I am 34 years old and childless by choice. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last couple of years wrestling with whether that choice makes me selfish, and if it does make me selfish, does that make me any different than anyone else? Of course, just when I start to feel comfortable with my decision, Time publishes a cover story on “The Childfree Life” and The Guardian asks “Should We Care That Smart Women Aren’t Having Kids?”, and they’re both followed by a slew of snarky responses and comments on both sides of the issue, and I feel that restlessness again.
One thing you should know about me is I want people to like me, and I want people to believe I’m a good person. I wish I didn’t care so much, but I just do. So when people make judgments about me and my decision to opt-out of motherhood, it bothers me. But what bothers me even more is that they get it wrong. So much of what’s been written about the choice to have children or not reads like a pro-con list, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of parenthood. On one side there is this bundle of joy and the meaning motherhood gives your life, while on the other side there’s dream jobs, exotic vacations, and me-time. And when you put it that way, even I have to admit, it does sound pretty selfish (and while we’re on the topic, the Time article, while well-meaning and supportive, includes a cover photo that doesn’t do much to challenge the stereotype of childfree couples as overindulgent and self-serving).
My problem with this though is that most women I know don’t make a pro-con list when deciding whether or not they want a baby. I suspect my mother friends never reasoned that having someone to take care of them in their old age was a fair trade-off for two years of dirty diapers, or that the joy of teaching their children to read would offset the cost of college. Most mothers I know had them because they felt a deep (and for some desperate) desire to have a child.
For me, it’s not that I don’t want kids. It’s that I don’t want kids. I don’t feel the same biological imperative. I don’t know what that deep desire feels like, and my choice has a lot more to do with that than it does my job or my bank account. I believe the decision to have a child is the most important decision of your life, and I don’t think it’s selfish to want to be overjoyed by that choice, not obligated or guilted into it. I want to be overcome with excitement, and I don’t know why, but I’m not, and there’s nothing reasonable about it. It’s entirely personal and emotional, and it’s not until after the decision has made you look back and you find the fulfillment and satisfaction, the trade-offs and the compromises in either situation.
My biggest problem with these articles is they’re so often divisive. The selfish reasons for not having children have to be refuted by pointing out all the selfish reasons people do have children. The argument gets made that having kids is bad for the environment, and not having kids is untenable for the economy. These kinds of debates only widen the gap between the child-haves and the child-have-nots and leave me feeling all tangled up again. Maybe some day the discourse (both in the media and in my head) can finally move beyond which choice is more or less selfish, and we can begin to understand that for many of us it’s hardly a choice at all.
Photo by Nick Wilkes