A couple of my friends recently took a big step in their relationship — one that requires a tonne of patience, compromise, love and accepted responsibility. The decision to take on a dependant. Her name? Josie, the old English sheepdog. A hulking, heavily-moulting bundle of joy.
While she weighs at least 10-times more than the average newborn and bears no physical or behavioural similarities to a baby (besides the heavy drooling), Josie is, perhaps, the next step in my friends' relationship towards actual parenthood. This hypothesis of my own was kind of proven when Josie's "dad", my mate, declared he was "so clucky" the other day.
I'm sort of feeling it, too. A dog-shaped hole in my life that might be a manifestation of something deeper and more child-shaped. My girlfriend and I have always bonded over smothering strangers' dogs with affection, but lately it has taken on a whole new level of ferocity. Innocent pats have turned into hours trawling dog adoption websites together, or sending each other potential candidates during the day ("Oreo, three-year-old schnauzer, does not play well with others"). Does this shared "passion" mean we're ready to be parents? Where do I get off comparing the complexities of bringing new life into the world with surfing the web for a sprightly, yet apartment-friendly, Jack Russell?
Well, for one thing, the timing seems right. Statistically, the average age for a woman to become pregnant in Australia is 30 years old. I'm pushing the big 3-0, as is my girlfriend and most of our friends. Some are married and a couple are even about to have an expensive little miracle of their own. As a chronic over-analyser, the idea that I'm coming so close to one of the key pillars of adulthood makes me nervous as hell. Am I ready to grow all the way up? Seriously, a kid?! What am I thinking? Specifically, these things:
- Days spent travelling / hanging with mates/bingeing TV shows are numbered. Essentially, every waking hour would now be dedicated to a child.
- My girlfriend would have to go through nine months of sickness, pain, anxiety and stress — then back it up with so much more once the baby is born — and I can't do anything more for her than be a glorified errand boy. That haunts me.
- I can barely keep a houseplant alive.
- They say the average cost of raising two children until they finish high school is more than $400,000. Between that, a mortgage and living expenses, how does one afford this? What's the cheat code?
- Sleep . . . I've heard there's a severe lack of it once you become a parent.
But with a little rational thought, these fears can all be assuaged. My greatest fear though? Not so much. Put simply, what if I'm a bad father?
Seeking some paternal advice, I turned to my own father (I figured he's too nice to say he regrets having kids to his actual kid). He became a parent pretty young; four out of five were conceived before he hit 30. Not surprisingly, he's from an Irish-Catholic background where, in his words, "Growing up, getting married and having kids was like the sun coming up — it was inevitable." His two biggest fears? That he was too young and not ready, and that he wouldn't love or connect with his kids when they were born. But his feelings changed over time: "To suggest that your feelings won't change is ridiculous. Everything changes," he said. "Having children will change your life, but the mere act of having a child is a major compensation for those changes. Seeing them happy, creating their own lives and making their own decisions as they get older."
Comforting words, but is he looking back on the early days with rose-tinted glasses? I needed someone more sleep-deprived — a new dad. So I called up a mate who became a first-time parent a month ago. "There's always the fear that your life's going to change beyond belief," he said, "but I was excited about giving my focus to something else." Maybe he's right. A recent study claimed couples with kids are actually happier than those without — that having kids adds a whole new, rich layer to life. One that isn't just about personal happiness, but the happiness of others.
Of course, the fears of men don't hold a candle to what women endure through the whole process. The partnership is severely skewed, there's no doubt about it. But my fears are still real fears. So if you're feeling them, like me, what are your options? You could accept that change is inevitable. Much like how your idea of a good time might have morphed over the years from sweating in a smoky club till 6 a.m., to opening a fancy bottle of red for your dinner guests — so too will your feelings about compromise and responsibility. (Alternatively, you not have kids at all, what do I care?) But mostly, just talk about it; with your dad, your mum, your partner, your mates. It's helped me feel a little more at peace about it. Not enough to have kids just yet, but at least to get a dog. Baby steps.