Wondering if you should have children or not? There's a key question to answer

If you're like me, you're a working woman. If you're like me, you also have children. If you are like me, you worked (for many, many years) before you had those children. If you are like I was, in thinking about whether or not to have children, you grappled with equations analyzing parenting and working and self-direction even though you had no clear values to plug into those equations, only imagined variables.

Writers--mostly women--have expended innumerable words on the question of childbearing and career. Some women struggle to envision what life might be like--particularly regarding their work and hard-won career paths--if they have children. Others know firmly that they want or don't want children, period. This post is for women--or anyone, really, these days--who is considering having a child, whether you're vacillating or firm about your decision.

If you're thinking about having a child and in doing so want to be the best parent for that child you can be, you need to take a candid look at yourself and ask this question: How good am I with sudden change and infinite unpredictability? Because one factor alone unifies the parenting experience: living in a state of unconscious readiness at all times for the swiftest, sometimes most brutal changes life can deliver. The transformations can be beautiful surprises, as is the discovery of the deepest joys of parenting. But there are life-derailing moments that require a rewrite of your envisioned future in ways you never knew existed, not all of them free of the quality of a nightmare.

It starts once you've committed to the idea of reproducing or adoption, at that moment, and never, ever stops. Achieving conception itself may be heart wounding and filled with stress and pain. Pregnancies can end abruptly and too soon, in the midst of a slumber or a good time with friends. Birth almost never is what you think it is, even when you've done it before. It's never what you've read others have experienced, what you carefully lay out in a birth plan that you may as well burn after reading. Anyone who has ever adopted a child knows the sometimes years-long stress and anguish the process can bring.

And that's just the beginning. A child, you know, is a person, an individual, just like you. A whole new human with likes and dislikes, wants, needs, vagaries, negatives, positives, and demands. You have no control over this human any more than you want someone to have control over you, someone who would try to modify your likes and dislikes, wants and needs, your vagaries. But you are responsible for that child, bound by biology or a promise, by law and by love. Life will now begin that "infinite unpredictability" in deep earnest. Be prepared to pivot in any direction.

Especially be prepared to pivot away from all the dearly developed plans you had before you had a child. Parents are an accident or a developmental milestone or a virus away from having their lives change in ways no one can predict. How good are you with sudden change and infinite unpredictability? A beautiful day on the playground can shift to bloody emergency room stitches in the twitch of a parental eye. Your plan to attend a major meeting will lie crushed with you on the bathroom floor where a norovirus your toddler brought home has left you, moaning. A one-hour trip to a routine well-child check can turn into a hurried plane flight to a specialty hospital for days of testing, after which, life will never be the same again.

How good are you with sudden change and infinite unpredictability? If you like your time to be your own, if you hate changes in plans, if you get edgy when you can't envision with some certainty what's coming to you in the next day or week or month, parenting is going to take you, shake you, and rattle you around. It's not a question of "If I become a parent, will I still be able to work?" It's a question of, "If I become a parent, am I prepared to be nothing but a parent all day, every day, if a sudden change, infinitely unpredictable, requires it?" Are you?