My Thoughts on Childlessness

Perhaps it’s only within my circle of friends, but the subject of childlessness seems to be a hot one lately. This happens to be an issue that i regularly give a lot of thought to, so i decided i’d weigh in on it a little bit—although i don’t think i can quite put everything into a single blog post (even an extremely long one). A recent article by one Christine Overall entitled Think Before You Breed implores possible someday-parents to really think about and weigh the reasons for having children before deciding to take that plunge, rather than just procreating because “it’s what people do” or because they “just want to.” Reproduction is an ethical issue and no longer merely a fact of life. Well, believe me, this is one i’ve been thinking hard about for quite a few years.

I don’t seem to have the infamous “ticking clock.” I have no particular dislike of children, but no great fondness for them, either. The fact is that there’s no aspect of parenthood that doesn’t sound pretty much awful to me, except maybe sending the kids off to college finally and watching them become wonderful adults. “But it’s worth it,” people tell me. “You can’t know how great it is until you have a child of your own.” But research shows (and i don’t have a source to cite, i just remember reading about this, so feel free to prove me wrong) that when all is said and done and people are approaching the end of life, whether or not they had children doesn’t make a difference in their overall level of satisfaction. Parents experience higher highs but also lower lows, so it seems to be pretty much a wash. This argument could also be turned around, however, and i do realize that it means having a child would not in fact ruin my life.

And as a side note, lest you think i’m just a weenie about destroying my body giving birth, let me assure you that that is the least of my hesitations. I think pregnancy is amazing and horrifying and wonderful and extremely intriguing, but that aspect of becoming a parent doesn’t even factor in to the decision of whether or not to do that which follows giving birth, namely being a parent. If i wanted to be a parent i would definitely consider adoption, not because i’m afraid of bearing a child but because—why make a new child when there are already so many of them that need loving homes? But that’s a debate for another time. What i want to explore is the question of whether or not to bring a child into the world. By remaining childless am i doing the world a favor or a disservice?

It’s interesting to note that i’m one of the first generations of women for whom childlessness, not motherhood, is essentially the default, rather than the other way around. For most of the women who have ever walked the earth, motherhood was an inevitability. But for me in my privileged First world, birth control is so effective and so easy to come by that there is almost no way that i could get pregnant accidentally. If i ever get pregnant, it will be because i have made the conscious decision to do so (or to “not try not to,” as an increasing number of my friends are doing).

There are a few reasons for which people like to tell me that i ought to have children. “They’d be so cute!” is obviously the worst reason (and the easiest one to be tempted by). That people like me who are smart enough to take parenthood so seriously are the kind of people who ought to continue on the race is more compelling. It’s a conundrum, isn’t it, that so many relatively intelligent people think better of passing their genes on, while so many others can’t even stop to consider using birth control? (And, to be fair, there are plenty of people who would love to have birth control but can’t get it, and they certainly can’t get the education that would lift them out of those conditions, either.) It’s a real, dire problem, but it’s also really fun to poke fun at. Can you imagine a world in which the smart people have been completely flooded out of the gene pool? An actual Idiocracy?

But even if i did have children just to make sure that my decent brain genes continued on in time, who’s to say that those children would in turn decide to have children? I’d have to have at least a few to secure the chances of that—and SCREW THAT! I can’t even fathom that. Having one child is admirable. Having two is brave. Having three is borderline crazy, and having four or more is simply ludicrous, if you ask me. (And i suppose i should be grateful that my mother didn’t see things that way, since i’m her baby number four.)

I do think Nathan and i would be pretty damn good parents. This isn’t a situation that i think someone could objectively look at and immediately say “well, since they don’t want kids they’d be awful parents and therefore shouldn’t have kids.” If i did wind up with a child, you can bet your ass i’d do the best job i could possibly bring myself to do of giving that kid a good life. But for one thing, i think probably everyone thinks the same of themselves, and the psychologists of the world know that many of them are wrong, and for another, that’s still no argument for creating a new child. If anything, the fact that we could give a child a good life and bring her up happy and well-adjusted is an argument for us to adopt.

