I went to the beach yesterday. It was a beautiful late-summer day and the sun felt incredible on my back as I walked on the sand. I walked the entire length of the beach, then sat on some rocks at the southern end. There was a family nearby - mum, dad and their two children. The boy was around 3 or 4 years old, and he was digging a hole in the wet sand. His mum was helping him, and seemed to be enjoying herself just as much as her son. The father was playing with the little girl in the surf. She was just able to toddle and she was absolutely gorgeous. Her chubby little legs were kicking the water and she had a huge smile underneath her pink sunhat. She was so unsteady on her feet that her dad had to keep scooping her up out of the way of the breaking waves. Every time a wave crashed around her she would shriek with laughter.
As I watched this family playing together, I wondered if they were happy. Certainly they seemed to be, in that moment. Are they more fulfilled than I am? Do they have better lives, do their lives have more meaning? Would the parents have been this content, if they hadn't had children? Is my decision not to have children the wrong decision? Will I regret it? Will I get to the end of my life and feel it was wasted because I didn't have a family of my own?
As any sensible person knows, comparison is the death of happiness. Yes, maybe the fact that this family on the beach have children means they have a sense of fulfilment and value in their lives - but who's to say that can only be provided by children? Can't one find meaning through other avenues - be that community, creativity, relationships, work or in fact anything else one chooses to pursue in life?
I left the beach. On my walk home I passed another father and daughter. This time the girl was a bit older. She was balancing on a wall and her father hovered next to her, trying to hold her hands every time she wobbled. She wanted to walk alone, without his help and kept refusing his offered hand. It seemed a fitting metaphor in that moment. OK, so say I have a child. Being a parent brings value and meaning to my life in a way nothing else is capable of doing. But then...children grow up. They become independent beings in their own right, and suddenly they don't need to rely on you anymore. They leave, and meanwhile - you're still stuck with you.
This is a somewhat confused way of saying that yesterday, I came to the realisation that I need to be content with myself instead of relying on other things (be they money, a career, relationships or having a family of my own) to bring me happiness.
I was reminded of the quote by Epicurus that I've written at the start of this post. It's a favourite of mine. Friendship, freedom and time for contemplation. I feel I have those things in abundance, which might not have been the case if I had taken a different path and had children. Yes, I'm sure they would bring me happiness. But I'm doing OK as I am. I'm living a good life.