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The Shame of Not Wanting Children

The Social Stigma of Leading a Ward-Free Life
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Jul 98 (draft)
Copyright: Carolyn Ray
If you wish to remain child-free, I hope that this discussion will help you develop the strength of your convictions. If you have or want children, I hope that the discussion will help you to feel more comfortable with others' decisions to live a ward-free life.

Priceless quote (8/8/2000) from a reader's letter: "My husband and I (both child free, 15 year marriage) have likened staying child free to running down a hall with people throwing chairs in your way, trying to trip you up. The journey requires a definite thoughtful resilience in the face of overwhelming disapproval from family, friends and religious organizations."
--Jennifer Enright-Ford

You do have a choice. Have you ever thought about it? Do you feel guilty just questioning the idea that you will reproduce?

What I am about to say may shock you. You might feel a bit afraid of thinking about this subject at all. You might be scared you'll change your mind about having children if you think too carefully about it. But considering life without children does not make you a bad person. Thinking before making a decision is good. And if you love children and want some, a little discussion won't change your mind. If you do "change your mind" as a result of reading this discussion, or start to develop doubts, maybe you should give the matter more thought before it's too late. If I can prevent even one unwanted child from coming into the world to lead a loveless life and one would-be parent from taking on a burden that he or she really doesn 't want, I will have succeeded in my purpose.

Children are not toys. They are not property. They are not rational abstractions that we can discuss without knowing the details. They have lives and interests all their own. It was once typical, even in the United States, for adults to create chil dren so that they could use them for their own purposes: if they needed workers for the farm, for example, they could produce them. And even now, if people are bored or their marriage is rocky, some hope to distract themselves with a new duty.

Currently, a popular view is that children are creatures who naturally demand sacrifice. Sacrifice is considered by many to be an intrinsic good. It is common for people to say, with an air of moralistic condescension, "What do you mean, children are too large an investment? You have to make some sacrifices in in life!" Perhaps it's true that some sacrifices have to be made in life. But why this sacrifice, in particular?

Many people are unable to imagine a person who is happy without children. There are some eccentric artists and philosophers who never had children, but of course they're oddballs. It is unthinkable that any of the nice people in one's social circle wo uld intentionally go childless.

Even if they are vaguely aware that there are people with children who are not at all happy, still many people think that living without children increases the risk of unhappiness. This may be true for some people. But there is no good reason to think that it is true for all people, and plenty of reasons against thinking so.

I am convinced that there are many parents who never wanted children. They created them anyway because they didn't know how to stand up for what they really did want. Judging by the way many parents behave toward children, and by the things they comp lain about, it seems pretty clear that most people don't like children very much at all. They are bothered by a high percentage of the natural behavior of healthy children.

Some of these very people will try hard to convince others to have children too. Why would this happen? Some people genuinely believe that a happy life is not possible to the ward-free adult. But for others, I think defensiveness is part of the reas on for the inconsistency. Whether one voices any criticism of them or not, some people who have created children without really wanting them will consider someone else's decision not to live with children as an implied accusation of a lack of foresight. And others who are happy to live with children consider the decision to do otherwise as an assault on their values and their lifestyle. The rest of the cause can be attributed to unthinking conformity to established practice.

As simple as this idea seems to me, and indeed as simple as it may seem to you, nevertheless sometimes people do not understand my point. People think I am over-intellectualizing the matter — that normal human beings have strong emotional needs t hat can only be gratified by living with children.

Of course it would be a waste of time and even morally wrong in some cases to attempt to persuade people who really want children that they should not live with them or that in fact do not want them. But this is never my purpose.

My only contention is that there is an alternative lifestyle, and that people who have never thought about WHY they want children and WHETHER they really want them, ought not to have children until they consider the alternative. If possible, the matte r should be discussed with an objective third party who is not under his or her own religious or familial pressures to reproduce.

"Children Might Be Nice..." versus "When Will the Misery of Being Childless End!?"

Examine your feelings very carefully!

I have considered what it would be like to have a very large house. Sometimes when I have lived in cramped quarters, the idea of 20 rooms with large closets creates a quiet longing in me. But when I think about my preferred lifestyle, my preferred ca reer, etc., it is hard for me to justify having an apartment much bigger than the one I have, let alone own a house.

On the other hand, I want a dog very badly, and the fact that I cannot currently have one is torture for me (my apartment complex doesn't allow them). I think about dogs all the time. I can't wait to have one or two or three as my constant companions . I walk other people's dogs, and have thought about working as a trainer just to be near them.

