Thinking About Having Children: One Pagan’s Perspective

Last week Sarah, our fearless leader here at Pagan Families, posted a link to this article, called “Think Before You Breed,” in the New York Times about the ethics of having children on our Facebook page. I think most people do think before they breed; on the other hand, most of us aren’t trained in the philosophical arts, so the kinds of thinking the author is aiming for might not come easily to most people. Sarah wondered “Can Pagan ethics help us to decide whether to have children? ”

The article linked to above won’t offer any direction for a Pagan perspective on having children, other than an encouragement to really think about the decision. I suspect that whether a pregnancy is a surprise or not, every single baby is given a great deal of thought. How do Pagan ethics fit in? Good question.

Let it be known that I am writing this not from a research point of view, but from a personal, high subjective point of view. I am about to employ generalizations. Your ideas, experiences, and traditions may not fit them. I hope you’ll discuss in the comments!

What are exactly are Pagan ethics? As far as I am aware there is not a standard set of Pagan ethics. As close as I can tell, the only ethic that the most amount of Pagans agree on is the Wiccan Rede: An harm ye none. They may not agree on the whole statement, or even what ‘harm’ means, but very few spiritual people actually want to harm others. But this is a tricky and complex ethic to unravel and uphold, and while many may use it as an ethical guide, many don’t. I don’t think it has much place in the decision to have children. Let me explain.

Having children involves bringing them into a world full of pitfalls and experiences (and joys) over which we very often have no control. As a mother of two, I have two tiny hearts that beat as mine existing outside of myself. I literally feel my own heart lurch when they whack their heads or bloody a knee; my heart cries with theirs when they experience a grief. Being human in this world involves harm.

Yet the children were not able to consent to their existence, nor choose which harms to face. None of us were. And we were not able to consent to the vast majority of our upbringings either. If consent is our highest value, then perhaps it’s not ethical to bring children into the world. Perhaps, the option for those people who still want to raise a family is to adopt children that already exist in the world and need homes.

I value consent and mutuality very highly, but I admit I didn’t think of this angle when I decided to have to children. For a time I was partnered with a female and I’d accepted that biological children might not be in my future. When I partnered with my husband we both wanted a family and a biological one. I just wanted a family. I looked forward to the joys, even as I knew (as best as I could) that there would be challenges, too. We thought emotionally, practically, but not ethically about our choice. We are now in the process of deciding whether or not to have a third child, and I’ve been thinking a great deal about all the factors that go into this.

From a general Pagan viewpoint I can think of three areas of ethical consideration: environmental, communal, and personal.

While not all Pagans revere the earth, consider themselves environmentalists or even earth-based, I’ve yet to meet a Pagan who didn’t value the interdependence of the world, its diverse biology and ecology, and make at least some choices out of a consideration for the environment in some way. When I was growing up there was the fear of the overpopulation. Nowadays that is less the worry – in fact, many countries are not reproducing at a rate that will replace standard demographics (many countries may have many, many times more retirees than people to support them in the not-so-far-off future). But what is worrying is that our use of resources is not sustainable. Do we bring more bodies into the world? Bodies that have needs and wants? Can we raise children in a sustainable way? I think these are significant concerns.

Community is another area that most Pagans I know give a great amount of thought to. This might be your coven, your lodge or working group, the larger Pagan community as a whole, maybe the town or specific neighborhood you live in. What are the realities of where you live? Is it a safe place in which to raise children? Do you have networks of support? We’ve already discussed that harm is involved in living, period, but are there some very serious harms more likely where you live? These questions might be worth asking.

However, the community context can be confusing. Most Pagan communities don’t support families particularly well. Most rituals are for adults only. Most of the Pagans I know are child-free, almost entirely by choice – is there room in our groups for those of us with families? Once a person has children it can be very hard to find the time to do the personal work required of us, let alone get to classes or circles. From a female perspective, sometimes being pregnant can raise issues of accessibility.

Looking at the personal category, most Pagans I know value individual freedom. I don’t believe I know a single person who identifies as Pagan that would choose to limit a person’s choice to have children. But we must also look at our personal circumstances. Are we ready – emotionally, relationally? Do we have secure housing? What about health care and a steady income? Are these important to us?

There are other areas that might be relevant to our personal Pagan ethics depending upon our tradition, but I think these three – Environment, Community, and Personal Readiness – are the most common.

