Jason Byassee: Good for nothin' young 'uns

Why in the world would you have kids? “Why not?” God asks, and the world spins into existence.

A recent “New York Times” column struck a chord with me for the dead-eyed way it skewered parenthood. Perhaps it took someone without kids and no ambition for any to parody us parents so deliciously.

Tim Kreider describes the way his friends with kids react when he tells them his Saturday itinerary. He says he plans to do the "Times" crossword, bike over the Brooklyn Bridge, maybe visit a local flea market. Then they look “at me like I was describing my battles with the fierce and elusive Squid-Men among the moons of Neptune.” He pities us parents. “The obscene wealth of free time at my command must’ve seemed unimaginably exotic to them, since their next thousand Saturdays are already booked.”

I thought of Kreider’s comments as I parented my kids at the soccer field Saturday. True enough, our next thousand will be spent here, as will those of the other soccer parents. I thank God for it. One of my sons has a German girl as a teammate. My other’s team has an Ethiopian boy as its star. Most of the parents and players are African-American, with not a few Hispanics, and a handful of white families. And there we were, together, trying to teach our kids how to be good teammates and sportsmanlike opponents, kick in the same direction without kicking other kids and respond appropriately when someone’s shins or feelings are hurt. In a larger sense we’re training them for life. It’s not glamorous work, to be sure, but it’s beautiful -- an image of how a whole society can work together for no greater good than raising our kids right, together.

But Kreider is funnier than I am. He also has more time on his hands, a more glamorous social life and doubtless gets more sleep. So he’s not complaining. His parent friends look, from the outside, like “people who have joined a dubious cult:  they claim to be much happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a capricious and demented master.”  There is, indeed, a certain cult to parenthood, the mores of which I didn’t know till we took our first demented master home from the hospital. There’s a reason some strangers help struggling parents out on airplanes, or give knowing nods to their comrades in the grocery store with dark circles under their eyes and melting-down little ones, or offer to carry groceries for a frazzled mom with a kid under each arm. We’re part of a sect of the under-rested, emotionally maxed, over-spending clan known as parents. Good thing we number in the billions.  Otherwise, there’d be no single people to lampoon us.

But Kreider has more time for reading than I, and his sarcasm -- even with acid dripping around its edges -- is funnier than my sincerity:  “I have never even idly thought for a single passing second that it might make my life nicer to have a small, rude, incontinent person follow me around screaming and making me buy them stuff for the rest of my life.” It’s good he’s realized this, I’m tempted to say. Parenthood is hard enough when one does feel called to it.

Kreider’s cynicism, however, reminds me why I am a parent. It’s because I’m baptized. I didn’t have to be a parent any more than Krieder did. But for me, not having children would be about much more than simply refusing to go forth and multiply. In the church we don’t have to reproduce by childbirth. We trust that God will grow the church through conversion. As people we don’t have to get married to be fulfilled -- we are already wed to Christ in a marriage that bears the fruit of virtue and, finally, eternal joy.

Even as married people we don’t have to have children. God has given us all the family we need -- brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons -- in our kinfolk, the baptized. The only reason we have children then is, well, for no reason at all. They are good for nothing other than themselves. They are the fruit of love between parents, an expression of lifelong commitment in family, raised in church in hopes that they’ll stay in church. But we don’t have them because we have to. We have them for the same reason God creates each of us:  a sheer unobligated expression of love. “Why not?” God asks, and the world spins into existence, and you and I are born into being.

Parenthood is a theological vocation for Christians. One God calls us, equips us and gives us friends and family to endure. If we become less selfish, more loving, more like Christ as a by-product, then that’s all to the good. But we can do all those things without kids. And we might even live longer, have more fun, sleep later, and retire with deeper bank accounts. We certainly don’t need children to carry on a legacy, accomplish what we failed at, or carry on our family name in some sort of pagan grab for immortality. The only reason to do it is God’s call. Which is the only reason to do anything.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.