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“Why Have Children? - A Sequel to “The Shame of Not Having Children”

Michelle Fram-Cohen

Forum: Enlightenment

Inspired by Carolyn Ray's "The Shame of Not Wanting Children"

Today, with almost fool-proof birth control, legal abortions and the future prospects of self-cloning, the question "Why Have Children?" sounds rather appropriate. Indeed, why undertake an eighteen-year obligation to raise and support a completely dependent human being? Why assume the legal and moral responsibility for the conduct of someone else? Why would any rational, independent, self-respecting individual want to do that?

My response to this question is a sequel to Carolyn Ray's essay "The Shame of Not Wanting Children", in which she refuted irrational arguments for having children. In my essay, I would like to provide some rational arguments for having children. My experience as a person who chose to have a child exposed me to the opposite type of criticism than the one encountered by Ray: “What, you are going to give half your salary to a babysitter just to care for your baby?” “Why are you paying tuition for a private school instead of sending him to a public school and buying a bigger house?” For many people parenting means sacrificing what they really want to do, therefore they should not have children. But what about the ones who want to have children?

A common rationale for having children among Objectivists is that this is their selfish wish: they enjoy nurturing a human being. But can this selfish wish be justified philosophically? Nurturing is not an Objectivist virtue. It is difficult to reconcile nurturing with the serene self-sufficiency of Rand's heroes. Rand did not provide a major model of parenting in her novels. The inclusion of a mother among the strikers in Galt's Gulch indicates that Rand did consider parenting important, but the characterization of the mother is rather sketchy. She talks to Dagny about her commitment to raising her sons as rational beings, but the reader does not see her interacting with them. The mother is talking to Dagny over the counter of her bakery - not over the head of a child sitting on her lap - while her sons are roaming the countryside. The 4 and 7-year old boys are left to themselves much like Dagny, Francisco and Eddie Willers were left to their own devices. The mother's function is mainly to remove her sons from the irrational educational system in the outside world and let Mother Nature do the rest.

In her “Playboy” interview in 1962 Rand said that women who choose to be mothers should approach it as a career, not an emotional indulgence. She focused on the intellectual aspect of raising a rational human being. According to this approach, parents are not different from teachers, except that their hours are longer. Rand did not write about the bonding between parent and child, an aspect of their relationship that is not intellectual but emotional. Nevertheless, bonding is a physiological, as well as a psychological, corollary of parenting. Having a child in order to raise a rational human being can be a noble endeavor, but it does not have to be the main reason. The simple selfish enjoyment of having a child around is sufficient. In this context, parenting can be a very enjoyable emotional indulgence.

Objectivism strives to provide men and women with a philosophy that can fit their nature and does not require any sacrifice. In this context, one reason for having children is that parenting is a part of human nature, just like a romantic relationship. If a person were to say that he or she decided to never have a romantic relationship because it will take away from his or her time pursuing a career, it would be considered odd. Then why isn't it considered odd when the same claim is made against parenting? Granted there are people who are not cut out for romantic relationships, there are also people who are not cut out for parenting. But having a romantic relationship is a significant experience within one's life and so is parenthood. In this respect, the commitment to raise a child is not different from the commitment to stay in a life-long monogamous relationship, "for better or worse." Bad marriages do not prove that long-range monogamous relationships are against human nature, so bad parents do not prove that having children is against human nature.

I would like to point out that both work and children were part of the Biblical curse inflicted on Adam and Eve when they were driven out of the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden man did not have to work and woman did not have to bear children. Adam and Eve were a childless couple doing nothing. One of the great innovations of Objectivism is its positive view of work as a purposeful, enjoyable task and the proper function of man. Unfortunately, when it comes to the issue of children, many Objectivists tend to join the conventional view of children as drudgery. Refusing to have children because it is a selfless duty plays into the hands of those who claim that such is the nature of parenthood.

In her essay, Carolyn Ray writes: "Judging by the way many parents behave toward children, and by the things they complain 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." I think that these parents are not necessarily those who should not have had children in the first place. In some cases, they simply did not learn to enjoy their children. They bought into the theory that parenting is a chore.

Parenting requires some concessions, but so do work and marriage. Career minded individuals are willing to put up with the demands and conduct of superiors and co-employees at work, for longer hours than they would ever spend with their kids. Married people are willing to work out their differences in order to preserve their marriage. When a child is brought up rationally, he or she is not likely to be the screaming brat many people dread. Children are not necessarily the worst irrational whim worshippers one must deal with. In many cases, they are the only uncorrupted, reasonable human beings around.

A major aspect of having children that is rarely addressed by Objectivists is that children are the future: they will be here when we are gone. They will carry on our genetic makeup, and possibly, our values as well. They will inherit what we created. An intriguing portrayal of a childless society is provided in "The Children of Earth," a science fiction novel by British author P.D. James. Due to a mysterious epidemic, all the women on Earth become infertile. The impact on civilization is devastating. Rather than celebrate their newly found freedom from children and devote all their time and energy to production and creativity, people are paralyzed. Knowing that they are the last of their species and that Homo Sapiens will be extinct in one generation, most people decide it is pointless to create anything. Society deteriorates into hedonism and despair.

In her introduction to the 25th anniversary of The Fountainhead, referring to the fact that her novels have been read by several generations of readers, Rand paraphrased Victor Hugo as saying: “If I only write for my own time, I might as well throw my pen in the trash.” Wouldn't it be sad indeed if Rand's generation was the last generation of Homo Sapiens on earth and we were not around to read her novels?

©2001, Michelle Fram-Cohen