271. Family Planning

I went to sleep one night determined that when I woke up, I’d write an article about family planning. I didn’t sleep well that night. I woke up at 1:00 deciding that the concept of family planning required several articles. I woke up again about 2:30 remembering a talk I’d had with a friend who thinks it’s selfish for someone to decide to become a single parent. I decided that there is some selfishness involved, and realized that I hope the decision to create me was somewhat selfish. I hope and believe that my existence has given plenty of pleasure to my parents. Around 4:00, I decided to start out by focussing on the degree to which the term “family planning” is an oxymoron.
When teachers write lesson plans, they know that the lessons they plan may not take shape the way they intended them to. There can be problems with the materials, the media, or the people involved. There may be a fire drill at a crucial, “teachable” moment, and a well-planned lesson may lose some of its effectiveness. But tomorrow’s another day, there’s some flexibility in most curricula, and if worst comes to worst, there will be another class next year, or another career that is more suitable.
The decision to have a child ought to be a fairly conscious decision; it’s more irrevocable than any lesson plan. But it can’t be made with total awareness of what parenting that child involves. Prospective parents spend so much time deciding on a name for a child, only to get a letter from college, eighteen years later: “I’ve decided not to be Susan any more. My new name is Mehitabel. There are too many Susans here.” And Mehitabel, whose parents expected her to be a doctor, becomes a freelance writer. So much for family planning.
A child may turn out to have problems that weren’t expected. Maybe the child doesn’t look much like the parent or parents. The possibilities are endless. Parents are not going to end up with the sons and/or daughters they had in mind. Family planning is, to some degree, impossible.
I don’t mean to turn this into a word game. I know what I’m talking about is not exactly what people usually have in mind when they talk about family planning. They’re usually thinking about birth control, planned conception, and the issues these concepts bring up. But even when we focus on the usual meaning of “family planning,” I think it retains its status as an oxymoron.
So before I go any further with this issue, think about your friends. How many of them were conceived accidentally, intentionally, ambivalently? You probably don’t know. You may not know which adverb applies to your own conception. Families happen, for better or worse, and the best parents do the best they can. Whether or not children are conceived and born according to their parents’ plans is not as earth-shaking an issue as it’s sometimes treated. More on this later.

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