Sacrificing for your kids
My one and only letter to other parents
After my sister and I left home, my mom transformed her life. She left her career, went back to school, and announced her separation from my step-dad, who had helped raise my sister and me for the previous, formative ten years.
She had been working in computers and tech consulting—but now she quit all that and started volunteering as a ballet teacher for toddlers. The classes were held at a nearby school that catered to kids interested in careers in the performing arts. It had been easy to forget growing up, but my mom had actually been a double major in theatre and dance at Bard College. She had danced ballet—she loved ballet. Now, she was again immersed in a community of performers.
My mother’s role at the school grew until one day the executive director left, and somehow my mom was the board’s choice for replacement. Just a few years earlier she’d been a computer consultant. Now, she was leading a performing arts high school.
She had also gone back to school, this time to get a Master’s in history. She attended Western Connecticut State University, the cheapest, closest place to our house that would fit with her schedule.
Then, as I prepared to go to grad school, my mom told my sister and me that she wanted to go to a university in the UK to get a Ph.D. But before she committed to the program, she wanted to know: would we be ok?
Specifically, she wanted to know if it was ok with us if she sold the house in Connecticut. It was the closest thing we had to a childhood home, and my mom seemed genuinely concerned as if she were abandoning us, or at the very least leaving us without a home base.
My sister and I assured her we’d be fine. More than fine. Our dad was in New Mexico. Our grandmother was in Connecticut. Our aunt and uncle were nearby, as were our other grandparents. All of them had homes. All of them would have us if we needed a place to go. Besides, my sister and I had been largely independent for a long time. Both of us had been to boarding school for high school. My sister had already lived abroad. We’d traveled to more than a dozen countries, some of them without even telling anyone where we were going next.
Anyway, we recognized this wasn’t really about us. This was about our mom. She was finally doing what she really wanted in life—and asking our permission.
Of course, we wanted her to go. I was 23 at the time. My sister was 21. We wanted our mom to be happy. We wanted her to follow her dreams.
In fact, as my mom transformed her life, part of me had been wondering what had taken her so long. And I was dreadfully concerned and feeling a little guilty that the answer was me. My sister and I. I looked at all the things she was doing now that she’d never done before and I asked myself: had my mom sacrificed the life she really wanted for us?
Of course, sacrificing for your kids is the most normal thing you can possibly do: condoned by everyone, acceptable to all. It’s evolutionary. What could be more natural, than to sacrifice for your kids?
Personally, I’ve done the same. I’ve taken jobs, moved places, stayed places, and spent untold time and money. The biggest sacrifice, the one I think about a lot, is staying in Maryland to co-parent. Yes, I bought a house in New Hampshire and moved to the mountains to climb more, and during the pandemic when the kids were out of school we spent all our time there. For the past two years, it’s felt like New Hampshire was our home base. But the nitty-gritty truth is that I can’t actually, fully move away from Maryland without relinquishing custody of my son or taking his mom to court. And so, during the 50% of the time when my son is with me and he is in school (and my partner’s kids are with her), we rent a house in the suburbs outside DC.
I don’t care much about the money—and all the time I’ve spent with my son in his nearly 12 years of life is precious and joyful. Being a parent is frustrating and hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My son is my life, my joy, my love.
That’s why there’s really only one thing that actually feels like a sacrifice to me, which is staying in Maryland, living in the suburbs, and renting this house. I want to be with him, but I don’t really want to be here.
When I became a parent, I read two books on parenting. Both of them were about how parents do it in other countries. I wasn’t interested in the “right” way to parent, rather my reading led me to conclude there was no right way. There is just the ways we do it in this country, and other ways other people in do it other countries.
Besides, my kiddo was always easy. Slept well, ate well, didn’t throw massive tantrums, great traveler, played by himself. He was curious, joyful, and even-keeled. It became almost a running joke between my sister and me whenever she’d ask me how it was being a parent. Pure joy, I’d say, every moment pure joy (later on, when she became mother to a particularly difficult and stubborn young boy, she’d video chat me while he was on the floor in the background throwing a massive tantrum: every moment pure joy, she’d say).
I didn’t need tips or strategies for parenting, but I did want to be deliberate about my parenting choices, and parenting is nothing if not a series of endless choices. What is bedtime? Can he watch TV? Can he play video games? For how long? What will he eat? How much of his salad does he have to finish — the whole thing? (And what about cooked vegetables?) How much freedom and responsibility do I extend, and in what balance? Should I buy that for him? What about this? What presents to get? What to do on school vacations? School, homework, chores, bedtimes, screen times, mealtimes. And I haven’t even gotten to the brutal choices we faced parenting through COVID.