To take this discussion out of the hypothetical and into the personal, I want to walk through these three areas again from my experience and talk out how I think about them as I debate whether to have another child.

I came to terms with the environmental question when I was pregnant with my first. I briefly interacted with a mother of ten in an online forum. My knee-jerk reaction was to assume that she was Mormon or a conservative Catholic (I never asked nor found out if that was the case). What I came to find out was that her family lived in a homestead in the NE, grew almost all of their food, she made a lot of their clothes, and she home schooled all the kids. Now, I have no desire to homestead, but what struck me was this: the vast majority of two child families, single child families, heck even child-free people are not living as sustainably as this family of 12. When people claim that families are horrible for the environment, I counter with the statement ‘it doesn’t have to be that way.’

It takes a lot of thinking and a fair amount of adjusting to different habits, but a family can live a modern life on less income and fewer resources than we might at first believe. Of course, if we really want to be sustainable we might have to rethink our entire society, forms of energy and way we source nearly everything, but that’s a different topic for another time. I have done considerable work to create as sustainable a family as I can – knowing that I need to constantly be reassessing and adjusting as we need or can.

What is particularly important in my life is community. When I had my second child my partner and I were living in Wales, far far away from our closest friends and all of our family. It was hard and a little lonely, especially in those final weeks of pregnancy and in those early months with a newborn, with little outside support. Knowing that I have the resources for a third is encouraging. By resources I mean, emotional, spiritual and practical support: hand-me-downs, dinners in those early weeks, emergency help if things go ‘wrong’ or I get sick, child-care, etc. Knowing that there is a culture of midwifery in my community is particularly important to me.

I feel I need to add this: I acknowledge that I already have two healthy children. So, why would I want a third? I live in a rather liberal part of the US, a very family friendly town, and in my world it seems that two kids are the norm. It’s the American average. But I often feel as though wanting more children makes me a bad liberal, a terrible environmentalist, and a crazy feminist because there goes my career. It’s unspoken, but I see these attitudes around me in the wider world. Thankfully, I know several amazing larger families, so I see that politics, care for the environment and a healthy career are indeed possible! And possible because of community support.

The final area of consideration, the Personal, is well, the most personal and the most important to me. It’s the intangible. The part of me that makes no rational sense, but a part I value and listen to nonetheless. It’s that part where my husband and I repeatedly feel that there is some one else missing at our table. It’s the part of my physical body that, as much as I don’t actually enjoy being pregnant all that much and craves my autonomy, recognizes that I have one more pregnancy in me.

I counter those feelings with practical thoughts: I am 37 and I do not want to be pregnant or birthing at 40. I know my window is narrowing. I recognize that as a self-employed family in the US, we cannot afford health insurance. I am working on getting my children insured under the state system, and there is a system for low-income pregnant women. Our lack of savings and our acknowledgment of future expenses (braces? for one or both kids? accidents? costs for hobbies?) are very real concerns. Do we add a third child to the mix? Is this responsible?

I come back to a passage from a novel I read recently: A high-born woman in Victorian England is having tea with another a woman, a poor widow with seven children. Questions about livelihood are exchanged and the poor woman says something along the lines of ‘I see you wondering how I maintain my brood. But you are mistaken: they are not a burden, but my consolation.’ I would add that from a Pagan point of view, my children are also my gift to the world. Two (or more) children who will be raised to honor the Gods and Pagan values.

How did you decide to breed? Or not breed? What are the ethical decisions around building a family that you have faced or are facing in your own journey?



3 great reads for Pagan parents
What Nights Are For
The Importance of Self Care
2 Mama Essays and 2 Pregnancy Prayers + 1 Roadmap To a Healthy Birth
About Niki Whiting
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  • Michelle Hill

    Very interesting post. I appreciate you writing it.

    When people claim that families are horrible for the environment, I counter with the statement ‘it doesn’t have to be that way.’

    You’re certainly correct having a family doesn’t have to be horrible for the environment. To limit the damage on Mother Earth, a parent has to make some pretty tough choices and be really committed to her/his decisions.

    By that I mean, if the parents chooses to use cloth diapers made from sustainable, organic sources the money to purchase the cloth diapers needs to be available. This is very expensive and can be cost prohibitive. Also, cleaning soiled cloth diapers uses more water. Does the parent live in an area where clean water is abundant? Or do they live in an area where the watershed has been depleted and/or contaminated?

