The Decision Not to Have Children: Yes, It's Worth Talking About!
30 June 2012
There are few guarantees in life, but one of them is that women writing about their personal experiences will almost instantly trigger a cascade of gripes about their narcissism, their privilege, the hubris that's inherent to the sharing of personal details and feelings. Writing about parenting often has that effect. Writing about not parenting nearly always does.
Before Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" swept in and effectively blew all other conversations into great, desiccating piles by the curb, a series of articles in the online magazine Slate entitled Childfree Women Explain Themselves was drawing lots of attention. In response to a rather inflamed reaction to Katie Roiphe's theory that parents secretly pity the childless, Slate's Double X editors invited happily childless readers to share their reasons for not reproducing.
The result was six testimonials that drew thousands of comments (the kickoff piece by Soraya Roberts has more than 3200 to date.) Many of those comments were from people who shared or at least understood the choice not to become a parent. Some, predictably, took it upon themselves to set the writers straight and enumerate the reasons that you can't know what real love is--or live a real life--without raising children. Along the way, of course, there were countless remarks about how no one cares. "If you don't want to have children don't," wrote one commenter. "But please stop yammering about it to the rest of us."
Without a doubt, autobiographical writing can be tedious and frequently pointless (this from someone who practices and teaches the genre.) But as subjects go, I think this one warrants a little yammering. I say that not just because, though I don't love the term "childfree," I count myself among its ranks (and I'm a longstanding member: back when I was 12 I'd have told you I never wanted kids; today, at 42, I appear to have kept my word ) but because I've never understood how a job as monumentally difficult and important as childrearing can be nearly universally regarded as something just about everyone, regardless of interest or ability, is expected to do as matter of course.
I know, I know. There's a biological imperative in play that trumps rational thinking. I know that some (perhaps most) of life's most viscerally beautiful experiences--falling in love, eating bacon--defy rational thinking or good judgment. I know that if most would-be parents wrung their hands over the issue even half as much as voluntarily childless people like me tend to do (and, believe me, my feelings have meant years of agonized conversations with friends, several broken relationships, and, given that my husband is more ambivalent than decisive on the matter, some extraordinarily sad moments in my marriage) the world's population might indeed take the kind of nosedive that not even the most vehement population control advocates could get behind.
In other words, I realize there's a danger in overthinking things. But when it comes to the decision whether to create a human being from scratch, deposit it into a world that's wondrous in some ways but pretty damn chaotic in other ways, and devote the better part of two decades (probably quite a bit longer) to its physical, intellectual, social and moral development I would argue that there's an awful lot of underthinking going on.
There are, of course, the obvious underthinkers: the teen moms and the welfare recipients that already have too many kids, the Octomoms and the fecund lotharios that occasionally turn up in the news, such as the 33-year-old Tennessee man who recently requested a break in child support payments for the 30 children he's fathered with 11 women. These are the objects of equal opportunity sanctimony, the people around whom the most ardent parents and the most stridently "unchilded" can come together and exuberantly heap truckloads of scorn.
But I'm not talking about this kind of underthinker. I'm talking about the underthinkers that are otherwise careful, reasonable people. I'm talking about the ones that have children less because they want to than because it's the thing to do, because it's what "grown-ups" do. I'm talking about the ones that have children to improve their marriages, to please their families, to finally get their own baby shower after years of shelling out for onezies and bouncy chairs for expectant friends. I'm talking about the ones that don't want a child right now but proceed nonetheless for fear that they'll change their minds later. I'm talking about the ones that don't actually enjoy children all that much but lay faith in that line "you'll like them when you have one of your own."
It's incumbent upon me to say that plenty of people who have children for these reasons wind up being grateful that they did so (hell, plenty of people who get knocked up accidentally at the least convenient time imaginable will say it's the best thing that ever happened to them, and I often believe them.) But even more incumbent, in my view, is to say this: there is no reason, at least not in a 21st century, industrialized democracy, to have a child unless you really want one.
At first glance, a statement like that seems innocuous, even banal. But when you start to listen to how people really talk about this issue, when you read testimonials like the ones in the Slate series and look at the comments and witness the indignation (much of it tinged with a strange kind of panic) of parents and the childfree alike, it starts to resemble a radical statement. The reason for that, I suspect, is that it's the kind of statement that can only be arrived at when people are unflinchingly honest with themselves about what they want from their lives. And when it comes to having children, this kind of honesty has never been fashionable.
Of course, until a few decades ago it wasn't even practical, as most people's reproductive destinies were largely out of their hands. But the fact that today's technology can not only prevent pregnancy but create it in a Petri dish and employ any number of different vessel options to cook up a baby (young womb, old womb, hired womb) means it's never been more crucial that we be frank with ourselves about whether we want babies at all.
Sure, most people do want them. Many people want them but can't have them, which can be devastating. But the response to the Slate series would suggest that despite there being plenty of people out there who don't wish to be parents, their experience hasn't yet been fully integrated into the culture. The result is that too often conversations about who doesn't want kids and why not gets boiled down to accusations of selfishness and hackneyed ideas about the childfree hating kids or putting a premium on expensive cars and spur of the moment vacations. Parents, meanwhile, are lobbed with predictable grenades having to do with toddler meltdowns in department stores and double-strollers crowding sidewalks -- all because trotting out clichés is easier than being honest.
I give about as much credence to the "I want a nice car" reasoning as I do to the "I'm concerned about overpopulation" reason, which is to say practically none. Not to get mired in too many personal details but, for what it's worth, my husband and I both drive cars that are 10-plus years old and, for better or worse, overpopulation rarely crosses our minds. We don't take many vacations and, when we do, they're carefully planned around work schedules. It also happens that the time I save not raising kids allows me to do things like volunteer in the foster care system, an entity that provides a constant, wrenching reminder of the worst effects of people having children just because they can.
So what's the real reason I don't want kids? Well, take your pick. A few of the reasons, while not automotive or vacation-related, are, admittedly, on the shallow end (I like a quiet, minimalist household) but more are the result of owning up to who I am, which is someone for whom the world of childhood holds very little allure. To put it bluntly: I didn't like being a child and I don't really care to revisit the whole gestalt now.
Is this a manifestation of some kind deep psychosocial maladjustment? Should I blame my ultra-critical parents, whose approval when I was growing up was contingent upon my acting as un-childlike as possible? Or is it just that I'm just too lazy to be a parent? Too judgmental? Too distracted? Do I feel sad that I'm wired this way? Or do I often feel downright exhilarated that I know myself well enough to do what's right for me? Are there moments when I feel differently? Have I ever spotted an exceptionally adorable six-month and felt the urge to borrow it for an hour? Is there something about little girls in flannel Lantz nightgowns that ignites in me a momentary fantasy of being Ma Ingalls? Is it true that I can't possibly know what I'm missing because, quite literally, I don't know what I'm missing? Am I willing to accept this loss for the greater gain of being true to the person I am?
Yes, to all of the above. In other words, it's complicated and thorny. It's not about hating kids or jetting off to Spain whenever you want. It's about the hard work of living your life honestly. And that's very much worth talking about.