Well folks, I know I haven’t written anything in a while, but I’m back and I want to talk about babies. Or lack thereof. No, this is not a pregnancy announcement, but this is a topic that has been nagging at me for a while. Nagging me because as of now, at 32, I still don’t want kids. It’s nagging me because I also look the age where people feel comfortable asking me if I have kids, and I get interesting reactions when the answer is no. In turn, I am uncomfortable because I am also the most unacceptable type of childless: married, living in a home where my husband and I don’t really have to be in same room at the same time anymore, and yet childless by choice. Even as my type of heresy is becoming more common, it is heresy nonetheless, and still not the new normal. With that being said, my Facebook feed is increasingly filled with not just babies, but actual little adorable people who go to school, play sports, and look an awful lot like their moms and dads who I grew up with, as well as links to parenting blogs, which I sometimes read out of curiosity. I recently stumbled onto a link to a magazine article (I think it was Outside, I can’t find it anymore) that was almost defensive about, and justifying having kids. That in itself is interesting, I never thought parenthood needed defending, but I guess this reflects the changing times. It was written as a counter point to another article “No Kids for Me, Thanks” in the NY Times, which in turn, linked to several other anti-kid articles complete with birthrate and socioeconomic statistics. Most notably, however, the article cited the anthology by Megan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-absorbed. Even more notably, the other anti-kid articles also cited the book, as if it’s the The Anti-Kid Bible.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-absorbed, is a collection of 16 essays by established writers on the topic of why they chose not to have kids. The whole premise is that the title is ironic, and these writers go on to prove why they are not any of these above things. I first read a review for it in The Atlantic a year ago, and ordered the book immediately after. To me it was the anti-kid bible. Finally, I could literally throw the book at my family, and Facebook, and all the self-imposed societal pressure that I have been feeling to reproduce. “Here’s why I don’t want children,” I imagined myself saying as I slammed the hardcover onto somebody’s table, “ it’s all in this book, it can explain it better that I can, and it proves that I’m not crazy, there are other normal human beings who feel the same way!” And then I actually read the book. I expected with 16 writers, that I would have 16 new, different, compelling reasons as to why I was right to not want children. Instead, I found closer to just a handful of reasons, all of which I heard before (although they were in-depth and very well-written), to include: Financial (kids are too expensive), Social (not enough of a support system for childcare), Career (kids take too much time), and Environmental (overpopulation, carbon footprint). There were some curious, less common ones as well (“I’ll never be the mother my mother was, so why bother?” And “I wanted kids badly, I tried, it didn’t work out, so nah.”)
My biggest qualm about most of these essays, is that the authors seem to be trying so hard to qualify themselves as not heartless, not selfish, ultra-productive, successful, and lovers of children. Almost all of them mention their wildly successful writing careers, their travel, their volunteerism, their work with children, their deep, unconditional love for their nieces and nephews, and how meaningful their lives are without children. That sounds wonderful, but it gives me the sense that if you fail in any (or all) of those aspects, if you’re an average Joe with an hourly wage rather than a published author, if you prefer to relax on the couch instead of volunteering away your free time, if you rarely see your nieces and nephews due to distance, and therefore don’t quite understand how to relate to them or young children in general- well then you better find some other way to justify your childlessness and prove your worth and purpose in the world.
That is why a cherry-picked combination of only two of those essays actually spoke to my line of thinking. The first is by Jeanne Shafer titled “Beyond Beyond Motherhood” in which she revisits a magazine article she wrote in 1989 announcing her choice to forego having kids. She dealt with the ambivalence about the prospect of motherhood leading up to her decision, and wrote many years later, “the turning point came when, after seeing that I had run out of excuses and still wasn’t enthusiastic about pregnancy or motherhood.” This essay was a check-in on her decision from that time, and it dealt with that common question of regret. She continued to explain that regret for such a heavy choice is natural, but there would have been a lot more regret had she gone the parenting route. The other essay I related to was “Over and Out” by Geoff Dyer. While unlike me, he takes on a rather aggressive stance against children and parenthood, and generalized the motives of parents for wanting children in a very unflattering light, he’s very blunt about not wanting kids simply because he never wanted them, nor the responsibility which they entail. The honesty of that is refreshing, as well as his argument to those who use the “meaning” argument as reason to have kids (or have a really, really successful career). He writes “I’m totally cool with the idea of life being meaningless and devoid of purpose. It would be a lot less fun if it did have a purpose – then we would all be obliged (and foolish not) to pursue that purpose.” And as for regrets in old age, “when it comes to regrets, everyone’s a winner!” he writes.
Perhaps then, the reason the book wasn’t all I hoped it would be is because I don’t have the same justifications for not wanting kids as most of the writers do. Maybe I am selfish and self-absorbed (not shallow, not me). Here is the thing I realized: Not wanting kids does not need a justification because a true justification for something like this is impossible. Think back to all the common reasons I mentioned earlier for not having kids. They are just reasons after all. Too poor? Poor people have children anyway. Or your situation may change. No childcare support? Somehow couples make it work. Want a career? While mothers and women in general are faced with more negative biases and less opportunities than fathers and men in general, many parents still manage a successful career. And as far as the environmental factor, we are over-populating the earth, but that doesn’t stop anyone from fulfilling their genetic destiny if they desire to do so. Ultimately you either want kids, in spite of reasons not to, or you don’t because you just don’t, and societal pressure should be the last reason to have them.
I just want to consider this: The choice to not make babies is conceptually a passive one, in that you are resuming your life, finding your place in the world, forging relationships, and essentially you live and let live. It’s a decision that affects only you and your partner, or maybe just you. So why all the pressure? Conversely, having a kid or six is an extremely active and far more consequential decision that ultimately involves a lot more people for a much longer time. Isn’t that a much bigger deal? So why is it acceptable to ask a childless woman or couple why they don’t have kids, than it is to ask parents why they DO have kids? While I suggest that it is none of your business to ask anyone about the reasons for their children or childlessness, I feel that parenting is not for everyone, and if I ever change my mind about the matter before it’s too late, I hope that I spend a good long time asking myself “why?”