    Choosing to breast feed over bottle feeding is also a big commitment. Bottles, nipples, and formula are very detrimental to baby and to Mother. Does the mother have the resources to stay home and feed baby? Must mother work? Will her employer give her time to feed baby or pump? And who will take care of baby while mother is working?

    Plastic toys are out of the question because of the nature of plastic: a petroleum product filled with carcinogens. Petroleum is a finite resource so transportation can become a major issue. It is also getting very expensive. The days of cheap oil are coming to an end. If mother lives in a rural community without public transportation, getting around can be the biggest hurdle.

    As baby ages, will mother allow the child to play sports? If the answer is yes, then there’s a lot of gas (and money) to get child to and from practices and games, and lots more plastic in the form of sports equipment, not to mention the child (could) consume more food and drink, a detriment on watersheds and farms. (That’s assuming child isn’t fed gatorade and other harmful “foods” on the way to and from sports events).

    Should child be schooled in a private or public school, that’s more resources taken to get child to the building in which education is being disseminated. Further, as child grows into a teen, societal pressures to conform to clothing and gadget norms will increase for teen. Will teen get the latest fashions? The newest electronic toy?

    Parent must provide that small human with clothing, food, and shelter. All of these can be a drain on Mother Earth, though the drain can be reduced by clothing in hand me downs and thrift stores, food grown locally, and living in houses already built (instead of building new homes).

    A child living in total poverty will not take the same amount of resources as a poor child in the US. Oprah once said she doesn’t open schools in the US because American kids don’t want to go to school, they want iPods and expensive sneakers. “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there,” she said. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.” source.

    Later in the essay you state I have done considerable work to create as sustainable a family as I can – knowing that I need to constantly be reassessing and adjusting as we need or can. I want to acknowledge your hard work in doing so. We can all make changes that’ll assist Mother Earth in her recovery from our addiction to oil and greed. Thinking consciously about having children is one way we can aid in that recovery.

    • Niki Whiting

      Thank you for this, and for all of your examples and suggestions. While I certainly wouldn’t prevent my kids from playing a sport of their choosing, I do think in these early years I can perhaps direct them to less ‘stuff’ intensive ones. My son might be starting Aikido this fall. Not much stuff needed there!

      There are lots of ways we can be conscious of interaction with the earth and our community. It *is* hard work, but very worth it.

  • SarahWhedon

    Thanks for writing this Niki! There’s so much food for thought. One thing I find myself wondering about is whether your practical considerations aren’t also really ethical issues. I’d argue that who gets affordable access to healthcare and who has financial resources are, though I guess thinking about changing systems is different from thinking about personal choices given the current state of those systems.

    • Niki Whiting

      There are some BIG ethical issues with the considerations of access to health care and the system/s as a whole, but I wanted to keep this more personal, as I haven’t done a huge study of ethics. Also, Pagans are often solitary or in small community groups – we don’t have, say hospitals, like Catholics do, or community centers, like Jewish communities often have. I would love a larger picture post on this topic; I just started small!

  • Holly

    What about the spiritual and mystical side of becoming a parent? I didn’t really think too much about becoming parent (besides thinking about it my entire life). The Divine sent me a message so clear that to ignore it would have been out of the question. The Divine told me that I my child needed me to find him/her. It took me a while, but I finally did when I adopted not one but two children internationally. I’ve never been pregnant, tried to get pregnant, or even wanted to be pregnant, so I can’t comment on the thought process of pregnancy, but I imagine that the Divine would work in much the same way.

    I have also heard mystical people say that spirits can choose when to be born into this world, so I am not entirely sure that we don’t choose to be here on Earth.

    • Helen/Hawk

      Both of my children were born by working their ways around birth control (IUD’s). This was years ago…..but it’s always been very clear to me that they wanted to be here.

      I’ve always felt that my choice involved whether to accept their announcement of arrival. I mean I could have declined but w/out action on my part, they were clearly arriving (aka going to be born).
      So in my experience the “thinking about having children” was about whether to stop from having them.

      Have always felt that they initiated their lifetime here.

    • Niki Whiting

      I’ve been traveling, so I apologize for the delay in responding.

      I do think that there is a mystic element to growing a family: intentionally or unintentionally; biological or non-. However, I think that if we get too certain that our spirits choose this exact life in these exact circumstances then we enter shady theological territory. Yes, our spirits may want to be born, but flesh-and-blood children have little to no say in their circumstances, so to say that a child chose their family implies that children may choose to be born into neglectful, abusive, war-torn or otherwise undesirable circumstances.