The basic difference between my feelings about a large house and my feelings about a dog boils down to: "might be nice" versus "when will the misery end?"

If you are miserable without babies, children, and teenagers in your daily life, then you know what you want. Unfortunately, most people can't say this, and the result is offspring which competes, often quite unsuccessfully, for its parents' t ime instead of integrating smoothly into their lives. If you think it might be nice to have a cute little baby, think more — a lot more.

Have You Done The Cost-Benefit Analysis?

List all of the things that you would like to buy and add up how much they would cost. Then get a current estimate of the cost of caring for a child. Would you be happy to give up the other things, if that's the only way you could afford the child?

Many people find themselves counting the money the child has cost AFTER it is spent — secretly, of course, because it would be shameful to let people know that the cost of the child is even a consideration.

This is not intended to imply that there are some things that are more valuable, intrinsically, than children. However, I do think that these are the sorts of things that many people would rather have and that help them feel regret at having had childr en. They ought to give these options serious thought, and not allow themselves to be cowed by taboos forbidding the calculation.

Children crave loving companionship above all else. They are not interested in lots of intellectualized reasons for bringing them into the world. They want to be around adults who adore them. You can lie to your kids, but if you don't really want t hem, they will pick up on it. How many people do you know personally who have told you that one or both parents were cold to them, or seemed more interested in their jobs, or beat them? I know many such people. Their parents should never have given bir th; once they did, they should have sought help either in finding more suitable homes for their unwanted burdens or in learning how to appreciate their new charges.

In what follows, I address prevalent attitudes toward living with children, and the persuasive techniques people use to convince others to live with children. I draw on real-life examples to make my arguments. I write in the first person for the most part, because I believe this device serves as a reminder that there is a real person behind these ideas. I will start my describing my own attitude.

My Personal Desire

Let me be as blunt as possible. I don't want children. It's not that I can't have them, or that I don't feel capable of raising them, or that I am by nature irresponsible, or that I haven't thought enough about it, or that I don't have a suitable paren ting partner. I've thought about it for many years, both before and after rigorous philosophical training. I just don't want them in my personal life. Not even one.

It has been expressed to me all my life that such an attitude is shameful. Yet I see no more shame in not wanting children than I see in not wanting to be a dress designer or not wanting to run a farm. All three of these are worthy occupations; I do n ot condemn the people who sincerely choose them. I see this as a matter of interest and taste. I can do many, many things with my life. Living with children is just one of those many things.

Whether this attitude will change in the future for me, I don't know and I don't need to know. Given the rate at which unwanted children are born, children are remarkably — shamefully — easy to come by, at any time of life, contrary to common myth. True, eggs go bad, health goes bad, and husbands and wives die. But none of those reasons nor any other is a good enough reason to create a currently unwanted child because I might change my mind. I don't even have a reason to th ink it will ever be too late.

Reactions to the Decision to Lead a Ward-Free Life

As a woman who has decided not to have children (unless her interests and values change in a way which she does not foresee at present), I listen to a lot of well-meant lectures — and some not-so-well-meant insults. I have also heard reports of a rguments from people whose partners or families are pressuring them to have children. I get the most pressure from people — both parents and non-parents — who have not examined their own alleged "interest" in living with children. If these le ctures were intended to create a genuine love of and desire for children, one could see the point. But they seem designed to persuade me to create children even in the absence of desire for them.

Below, I list a number of the attempts at persuasion that I have heard or that have been reported to me. I'll tell you what I think of each. If you are childless and wish to remain so, I hope that this discussion will help you develop the strength of your convictions. If you have or want children, I hope that the discussion will help you to feel more comfortable with others' decisions to live a ward-free life.

Emotional Arguments

This group of arguments plays directly on the social stigma of not wanting children, and on other generic emotions such as fear of the unknown, loneliness, and insecurity. None of them make use of what I would consider an appropriate emotional reason for living with children: genuine love and desire for them.

  1. But it's so sad when people don't have children! Their lives are so empty and unfulfilled! Do you want to be like that?

    The pity is misplaced. I don't have children, but I don't feel emptiness and a lack of fulfillment; it is wrong to assume that all ward-free people do. My life is extremely full of activities and people I love — so much so that I feel overtaxed as it is. There is no longing keeping me awake at night, no sense that there is someone missing. Not everyone's life requires the same things. Your life may require children; mine does not.

