One Answer for All the Advice Column Questions Ever

by Joshua Michtom

At 37, I frequently find myself talking with people about whether they should have kids. This is an understandable dilemma, with the sands running out of the biological hourglass and all that, and the key issue always seems to be, “Will I regret not having kids?” or, “Will I not love having kids as much as I thought and thus, regret having them?” (Here’s a letter to Dear Sugar that lays out the general script.)

Having children, like getting married and choosing a career (if anyone has the luxury of doing that anymore), is a big decision, and it should be hemmed and hawed over. (I say this as someone who got married and had children with almost no long-term consideration, and paid a certain price for it.) But there is something about the way that people approach big life decisions like this that has perplexed me for a long time: the idea that with sufficient analysis, the right choice can be made and regret can be avoided. At the risk of seeming fatalistic, I’m pretty sure that whenever the question begins with, “Will I regret…?” the answer is “Yes.” How can anyone who has spent any time being alive think otherwise?

The answer — or rather, the fallacy that underlies so much of our worrying over these sorts of things — occurred to me while reading John Swanburg’s excellent investigation of the concept of the self-made man. Swanburg notes that throughout American history, each generation has embraced the notion that a person could shape his own future decisively. At times, the formula has centered on relentless hard work and thrift, in the mold of Ben Franklin. Sometimes, the emphasis has been on righteousness, as with the diamond-in-the-rough street children of Horatio Alger’s stories, whose acts of altruism were invariably noticed and rewarded by wealthy benefactors. But we have always held fast to the idea that our individual choices and actions are the key determinants of our later circumstances.

Swanburg points out that this conception of personal cause and effect is folly. His own self-made father certainly worked hard, but happened to get into the roofing business at a moment when changes in technology and construction methods made his success more likely. In every one of the cases of “self-made” success that Swanburg examines, luck played as big a role as thrift or industry. And yet, our notion of untrammeled agency persists. Suze Orman scolds us for buying lattes. Dear Sugar tells a 41-year-old vacillating on the threshold of fatherhood to make a big list of pros and cons.

So, my dear readers, let me give you the one answer to all the advice column questions about babies, jobs, cross-country moves, and loving relationships that seem to have lost their spark: The answer is that there is no answer. You will regret your choice, no matter what it is. Even I, who knew forever and without reservation that I wanted to have children, sometimes look longingly at the carefree, childless life that could have been. I love my children immensely, but they are a huge pain in the ass, frequently ungrateful, and extraordinarily expensive to care for. Without them, I could go out for a long bike ride whenever I wanted, and sleep alone in the woods, and probably not have this modest paunch that has lately made all my suit pants feel uncomfortable when I sit for a long time. I also love my job — I am exactly the sort of asshole who is cut out to be a lawyer, and I enjoy being one. But it has taken me 10 years and tens of thousands of dollars of debt to get back to making as much money as I would have made after a year if I had stayed in my pre-law school job.

This is not to say that there is no value in careful planning or serious deliberation. As Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design. But whenever we are confronted with an important life decision involving two viable options, we must recognize what a privilege that is. If you’re choosing between professional opportunity and professional stability, it means you have access to both stability and opportunity. If you hesitate to have a baby because it means, as it did to Dear Sugar, that you might not be able to ride bicycles across Iceland or hike around Mongolia, it means you have a life that potentially includes those things in the first place. It means, in short, that no matter what you choose, regrets notwithstanding, you will be OK.

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Photo by the author.