On Facebook, people often mark the birthdays of their eldest children with memories of becoming a parent for the first time. Sometimes there are baby photos from the hospital, memories of a wretched labor, whatever. You talk about how awesome your kid has turned out to be.
All good. But I saw a post recently about one baptism into parenthood that jarred me out of my usual Facebook stupor. On that fateful date, this mom realized that “it was obvious: Nothing in my life had really mattered until then.”
Some folks are more dramatic than others (who knows if this woman believes this absolute), but as I have thought about this, I realized that this statement was touching on the same issue raised in a comment recently on life goals changing after children. They can. But they also might not. And that is OK too, to acknowledge that life before kids was awesome and life after is awesome, and you are still you and you still want what you want.
To be sure, kids do change things. There is the existential: you are responsible for another person. There is the trivial: you spend money on things such as sports classes for toddlers that probably did not cross your mind as compelling prior. You spend your time differently. You probably think about some issues differently (and certainly any veteran parent can marvel at a non-parent insisting that their future children will always eat kale, or sleep on a schedule, or play with appropriately progressive toys, or whatever).
But I remember when I was pregnant for the first time how people kept telling me that everything would be different, particularly in regards to my professional priorities. All my life, and what I would want, would be re-ordered upon meeting my son.
Well, I met my son, and he was great. Adorable! (as much as squished up newborns can be). In my humble opinion, he demonstrated his brilliance early on. But I had been around a lot of babies in the past, so I was not shocked by having a baby in my life. Nor did I experience this lightning bolt flash of feeling the need to negate everything else I had accomplished or wanted to accomplish. I felt like…me. Me with a kid. Before my son was born, I wanted to learn interesting things about the world and then write about them. I enjoyed running and singing and reading. After my son was born, I wanted to learn interesting things about the world, and then write about them. I still enjoyed running and singing and reading, and so I continued with my life with my kid along for the ride. And three more after them.
It has been a great ride! The kids have turned out to be awesome little people. Far from completely altering my life goals with respect to my career, they have shoved me toward them by giving me lots of new things to write about. I realize I have been very lucky in having four healthy children, and work that has some natural flexibility to it. I also realize that people can experience various things (such as financial shocks) that will change life regardless of what you want.
But there are some larger points here, such as that intense love for other people does not require negating yourself and your own identity. If you have done the work of getting to know yourself before having children, it is quite possible that your self-knowledge will survive the shift to parenthood. Likewise, while raising kids is very meaningful, it is not the only source of meaning in life. Indeed, I think it is a bit dangerous to depend too much on children for giving your life meaning. They are ultimately their own people. You are your own person too.