    There are people who feel empty and unfulfilled and don't know why. But it is quite possible that any given feeling of emptiness stems from some underlying problem that has nothing to do with children. If so, children can make matters worse by distrac ting attention and energy from that problem. Perhaps the emptiness stems from a longing to get an education, advance in a career, find a more attentive lover, or do something adventuous; or perhaps it is due to depression or psychosis that requires treatm ent, any of which can be more difficult or effectively "impossible" to accomplish with a child around. Unless a person expresses emptiness by peering sadly into strollers or offering free babysitting during their leisure hours, it would be irresponsible a nd unfounded to try to convince the person that the problem is a unrecognized desire for children.

    If you think that the saddest thing you have ever heard is the story of the parents who couldn't make their own baby, listen to the story of the person who regretted having children, or the story of a child who was regretted.

    And in the end, doesn't a desperate and unexamined sense of emptiness seem a rather poor foundation upon which to begin a new life?

  2. What if your husband wants children? Won't it be cruel not to give him any, now that he's stuck with you?

    The answer to this question for me is quite simple: Any man who wants children in his personal life is incompatible with me at a very basic level, and I wouldn't let him "get stuck" with me. Of course, it isn't that easy for some people. It is easy to understand why many people are so frightened by the social stigma that they don't discuss the matter openly before marriage. Then they have to deal with a much more difficult problem.

    Let us imagine that I marry a man who has not been open with me on this topic, and he begins to pressure me to have children. Supposedly, I love this man, and would not want to deprive him of anything. Therefore, it would be very painful for both of us if I were to deny him children. Wouldn't it be reasonable to compromise and give him just one child?

    I contend that such a compromise would be exceedingly cruel. Even in the case in which I have to do the least work — where a child is adopted rather than carried in my body, and my husband does most of the caregiving — there are severe probl ems with the arrangement.

    • There is no evidence so far that I will ever change my mind about children. If that is the case, then I will be living with a child I don't want. I will be miserable. It is not a good compromise if the happiness of one partner requires the misery o f the other.

    • What about the child's well being? The child would have to live with someone who doesn't want her! This is a horrible thing to do to a human being. It is much worse than preventing my husband, a grown man whose self-esteem and integrity are mostl y formed, from living with a child.

    It is quite possible, if this man's longing is severe enough, that the marriage must end. This would be a much better compromise. Hopefully, he would overcome the social stigma and be more responsible the next time he discusses marriage with someone w ho so openly declares her disinterest in children.

  3. You say you don't want them now, but I know you'll like it once it gets here.

    A friend of mine from college made this argument to persuade her fiance to make children part of their lives, even though he said he didn't want to. You might have had enough experience with someone to convince yourself that the intrinsic appeal of a new babie will change his mind. It might be a reasonable strategy to use when choosing a new kind of ice cream. It is a terrible risk to take with a child. You can't take it back to the store or use up the whole thing yourself if you are mistaken. As a lover of children, do you really want to subject a child to an uninterested father?

  4. But I want grandchildren before I die! I gave you life. Can't you give me this one little thing?

    Grandchildren require the cooperation of someone else. That one would even feel comfortable expressing such a wish to an adult child is incredible (in the United States, at any rate), given that so many adults take their parents' feelings very serious ly, and in certain kinds of cases consider them to be a moral injunction, in the sense that the parent would not wanting that thing if it weren't a right thing to want.

    Moreover, attempting to make an emotional connection between the birth of a child with one's own death can play on an adult child's worst fears, even to the point of suggesting that a child had better be produced so that the grandparent will live longe r.

    This is not to say that it is wrong to want grandchildren, or to fantasize about them. But it is wrong to say this to an adult child without qualification; for example, "I've always wanted grandchildren, but I am behind your decision 100%. Only your needs are important in this decision. I've realized that what I especially want is to have a relationship with a child. Since you have decided not to give birth, I have arranged with my neighbor to supply babysiting in exchange for their child's company. " If you are a person who is being pressured by a parent to have children, you should realize that this is the way a responsible person — whether your parent or anyone else — should respond to decisions you make about your own life. If this is not the response you are getting, do not give in to the pressure. Children make life hell for adults who don't really want them; and in turn, those adults make the children's lives hell.

    If you are a parent who is feeling the urge to discuss the absence of grandchildren, keep in mind that such expressions of desire must be carefully controlled, lest a daughter or a son feel compelled to comply with it and bring forth a child for no oth er reason than that someone wants to be a grandparent.

  5. But sweet little babies! How can you not want that in your life?

    I think this "argument" is supposed to convey the idea that the person finds babies irresistible, and is confused and shocked that there is someone who does not.

