Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Kids and Time

Last week a friend of mine who does not have children asked me what the biggest difference having kids made in my life.

There are a lot of them, really. It’s hard to pick one or two. But I came up with an answer, and the more I think about it, the more I think I was onto something. I don’t get that feeling very often, so naturally I figured I had to put it up here.

Of all the things that the girls have taught me, the one that stood out during that phone call was that they made me think about the world beyond just me.

Now, I knew this even before I had kids. There are a lot of people in the world with concerns and issues that aren’t mine. The world was here long before I was (trust me, I’m a historian, I know these things), and it will continue long after I am gone. None of that was news.

But it hits home more when you have children.

I’m 44 years old now. Realistically, if all goes well, I’ve got maybe 35 more years left on this planet. Perhaps a bit more – my family is rather long-lived on average. Perhaps a bit less – most of that longevity is confined to the female half of the family, and you never know what is going to come down the pike even in the best of times. But from a demographic perspective, another three to three and a half decades is probably close.

This means that if it were just me, realistically I wouldn’t have to worry about anything that would happen after 2045. I wouldn’t be here to see it. It wouldn’t affect me directly. And while there is always that sense of larger responsibility that you have toward communities, the fact is that a short-term perspective is all too common in that context.

But in 2045 Tabitha will be about my age now and Lauren will be just a few years younger. They too will have another 35 years or so to go on this planet. And you think about that, as a parent, in a way that you don’t when you’re not, at least in my experience. It’s personal now. These little people that you have brought into the world are going to have to live in that world long after you are gone, and it becomes important to you what that world will look like. You need to plan for the long term, longer even than you will be around. It’s not just retirement – it’s posterity.

In short, you find yourself much more tied into the fabric of the ongoing human community. It’s not just you. It’s your family. And that family is embedded in the community around you, a community that needs you – yes, you personally – to work to make it better now so that it will be better then.

And this sense of community fabric works backwards, too.

I find myself more anxious to preserve stories and memories now that there is someone to pass them on to, someone for whom they’ll have more meaning than just random bits of historical trivia.

Not that there’s anything wrong with random bits of historical trivia (vide supra, “trust me, &c.”), but that sort of thing doesn’t hold your interest for very long. When I was at the museum we were deluged with random bits of historical trivia that people had lost interest in. That’s where most of our collections came from. Their grandparents passed away and up in the attic they found all sorts of old photos, objects and whatnot that they had never seen before and didn’t know anything about. So they gave them to us. It was that or landfill them.

Objects without stories just take up space.

So when the girls ask to look through old photos or want to know what the story is behind a knick-knack here or there, I try to tell them the stories behind them so these things will have some meaning for them. It’s an ongoing struggle to do that, with the demands on one’s time that everyone has these days, and I don’t always succeed in pushing those demands back enough to make room for those stories. But I try, because it’s important.

And if I succeed, perhaps they will see themselves as part of that larger fabric as well, of family and community that preceded them and will last beyond them.

Of course, they may not really get that until they have children of their own, and as this would make me a grandfather, I suppose that would be just fine too.

No rush, though.

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