“How many children do you want to have?”
This question has been asked by childhood pals as we ruminate over our future. By my mom in her desperation to have grandchildren. And in late 2007 I was asked by a young girl in a crowded English school in northern Ethiopia.
She was traditional – her hair, arms, and legs covered by fabric and a long sarong type dress. She and her classmates were candid with their questions, trying to get to the root of how western society was permeating their culture and affecting traditional values. I stumbled at the question because I did not want to start ranting about overpopulation, nor did I want to shelter them from my view that I did not want a large family in the future. My husband-then-boyfriend said succinctly, “As many as I can afford.”
I come back to this moment often for several reasons. One, because my husband had been so clever to answer honestly while also using the nuances of the language to leave it open for interpretation or further inquiry. We started our family soon after our return from this trip, us both in our thirties at this point.
At the time I wish I could have talked to this schoolgirl about the environmental effects of our world’s booming population, about the concept of “carrying capacity” and my belief that creating a large family in the United States would likely lead to my social isolation, lack of career growth, a disenfranchisement from my children themselves from simply having less time to get to know them all as the individuals they are. I had strong ideas in all of these areas…and yet I couldn’t formulate a sentence around a single point.
I started to understand this more clearly when my daughter was born. My mothering self had been struggling with my academic self well before I had a child. I have always been concerned about environmental peril. In my college years it was easy to let these issues dominate the framework of my thinking because I had separated myself from being a childbearer in any way. But when I became pregnant this world view crumbled to pieces at the foot of an all-consuming attachment and love for my child.
Amidst all the struggles of parenting, it feels good to have a family. It gives my life meaning and connects me to others in ways that I had never imagined. And yes, these children are leaving a carbon footprint. They are using up resources and pulling out my neighbors tulips in the same breath. I would gladly take the label “hypocrite” to defend my decision to have children.
Now I am asking myself again the question of how many children I want to have. I can say that our family size is dictated by employment situations, health, age, our home, our family dynamic, and our beliefs….but it really comes down to how many we can afford. Can I accept that my time will be divided that much more with the arrival of another dependent being in the household? Can I afford the time and patience to get to know them all as unique individuals? Can I make enough time to teach them each about the differences between the heart and the mind?