Sometimes, if i’m thinking about it too hard, i start to wonder whether my only actual purpose in this world isn’t to create babies. The feminist in me says “excuse me?! Of course not!!” but the wannabe-scientist in me says “yup. Everything you are is for the purpose of procreation.” But, thinks my novice inner-philosopher, the biological imperative is rarely the right answer in questions of ethics. Technically every horrible thing humans have ever done has brought us here, alive and well, and that doesn’t make those horrible things right. So the fact that i am biologically a baby maker doesn’t mean that making babies is the right thing for me to do. And i like Elizabeth Gilbert’s (perhaps fanciful) idea that childless women are actually essential for the success of a society because we’re able to accumulate the resources to help children out when they need a hand. She wrote in Committed, “In this way, I, too, foster life. There are many, many ways to foster life.”

There is the argument that fewer babies from my generation will mean a massive economic collapse as the more populous preceding generations get older and need to be supported by the dwindling working class. That’s a fair point, but i see it as a short-term problem. The alternative—keeping our numbers as blindingly, unsustainably high as they are now—is in my opinion a far worse scenario. We’re burning the candle at both ends in terms of using up our resources. I don’t think that means that everyone ought to stop breeding and we should let ourselves die out. But i think it means that we need to reduce our numbers in order to live on and live well as a collective, so why shouldn’t i bow out to further the eventual greater good?

The one remaining thing that gives me pause on this issue is extremely short-term and small-scale, but so personal that it’s impossible for me to ignore. It’s the fact that there are two other people whose lives will be greatly affected by our final decision on whether or not to have children, and those two people are my father and my mother-in-law, who might never get to be grandparents if my husband and i decide to remain child-free. I consider that to be a big, weighty consequence of my course of action, and i do think of it as an ethical issue. We owe our parents everything—is it possible that we owe them this? Whenever i bring this up, people tell me that it’s absolutely not a good reason to have kids, and i mostly realize that they’re right. It just makes me feel guilty sometimes that i’m probably denying them a huge amount of joy. Luckily, however, Nathan and i each have an older sibling who could potentially fill that void in our parents’ lives, so i’ll be crossing my fingers and staying on the best reversible birth control i can find for at least a few more years, because nothing so far has presented itself to me as a good enough reason to put aside my own wishes for a child-free life. To quote Why Wife & Mother Do Not Have To Go Together, Part II, “We regret not being ourselves, we don’t regret not living the life we were expected to live.”

4 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Childlessness

  1. I haven’t had a chance to give this a good read but I like your point about adopting and that your children (if you had them) might not have children of their own. And the fact that you might have a child that has special needs or isn’t smart like you and Nathan.

    AND my favorite part from what I read was the thing you said about the satisfaction of sending your child to college to become a cool adult. I would love that. And I think that’s about all I’m going to love.

  2. Couldn’t have summed this up better myself. These are pretty similar to my thoughts on the subject. Unlike you, I have not met my life partner yet and feel like that is something to decide together as I’m still very much on the fence personally. Some days I see the love my friends have for their children and I want that for myself, other days I can’t imagine a child in my life.

    I love your sentiment in the last paragraph. For years I’ve said the same thing about my parents and wanting them to be grandparents. Yes, I agree it’s extremely short-term, but it is extremely personal and it’s something that has always stayed in the back of my head as well.

    Best of luck and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Calee—it’s hard, though, and i think increasingly so, to make sure that your kids end up being cool adults. I’ve seen really promising kids drop out of college and bum around in their parents’ basements for years. Not that a person couldn’t do that and still be cool, but… It just goes to show that you can’t craft a person. People are who they are, no matter what their parents want them to be.

  4. At first I thought somehow I had maybe missed this post and never read it, but then parts of it sounded familiar, so maybe I did read it and was setting it aside to craft a brilliant response and my browser crashed and it was gone forever but here I am now, and… yes. To all of it.

    I don’t feel like I have a ticking clock either, but more and more it feels like that’s what I’m “supposed” to do (or at least supposed to WANT to do) which is the most horrible reason ever. And there are parts of it that I think I would really enjoy, but those are all things that I would get second-hand by being an aunt. As terrifying as pregnancy is, I suppose I could handle it (I mean, women have been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years, I’m kind of a wuss but not THAT big of wuss) but, yeah. It’s the part that comes after. All of the rest of your life and the years after. It’s overwhelming.

    I guess I hadn’t really considered the part about my parents being grandparents, but that’s probably because I always knew that my sister wanted kids and would fill that void for them.

    BLAH. This is such an interesting thing to think about but ultimately it makes me very anxious and to go run along and hide under the covers until I’m too old for it to even be an option to consider.

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