Everyone wants to tell you when to have babies. Economists warn that having kids early in your career can be a disastrous professional and financial move. Scientists counter that moms—and dads—who stretch their biological clocks are running serious risks for their children’s health. Demographers see our low birth rates and aging population and warn that your small, delayed families are bankrupting the country. Professional scold Susan Patton wants ladies to stop, ahem, screwing around and get married, lest your biological clock scare away potential mates in your 30s.
I want to tell you when to have kids too. But I’m going to try a totally different angle. Those folks appeal to your long-term interests—"if you want to avoid [distant, slightly possible outcome], have kids now/later." They want you to rationalize. To put it another way, they're speaking to your head about matters of the heart (and reproductive organs).
Not me. I want to speak to your back. And your knees. And your suprachiasmatic nucleus. Forget reasoning—I want to scare you. You should have kids while you’re relatively young. Because you’ll need all the resilience your body can muster.
Parenting is way more physically taxing than you think. Here's an example: A few weeks ago, I took three showers between midnight and 3AM. Which was two more than I’d planned. Less than an hour after my very clean head hit the pillow, (appetite spoiler alert!) my son and I were rinsing the contents of his stomach off my chest. Or rather, as it turned out, we dealt with a fraction of the contents of his stomach—because we were soon back in there for round two.
The rest of the night was a restless amalgam of anxiety and adrenaline. I spent the bulk of the remaining pre-dawn hours steeled in preparation to whisk him off the bed and into the bathroom for the (several) repeat performances. Despite my best efforts, the bedsheets—and two of my t-shirts—did not survive the night.
This isn’t a daily—or, that is, a nightly—occurrence. But neither was it an isolated incident in an otherwise stable life. It was more like punctuation, a real life comma that emphasizes the constant pressures of our daily schedule. That is, while I was especially exhausted for the rest of that week, it only heightened how I usually feel anyway.
I’m always tired. Waxed. Flat. Wiped. I'm utterly shattered right now, but I’ve been putting this column off for months and I promised that I’d file a draft today. And it’s midnight.
The exhaustion isn’t just overwhelming for this particular slice of parenthood. It’s not just this week. Not just lately. Not just this month. But always. All. The. Time. Every few weeks I get so far behind on sleep that I lose my peripheral vision. I get headaches from the deficit. And this is an improvement from back when our two kids hadn’t quite learned to sleep through the night.
I don’t need an inordinate amount of sleep. I can get by on six or seven hours a night without most of these symptoms. But I don’t get that regularly. Because I have real life to take care of once our two kids are asleep (between 8PM and 8:30PM most nights). I have bills to pay and strollers to repair and urgent, slipped-through-the-cracks work to finish and stuffed inboxes to cry over. Between the two of us, my wife and I are just barely getting the essential stuff done.
I have worse news. The wear and tear isn’t just a matter of insufficient pillow hours. My body is also slowly capitulating to parenting’s physical grind. The specifics of how, why, and where of my nagging injuries has varied as the kids have grown up, but the early years are a particularly tough time. Think of infants and toddlers like medicine balls. Except kids are: 1) less dense, 2) more mobile, and 3) heavier (eventually). Most critically, unlike exercise equipment, when I lift my kids, I’m usually lifting them for a practical purpose, like maneuvering them through a car door and into their car seats—which is impossible to do without twisting, straining, and torquing my back like an arthritic, uncoordinated Gumby.
Don’t think that I'm sandbagging it here. I'm in decent shape. I run between 15 and 25 miles most weeks (at around 7:15 splits). I've been a bike commuter for nearly a decade. I do pretty regular core workouts. I'm no Olympian, but my BMI and blood pressure are two of the only things that I don’t worry about as a dad.
Next: I’m not uniquely tired by some idiosyncratic work-family arrangement. Since becoming a father (at ripe old 28), I’ve taken turns as our family’s primary caregiver and primary earner. For half a year, I even worked a flexible schedule that allowed me to hold down a full-time job while covering about 60 percent of our childcare needs. In other words, my wife and I are trying everything to get some relief from the exhaustion. I’ve tried multiple work-life arrangements, and they’re pretty much indistinguishable when it comes to physical toll.
Nor am I one of those pathetic “men” too wimpy to handle the grit of parenthood. I’ve changed thousands of diapers (no exaggeration). I’ll change more tomorrow. My nostrils have smelt the horrors of the (cloth) diaper pail. Every week. For years. I am no wilting violet.
Here’s my point. If you’re like me, you’re mindful of the fact that your body can’t take the beatings it once brushed off without consequences. My trendline’s pretty clear. In college, I could sleep three or four hours, run five miles, work a double shift at work, and finish a term paper—all while still processing last night’s beers. While I was getting my PhD in my twenties, I could still work all-nighters and function the next day. I could still play aggressive pick-up hoops.
But the resilience just isn’t there anymore. When I stay up late to write now, I wake up with a cold. And when I get a cold now, it becomes pneumonia.
Most of those other baby-timing considerations are controversial—and abstract. Have kids earlier and you might decrease your lifetime earnings. Have them later and the complications of advanced parental age might make parenthood more complicated for you. Wait to have kids and you might not live to see your grandkids graduate high school. And while all these variables are worth considering, none of them are certainties.
Parenting exhaustion is unflinchingly certain. It’s right there with death and taxes. It's already out there, waiting for you just outside of some far-off hospital maternity ward. Unless you can afford a 24-hour au pair, you can’t dodge this. No matter when you have kids, they will exhaust you. The sleep deprivation will screw you up. What’s more, your muscles are less injury-prone now than they will be. Your skeleton has less mileage on it. Whenever you have kids, they will leave you with lifelong physical scars (you too, dads).
Forgive me the gloom. Remember: I’m trying to scare you. But there’s a friendlier version. The exhaustion isn’t without recompense. It’s the price of supporting a cheerful childhood. It’s the price of doing all the things I need to do to raise joyful, exuberant kids. And I’d have had way less gas in the tank to tear around the playground if I’d waited another decade. I’d be worse at goofy roughhousing. Since I became a father in my twenties, I stand a fighting chance of keeping pace with them well into their late teens (and beyond, God willing).
One more thing: parenting exhaustion isn’t an absolute deadline. It’s all relative. You’re more vital today than you will be tomorrow. And you'll be more vital tomorrow than you'll be next week.
So I’m not suggesting that you should to have kids by a certain day or a particular age. There’s no right time to have kids. But if you have most of the other big pieces in place (job, relationship, etc.), and you’re finding the other considerations paralyzing, maybe let exhaustion tip the scale. Good luck—and sweet dreams!