    However, I contend that even if a person finds a quiet baby irresistible, it might be possible that he or she won't find a crying baby — or 7-year-old, or a 14-year-old — so irresistible, or even that he or she doesn't really like to be with children or babies the way a caregiver has to be with them. Arguing in this way is an expression of a very superficial and unreflective interest in babies in particular, and it has nothing to do with a genuine desire for real children.

Character Assassination

These arguments have one thing in common: aggressive attacks on the character of the person who is considering not living with children. They seek to persuade by threatening to think ill of the person who does not want to have children.

  1. You must have been an unhappy child. That's why you don't want to live with children. You should see a psychologist and find out what's wrong with you.

    This sort of argument disguises itself as concern for a difficult childhood. But it is a cruel attempt to persuade by means of hurting the person's feelings or making him or her feel ashamed of having a bad family life. And it works; most people wish to think well of their families, and a lay-familiarity with psychoanalysis can be enough to convince them that there really is something wrong with them because they don't want children.

    If your decision is attacked in this way, after you get over the shock of the attack, consider: what is the point of bringing this up? Should the threat of the stigma of being an unhappy child persuade you to have children? Hopefully it will not! If you were an unhappy child, there are probably some things you should straighten out in your life before you try to help some children with theirs. And if you weren't an unhappy child, then who cares if someone thinks that you were? Are you going to have a child just to prove what you already know?

  2. You're only thinking about the bad parts. If you were a more positive person, you'd want to live with children.

    This argument, too, is intended to persuade people to create children, although it seems to express hopeless resignation. How does it work? No one, except self-described cynics, wants to be thought of as a negative person. One is supposed to think, " Yes, that's true, I was only thinking of the bad parts. But I'm not the sort of person who only thinks of negative things. Since I am so upbeat and fun-loving, I guess I really do want children."

    However, it seems to me that some of the last people who should be persuaded to live with helpless, innocent children, are negative people who are already focused on how bad it will be. So the critic either doesn't really believe that the person is ne gative, or doesn't really care what kind of life the person's potential children would lead.

  3. Why do you hate children so much?

    Hold your ground long enough, and you will eventually hear this accusation. It is a well-aimed shot; people are terribly afraid of being accused of hating children. Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimms brothers are famous for witches whose goal in life is to torture, kill, and eat children. After all, a person who hates children must hate human beings, potential, carefree happiness, life, love, sexual union, playfulness, puppy dogs and kittens, and pretty much all that is good about the world. Th e argument is a subtle sort of character assassination, and it works by exaggerating the case.

    The critic makes it sound like the only alternative to hating children is desiring to live with them. It works! Husbands especially, but wives too, fall for it; and the result is children who have at least one parent who "doesn't really HATE them, I guess." I have heard several of my male friends persuade themselves as follows: "My wife wants children, but I've never been interested. I guess I dont' really HATE them, so maybe it wouldn't hurt to have a couple — she'll take care of them most o f the time anyway, since I'll be at work." Sounds like a wonderful father, doesn't it?

Thought-Free Arguments

I have often heard it asserted that thinking "too much" about certain subjects is bad — and the more important the topic, the worse it is to think about it carefully. Romantic love is one topic people try to protect from thought; reproduction ano ther. The following sentiments seem to recommend acting without thinking.

  1. I can't believe you have ever even considered not having children! I haven't! (Or, I've always assumed everyone has children.)

    I can't count the number of friends and acquaintances who have said this to me. Sometimes it is offered, indignantly, as a reason for having children; other times it is expressed in a tone of wonderment, as though for the first time the person is discovering that perhaps they have their own life to live without an umbilical tie to another person.

    A person might be praiseworthy for never having considered theft or murder. But to never have considered not having children is an error and should be corrected with all speed before an innocent and helpless being is on its way!

  2. It's just what adults do. You grow up, you get married, you have children.

    I was close to a woman who used this argument to justify having her own children. I had known her for many years, and she had never showed any interest in children at all — no stopping in the street to smile at a baby, no babysitting, no playing with the neighbors' children, no interest in her small cousins and nieces and nephews. After 5 years of marriage, she told me she would cease taking birth control pills in preparation for pregnancy. I expressed my surprise, and asked her what had made he r change her mind. She said that it wasn't really a change of mind, but rather that she had always implicitly considered having children to be part of growing up. You don't have to be particularly INTERESTED in children per se. It's simply the next thin g that adults do.

    But the argument assumes what needs to be justified. If I ask why an adult should have children, it is not informative to tell me that adults have children. Clearly, adults have children; you can see them everywhere. But WHY do they do it? If it is merely that people have told them that that is what adults do, then woe to the children!

