Obviously my decision is made. I still pay attention to debates and discussions for a couple reasons. One: It’s interesting. The reasons people give illuminate their values and world perspectives. Two: I live in the second most child-free city (per capita) in the United States. A recent column by Sharon Pian Chan notes that deciding to be child-free in Seattle is normal, if uncommon for American culture at large. If you are wondering about what living in a city with few children looks like, I have found it resembles this:
- There are some public restrooms without changing tables in cafes and restaurants, even places that ensure their single-stall bathrooms are gender neutral for political reasons but forgot to make them kid-friendly. A women’s restroom at the zoo also did not have a changing table.
- I live in a neighborhood comprised primarily of single-family homes. When I go for walks, the streets and yards are empty. When I get on the bus, there are generally no children on it, despite the fact the routes have a high enough capacity to justify running 60-foot articulated buses which can carry around seventy passengers.
- When I go to the pocket parks, I am more likely to see young adults playing with their dogs than I am to see parents playing with their children. These parks are surrounded by single-family homes.
- Parenting supplies like (usually expensive!) bottles and nipples are regularly on clearance at the grocery store next to my apartment. I almost never see kids in that store either.
- There are few shops which sell baby supplies in my part of Northwestern Seattle. There are probably a dozen pet-supply shops.
- The most recent car-sharing company to land in Seattle exclusively uses two-seat vehicles.
- When I went to my first OB/GYN appointment for my pregnancy, the doctor treated me like some wayward teenager. Mind you, I am nearly 27. The doctor flipped through my chart, asking patronizing and flippant questions about my job, before she stopped. She furrowed her brow, looked back through a couple pages, then exclaimed, “OH. You’re married!” as though she realized her condescension was a mistake. She buried her face in the charts and so could not see my raised eyebrows of, “Oh, really?” The other women in the waiting room were at least half, if not a full, decade older than me.
- I go days and weeks without seeing another pregnant woman.
So I am observing this conversation after making one choice in a place where most people made the opposite. Part of the reason to listen in on the conversation is to get where other folks are coming from, and where their values lay.
It’s a conversation that, unsurprisingly, quickly becomes defensive (at least on the internet). There is no undoing the choice once your kids are in the world. Admitting that you regret it comes with a higher-than average stigma, because it is declaring that you wish another human being did not exist… a human being who happens to be your child. Yikes. That is a view point that is unlikely to receive much support, and one which will invite great stigma. Like hazing into a fraternity, there is an effect for justification of effort whenever the sunk costs are very high.
For those who do not have children, I suspect the defensiveness arises from the nature of a choice of inaction. For instance, if you choose not to get a tattoo, you are not precluded from getting one later. There may be people who see the world in two camps: those with tattoos, and those who do not yet have tattoos. A similar view of having children could lead the child-free to fatigue of their presumed rhetorical position, or their future willingness to change their mind, and defensiveness results.
Speaking of rhetoric, I’ve noticed that everyone is considered selfish for whatever choice they make. Parents are selfish for creating children, and non-parents are selfish for choosing to spend their efforts and resources on their selves. This seems more to be commentary on the stigma of being selfish rather than what constitutes the practice of selfishness.
Of course, the people who argue vehemently in either direction are probably those who are most insecure with the choice they made. If you’re 100% certain you want children, other people not having kids does not threaten the validity of your decision. If you’re 100% certain that you do not want children, other people having kids does not effect your reasoning beyond that their lives may become a bit more incompatible with yours, being that they have greater responsibilities.
Reasons I’ve been exposed to which suggest having children:
- Children add meaning to life
- Having children is part of the human experience
- Desire to have relationship with kids
- Desire to have an ancestral line (kids, grandkids, etc)
- Positive experiences with one’s family of origin
- “Felt right,” “sense of completeness,” and other squishier, emotional reasons
- Spouse wanted to and the individual was ambivalent
- Sometimes folks cite benefits that really can only be ad-hoc rationalizations due to the inability of most to predict the future: parenting making one more patient, compassionate, mature, etc
- Liking the world of children – whim, toys, etc
- Fondness for children as a subset of the population
- Optimism about future
Reasons I often read or hear for not having children:
- Do not like children: the work they take, children’s immaturity, etc
- Uninterested in taking on the care-giving and responsibility required of parents
- See work and family as an intractable conflict and would prefer to have a successful career over a family. This tends to be something women state, as becoming a mother compromises your ability to economically provide for aforementioned family courtesy of wage disparities, stigma on mothers in the workplace, etc. Men do not have that struggle in the same degree.
- Prefer to spend resources on other activities rather than supporting a dependent
- Do not believe they have enough resources to raise a family
- Negative experiences with one’s family of origin
- Timing: when one found an intimate relationship of permanence, they felt they were past a good part of life, for them, to have children.
- Value other things more than children: career success, freedom, money, etc (A variant of this is that one can have a fulfilling life without children)
- Reference to the world being overpopulated
- Reference to living with a smaller ecological footprint
Honestly, I feel like the last two are more about showing liberal street-cred than being thought-out arguments. Hear me out: Yes, the existence of people impacts and likely hurts the environment. Taken to its logical conclusions, the most ethical thing one could do for the planet is not to exist at all. The folks who say this do not seem to have an issue with their own life on Earth. Surely we’re not advocating that others should not exist, right? The other reasons, in my opinion, make a great deal of sense and reflect different locations of values and goals.
