On Not Having Children
When I was 15, I had a conversation with the school librarian about having kids. I was adamant, even at that tender age, that I did not want children. The librarian laughed at me, then she bet me that I would change my mind. She promised me that by the time I was 25, I’d have more kids than anyone else in my graduating class. She was so confident, she wrote and signed a note to this effect, handed it to me, and told me to bring it back in ten years to prove her right. A small wager, I think $25.00, was made. We shook hands.
Around that same time, there was a famous poll in the Ann Landers advice column about having children. 70% of respondents said that if they had the choice to do it over, they would not have children. Debate over this went on for months, maybe even a couple of years. People were shocked, outraged, incensed at this percentage, and put a great deal of effort into coming up with reasons why so many parents would answer this way. For some reason, a lot of people had a difficult time accepting that 70% of parents didn’t believe children were precious bundles of joy.
But the poll made perfect sense to me, validating what I already believed. People weren’t saying they didn’t love their kids. They were merely saying that they wished they’d given the issue more thought because having kids hadn’t turned out to be what they expected. What I didn’t understand was why people, like my school librarian and the millions who wrote in to Ann Landers to dispute these poll results, had such a hard time with those who did not want children (or who wished they’d given the idea more thought before they had them). To me, it was the most natural–and rational–choice in the world. To me, wanting children was what seemed unfathomable. And I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.
Many people see this as the result of some kind of trauma or neurosis, because women are supposed to want children; we are biologically wired to want children. I believed this myself for a long time, as I grew up with a mother who married at 15 and felt cheated out of a “real” life. She made no effort to hide this from us. She told all of us, over and over, Don’t get married. Don’t have kids. For a long time, I believed my aversion to having children stemmed from her example. It certainly made sense that it would–until you considered the fact that both of my sisters happily took on parenting, just as I happily did not. Maybe we dealt with our trauma and neuroses in different ways, or maybe it had nothing to do with that. Maybe we just made different choices. Also, I’d like to think that biological wiring can be transcended, or at least redirected as a person sees fit. Statistics corroborate this, indicating that as a woman’s education and economic status increase, the likelihood of both marriage and motherhood decrease. This would appear to be the very antithesis of trauma or neurosis.
So my lack of maternal desire may not have been pathological, but did it not belie a certain selfishness or self-indulgence in my makeup? I guess I thought this too, because for years when people asked me about having kids, I loved to answer that I was too self-centered. I thought this was clever, and it usually squelched any more rudeness along this line. Until one day a friend of mine, then in her forties and also voluntarily childless, pointed out to me that it is generally more self-centered (she used the word “narcissistic”) to want children than to not want them. That is to say (she explained), many people have children to satisfy their own needs rather than out of any real desire to bring new little lives into the world and nurture them to fruition. This made sense to me, too. I could name, just off the top of my head, half a dozen women who’d gotten pregnant to get a man to commit to them, and half a dozen more who did so to fill a void, avoid getting a job, or “have someone to care for them when they were old.” Now granted, most of these were very young women, but I could also think of several more mature women who’d had a child to try to save a marriage, or because they thought they should have a baby before they were too old, or simply because they thought it was expected of them. Most people, my friend said, have children for reasons that have little to do with actually wanting them, and I began to see that, sadly, she might be right.
She was definitely right, though, that we were no more selfish than women who chose to have children. All the women I knew, or knew of, who’d made a conscious decision not to have children were thoughtful people. They weren’t baby haters, or so screwed up from their childhoods (as I’d feared about myself) that raising children was beyond their capacity. Rather, they were women who had given the issue a lot of consideration and decided it wasn’t for them. Their reasons varied greatly, but they all shared one common characteristic: they had been arrived at through a careful, rational, introspective process. Some women had had a lifelong aversion to motherhood (as I did), which they explored thoroughly until they determined it wasn’t something they were going to change their minds about; others had started out wanting children, or assuming they wanted children, only to realize after serious analysis that other interests had taken a higher priority for a reason. Yes, we were the exceptions rather than the rule, but we were definitely not a bunch of neurotic, self-centered, maladjusted flakes. Of the people I knew who had children and the people I knew who did not, the did-nots were generally the more thoughtful, more mature, more conscientious group. Not unanimously, of course, but on the whole. The sad truth is that many of the parents I knew–and knew of–took on the job without a lot forethought, and many of them ended up saddled with a task they were not prepared for and which disappointed, disillusioned, and overwhelmed them.
