Parenthood, Selfishness, and Toxic Ideas

I recently overheard some relatives of my husband say that not having children was a selfish choice, and that it was the choice to bear and raise children that was truly selfless. I cringed, but I was not involved in the conversation, so I didn’t say anything. It did make me think, though, and I was reminded of a blog post I had come upon several days before with a very different message. It was titled “To the Women Who Choose Not To Have Kids.”  

To the women who choose not to have kids, I have one thing to say: thank you.

You probably don’t hear it enough. In fact, you probably don’t hear it at all. What you do hear is an array of pro-childbearing responses, such as, “You’ll change your mind someday,” or, “Doesn’t your mother want grandkids?” or, “You’ll never find a husband if you never want to have kids.”

All things considered, “thank you” is probably on the opposite end of what you hear.

But seriously: thank you. Thank you for recognizing that childrearing isn’t for you and being true to who you are. It doesn’t mean you hate kids. It just means that raising one is not part of your path in life.

But let’s talk about this for a moment, really talk about this, because the idea that people who do not have children are selfish is pretty widespread and I think it needs to be addressed. It’s not just that it’s wrong, which it is, but also that the idea itself has extremely dangerous implications.

I have a friend who has no children, but is one of the most selfless people I know. She is in graduate school with dreams of improving the world. She lives frugally on a small stipend while spending more time on volunteer work in a week than most people do in ten years. She works at the farmers’ market, and the community garden, for starters, and all without pay. She has a heart for improving the future for new generations. The idea that her choice to not have children makes her selfish is breathtaking.

There are lots of ways to exhibit care for others outside of raising children. In fact, the majority of ways of exhibiting selflessness have nothing to do with parenting. There is nothing about not having children that makes someone incapable of doing things for other people or making the world a better place. In fact, I would contend that the portrayal of those without children as selfish tends toward a bifurcated world that divides people artificially and threatens to obscure the many ways we as a society can help each other.

As my regular readers will know, I am doing a page by page review of To Train Up A Child, a fundamentalist Christian child rearing manual. As I’ve pointed out time and again, much of the book focuses on making children convenient—on forcing children to obey any parental command without question, to sit still in church and walk passively at the grocery, etc. In other words, there are plenty of parents who approach parenting in a very selfish way. They make parenting not about their children but rather about themselves. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. You know what I’m talking about.

There is nothing about being a parent that automatically or of necessity makes one selfless. Period. Yes, parenting is often an incredibly difficult and draining undertaking, but it is possible to parent in a very selfish manner, and plenty do. Good parenting is about balancing one’s own needs with the needs of one’s children, but then, it is necessary to balance your own needs with those of others even without children. In some sense, all of life is about achieving that balance. This idea that those who do not have children are selfish hinges on a fallacious suggestion that it is only parents who must search for this balance. And, as I have said, it is completely possible to parent selfishly. The suggestion that becoming a parent is somehow inherently selfless risks sending parents the message that they don’t have to worry about being selfish, or about parenting in a selfish manner, because they have already attained selflessness simply by procreating.

I am having trouble articulating the enormous extent of the damage that results from this idea that having children is selfless while not having children is selfish. It creates bizarre dichotomies and threatens to restrict selfless activity to how one treats one’s own children. It is also not a good thing for children. Children need parents who want them and have chosen to have them, not parents who have been pressured into childrearing even though they never really wanted it. I wouldn’t give a dog or a cat to someone who wasn’t a dog person or a cat person, and I similarly wouldn’t give the responsibility of raising a human being to someone who has made it clear that they want children. Children deserve better than that—and so do adults.

Let me show you how much more healthily these ideas can be expressed if we can drop this inane dichotomy and view life—and people—more holistically.

Whoever you are, wherever you are in life, find ways to give back to those around you. Remember that your needs matter too and that self care is important and must not be neglected. Balance your needs with the needs of others and strive for a life filled with your own meaning and purpose. If you choose to have children, treat those children with respect and remember that they are individual human beings with their own desires, needs, and interests, not your property. Whether or not you choose to have children, remember that your life intersects with a web of other lives, that how you treat those around you is important and may come back to affect you, and that the only thing that lasts, really lasts, are the memories you make. 

It is all of this that is obscured in the overly simplistic and factually inaccurate idea that those who choose not to have children are selfish while those who choose to have children are selfless. And that is why, quite frankly, next time someone makes the suggestion that not having children is selfish, I’m not going to let it slide.

Edit: Just as choosing not to have kids is not inherently selfish, so too choosing to have kids is not inherently selfish. The decision to have kids is, like just about any other decision, one that can be made for good reasons and for bad reasons. I find the idea that having children is inherently selfish just as problematic as the idea that not having children is inherently selfish.