Not that the reasons people have children stand up to the rigors of a cost-benefit analysis either. As Bryan Caplan writes in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, it is presumed that a cost-benefit analysis will always end in “don’t have kids”. (He argues that it is because parenting has become needlessly intensive, but that is another topic.) They do cost money in rents for a larger space, more food, more clothes, child-care, additional health insurance, diapers, toys, educational expenses, and opportunity cost. If wealth is your goal, children are pretty much a terrible idea. People thus tend to cite emotional reasons for having children. There’s nothing wrong with that either.
The differing reasons come down to differing ways of determining meaning in life. Marx argued that one derived meaning and fully realized their humanity through their labor, and this idea likely resonates with those in the pro-career camp (and to those who are full-time caretakers). The logic behind having children or not reflects fundamental differences in values and goals. I am not saying whether any are better or worse, just that they are different.
I think this may reflect my education and social location, but I have to admit being confused when people refer to having children as a decision of inertia. I have seen this mentioned in some of the child-free discussions, that people have children because they do not have a reason not to. It seems to me that there are more reasons flying about not to have kids than to have them. I related to the ideas that Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in a Valentine’s Day The Atlantic column, “Don’t rule out having children because you want to have a career”. There are lots of messages, especially aimed at educated women, to work on a career first, become financially stable, then find a partner and then have kids. This is part of the reason you see an uptick in the age of first marriage.
Work and family are both greedy institutions in that they demand and consume a large portion of life. They differ in the meanings ascribed to them. One does not garner as great prestige from having a family as they do from having a career. I mention this as our society tends to conflate worth and wealth. Having a family, especially if you are female, threatens your ability to accumulate wealth, and I could understand if one felt that it threatened their value too. Having children is something that most people can physically do, but one’s career is somehow more unique. The implicit comment when one chooses a career over a family is that they have something better to do. That is a loud statement about the social value of a family. Many other (similarly-educated, based in Seattle) millennials I talk to would like to eventually have a family, but their jobs come first.
I am also finding that having children and having a career can be surprisingly economically mutually exclusive. Let us pretend the only reason one works is for money, and ignore the existential angst over careers and work. Infant child care in Seattle is sufficiently expensive that it meets or exceeds the take-home salary of my white-collar office job. People rarely discuss that, perhaps because they are embarrassed that they do not make more than child care costs. A great deal of the reason to have a good career, for me, is so that you can support a family. Kids aren’t cheap. This structural and common struggle of working and child-rearing seems particularly tragic when a two-income household is the one best suited to confront an expensive cost of living. It’s even worse if one is wondering about the generational perpetuation of income inequality.
I worry about the social consequences of an economic structure that is most profitable for those whose only needs and wants to support are their own, and penalizes those who take on the task of caring for another person. That is something that does not come up as often in discussions of the motherhood wage penalty: mothers have a particular use and need for money that non-parenting women and men do not. Granted, general American attitudes towards work and wealth tend to neglect that monetary acquisition has purposes beyond its own sake.
It is an overall positive thing for women’s ability to self-determine their lives that having children is becoming accepted as a choice, not an obligation. Men do not face the same pressures; that is why I am singling out women. There is a risk: in the context of an individualist culture, the rhetoric of choice is sometimes used to divorce oneself from responsibility for others’ decision-making. You see this in calls to cut social services. I worry this will mean that the need of society to take care of its collective kids will get downplayed as the population ages and fewer people have children. Time will tell. I hope that children remain perceived an obligatory part of society, while they need not be an obligatory part of one’s individual family.
Ultimately, deciding to have children or not is a very personal decision of which the only people qualified to know if it is the right one are those who would be the potential parents themselves. It is best for kids that the only people who have them are those who want them.
Why did I chose to have children? I want the experience of having a family of my own, and I felt as though I had come to a point where I’m better at loving unconditionally than I was in my younger days. The timing felt right in my gut. I want to raise and get to know kids, but I do not have expectations about the type of people I hope they’ll be beyond the usual law-abiding, people of integrity thing. I have positive associations with child-rearing, likely because my own parents are the sort of people who obviously loved raising kids, despite the challenges. I do not feel like I am missing out on anything fun that I will need to sacrifice. I trust myself and my husband to navigate the economic parts of the world well enough to make things work. My marriage is solid. My husband shows all signs of being a good father, and great long term companion. Yeah, I am not looking forward to dirty diapers and sleeplessness, to figuring out discipline or to the countless mistakes I’ll probably make. No one has perfect parents, and my daughter won’t either. That’s OK. She will have to learn to be OK with it too. I dread the inevitably uncomfortable solutions to the puzzle of the need for child-care and the need to for income to support said child. Will and I have ideas, plans, and schemes. We’ll see what happens.
I am looking forward to showing a few new people the wonderful world we live in, introducing them to the wonderful family they belong to, and living life. I am looking forward to watching a couple people grow, and getting to know them as they do. I am looking forward to sharing these challenges and joys with Will. It is an experience I wish to have. In a few months (GULP!), I will have it. I am not ready. That’s OK.
Then this blog will likely be even less frequently updated than it already is. :)
Did you choose to have or not have children? What informed your choice?