Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Essays

Creation: Pro(-) and Con

When you bring children into being, you give them the gift of life, but you also impose on them these terrible costs.

Kieran Setiya

Claude and Paloma Drawing (detail), 1954, by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), private collection; photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images; © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The day after my son was born, my mother-in-law diagnosed me with an acute case of paternal postpartum euphoria. It was the worst she had ever seen. Hopped up on hormones and relief and stupefaction, I was too excited to sleep. Around day three, my wife sent me upstairs to take a nap and found me hours later dancing naked in the bedroom with my earbuds in, air-conducting the “Ode to Joy.” “You have to sleep,” she said. I didn’t.

At night, I would lie with my eyes closed, consciously breathing. Or I would step down the hallway into Elliot’s room, careful not to wake him when I pushed the door, peering at the bundle in a basket with the tiniest features, face scrunched up like a fist.

In the daytime, I would not stop talking: about the baby, about the need to memorize every detail, about the pregnancy book that advised against oral sex in the third trimester, because exhaling in the vagina could cause an embolism. My mother-in-law was nonplussed: We did not have the kind of relationship in which you talk about sex. I thought it was hysterical.

My mania subsided, but I didn’t regret the episode. It never occurred to me to question why we celebrate new life, why my euphoria was apt—any more than it occurred to me to ask, seriously, whether or not I wanted to have a child. My wife and I had talked about how many, but I never considered that the answer might be none.

Nowadays, when friends bring up the prospect of parenthood, that answer is always on the table. Contemplating the catastrophe of climate change, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked, on behalf of a generation, “Is it still okay to have children?” Her question caught the spirit of the age, spawning countless replies, some incensed, others more empathic. Is it fair to bring a child into a world of mass extinction, looming floods, droughts, shortages of food and water, civil war, resurgent fascism—and now a global pandemic? There’s an old Jewish joke: “In these days, it is better never to be born. Yet who is so lucky? Not one in a thousand!”

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