Intellectual Arguments for Having Children

Intellectually inclined individuals offer more contrived, academic reasons that a person should have children, and contrived, non-emotional reasons for their decision to have children. Whether any of the arguments in this section add to a general list of reasons for someone to have children, there are two things to keep in mind: (1) someone who has children for one or more of these reasons might still not genuinely want a real child, and (2) the mere fact that someone else thinks any of these is a good reason for having children doesn't have to say anything about how you should feel about it.

Although there are many intellectual exercises that can be performed on and with children, intellectual arguments have very little to do with making, raising, and loving real children. Using an intellectual argument against someone's desire to lead a ward-free life probably means one of two things: that one is for some reason ashamed of the emotional desire for the company of children, or that one doesn't have the desire but has tried to make sense of the idea of human parenting just by talking about it. I find these arguments to be the most objectionable because they are so far removed from the reality of living with children. Children don't need to know that you had good intellectualized reasons for bringing them into the world; they need to kno w that you adore them.

This first argument is on the borderline between intellectual and emotional. Although the threat of unhappiness does much of the persuasive work, it seems to have an intellectualizing, rationalistic undercurrent; in addition, I have some logical probl ems with it that make it seem more appropriate to handle it here.

  1. You only have a limited amount of time — later you might regret your decision not to have children, and then it will be too late! You're better off having them now while you can.

    This argument seems to have a lot of power; but it is fraught with difficulties, so I'll spend some time on it.

    It must be terrible for people who really want children, to discover that they are no longer able to reproduce. Being able to literally create a child as well as raise one is a big part of the fun, and missing the window is understandably regrettable.

    How much more terrible to have a child and regret that decision! The mere fact that I might someday in the future wish that I had had children does not justify bringing into the world a life I do not now want whole-heartedly. There are already millions (yes, millions) of children who suffer abuse and neglect because their parents unthinkingly gave in to social expectations, and did not magically develop a taste for parenting once the children arrived; I'm sure there still will be plenty of the m once I reach menopause. If I truly come to want children, I'll know exactly where to get some — and how wonderful it will be to not only live with a child I adore, but to know that I rescued it from abuse or neglect! Hedging against regret I mi ght feel in the future is a rather random strategy for pursuing happiness.

    The Future Regret Argument seems to compare creating children to doing homework in school: "You may not want to write that paper tonight, but you'll be sorry when you see that 'D' on your report card! Think of your career — don't you see that gi ving up one night of leisure could mean the difference between a job or not?" But children aren't like papers; you don't get them over-with, and then sigh with relief as you look to your future. Children are your future. It would be more reasona ble to compare the decision to have children to the decision to stay in school for the next twenty years; and if you're having trouble writing that paper tonight, how do you think you're going to feel in five years?

    In fact, the argument, taken to its logical conclusion, is absurd. Consider any person who has one child — might she not regret not having TWO children, and shouldn't she have another to hedge against this regret? How about a person with two chi ldren — ought he have THREE? How about a person with ten children — might ELEVEN be the right number?

    In addition, if this strategy for hedging against future regret were valid, we could also say, "In the future, you might regret having had children — so don't."

    This absurdity — that the risk of future regret means I both should and should not create children now — shows that there is something wrong with the argument that considers future regret to be a problem. Regret is a waste of precious time. It is better to accept my past decisions and move boldly into my future. If I find when I am 50 that I want children, regret is not nearly as effective a life strategy as adoption, foster-parenting, teaching, or babysitting. In fact, babysitting and t eaching are great ways to satisfy uncertain parental urges now, while I take some more time to decide whether I want to live with children.

  2. Society would be much better off if more talented people like you had children.

    There is no question that the world would be a better place for everyone if every person who had children were talented — with respect to caring for and showing love to children! Then we would not have cruel parents and clueless parents. But the fact that someone is talented at something(s) says nothing about whether it is the right decision for them to create new human beings. People should do what will make them happy, and children should have parents who want them. "So ciety" is not served by thwarting either of these objectives.

  3. You'd be a great parent! Are you just going to let your ability go to waste?

    I love to teach and to play and to find creative ways to improve life in general. Children like me. Therefore, many people think it is contradictory that I say that I don't want children. I have heard people express their own "desire" to have childr en by citing such qualities in themselves, without ever mentioning that they crave the company of a child. But there are many ways for a person to express abilities; why is it assumed that this expression eventually must be directed toward a child?

  4. People throughout history have chosen to have children, so there must be some value in it. Otherwise, they wouldn't do it. Are you saying that these people are all wrong, that you know something they don't?

