The Longest Shortest Time Podcast, Episode 79 — Terry Gross on Not Having Kids
Terry Gross shares insights that frankly many men would never have made.
I work weird hours. Most days, I’m at work by 6:00 AM and out by 3:30 PM. Typically we eat dinner around 5 and ideally the kids are in bed before 7:30. I’m usually asleep by 9.
I like to structure my day this way partly for the commute and partly because it’s nice to be in the office when it’s is super quiet. But mostly it’s for the kids. We’re believers in the “absurdly early bedtimes” approach to child rearing, and by getting to and leaving from work early, I can be home for dinner and to spend several hours with the kids before bed.
However, there are tradeoffs with this kind of lifestyle. First and foremost, it’s exhausting. Not so much because it’s early but because of the nature of parenting young kids.
I’ve said this before and I will say it again: Stay at home parents and single parents are HEROES and deserve all the credit.
From the minute I get home, the next four to five hours are a relentless, rollicking, sprint of parental duties. Some of it is great. There are the conversations, eating together, socializing, horseplay, and hanging out. But there’s also dealing with tantrums, squabbles, and tears. There’s housework and cleaning and baths to be drawn and books to be read out loud (over and over and over…). And, as I’ve written several times in the past, I find a lot of it boring and monotonous. (Confession: I don’t enjoy arts and crafts.) There’s a reason that journalist and parent Jennifer Senior titled her recent book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.”
My work schedule is also not conducive to “going out.” I can’t remember the last time I was up at midnight, even on New Year’s eve. On any given day, I’m much more likely to be awake at 5 AM than 10 PM. This actually works well for me. It turns out I’m a morning person. But I can understand how this routine could be extremely frustrating to people who like to go out and have more fun at night.
Finally, for people who are highly career-oriented, this schedule can be downright destructive. They say if you want to get ahead, be the first one in the office and the last one to leave. Well, there are days I happen to be the first one in the office but I’m never the last to leave. It’s not that I don’t do my job well. In fact, I’m proud of the quality of my work. But I also don’t have aspirations to rise up the corporate ladder. People who DO have such aspirations tend to be the ones that stay late or volunteer for extra projects or special assignments. I prefer to do my work well but leave by 3:30 PM.
Not long ago, Fresh Air’s Terry Gross went on the podcast “The Longest Shortest Time” and talked about her decision not to have children. It was one of the rare occasions when she was being interviewed, rather than the other way around. And she made what I thought were some pretty REMARKABLE insights. Some that quite frankly not many men would have made in her shoes.
Gross, 65, said she “never felt called to be a parent” and that she “couldn’t imagine having children AND having a career.” She also admitted she will “never know whether I would have enjoyed being a mother or would have been a good mother.” But Gross has no regrets over her choice. She said she got to “live the life I wanted to have. It’s the life I’ve chosen.”
Now granted, Terry Gross was a career woman who came up in the 1970’s, in an environment that was very different than what working parents experience today (although in some ways not THAT different). But listening to the podcast, I’m almost positive that for her it wouldn’t have mattered. For Terry Gross, her work IS her life—and remains so is today. She revealed, “You can’t do a daily radio show AND work part time. And I just didn’t want to give that up.”
And it wasn’t just being a mother that Terry gave up. It was virtually all relationships all together outside of her marriage. Gross was asked if she was able to maintain connections with her female friends as they became mothers over time. In response, she said she wasn’t really able to maintain friendships of ANY kind—with parents or otherwise. “I was spending so little time taking care of anything except meeting deadlines,” she said. “Those kinds of friendships disappeared. I didn’t leave room in my life for that kind of friendship.” Again, she didn’t speak about this regretfully. She repeated, “it’s the life I carved out for myself.”
Terry Gross had both the insight and humility to recognize she couldn’t “have it all.” She knew she couldn’t both be a parent and devote the time and energy to her professional work at the level and intensity she wanted to. By contrast, someone who lacked the same self-awareness was the father of Paul Kalanithi. Paul Kalanithi was the remarkable neurosurgeon whose posthumously published memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” became a best seller. His life was tragically cut short by cancer.
Dr. Lucy Kalanithi and Dr. Paul Kalanithi with their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia.
It turns out Kalanithi’s father was also a doctor. And in his memoir, he writes about why his difficult relationship with his dad made him initially reluctant to go into medicine: “I knew medicine only by its absence—specifically, the absence of a father growing up.” His father “went to work before dawn and returned in the dark.” And while his father’s “unyielding dedication to his patents” made him a “respected member of the community,” it was a very different story at home. “All I knew was, if that was the price of medicine, it was simply too high.” I wonder what Kalanithi’s life would have been liked if his father shared the same degree of self reflection Terry Gross appears to have in abundance.
On a personal note, I feel like I’m finally—maybe?—nearing the end of what is for many of us the most intense season of parenting, which is when you are raising young children. As my kids gradually get older and more independent, I’m not sure what that means for my own future. Will I have a little more free time? If so, how will I spend it?
What I probably WON’T spend my time on is trying to rise up the chain in my professional career. I’ve happily watched that train leave the station. Likewise, in her podcast “Millennial,” Megan Tan talks about the dream of freedom – no mortgage, no kids, the ability to pick up and go wherever and do whatever she felt like. That has also never been my dream.
Maybe I’ll double down on parenting, and just keep spending as much time as I am now with my kids. But if I were to take my own advice and try to be a little more self reflective, I’d say I would probably end up devoting more time to “projects” like podcasting, writing, or other pursuits that interest me. But as Gross herself speculates in the interview, “One of the gifts of being a parent is a child forces you to have a life outside of your own. It forces you into a world outside of the world you created for yourself.” As much as I love creating worlds for myself, in the end, that’s probably a good thing.
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