A few days ago, my family and I spent the evening with my brother and his partner. Usually when we spend time with the extended family, the two of them graciously drive to our home in the ‘burbs, knowing that it is easier for us not to venture out with our young children. We appreciate this greatly, but every so often, I feel that it is time for us to pile into the circus on wheels and drive to their home in the city.

This is sometimes a bittersweet experience for me; we walk into their home, commenting on the gorgeous new artwork they have acquired on a recent trip to Santa Fe, stopping in the kitchen to grab a drink from the vast array of selections on the bar, and then we head downstairs. They have completely renovated their basement, and it is practically a residential nightclub. It is impeccably decorated, complete with a seating area, bar, and dance floor.

As we wander around, noticing the latest additions to this enticing haven of hedonism, I feel a twinge of envy. My brother fills me in on their latest adventures, and a thought slams into me: Do they have a better life than we do?

I ran into some friends last weekend, and as we talked, the dad of the two young girls raised this same question. He was talking about his sister, who had no children, and how much more freedom and relaxation she enjoys. So I asked him, bluntly, “Do people without kids have a happier life?” He emphatically responded, “YES.”

Some many tipsy self-portraits, so little time.

Some many tipsy self-portraits, so little time.

While it is obvious that he adores his two children, and much of our conversation was tongue-in-cheek, there was an underlying current of truth. It is certain that adults without children are free to pursue their interests and hobbies, not to mention sleep. They can travel unencumbered without having to secure childcare and endure guilt, they can exercise when they want to, they can devote more time to their social lives, and solitude is not such a black-market commodity.

But are they happier?

Being a nostalgia junkie, I often indulge myself in a meandering trip down memory lane. I love reliving the old days with my college friends, looking through old photos, and just losing myself in my memories. I’m not sure why, but I love remembering who I used to be, and how that girl pertains to the mom that I am now. But frequently when I am in the middle of one of these “flashbacks,” I wonder,

How much are we allowed to miss our old lives?

I was reflecting on my “old life” the other day; I moved to Denver 12 years ago as a 22 year old new professional, and recently I happened to drive by the crappy old apartment that served as my first home when I moved to town- I hadn’t seen it in years. It was such a surreal experience for me that I drove to a coffee shop and frantically scribbled down my fragmented thoughts:

 

As I drove by the faded grey building, I had the sensation of walking on one’s own grave. A Jeep full of teenagers who would have been my near-peers once upon a time pulled up next to me at the stoplight. In that instant, I was hyper-aware of my minivan, my carseats, and my status as a 34 year old mother of two.

I imagined that 22 year old me was still milling around the old digs, listening to Bjork and drinking vodka. Perhaps she would come out into the courtyard with her laundry basket, clad in a tank top in the frigid weather, still high on the powerful experience of walking down to the community laundry room to do her own grown-up laundry.

She turns her head and catches a glimpse of the taillights of a blue-grey Toyota Sienna, the vehicle that would transport the unborn fruits of her womb. She will climb the stairs, flop to the ground on the landing, and lean up against the front door. She will light a cigarette and try to imagine what her next move will be to combat the tedium, to fill the void.

And I will keep driving to the nearest Starbucks and some indulgent quiet time. The song Hotel California comes on the radio as the perfect complement to my deja-vu experience, and I remember a late night in that unimpressive first domicile: a friend of mine stayed the night and taught me the bar chords to the Eagles classic. (I promptly unlearned them.)

I always cleaned my old apartment every Friday evening as soon as I got home from work, ushering in the weekend and all its limitless possibilities. To dine alone was a burden and not a luxury. I glance one last time in the rearview mirror at the parking lot that was mine two Camrys ago, and I take a final look at 22 year old me. She stares back at me with her hand on her hip, vitality permeating every cell and pulsing carelessly around her energy field. She is reckless, full of bravado but lacking any real confidence. She has just been born, hasn’t yet found her place in the world. She doesn’t know what I know.

Complete with black-light posters and a motel-style sink outside the bathroom. Awesome.

Complete with black-light posters and a motel-style sink outside the bathroom. Awesome.

I think back on that person that I used to be, and I know for a fact that I am happier now. I am more complete, I know who I am, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin. But what if there was a third scenario, one in which I had really “arrived” at adulthood but had decided against parenthood? Would I always feel that something in my life was missing?

I have always wanted to be a mother- there was never a time in my life when I didn’t imagine my life with children in it. I would never trade my life now for one in which I was free to roam, sleep, play, and devote all my free time to my career and passions. Do I look down on people who choose a life without children? Absolutely not. 

I think all parents long for a balance between family time and freedom. But the question for me boils down to this- How much are we allowed to crave independence, or miss our “old lives?” At what point does that longing for space and freedom makes us ungrateful? Whenever I launch into a tangent about how challenging it is to be a mother, or how unpleasant it is to dine with my kids, or how much I hate getting ready for school in the morning, I feel hyper-aware of people who may be reading or listening to me who don’t have kids- but desperately want them. And then I feel as though it is somehow offensive or disrespectful for me to complain, or pine for a few hours or days of husband-wife time without kids.

It is almost as though there are two clear paths, each leading to a different life in a parallel universe. One life involves lying in bed with my husband on a Saturday morning, relaxing for as long as we like, me drinking coffee against my pillows while he spreads the newspaper over our bedspread. We plan a lazy day at home, or a day-trip with friends, and pick our favorite restaurant for dinner that night. The alternate life begins somewhat similarly, but there are two children draped across us, demanding, “All done bed! Go stairs!” and pummeling us with milk-leaking sippy cups, before we reluctantly emerge from our bed to pack a bag for a day at the zoo. Though we are desperate for more sleep and annoyed by their antics, they are also nuzzling us, and making us laugh, and loving each other.

Family Collage

Which life is better? Which is happer? There is such variance in personal preferences, and we each must identify what we perceive to be the most optimal quality of life.  Is it a life with fewer restrictions, less tedium, and more spontaneity? Or does it involve the richness and unique brand of love that comes with being a parent? I suppose it comes down to- Which one would you choose? And I think, in our hearts, we each know the answer.

 

What do you think? What is your recipe for happiness? And do you ever miss your younger days before you became a parent? 

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