On Children and the Childless

(This off-topic piece is adapted from old journal entry I found recently.)

Many years ago, my childless spouse and I watched a TV show in which a woman went to a doctor friend for a dangerous, last-ditch attempt at getting pregnant. The woman’s devastation at being unable to conceive was painful to watch, but it also left me baffled. The day after the episode aired, I posted a message to the show’s Usenet board (remember those?) saying that it seemed terribly selfish to want a biological child so badly as to risk one’s life, especially when there are so many children in need of adoption or foster care, and could somebody please explain it to me?

It took only a few minutes for a tidal wave of venom to come from readers, many of whom felt the show had captured precisely the longing they felt. If I couldn’t understand how much it meant to have a baby of my own, then there was clearly something sick and twisted festering in my soul, and I was a selfish bastard who cared only about his own life, and for the good of the species, I should be taken out and killed.

Not long after, I realized they were right.

Not that I should be taken out and killed, but that The Mrs. and I really are selfish bastards. We really do care more about our lives than anyone else’s. On any given day, there are dozens of things we do that we would not be able to do in the same way, or do at all, if we had children. And we don’t want to give up a solitary one of them.We like eating meals in front of the TV every night. We like not having to hurry somewhere or hurry home to conform to a child’s schedule. We like going out for the afternoon without having to pack like we are climbing Kilimanjaro. We like leaving big bottles of poison and sharp knives lying around.

I should make clear that I don’t dislike children. I love other people’s kids, because at the end of the day, either they go home, or I do. But I once watched my sister-in-law wrangle her family into and out of their SUV two or three times over the course of a blazing July afternoon. Each time, she had to keep the nine-year-old and the six-year-old from running pell-mell into traffic while sequestering the one-month-old in the stroller and making sure my brother-in-law was playing goalie on the two-year-old. Never mind teaching them all the things we learn that supposedly separate us from the animals—just getting them into and out of the goddamn van seemed like a feat on par with Hannibal crossing the Alps. While my lips told my sister-in-law that I admired her logistical skills, my heart wanted to ask, “How the hell do you stand it?”

If that is selfish, then yes, yet again, I stand convicted of bastardy.

But selfishness on the subject of children is not confined to the childless. Ann once knew a woman who desperately wanted a family with her husband, but they couldn’t get pregnant. “Why don’t they just adopt?” I asked. “Because her husband is old-fashioned, and if it’s not ‘his,’ he doesn’t want it.” They eventually went for fertility treatments not covered by health insurance at $10,000 a pop.

Who’s being selfish on the subject of children if not a couple spending their kid’s college fund just to conceive it? What about the parents trying to raise perfect cultural artifacts, with politically correct playthings and designer kid clothes? Is there not an element of selfishness in that as well? What about the women I have known who thought of their pregnancies as unique events in the history of civilization?

We just want to fill up the cat dish for a couple of days and go on a wild hair now and then. Who’s being selfish about children, really?

Society justifies war on all sorts of evils, from terrorism to drugs to pornography, on the basis of protecting children. But at the same time, our society seems deeply ambivalent about children. We want to protect them from as much of untidy reality as we can, but at the same time, we’re willing to toss them into adult prisons, and let them stay in failing schools, and let them suffer without proper nutrition and health care. And what a world we bring them into—violent, chaotic, plagued by environmental degradation, and prone to cruelty and ignorance of every stripe. So when it comes to having children in a world like this one, who’s being selfish—those who go ahead and bring them into it, or those who don’t?

I do not intend to condemn people who have children. Most of my friends do. But for some people, the “selfishness” of not wanting children, far from being a moral failing, is a virtue. Being childless has enriched our lives, just as the choice to have children has enriched the lives of other people. And if life has a point at all, isn’t that it?

2 responses

  1. My late wife of 26 years and I felt exactly this way, and I appreciate your stating the position of so many of us who chose not to have children. And yes, we were totally selfish. We liked going to late movies. We liked going to the theater and out to dinner and going away for long weekends or longer vacations. Just the two of us. What’s more, my wife was a fantastic “aunt” to our friends’ kids. She could relate to them on their level and never be condescending (in contrast to me, who always felt awkward talking to children), and yet she was always happy to be able to leave when those kids would start acting up. I never was bitten by the fatherhood gene, and I’m grateful that my wife was OK with that.

  2. As the stepfather to two adult children – children that officially came into my life in my 47th year – let me say that none of you are “selfish”. You have a different set of priorities, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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