I was talking with a friend who is in her early 30s. She expressed ambivalence about having children. “I love my nieces when I go to visit them but it seems like a huge amount of work and I’m happy to turn them back over to their parents.”
I told her that it was a mistake to make decisions about having children based on observing other people take care of their own children and/or one’s own experience taking care of others’ children.
Speaking for myself, I spent about 25 adult years watching friends and relatives taking care of kids and periodically babysitting others’ children. (Typical babysitting experience: taking care of three children at my Cambridge apartment for three hours and needing to take a 10-minute business phone call during that time. The 7-year-old picked those 10 minutes to break away from her siblings, come into my home office, and say “I’m bored.”)
From the outside the life of a parent has many unappealing aspects. These people appear to have hardly any time to concentrate on reading a book, watching a movie, or engaging in an adult conversation with a friend.
But when I finally moved into the parent role myself the things that I would have expected to be bothersome were not. It doesn’t bother me to interrupt an adult dinner table conversation and cut up food for Greta, for example. Perhaps it is because I did a lot of traveling when younger but I don’t feel trapped because I can’t run off to New Zealand for two months. Generally I like to do things efficiently and quickly. This is simply impossible with a 3-year-old in tow. She is not interested in point-to-point walking time. She is interested in having her hand held while she balances on a curb or line of bricks. She wants to ask about the function of a metal strip that separates a brick sidewalk from mulch. She wants to know why there is a green railing alongside a wheelchair ramp in front of Harvard’s Sackler Museum. So a 10-minute walk to meet friends for dinner turns into a 25-minute exploration of the urban environment. If you’d asked me ten years ago “Would it get on your nerves to spend 25 minutes on a 10-minute walk?” I would have said “Absolutely.” But in fact I enjoy answering her questions and helping her explore.
This is not to say that parenthood is for everyone. My point is only that you can’t expect to learn much about how you’ll feel as a parent by watching other people, even close relatives, engage in parenting. Nor can you learn that much by taking care of others’ children.