    This argument is actually rather silly and trivial in the best cases (e.g., where the cases cited are cases in which parents actually adore children); naturally, people who want children see some value in creating and living with them. It is incorrect in the worst cases (e.g., where people gave in to social pressures); in these cases, there was something at work other than a genuine valuing of children.

    My point is never to deny that there are people who want children and who find the experience of raising them extremely valuable. Rather, the point is to help people to respond to the barrage of arguments they may face when they show doubts about havi ng children.

  5. But it is natural to want to nurture something! Look at how you take care of your plants and pets — don't you think you're trying to make up for not having children?

    I nurture the plants in my garden, my pets, and the wild visitors to my property. I lavish attention on my friends. But my urge to nurture is not context-free. When I acquire plants and animals, it is not because I am filling a need to nurture someth ing. I acquire them because I want my life to be full of plants and animals, and my response to their presence and their needs is to nurture them. The mere fact that a child is something which requires nurturing does not make them similar enough to plan ts and animals to make me want one.

  6. If you're worried about having to be the primary caregiver, then it doesn't mean you can't have children! What you need is a husband who is willing to stay home with them.

    I enjoy nurturing my neighbor's children for about 15 minutes per week, and then I want to move on to the ward-free activities that fill my life. But children need more than a few minutes, which I can only hope they get at home. I am responsible for a ny life I bring into the world, and I have to be prepared to care for it even when I don't feel like it or when my profession requires more of my time than expected. If a few minutes of nurturing is all I want, then it would be cruel to call forth a life whose day is more than a few minutes long.

  7. Reproduction is a natural human activity, so human happiness requires reproduction.

    It is true that the nature of human beings is such that they can make babies. But it is a natural human act in virtue of the fact that humans are animals, and it is animal nature to make babies. It is amazing and wonderful, surely, but as a human fun ction, it carries no special force, certainly not the force of necessity.

    The nature of human beings, as animals, is also that they can overpower other human beings and take their possessions or kill them. The mere fact that such action is possible to us does not mean that we must act this way, or even that we must act this way in order to be happy. There are many natural human functions which should be curbed. The random production of children without genuine interest in them is one of them.

  8. All human beings need to give selflessly to someone else; children give us the opportunity to exercise selflessness.

    It is commonly believed that human beings need, whether they feel it or not, to give selflessly of themselves in order to be truly fulfilled, to feel fully human, etc. Children are seen as the recipients of character-building self-sacrifice, and peopl e who don't want children are objectionably selfish, self-centered, uncharitable by nature, egostical, childish.

    One might ask why a living with a child is required for a human being to give selflessly. Mother Teresa, for example, was single and childless, yet her admirers think of her as selfless. There are plenty of ways in which one might sacrifice one's va lues, happiness, leisure time, or whatever else it is that one is supposed to sacrifice for the sake of a child, and none of them involve creating a new life. Finally, there is no reason to suppose that self-sacrifice is an inherent need in human beings at all. In fact, an attitude of selflessness has to be carefully cultivated. I will return to selflessness in a later section.

  9. Having a child is a unique experience. There's no substitute!

    While there is no question that there is no experience like having/raising a child, uniqueness alone doesn't constitute a good reason for doing ANYTHING, nevermind calling forth a new individual person. There are many experiences like no other that a human life can endure: e.g., skydiving, practicing medicine, serving in the marines, training animals for the movies, practicing law, teaching algebra to high school students, etc. All of these experiences are in some way like no other; there are myriad good things to say about each of them. Yet no one would argue that another person ought to do some or all of them simply in virtue of their uniqueness.

    Nor is it reasonable for someone to argue for his or her own engagement in that activity by simply pointing out that it is unique. A special interest in the subject is a reasonable expectation; and a medical school student who is not the least bit int erested in biology, science, or people's health is very likely to be questioned by friends as to the choice of discipline. Why, then, would no one question a person's decision to have children, even if the person never showed any interest in children?

    It might be replied that while not everyone can be a lawyer, ANYONE can be a parent, and thus there is a disanalogy between being a lawyer and being a parent. This doesn't save the argument; after all, while it takes a special kind of person to become a good lawyer, anyone can become a bad lawyer. Just so, it takes a special kind of person to be a good parent, though ever so many people become BAD PARENTS. Just swing a rope, and you'll hit a few in your neighborhood.

    The real reason, I suspect, that people don't ask other people why they have decided to have children despite never having shown any interest in them, is that they are afraid of putting them on the spot about a personal decision that can't be defended. In many cases, this is probably best for one's own mental health. But a close friend should consider it one of the requirements of friendship, to question what seems to be an unreflective judgment.