      However, if your God/Soul told you to find your child then I say that is a good thing and not to be ignored! The mystic and the practical ideally go hand in hand.

  • Lauretta Wolf

    This summer I’ve been to many Pagan festivals…mostly family friendly ones. the smallest number of children in a family was 3…and the mom was pregnant. Her other kids had different dads. She does plan on marrying this dad. Please know that I’m not being judgmental here!! I’m stating facts. The act of love is blessed by the Goddess, children are blessed of the Goddess…but from what I’ve seen this summer, there needs to be some serious conversations like this one in the wider Pagan world. Having nine children (and yes, she’s a super mom/earth mother…dad’s great too) in this time and place just doesn’t seem like a good thing for our mother earth. As a spirituality that at it’s foundation bases itself on honoring, loving and connecting to the earth…..well, we just need to talk about this. Oh, BTW…I’m way past the having kids stage of life…had my two:) Thank you for opening up this topic!!!!

    • Niki Whiting

      I think it’s interesting that the number of children you deem appropriate is two. How unsurprising that that’s the number you had! Many, many people would say that even 2 children are two too many for the earth. I want to reiterate that I firmly believe a family could have 9 kids and have a lower environmental impact than a family of 1 or even no children.

      What’s more interesting to me is that many Pagan families have young and growing families.

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  • Carrie Tuttle

    Great Article! So, I am new to the site and came over to read your article. I am 37 now and my husband and I have just decided to try to have our first biological child (I have a stepson who is 6). It has been a lot of thinking, in fact I am pretty sure I have done more thinking on the subject in the past 2 years than on anything else in my life. Probably the way it should be. But I also found that in all the thinking, I was forgetting about *feeling*. I would get so caught in the if’s, and’s, buts, and environmental concerns, that I started to loose touch with the very real emotional feeling of wanting to have a child. Not that those logical concerns are invalid, I am Wiccan and do not have a spiritual community where I live, I have no idea in all of the goddesses green earth how I am going to manage my career and have a newborn, LOL. But I have tried to make peace with my crazy tendency to being overly cerebral by assuring myself that I think so much about everything that none of this (that I can control, I cant make Wiccans move to the area clearly) will slip through the cracks. Now I am beginning the process of understanding this spiritually. SO I would say DO think about it all, make great choices about yourself, your future children (or lack of them) and mother earth, bit don’t drive yourself crazy either, of loose touch with what your heart is telling you. Finally, I want to say I am glad that so many people are taking this choice so seriously and considering so many options (having them, not having them, adoption, etc) . It means to me that we have moved from mindless reproduction to really caring ourselves, our children, and the world.

    • Niki Whiting

      If you’re as heady/airy as I am, the tendency to over-think everything is a real risk! I hope you’re finding some balance in your own discernment around having a child. It’s an amazing adventure, to be sure!

  • Blaise

    Holly I agree with you, i’ve dreamt of my children for a long time and have finally got to the stage of concieving, I know with all of my being that we will have 4 children, i’ve even dreamt their names that my partner adored instantly. Is it wishful thinking or a message from the divine I am not sure. I just know it will be.
    Niki, I had an attack of the hypocriticals not long ago thinking how am I helping the world by bringing 4 children into it?
    I am a homesteader and obviously that will help but even still what can we do to make sure the children we bring to being are beneficial and I came to the same conclusion as you. To bring them up with the respect and love for the earth that I have myself is far more beneicial then not having children to compensate for the increasing disrespect for the earth.
    Will my children say to me it wasn’t my choice to be born? Probably but I will have an answer ready… :)

  • JezabelleDisreali

    I’m not pregnant yet, but we’re planning on it happening in the next couple of years so we’re getting ready. We’re thinking 2, with the potential for a third (though while Mr. Disreali loves the idea of 3, I’ve told him that there would have to be extraordinary circumstances for me to be down). Our community is family friendly, and so is the coven I work with, so that isn’t as big an issue for me right now. Though we did settle on 2, as partially an ethical thing.

    Both of us have families with some very serious problems in them. While Mr. Disreali and I love them dearly, we can’t escape that fact. We want to be able to provide our children with everything they need so that they don’t end up in the same positions we did. And a large family just isn’t conducive to that kind of parenting.