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Given the State of the World, Is It Irresponsible to Have Kids?

By Megan O’Grady

The Met MuseumThomas Scully’s “Mother and Son’ (1840).

Welcome to Culture Therapist, T’s new advice column in which either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at advice@nytimes.com.

Q: You can’t help but experience Weltschmerz almost all the time these days. Divided politics and grim and growing economic disparities mean that it’s hard to reconcile the desire to have children with the state of the world you would bring them into. My mother (who was born in the ’50s and lived through the Cold War) says that the world has never seemed bleaker in her memory. Is it irresponsible, then, to have kids? Should we have kids just because we want to have someone to love and occupy our time with? Is there some method we should use to make a decision, or just get on with it and stop worrying? — Signed, Weltschmerz

A: Dear Weltschmerz,

I’m a worrier like you. I marvel at people who seem to sail through life untouched by self-doubt, much less by the existential implications of entire ecosystems burning down, but I wouldn’t want to be them. Finding clarity on big life decisions can be elusive during the best of times; these days, we flip ahead in the choose-your-own-adventure book of life with increasing trepidation. How will we ever mend the tattered social contract? Will Elizabeth Warren become president? Can we really fix all this? In the light of such major, pressing questions, personal ones can feel a little selfish. It’s hard to want things, or even to know for sure if you want them.

But here’s the real problem with trying to imaginatively cast forward into the future: You can’t know what being a parent will mean to you until you experience it. We can’t know what shape the apocalypse will take, and how we will react, until the seven horsemen knock at our doors. “The sorry fact is that we arrive here improvised,” as the poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote in her wry little poem on life’s fleetingness, “Nothing Twice,” “and leave without the chance to practice.”

And so we improvise. I can’t tell you if it’s irresponsible or not to have a child, because only by some mysterious, variable quotient is the desire to have a child even rational. Like most of the big choices we make in life, wanting that kind of relationship is largely pre-thought in origin, an emotional instinct felt in the heart and gut before it travels northward.

But I think you’re also asking something more essential about how we think and feel through the personal choices we make in a world that feels out of our control, one that is shaped largely by the decisions of others more powerful than ourselves. On the one hand, there’s the sheer luxury of having such a choice, with all its implicit optimism and hopefulness; on the other, the gravity of it, given our deepening pessimism. Could humanity’s midnight come in our children’s generation, or even our own? No one wants to be the father in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” roaming post-apocalyptic America with his son and a gun with two bullets in it, waiting for the moment it all becomes too much to bear.

And here I wonder if we could agree that this isn’t the best moment to catch up on doomsday dystopian fiction? Not because of its futility (in fact, many such novels end on an oddly cathartic, “we’ll all pull through in the end somehow” note), but because I believe that deferring to a speculative future rather than focusing on the imperative of the present moment doesn’t help us. Which is not to say that you should simply “get on with it,” or allow others to dismiss your anxiety or make you feel it is unwarranted, because it is the natural response of any intelligent person to the irrevocability of the decision you are making. You should listen to your fear and get under the rock of its reasons.

The fact is, even in the best of times, parenthood is an alarming prospect. In our culture, parents — perhaps mothers especially — are inculcated in fear. Here’s a short, quaint-feeling list of things I worried about, back when I had a baby, in comparatively less dire 2015: phthalates, sulfates, bisphenol A, pesticides, carbon-monoxide fumes, the leaching lead pipes in my Victorian-era home, crib bumpers, plush toys, the flame-retardant chemicals sprayed on every stroller sold in America, high food-chain fish, turkey sandwiches, unpasteurized cheese, even that my own bad mood could be potentially harmful to my daughter’s delicate brain chemistry. And then there’s sudden infant death syndrome. Because putting an infant down to sleep on their stomach or side increases the risk of sudden death, babies are advised to sleep only on their backs, a position inhospitable to sleep, and so they must be swaddled, wrapped and bound like a mental patient. I had finally, possibly, mastered this form of textile origami when one of the baby apps I had installed on my phone sent me a push notification: “Swaddling Linked to Sudden Death.”

Life, as the old joke goes, is the leading cause of death. In creating great love, we create the potential for great loss. When my daughter was born, it was as though she had administered a shot of adrenaline directly to my heart, the panic absurdly outsized compared to the small body that occasioned it. “Could I ever be enough?” I wondered, lying awake for many nights. And while the panic eventually subsided, the worries never really do. (Today, chasing fireflies in the park; tomorrow, active shooter drills.)

For this reason, I don’t think wanting to simply have someone to love and pass the time with is a high enough bar on which to rest your decision. Parenting is not a cosy retreat from the world but a full immersion into its problems and terrors. It is, most fundamentally, a process of discovery — of getting to know another being in formation. It is also a process of self-discovery, via an expanding galaxy of emotions. And, ultimately, it is a way of rediscovering and relearning the world through the eyes of a fresher, less cynical being. (I might even argue that a lack of this spirit of discovery is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place: the averted eyes and closed minds and hearts that seed bigotry, the fear of other ways of thinking and being.) Love changes the terms on us; it raises the stakes, forcing us to lift our ostrich heads, breaded with sand. It makes the comforts of denial unworkable and even potentially hazardous, because you can’t really sustain illusions about life and safely guide your child through it. You have, literally, new skin in the game.

One of the best takes I’ve read recently on parenthood in our uncertain, divisive, and sometimes senselessly violent times is Emily Bernard’s recent collection of essays, “Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine.” As an African-American scholar and educator of mostly white students (she’s a professor of English at the University of Vermont) and the mother of twin daughters adopted from Ethiopia with her white husband, Bernard knows what it means to have skin in the game. This is a book that operates against binary thinking in all matters, including motherhood. The roles so often framed as oppositional or competing (“art monster” vs. mother, intellectual vs. nurturer) are instead seen as mutually illuminating: parenthood as loving complication, another facet in life’s prism.

Bernard is also very good on moments of knowing and how they often come indirectly and unbidden, slowly and all at once, which is why I recommend it to you now. The desire to adopt, rather than bear children biologically, took the author by surprise, revealing itself with an unexpected yet inevitable-feeling rightness. It is, she writes, “the one decision I have made in my life that represents who I truly am, the only choice that aligns most squarely with my deepest and most fundamental belief about life on Earth: that we are here to see one another through this journey.” The decision to adopt twins, a possibility she had never considered until a photo of the infant girls, “two brown babies with enormous eyes” and crocheted yellow caps, lands in her inbox, is another moment of such realization. She shows the picture to her friend, with whom she’d been discussing the potential challenges of this unexpected turn of events. “Oh,” the friend says, looking at the picture. “You’re screwed.”

To be happily screwed is pretty much a perfect description of the way love humbles us. There are many other wonderful books that ponder some of the big questions of parenting in our time with this kind of expanded view beyond the front door, including those instant classics, Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” and Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree.” But here I want to emphasize that walking through life with curiosity and a sense of investment and joy in no way requires having a child. Writing articles about things we feel strongly about, making art (another impulse that draws from mysterious reserves to connect the inner life with the public realm), choosing a cause and devoting ourselves single-mindedly to it, whether it’s fund-raising for Raices or mentoring kids with fewer options in a neighbouring community — these are just a few ways to venture outside ourselves, to engage more deeply, to risk the discomfort of real empathy. Either way, it’s a choice that requires no justification. But do make the choice, rather than allowing your fear and dread to make it for you.