Moral Arguments for Creating Children

There are various version of morality floating around out there, and there's no telling what sort you will run into next. However different these moralities are, their objections to a ward-free existence can be dealt with in pretty much the same way. Here are some I have heard.

  1. That's an awfully selfish attitude, isn't it?

    In an episode of the television sitcom Mad About You, Jaimie is trying to hide her pregnancy from her mother so that she can surprise her; she tries to throw her off track by suggesting that she is not even sure she wants children. Her mother is appalled. She replies, "That's an awfully selfish attitude, isn't it?"

    Forgetting for the moment any special moral interpretations of the word 'selfish,' several questions arise. First, 'selfish' in the vernacular implies that someone is hurt by the selfish decision; if this is a selfish decision, whose welfare is hurt b y a woman's decision not to have children? Is it Jaimie's? Obviously not. Ordinary people wouldn't call an act "selfish" if the only the actor got hurt. In order for the claim to be meaningful, we must suppose that there is a party other than the acto r who is hurt by the decision. The most logical answer is that it is the potential father; perhaps he wants children, but his cruel wife refuses to give him one. But if the husband is not making this accusation, why would the mother?

    And wouldn't a husband be selfish to expect his wife to not only live with children she doesn't want but to create, carry, and give birth to them, all for him? Sadly, I have heard it said that this attitude is selfish despite the absence of a boyfrie nd or husband to disappoint. So, toward whom are these women and these couples displaying selfishness by refusing to have children? Perhaps the woman is being selfish toward her possible future children by not bringing them into existence! If that's the case, then to fulfill her moral obligation, she'll have to create as many children as possible — we wouldn't want to cheat any viable eggs.

    Perhaps Jaimie's mother meant that it would disappoint her if there were no grandchildren. If any attitude can be called brutally selfish, it is the attitude that a daughter should create, carry, give birth to, and be responsible for children she does not want so that her mother can "be a grandmother." The very idea should make our stomachs turn. Yet we accept that it is natural for a woman to consider the desires of persons who would have no part in raising or paying for her children were s he to have them.

    Another possible interpretation is that Jaimie is not a "giving" person — she is too selfish with her time to give any up for a child. Since childlessness is selfish, and selfishness is morally wrong, childlessness by choice can be taken as a cle ar sign of moral failure. (I deal with other aspects of selflessness and its special burden for women in another essay, and for an eye-opening account of the psychological ramifications of selfless behavior, see Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, Melody Beattie (New York: MJF Books, 1992).)

  2. Children are a blessing. How can you reject this great gift?

    The idea here is that children are intrinsically — i.e., without reference to anything else or any desire of any person's — valuable. But why think so? If someone wants a child, and she manages to give birth to one, it is appropriate to say that THAT child is a blessing to her. But why would anyone think that EVERY child is a blessing, aside from vaguely defined religious injunctions to reproduce? If a couple does not want children, or is not in good financial circumstances, and the woman becomes pregnant, that pregancy is not a blessing to them. It is a burden.

    The sentiment used to make sense, when it was common for babies (and mothers) to die at birth or shortly thereafter, and when a man's wealth was counted by how many children his wife or wives had born him. With modern medicine, woman's liberation, and the decline of the importance of physical labor, it no longer makes a lot of sense to calculate wealth in this way. It really doesn't make sense in third world countries, where every new baby means that there will be less food for others. But more impo rtantly, a child is a blessing if you WANT a child; if you don't want a child, in what possible sense can it be a blessing to have one? Thus, as an argument for bearing and raising children, this one is pretty unconvincing.

  3. It is a virtue to have children.

    People don't make this claim explicitly. It is implied. Mothers often get more respect from people than they got when they were childless. Children are expected to respect their parents, simply because they are in the general vicinity of the child. "Family man" and "Mother" are both terms that engender respect. Certainly, carrying a child can be difficult and giving birth is painful; and there are many things a sincere woman can do to make sure that her fetus gets superior nutrition and protection. But one cannot tell just by knowing that a woman is pregnant or a mother, whether this special effort has been made. In most cases the fetus is carried and born automatically as long as no one interferes. So the implication is that people are virtuous i f they do not interfere with reproduction.

    But consider: If having children required a virtuous character, a lot fewer people would have them! Conception is one of the easiest things in the world to do for most people; it takes no thought, no energy, no insight, no good works, no virtue at all . Many vicious, despicable people make babies and then torture them once they arrive. You just need the animal parts in good working order and they will happen automatically. I don't know of any version of morality that considers that a virtue.

