
    And do honor to Your Holy Name.

    Bless their parents with patience and understanding.
    Bless their grandparents with joy and restraint.
    Bless them at home,
    Bless them on their way.
    Bless them in study,
    Bless them at play.
    Bless them in love,
    Bless them in heartache.
    Shelter them,
    Guide them,
    Protect them,
    Heal them in their time of need.
    G-d of our ancestors,
    Source and Comfort,
    Love them as You love Your people Israel.

    Blessed are You, Creator of All,
    Father of Kindness, Mother of Wisdom, Gentle Teacher,
    You renew Your people with new life, new love, new birth,
    Generation after generation.

    © 2010 Alden Solovy and http://www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.

  12. After Pat’s funeral, I received a “Remembrances” book with this (supposed) pearl of wisdom on the cover:
    One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.
    –Sophocles

    I printed that sophism (isn’t that word an interesting coincidence?), framed it, and put it on my dresser. Two years later I remarried. Biddy asked me why I had that saying on my dresser. I explained that it’s WRONG, and that I put it there to remind me every morning that it’s wrong, and that we should appreciate our blessings every day, and not just when we’re old or when we lose them.

    I hope the analogy isn’t too obscure.

  13. I found this an interesting post — I’m not sure if I agree with all the particulars but it did bring my deep love and consideration for my son, who is in his late teens, to the front of my mind. While I’ve been a parent we’ve faced the deaths of two of his friends, and I’ve felt no wilder keening sadness than I did during those times.

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