Early on, I decided I needed a rubric through which to pass all these decisions, or I’d go crazy. And the one I decided on was this: my kid lives in my world; I don’t live in his world.
It’s amazing how much can be fit into that simple framework.
Another book I read early was Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Every parent should read this book. Caplan went through every twin study in the world in pursuit of an answer to the great nature vs. nurture debate, and the conclusion is this: your parenting decisions just don’t matter all that much. If you take genetic twins raised in different households, even in different countries, absent substantial abuse, violence, or poverty, they will basically turn out the same.
It’s very true that our parenting decisions seem to matter: we do things, and our kids react. But as Caplan explains, this is because our kids live in our household, and while there, they adjust. If you send them to a different household, they will adjust there as well, but when they grow up, like a rubber band, they will revert to what they were always going to be, which is largely determined by the genes you gave them, not the “parenting” you did for them.
I can look back on my childhood and point to various things my parents did that seemed to have profound impacts on my life and my worldview—we all can. But as the twin studies show, I would have turned out this way regardless. The cause and effect stories we tell ourselves about how important our parents’ decisions were in our lives are just that, stories we tell ourselves.
Caplan writes that this may seem depressing at first, but in fact, parents should find this liberating. It means that after providing a relatively stable home with food on the table, our jobs are basically done.
So, what choices should we make, if the choices don't actually matter that much? Ones that lead to a nice childhood for both your kid and you.
This is what I mean by saying that he lives in my world, and not me in his. The choices I make, I make so that my household runs smoothly. So that I get enough sleep, so that I am not tearing my hair out over little things, so that I eat the food I want, so that my time is still largely my own.
Ultimately, my goal as a parent is this: to live my life as an example to him. My parenting philosophy is to live. Not to parent, but to be a man, be a whole person, to strive, to be and do the things I want to do in life—because when my son grows up I also want him to be and do the things he wants to do in life.
And here we get back to sacrificing for one’s kids. Yes, sacrificing is all good and right and natural and not a single one of your family or friends will ever say a negative thing about a choice made in sacrifice for your kids.
My mom sacrificed for us. But also my mom became an example when she decided to pursue her dreams by going back to school, getting her Ph.d., and becoming a professor. I am really, really proud of her for doing that. The road was hard, she didn’t have a lot of money, and she had to change her whole life and give up a lucrative career to do it—but that’s what she wanted.
It was once suggested to me by another parent that I take my son to the climbing gym built specifically for kids in DC (“the routes are arranged into trains on the wall!”), as opposed to the regular climbing gym where I had been going in Rockville. My son would love it. He’d have more fun there, this parent suggested. Nothing could have been further from my philosophy as a parent. I do not take him to a kid gym so he can do kid things while I watch; I take him to my gym, so he can watch me climb and decide to either join or not. We climb on walls and rocks and cliffs in my world—not trains.
Do we arrange our lives around our kids? Let me suggest that, not only is doing so only something that wealthy 21st-century parents who live in wealthy countries can do, but doing so is counterproductive to our goals as parents.
Do you really want that to be the example you set, that you arranged your entire life around their wants and needs?
When my son reaches maturity and looks back on his childhood, here is what I want him to remember: my dad was a great dad, and I had a great childhood. My dad climbed rocks. He built stuff. He traveled widely and brought me to amazing places. He lived an examined life. He made movies, wrote books. He created. He never stopped learning. He strived for things.
I do not think parenting should be the process of sacrificing your dreams so that your kids can grow up and sacrifice their dreams.
I don’t say any of this to criticize anyone’s decisions. One thing you learn when you become a parent, or should learn, is that parents always have their reasons. I don’t begrudge any parent their decisions. As I’ve said: the only things that really matter are to make sure there’s a roof over their head and that they’re well-fed and with a home free from violence and abuse.
The roadmap you think you have for life’s decisions becomes fairly moot after you procreate. That much is clear. And by all means: sacrifice for your kids. But these sacrifices, in the end, will matter less than you think. So live and trust, and think less about the screen times and sleep schedules. Yes, having kids leads to choices—but the choice of how to live in the world is still your own. That’s the choice your kids are watching most.