“You were at the park? Wow! I haven’t been to the park in fifteen years.” To which I replied, “I haven’t stopped going for twenty.”
My friend who made the comment has two kids, ages 16 and 18. He was obviously shocked that I still go to the park. When he was younger he had taken his kids, as toddlers, but as they had gotten older he stopped going. To the contrary, I have six kids ages 6 to 19 and I take my kids out into nature every day. If I don’t, they can become unbearable…to themselves as well as me!
These outdoor excursions have given me the opportunity to meet many people, learn important lessons and make some observations. Admittedly, its now a little strange to encounter people fifteen years my junior with kids the same age as my youngest. I began raising my kids in the playgrounds of New York City. Later we moved to Texas where I have been raising my two youngest. The parenting and lifestyle contrast between New Yorkers and Texans couldn’t be more profound.
When I first started going to the playground in NYC I was, by far, the youngest parent there. The majority of parents were in the early forties, learning to parent for the first time. It was not uncommon to see multiple sets of twins (usually a sign of genetically-enhanced pregnancy) and kids with disabilities. For most parents, they had waited too long and had resorted to fertilization methods to get pregnant. While the lucky ones had twins, the unfortunate ones had children with disabilities. (I am not dismissing the joy experienced or wisdom learned from raising a disabled child; I am only addressing here the practical consequences of decision making). Those older parents always looked out of breath and out of shape to me. They treated their babies like precious cargo which was, of course, understandable. For many of them, having those children had been a long shot that had cost them a great deal.
NYC is such a competitive environment. I knew what many of those parents had gone through. They had worked hard to establish a career and make money because in Manhattan you need money…lots of it… to survive. They had sacrificed precious years only to find themselves aging and alone with no family. Many of them married in their late thirties and gave birth shortly thereafter. For those, it was literally their last hope for a mate and a family. For some, when their bodies could not produce the children they wanted, they turned to pharmaceuticals to engineer their kids. And when they finally had their children, those parents looked old and worn out.
Many of those New Yorkers had done their best to “plan” out their lives. They had methodically gone to the best schools, found the best jobs, planned it all out so that when they decided to marry and have a family it would happen on schedule… like all of their other plans. But it never works out that way. The biggest thing I learned from those excursions was that time marches on…irrespective of our having a plan or not. Genetic time clocks tick ever onward.
The exhaustion on their faces showed in everything they did. The pregnancy, the marriage and the kids had been other items on the checklist of their planned lives. Yet, the conversations I had with many of them evidenced regret. They had waited too long to get married and start a family. Time had marched on without them. They had mistakenly believed they could manage life and their management plan had been vanquished. On multiple occasions, I met couples who had married simply because they felt out of options. They were motivated by fear that if they did not marry their current partner, they might never marry at all.
The saddest to observe were the parents of the disabled children. There is nothing more painful for a parent than to see their child suffer. These parents clearly suffered along with their children. Anybody who has had a child can tell you that the risks of birth defects are greater as you age. Statistics bear it out. Yet, these brave parents had risked everything to have a child and accepted the consequences. They had finally gotten the family they desired and it cost them dearly. The parents in NYC made a Faustian bargain that failed them. They had their kids but found they did not have the energy or time needed to do it right. Sadly, the realization came after the fact.
In Texas, the contrast is startling. The first thing I observed was that the parents were younger. They had gotten married in their twenties and had more children. They seemed to understand that if they wanted kids, family and career it had to be properly prioritized. They were willing to make the career sacrifices to have the family. For the most part, they seem happier. They made peace with the idea that if you want a family it is best to begin building it while still young.
There are multiple reasons for these two, very different scenarios. One that stands out in my mind is how the media and the Feminist movement promote the notion that women can have it all. They trot out people like Angelina Jolie with her brood of kids and great career as an example to us all that it can, in fact, be had. Even the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote a book called Lean In about how women can have everything their heart desires…family, career, success, etc. Sandberg is an avowed Feminist who wants to transform the role of women in the workplace. She is also incredibly wealthy. Her wealth, and the wealth of others like Jolie, makes it possible for them to have it all because they are able to pay for it all. The nanny, the cook, the housekeeper and the tutor. For the vast majority of women, those chores and necessities must be accomplished by themselves while simultaneously earning a living and trying to raise a family. Further, decisions have to be made and priorities set for which there are real consequences. So while the Jolies, Sandbergs and Feminist movement claim you can have it all, those tired and often sad parents I observed in NYC know its not true.
Children need attention and, most importantly, time. Especially in their formative years. Time from their parents. To think otherwise is foolish, delusional and ultimately destructive to a healthy family life. You can have all the money in the world but it can’t buy time. We all have to live by the same ticking clock.
Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had a great perspective on child rearing: ” If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” In the midst of all her wealth, fame and power Kennedy Onassis figured out what Sheryl Sandberg has yet to learn. The most important thing we do is wisely prioritize our values and put our children at the very top of that list.