Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Kids Question, Part 2: Opportunity Costs

I have pretty faint memories of my Intro to Economics course in college.  The 8am class time rings a sharp bell, but the rest of that course is just a blur of colorful supply and demand curves on the whiteboard, fat textbooks squeezing onto our too-small pull-out desks, and my vague environmentalist concerns directed toward “infinite growth.”  But one memory stands out: the lesson on opportunity cost.  That morning, my petite, gray-haired, lovingly uncool professor taught us the definition of opportunity cost by talking about NBA basketball players.  She explained that if LeBron James had gone to college for four years after graduating from high school, he would have lost out on four years of his gzillion-dollar NBA salary.  For LeBron, college came with a really high opportunity cost, so of course he went straight to the pros.  Thus, opportunity costs are the things you give up when you choose another path.  Or, put in economics mumbo jumbo, an opportunity cost is:

The loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

My professor’s apt analogy not only seared the definition into my head, but also created a Pavlovian reminder of professional athletes’ lack of higher education / extremely high pay every time I watch a sporting event.  

Nowadays, opportunity costs have moved from the theoretical to the practical.  As Ian and I consider if and when to have children, we are critically pondering the emotional and financial costs that accompany parenthood.  Certainly, children come with some hefty opportunity costs like sleeping in, melt-down free trips to Disney World, and, of course, and the actual financial cost or raising a child.  

But whenever I think about the opportunity cost of raising a child, one item seems to have a larger price tag than the rest: travel.  Specifically, living abroad.  As Ian and I consider if and when to have children, the badgering voices of Leslie Mann (Debbie) and Paul Rudd (Pete) in Knocked Up rings loudly between my ears:

Pete: Isn’t it weird, though, when you have a kid and all your dreams and hopes go right out the window.
Debbie: What changed for you? What went out the window? You do everything exactly the same.
Pete: No, I love what I’m doing. But say before you’re married with children you want to live in India for a year. You can do it.
Debbie: You want to go to India? Go to India! Seriously.
Pete: Do you want to go to India?
Debbie: No. You can go.

With my fertility clock a-tickin’, I’ve been ruminating over the “India” question.  You see, many of my friends and college alums joined the Peace Corps or moved abroad for work after we all graduated college five (!) years ago.  I stayed in Chicago, choosing to battle the cold winters instead of the heat in West Africa.  But even with my propensity for heat rash and my penicillin allergy, I can’t help but wonder if my choice to stay is one that I’ll regret.  And the Kids Question has put this India Question front and center because having children is the denouement of the slide into adulthood known as "settling down."

If you want to know why I never joined the Peace Corps, and why I’m not jumping on a flight to Delhi, it’s these guys:

I love travelling, but I love my boys more - and I refuse to see love as a limitation.  But I didn’t quite realize how this powerful love factor plays into the Kids Question until I heard the answer come out of my own mouth earlier this summer.  Two of our teacher-friends stayed with us over a weekend in June, and they both love dogs.  But they’ve hesitated adopting one because they fully intend on travelling the world during their summer vacations.  We enjoyed their company of course, but Teddy thought they were the best house-guests ever!  They wrestled with him and threw his favorite ball to fetch.  They gave him lots of cuddles and pets and loved on him like any dog-lover would.  So during one late-night cuddle session, I looked over at them and just had to say what I’d been thinking all along, “I know you want to travel every summer, but you guys should really think about getting a dog.  Sure, Teddy keeps me and Ian from doing everything we want to do, and he limits our wanderlust.  But it never feels like a limitation because every day with him is an adventure.”

So when it comes to the Kids/India Question, I think I may have answered it in my heart awhile ago.  I never joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to stay in Chicago with my Ian.  I can’t imagine spending a year abroad now without my Teddy.  You might say I’m giving up too much for them.  Call me a Romantic, but when you sacrifice for love, it doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice.  It just feels like the right decision.  

In my book, Love should never be an opportunity cost.  So maybe the sleepless nights are worth it after all.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Kids Question, Part 1: Where's My Village?

Ian and I celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary on Tuesday.  He got me some pretty red and pink gerber daisies, now sitting happily in a white vase on my nightstand, and we ate Chipotle and drank slurpees on the grass watching Sherlock Holmes under the stars at Movies in the Park.  Vive l’amour!  We also received some well-wishes from friends and family who celebrated our big day with us on 7/10/10.  But one of the biggest markers of our 24 months of marital accord happened a couple weeks ago when someone asked us that most casual, yet most significant of questions: “So, when are you guys gonna start having kids?”

Two years into our marriage and eight years into our relationship, this big-little question has started to nudge its way into casual conversations with our friends and family.  And the public shift in expectations can be striking: pregnancy has evolved from an aversion to an inevitability.

Not that it’s just our friends and family wondering about our procreative intentions.  We’ve been wondering, too.  A few days ago I complained to Ian that Kourtney Kardashian named her new daughter Penelope, “I liked that name first!”  And just last night, before falling asleep, I said to Ian, “Hey, if we ever have a baby and it’s a girl, what do you think of the name Nina?”  To which he quickly responded, “Pinta... you finish.”  I sighed, “Santa Maria.”  

No Penelope.  No Nina.  

Sure, I enjoy a good baby-name brainstorming session. And I still have periodic, biochemically-induced dreams about being a parent.  But these happy parenting fantasies have run head first into two big walls of parenting reality.  First, the popular parenting articles and op-eds that have flooded my News Feed in the past few months. Ann Marie Slaughter’s brilliant piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" bravely confronted the under-discussed challenges motherhood poses to careers, while underscoring the inherently demanding and strenuous nature of parenthood itself.  

But a recent New Yorker article wins the gold medal in the Birth Control Games.  In “The Case Against Kids: Is Procreation Immoral?”  Elizabeth Kolbert references various ethicists and oft-quoted statistics about parenting and happiness (read: unhappiness). This disquieting piece stresses the need to hold the should-we-have-kids question in much higher regard:

Whatever you may think of Overall’s and Benatar’s conclusions, it’s hard to argue with their insistence that the decision to have a child is an ethical one. When we set the size of our families, we are, each in our own small way, determining how the world of the future will look. And we’re doing this not just for ourselves and our own children; we’re doing it for everyone else’s children, too.

These persuasive articles may be haunting my pregnancy dreams, but they’re not the main reason I keep perusing the Family Planning aisle at CVS.  Nope.  Something else is keeping me from jumping on board the baby train.  Something even scarier than over-scheduling and sleep deprivation: that we’d have to do it alone.  

You see, none of our close friends have children.  A few of them are fiercely devoted to never having kids.  All but two of our family members live in other states, and the ones that live here aren’t exactly down the street from us.  I may be nervous about pregnancy, giving birth, and generally being wholly responsible for the life of a fragile human child.  But most of all, I’m nervous about feeling isolated.  Feeling like I’m burdening my family and friends with questions and favors, or just losing friends all together.

Maybe modern parenting is isolated parenting, relative to years past - a murky underbelly of the great American virtue of self-determinism and do-it-yourself-ness that perhaps causes some of stresses discussed in the Slaughter and Kolbert pieces above.  And maybe that’s why some couples are choosing to opt out of parenting all together.

If our love of parenting our furry son is any indication, I don’t think we’ll be one of those couples. Until then, I’ll always be pondering the endless enigmas of parenthood.  But as I sit here on our comfy couch, snuggled under a summer linen blanket, looking out the window at the frenetic city 20 floors below, I see the busyness of the world that surrounds me.  Does it have time for a child, or would a baby be a burden? If it takes a village to raise a child, I can’t help but wonder: where’s my village?