Literary Los Angeles: Choosing L.A.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about that article from New York Magazine.   This one, if you haven’t read it, but it’s likely you have.   It’s called “All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting” and it’s about the daily drudgery of child-rearing (or at least one type of anxious middle-class child-rearing) as well as its ineffable rewards.

With respect to the author, Jennifer Senior, there’s not much new ground here — the article is more a synthesis of many pro- and anti-parenthood arguments I’ve heard and read elsewhere.   But clearly it struck a chord.   In the last week it’s been emailed, Twittered, linked on Facebook, shared on Reader, and otherwise passed on to me by more than a dozen of my friends, married and single, men and women, with and without children.   In fact I can think of no single link I’ve received so many times, or at least none that doesn’t involve Star Wars or the iPad.   Last night I sat down to coffee with my child-free friend Darcy and almost the first comment out of her mouth was, “Have you read that article–?” I cut her off.   “Yep,” I said. “I have.”

The article touches on so many aspects of contemporary parenting that I’m sure I’ll be mulling it over for some time to come, but one of the many lines that I keep coming back to is this one from psychologist Jean Twenge: “[Contemporary adults] become parents later in life. There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.”

So how does this connect, however tenuously, with Los Angeles, this column’s ostensible topic? For me, it’s about choice.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, as I never tire of mentioning, though I spent some of my childhood in Tucson, Seattle, and San Diego.   Since graduating high school I have lived in ten dwellings in six cities on three continents and now at the age of thirty-one I am raising my daughter within walking distance of my old high school.   Frankly, it’s not the most imaginative choice.

I love Los Angeles for a lot of valid, well-thought-out reasons that I can explain at length (and will — try me).   I also love it for a lot of silly, sentimental reasons: the sad, scary mammoth statues in Hancock Park; that car wash on Sunset Boulevard where my dad would let me eat the complimentary sugar cubes.   And yet there are plenty of other places I’ve loved living, too, and plenty more I know I would have loved if I’d had the chance to live in them.

My husband and I are now in the process of buying our first house in L.A., a declaration that we’ll be staying here into the foreseeable future.   For more than two years we’ve debated, should we buy a house or should we continue renting? There are good arguments in favor of both, and the arguments keep changing as the economic landscape keeps changing.

Growing up, I never wanted to have children.   By my late twenties, I was highly ambivalent — absolutely dead-set against it one minute and excited about it the next.   The decision — the impossibility of making the decision — was exhausting and terrifying and led nowhere.   At last the choice came down to something like, “Oh, screw it, let’s just see what happens.”   It’s not the most well-reasoned argument in favor of forever altering your own future while engendering new human life, but it worked for me.

Many people know that they want to have children. Many other people know that they don’t—a choice they should be free to make without judgment or dismissal, without others telling them that they’ll regret it someday or that they’ll change their minds.   But many more people are like I was — they go back and forth and they just never know.

One thing about children is, you can decide whether or not to have them (you can, in fact, agonize over it for years), but you can’t decide on which child you get.   You’re just assigned one, boy or girl, calm or cranky, sick or well, and that one’s yours.   And Beatrice is not the baby I would have picked.   If I could have picked the baby I wanted, I would have picked a baby much like the one I was: calm, obedient, serious, somewhat timid and shy.   I would not have picked Beatrice: outgoing, independent, hyper-kinetic, reckless, and impulsive.   And yet, all those unasked-for qualities are now the things about her I love most.   So I’m glad no one asked me my dumb opinion.

It’s 105F in L.A. today as I type this.   This heat, in turn, breeds a disgusting profusion of hideous insects that skulk around the sidewalks and sewers after the sun goes down.   There are power outages and earthquakes and patrolling police helicopters droning all night through the febrile, filthy sky.   Like the modern parents who’d enjoyed fifteen years of evening cocktails and Sunday crosswords before trading it in for diapers and sippy cups, I’ve been other places, I know what I’m giving up.   But for me it’s not about making the perfect choices, it’s about just making choices and loving the life to which they lead.