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  • A recent viral article lamented the impact of kids on fun friend gatherings. But kids are the whole point of life.  Tweet This
  • For many cultures, children and family are a key component of a well-lived life. Tweet This
  • One of the anxieties of new parenthood is that life will simply become very boring. I am here to tell any prospective parents that I shared those fears, but parenting did not derail my life.  Tweet This

For the first 10 years of my married life, I wanted to be cool. I was a breaking news journalist, and it was thrilling to dodge molotov cocktails at protests, then come back and regale my friends with tales of my adventures at cocktail parties. I was already married at the time, but delayed having kids because I didn’t want to sacrifice that adventurous lifestyle. 

As I’ve written before, though, I eventually got the feeling that life wasn’t just about amassing a collection of cool stories. My wife and I did eventually have kids, which wasn’t meant as an antidote to that feeling but in practice ended up serving as one. Life as a parent is better.

I was thinking about this experience while reading a viral New York Magazine essay about how children tend to kill adult friendships. The author, Allison P. Davis, recalls both her own experiences and those of interview subjects who have seen their kids form a wedge between previously tight-knit friend groups. Eventually, Davis can’t even pretend to be happy, saying that a newly pregnant friend “was birthing my mortal f****** enemy.” Ouch. 

The article prompted an array of responses. I enjoyed this Slate piece urging childfree friends to be patient with their new-parent pals, and this Today in Tabs post that suggests Davis may be struggling with her friends “mostly because she’s kind of awful to them.” 

But I think the real point of the story is to grapple with the anxiety people feel about becoming uninteresting or uncool if they or their friends start having kids.

That anxiety is evident again and again in the piece. For instance, Davis spoke with parents who live vicariously through their child-free friends, some of whom operate glamorous art galleries or run with the bulls in Spain. Davis herself describes “a woman I consider a heroic parent archetype” who goes to dance parties and is a regular at Coachella. Lamenting the fact that everyone in her sphere isn’t similarly cool, Davis wonders a few lines later, “When did all of my interesting friends become so conventional and heteronormie? I felt disappointed in the squaring of my friend group.”

So, there it is. The issue here is less about friendships and more about being a square. Kids dash the fantasy that life for most of us will be one big party-cum-artist salon. Davis lionizes the people, including parents, who refuse to accept this, living in their 30s and 40s the way they did in their 20s. And she criticizes the friends who accept that life has different seasons. 

Obviously, this is just a single magazine piece. But I think it struck a cord because so many parents do grapple with, to paraphrase archon of coolness LCD Soundsystem, losing their edge. And indeed, much of the response to Davis’ jeremiad — that Slate piece as well as an enjoyable post from The New Fatherhood — has argued that parents can in fact maintain their edge and not become squares.

But I’d like to gently suggest that this is the wrong debate to be having. It gives far too much weight to ephemeral experiences and arbitrary ideas about urban sophistication. Which is to say, parents can be cool, but it also doesn’t matter because coolness is not the point of life.

To understand this idea, consider for starters what being cool or interesting actually entails within the framework that Davis lays out. She imagines, for instance, that her cool childless friends are out attending orgies because they’re so radically unconventional. But more often, kids are getting in the way of ho hum dinner parties, or upsetting breakfast routines on group vacations. 

In a similar vein, the New Fatherhood post points to a 2013 piece in The Atlantic that advocates against large families. The reason? Kids are “untidy; they would have messed up my flat. In the main, they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.” 

So while it’s easy to imagine a dichotomy that pits family life against thrilling adventures like running with the bulls, what we’re really talking about here is a choice between family and things like ordinary drinking or tidy apartments. Setting aside the fact that those things are part of many parents’ lives, they also don’t seem especially unconventional. Happy hours? Coachella? Books? This isn’t exactly Fidel Castro and Che Guevara plotting a revolution from the middle of a Latin American jungle. 

By framing these ideas—family versus self or kids versus fun—as two opposing and equally valid worldviews, we encourage people to make an unnecessary choice and forgo the single most rewarding experience a person can have. 

On a deeper level, this debate raises questions about the purpose of life. For many cultures, children and family were a key component — often the component — of a well-lived life. In some cases that mandate stems from a theology that prioritizes having kids. But this idea is widespread and transcends any single time period or culture. All the way back in ancient Rome, for example, Emperor Augustus legislated rewards for marrying and having kids under the premise that these activities were among life’s primary goals.1

The Romans certainly knew how to party, and I suspect they’d be confused by the banality of America’s childfree bourgeoisie. “You gave up on the good life and family to do shots and get DoorDash five nights a week?” I imagine Augustus saying, while strolling between a brothel and a vomitorium.

I jest, but the point is that Davis and others are critiquing an ancient worldview that frames family as central to happiness. Yet it’s not clear what they’re offering in its place. Is it a philosophy that gives paramount importance to fun? To narcissism? Are we really to believe that racking up obscure workplace trophies or having a boys’ night out is the reason we’re on this earth? 

I just can’t buy that. I tried it myself and had plenty of great experiences, but to place those moments of fun above family is like selling your birthright for a mess of pottage.

Adopting this vaguely anti-child worldview also likely means a harder life. We know, for example, that an overwhelming majority of parents describe their experience as enjoyable. Parents live longer than the childfree. And adult children have traditionally served as caretakers of their aging parents—something that is exceedingly important at a time when loneliness has reached epidemic proportions among the elderly. 

In this context, it’s hard to see how being a square really matters. Ergo, the best response to arguments like the one in this viral article isn’t that they’re wrong and parents can be cool. Rather, the best response is that a worldview based on fun or self-centered achievement is no replacement for family. Or put another way, when I’m 80 years old, I want to be surrounded by my loved ones, not murmuring to myself about running with the bulls. 

Still, I get it. No one wants to be a square. And no one needs to be. My 5-year-old daughter is a fan of Indian food and Miyazaki. She’s been to three foreign countries. I mention this because I know from personal experience that no matter what I say, one of the anxieties of new parenthood is that life will simply become very boring. I am here to tell any prospective parents that I shared those fears, but that parenting did not derail my life. 

But I’m also here to suggest that being interesting is not life’s purpose. It’s a collateral benefit of leading a full life, of partaking in core human experiences—of which having a family looms larger than pretty much anything else. And my fear is that by framing these ideas—family versus self or kids versus fun—as two opposing and equally valid worldviews, we encourage people to make an unnecessary choice and forgo the single most rewarding experience a person can have.  

Jim Dalrymple II is a journalist and author of the Nuclear Meltdown newsletter about families. He also covers housing for Inman and has previously worked at BuzzFeed News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

1. Mary Harlowe and Ray Laurence,  Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach. (New York: Routledge, 2002): pg. 86.