On Fear of the Future and What Might Be

“To bring a child into this world to suffer as we humans do, why would anyone do that?”

In Paris in November of 1784 an amazed Benjamin Franklin witnessed the first flight of a manned hot air balloon. Pessimists immediately turned and asked him skeptically, “What good is it?”

“Why, what good is a newborn baby?” Franklin responded.

Equal parts excited and terrified at the prospect of becoming a father, this story about Franklin is never far from my mind. It is a cliché that becoming a parent and having a newborn thrust into your arms “changes your life,” but it is the nature of major life events to give life to dead language and to make clichés resound with meaning. A brand new baby, cooing and crying in my arms! I am the father, the pater familias, and even when this child is grown and has children of its own I will continue to be its father; one’s life will never be the same. The bond between parent and child breaks only when death intervenes. There is perhaps no closer union.

These are all clichés, of course, but they find their way into my thoughts and leave me unsettled and concerned.

I am not so concerned for myself. My wife and I have been contemplating parenthood for years, and I am long past the stage of life when getting up in the middle of the night to feed a baby or spending an afternoon watching a Disney movie would interfere with my big nights on the town or spur of the moment road trips to Vegas with buddies. I am happily married; I have a secure job; I will be 40 next year. It is now or never.

I am ready. Or am I?

Not for myself but for my future child am I concerned, and my vivid imagination conjures fears that haunt my thinking. I reflect back on the pain in my life, and I remember all the many occasions during childhood and adolescence that I caused my parents grief. I can remember several episodes as if they happened yesterday: they are still painful to the touch today. I regret every last one of them – the willful child ruining a Thanksgiving meal, the sullen teen lashing out in confusion and unhappiness.

My aggressive disrespect and blatant misbehavior might have caused my parents a day or two of pain, but they caused me a regret and pain that do not leave. Irony of ironies.

Will such scenes occur with my child? Of course they will. And more: this life and this world will show my child at least some of its worst. Even the best of parents cannot protect their child from the harshness of the world, as eventually one’s child goes of to make their way in this all too ugly world. Many proclaim their refusal to bring a child into this world of sin, sorrow, and suffering. It is their existential “thumbs down” on planet earth. And in the darker moments of my life, I have agreed with them. “To bring a child into this world to suffer as we humans do, why would anyone do that?”

But it is equally true that a newborn baby is God’s judgment that life goes on, that there exists hope, potential, and the possibility of happiness. There is something eternally optimistic in the scene of a mother and her baby smiling and making faces at each other.

But babies become children who then become teens and then adults. What then? I once heard a comic decry parenting: “Why would I give birth to someone who in 16 years will grow up to hate me?” Is this the right path? Will my child’s life be happy? Fears beset me.

When I contemplated marriage, I entertained similar fears. One need not search far to come across scenes of utter misery and raw pain in modern day marriages. My generation was the first to grow up in the post-1960s era of mass divorce, and many of my peers when they became adults themselves would be extremely reluctant to enter into any kind of a marriage or family arrangement that might resemble that of their parents. “To have and to hold, in good times and in bad, until death do us part.” My God, the finality of it! It has always been my way to think through very carefully “big decisions” and to move slowly and cautiously. For example, I have always been somewhat in awe of college sweethearts who married at 23 and were parents by 25. So young! The courage and the effrontery! Where did they get it? Did they have an audaciousness and courage I lacked? Or was it mere foolhardiness?

But I wonder if to shrink away from parenthood, or to shrink away from marriage, because of fear of “what might be” is to shrink away from life itself. What if I never married because I was “afraid”? If I never had children because of what “might happen”? I would wonder if I would not be the biggest coward in the world! As an old man, would I not look back and feel contempt for shrinking from life’s challenges? Would I essentially have lived only half a life? I reflect back on all those I hold to be heroes - certain authors, soldiers, and politicians who accomplished great things. Did they live with fear? Were they so focused on achieving their goals that fear had no time in their councils? I recently read the following quote: “Most men are neither virtuous nor scoundrels, good hearted or bad-hearted. They are a little of one thing and a little of the other and nothing for any length of time: ignoble mediocrities.” Am I such a man? I can hardly conceive of anything more dispiriting.

I finally decided to commit fully to marriage and place my faith in the future, figuring that to play the Hamlet of men and forever ruminate on my choices was to make myself crazy – there was no end to it. I committed to marriage. I would deal with any problems that arose at that time. I felt able – “empowered,” as the modern argot reads – to make it work. I was onboard. I jumped into the deep end of the pool, for better or for worse, in my marriage – knowing it would have a life of its own, that I was not fully in control, trusting that was good enough.

As it goes for marriage, so it goes for fatherhood. I know what it is like to hold my wife’s hand in the doctor’s office as we see our child for the first time through the miraculous black and white imagery of the ultrasound monitor. I know what it is like to feel my heart flutter and skip a beat as our child – aged 11 weeks and six days, measuring 44 millimeters from head to foot – performs a crisp kick stroke in the womb. I squeeze my wife’s hand and move nearer to her.

I look closely at the computer screen and scrutinize my child’s nascent body: the still forming limbs, the tiny toes and fingers. My child is only a few inches in size, but the doctor informs us that all the major organs and bones are already formed. Closer yet I examine the fuzzy black and white image of emerging life. Will he or she be born healthy? Happy? Fortunate? Unfortunate? There is no way of knowing. There exists the possibility that our child will be born with major birth defects. It might lead a difficult life of pain and struggle uphill constantly, and he or she might always require our constant attention as it never fully matures or becomes independent. Major financial sacrifices and special educational services.

But that prospect is OK with me, and if such be the case than I am ready to love that child as I would any other – and any parent who cannot say as much should not become a parent. It is not child’s play; it is serious business. There is no “going back.” There is only failed parenting.

Dr. Johnson once said the following: "To live without feeling or exciting sympathy, to be fortunate without adding to the felicity of others, or afflicted without tasting the balm of pity, is a state more gloomy than solitude; it is not retreat, but exclusion from mankind. Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures." The same is true in parenting, I believe. Every day is a movement towards growth and life, or else a retreat from it while waiting for death. It is essentially no different in the big or the small decisions.

Yesterday I heard several high school juniors speculate happily on the prospect of becoming a parent someday; I held no such similar thoughts when I was 16 years old. But I know nobody but another parent knows how much you can love your child. I know what it feels like to see your child growing in the womb and not be able to wait until he or she matures and emerges from the womb and cries that first cry of anguished life. I know what it is like to be a nervously expectant father, endlessly curious about what sort of fellow fate is bringing into our lives.

I cannot wait.

And I have faith.

“A baby is God's opinion that life should go on.”

Carl Sandberg