    Apparently, people confuse two types of behavior and treat them as one. On the one hand, there's making the baby, bringing it into existence. On the other, there's taking care of the child and doing it well. If someone does a great job of raising a c hild, he or she is worthy of praise. But there are plenty of people who make a babies, keep them, and don't take care of them properly; these people should be condemned for mistreating a helpless and innocent human being.

    But choosing not to make a baby is very different from neglecting or abusing a child. Yet sometimes it seems as though these two behaviors are considered equally bad.

I'll conclude now by simply listing some questions that many parents seem to have avoided considering until it was too late.

Who really wants kids, and how can they know? People who are happy with their work and hobbies, but still feel a desperate longing for children which babysitting cannot relieve, are probably the kind of people who would be miserable without children. These people should still consider carefully the amount of time, money, mental and physical energy, etc., which children require before they make their final decision. Once the child is here, it is too late.

Questions Potential Parents Should Ask Themselves Aside from questions like "Will I keep a Downs' Syndrome baby or put it up for adoption?" there are other, nonstandard questions that I suggest that people ask themselves. Here are some:

  1. Do I recognize that each child is an individual with its own personality and preferences, and that I can only influence these to a limited extent?

  2. Do I really LIKE children? Do I enjoy playing all levels of children's games? Do I enjoy being with someone who is frequently rambunctious, loud, uninhibited, deliberately trying, and who requires my constant supervision?

  3. Do I enjoy the idea of parenting? Specifically, do I enjoy the idea of correcting someone else, feeling like I have to correct someone else, monitoring another person's behavior and finding creative and sensitive ways of expressing the same thing over and over until it is understood?

  4. Does a disrupted sleep schedule bother me? Or am I the type of person who gets irritated or ill if my 11:30-8:00 schedule is shifted or interrupted? Do I take the irritation out on other people? How will I feel when the baby cries at 2:00 and th en at 5:00? Would I ever feign sleep while my partner tends to the baby?

  5. Is a committed relationship my style, or do I tend to have friends and lovers for a while and then move on when I lose interest? How do I feel about starting a close and intimate relationship with an unknown person with unknown interests (i.e., th e child) that will last the rest of my life?

  6. When I daydream about being a parent, am I picturing the child at a certain age? How do I feel about children at other ages? Do I fully realize that a rambunctious 13-year-old will be my responsibility just as surely as the cuddly newborn is? Am I interested in 13-year-olds?

  7. When I daydream about having a child, do I picture the child doing certain kinds of activities, such as little league? How do I feel about the child engaging in activities that I am not interested in, strongly dislike, or disapprove of? (E.g., if I enjoyed contact sports as a child, will I be disoriented by my son's love of the piano and interior decorating? Will I need to "keep trying" if I have a girl?)

  8. Do I lose my temper with people who don't catch on immediately? How will that translate into a parent-child situation?

  9. Do I expect to be such a wonderful parent that I will never have to discipline my splendid child, or do I expect to make mistakes that I will see reflected in my child's behavior? How will I treat the child when I realize that something I have don e — such as lying to my child — has interfered with his or her purity of spirit?

  10. If you are considering "giving" your lover or spouse children, though you don't especially want them, on the condition that he or she take over most of the responsibility for their daily nurture, have you considered the idea that your partner might fall ill, die, or leave you with the kids? Do you have a fallback plan for that eventuality? Or are you hoping that you will become more interested in caring for the children in such a case, or perhaps that you will be able to quickly meet another pers on who will take full responsibilty for them while you do the things that are more important to you?

  11. Is your principle reason for having children that you and your lover want to "make something together" or "make something that will be part of both of us"? If so, do you also love _children_? What if the child's personality and interests doesn't much resemble either of yours — will the fact that it has half of each of your chromosomes be enough for you?

  12. Do you have extra money that you don't think you'll be using for anything else? Or do you expect your years with your child to be years of "sacrifice"? If the latter, are you accustomed to "hardship" or do you think it is possible that you will r esent the cost of the child who is preventing you from buying other kinds of luxuries?

Living in an industrialized, informationalized society, we have the luxury and the responsibility to think about children as real human beings. We have the luxury and responsibility to assess our own worth without reference to any potential l ives we are able to create. You have the luxury and the responsibility to think about it before you commit.

Is it possible to live a full and happy life without children? The answer depends on who you are. For at least some people, the answer is "Absolutely!"

The interesting question remaining, then, is, "Who are you?"

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