I know this sounds cynical, but it’s true. And there is really no rational reason for it. In the U.S. and all other industrialized countries, information about child-rearing is abundant and people are literate enough to find it if they want to. Furthermore, contraception is cheap and easy to obtain, as is information on how to get and use it. You’d think unplanned pregnancies would be rare, or even non-existent where such access to personal choice exists. But according to a Wikipedia article on unintended pregnancy, almost half–half!–of the pregnancies in the U.S. are accidental, resulting in about 3 million unintended births and about 1.3 million abortions annually (this statistic was for the year 2002). Things don’t get much more cynical, or sad, than that.
I am stymied by women who give motherhood less consideration than they would give to, say, buying a car. No decision could change your life more, yet it’s taken on with shrugs, hopes, and grave delusions about what it means to be a parent, gravest most of all for the babies born into such an environment. Such lack of consideration seems far closer to pathological than choosing childlessness–and corroborates the statistics of the Ann Landers poll, which, if done today, I suspect would have similar results.
I feel good that I never brought a child into the world for selfish reasons, and just as good that I didn’t do so accidentally, out of lack of interest in my own future. But most of all, I feel good about choosing childlessness out of respect for the immense job that raising a child is. Because the contract we make with the Universe (or are supposed to make with the Universe) when we take on child-rearing is gargantuan. It dwarfs all other contracts on any scale you care to measure. When you become a parent, your life becomes a vehicle for the child’s. You are completely responsible for the child’s well-being, of which food and shelter are the barest of minimums. You must give the child your all, you must devote yourself to nurturing this young life to the very best of your ability, and you must instantly sacrifice self-interest when there is a choice to be made, which will be often. If you take on parenting, you take on exhaustion, frustration, worry, and heartache as an everyday way of life, a way of life that goes on for the rest of your life. Maybe most importantly, you must not expect anything in return. No gratitude, no obligation, no guilt, not even a guarantee of a decent relationship. Since the child did not ask to be born, that’s the only way it can be. And even if you do take the job on voluntarily, with a clear vision of what the future holds and no expectations about how your kids should or shouldn’t be, the amount of physical, mental and emotional effort involved would require tremendous fortitude, self-discipline, and will. Because I saw parenting for the huge and critical job that it was, I knew I did not want to take it on, would never want to take it on. As noble a cause as parenting is, and it is as noble as they come, I knew it was not for me.
I don’t know how I knew this, but I did. It began as a vague certainty that took decades to mature into the philosophy I have today. But it has always been a part of who I am. I’m sure watching my parents break nearly every stipulation of the parenting contract was a factor, but I think more importantly, I realized the sheer weight of the burden and felt exhausted by it. You could put a negative spin on that, and call it laziness or narcissism, as many people have over the years, or you could put a positive spin on it and call it a wise, responsible, loving decision. I freely admit that pursuing other interests has always been more important to me, but I also think it is wise and loving indeed indeed to do what you want with your life. We women who choose childlessness have taken responsibility for ourselves, not only reproductively, but also emotionally and intellectually. And that can only result in more positive energy, in general, in the world.
I don’t mean this as an indictment of parenting; quite the opposite. And I’m certainly not saying good parenting means you have to do everything perfectly (in fact, you have to be really good at apologizing because you will do so many things imperfectly). But I do believe that if more people put as much thought into what’s involved in being good, thoughtful, loving, responsible parents, fewer would choose to have children. I know there are parents out there who’ve made their choices circumspectly, who want and are in a position to provide for their children and who understand the immensity of what they’ve taken on. I just wish there were more of them.
I never went back to the librarian to collect my money. It seemed kindest not to. She would have had a hard time fitting me into her world view, even in the late 1980’s. I’m glad that’s changed, that I live in a time where a woman can choose not to be a parent without getting sideways glances and pursed lips, or at least fewer of them. I’m glad a person’s areas of obligation and self-sacrifice can be freely chosen and that I don’t have to feel the burden of motherhood, like my mother did, unless I truly want to. I applaud any woman who’s made the choice to be childless even if it has displeased people in her life, maybe especially if it has displeased people in her life. Mostly, I applaud anyone who makes a choice from her heart and has the courage to stick to it. The world needs more people like you, too.