Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016
The End of the Line
I RECENTLY SAW a New Yorker cover drawn by my old colleague Ivan Brunetti that appeared to illustrate the nonexistent situation of a couple of hipsters in a chic eatery looking wistfully at a middle-aged couple schlepping home with their children in Halloween costumes, carrying a boxed pizza for dinner. At first I assumed this was a kind of naive wish-fulfillment on the part of parents, incorrectly imagining that anybody envies them. It took me a day or two to understand that although the cover was drawn from the visual point of view of the hipsters, it was drawn from the emotional point of view of the parents, who are relieved to be looking comfortably schlubby and going home for a night of candy and takeout with their kids instead of having to get all dolled up and go on a date at some fashionable tapas bar for an overpriced gourmet morsel. This I can understand.
Parents may frequently look back with envy on the irresponsible, self-indulgent lives of the childless, but I for one have never felt any reciprocal envy of their anxious and harried existence—noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shrieky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought. In an essay, I once described being a parent as like belonging to a cult, “living in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, subject to the whim of a capricious and demented master,” which a surprising number of parents told me they loved. It’s hard to imagine the electively childless responding as warmly to an equally unsympathetic description of their own lives. This is because parents still remember what it was like to be us, but we can’t imagine what it’s like to be them; their experience encompasses ours. I accept that people with children are having a deeper, more complex experience of being alive than I am, and this is fine with me. Raising children is one of many life experiences I’m happy to die without having had, like giving birth, going to war, spending a night in jail, or seeing Forrest Gump. If I could get through life without experiencing death, I would gladly do that, too.
All living things on this planet have a simple two-part mission: to (1) survive long enough to (2) self-replicate. It is a complex animal indeed, arguably one too highly evolved for its own good, that consciously declines to fulfill one of its few basic biological imperatives. The only act more perverse and unnatural than purposely not reproducing is suicide. Some philosophers—the really crabby ones, like Schopenhauer—define suicide as the ultimate act of moral choice and free will. And, some ambiguous anecdotes aside, it appears to be the exclusive prerogative of Homo sapiens. I suppose you could argue that choosing not to have children, like suicide, is uniquely human. In fact, if anything can be said to demonstrate the possibility of free will, it is this: human beings willfully thwarting their one predetermined function in life.
Admittedly, calling not having children the ultimate act of free will may be a little grandiose. People on both sides of the reproductive divide tend to be self-congratulatory about choices that are, let’s be honest, completely beyond their conscious control, like people who’ve inherited wealth thinking they deserve it. Parents need to somehow justify the lives of sputum, tuition, and sarcastic abuse to which they’ve condemned themselves, and so make their own grandiose claims about parenthood’s ineffable fulfillments and beneficent effects—that one cannot possibly know what real love is unless you’ve had children, that it is life’s ultimate purpose, et cetera.
Reproduction as raison d’être has always seemed to me to beg the whole question of existence. If the ultimate purpose of your life is your children, what’s the purpose of your children’s lives? To have your grandchildren? Isn’t anyone’s life ultimately meaningful in itself? If not, what’s the point of propagating it ad infinitum? After all, 0 × ∞ = 0. It would seem a pretty low-rent ultimate purpose that’s shared with viruses and bacteria. The current human population is descended from a relatively low number of ancestors after a series of population bottlenecks in the late Pleistocene. Most human beings back then presumably felt their lives to be just as important and meaningful as we do ours. Is their existence negated just because they left no descendants?
In any case, children are no guarantee of immortality—they’re only a genetic reprieve or extension at best. Eventually the species Homo sapiens will die off, and even if we escape the sun’s expansion into a red giant and colonize another star system or download our consciousness into machines or evolve into pure energy life forms, eventually (according to current consensus) the universe itself will undramatically gutter out in a boring heat death and everyone—your kids, their kids, your great(23)-grandchildren, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Lincoln, Nietzsche, Akira Kurosawa, and me—will be even more utterly nonexistent than completely forgotten, since there won’t even be anyone around to forget us.
The childless, on the other hand—or childfree, as the more aggressive ones like to be called (a formation apparently derived from the uncomplimentary smoke- and disease-free)—like to claim that they’re living more fully conscious lives than those brainless docile hordes helplessly breeding at the dictates of their DNA. They cite the imminent threats of overpopulation, global warming, peak oil, and, don’t let’s forget, nuclear war, still very much on the table—all of which are perfectly valid and persuasive reasons for not procreating, and none of which do I believe for one second is anyone’s real reason. Our real reasons may be less obvious than those of parents—or the child-curs’d, as we like to call them—but I have no doubt they’re just as unconscious and primal. The rise in voluntary childlessness, like the decrease in fertility and the increase in homosexuality, may be an evolutionary adaptation to overpopulation.1 Or, since the phenomenon is more prevalent in the West, maybe it’s an effect of wealth and plenty. (Having more offspring is to an individual’s evolutionary advantage in impoverished conditions, even though it’s disastrous for the species as a whole and has made places like Rio and Calcutta some of the least desirable real estate in the solar system.) Or perhaps it’s a symptom of a civilization in its decadence, a loss of vitality or optimism. Or maybe bad parenting, like vampirism, grows exponentially with each new generation, and we’ve finally reached a critical mass of people whose own childhoods were so lousy they’ve taken Philip Larkin’s famously dour advice: “Don’t have any kids yourself.”
All the best arguments that parents and the childless muster about which of their lives is the more rational, satisfying, and/or morally superior are about as interesting to me as the ongoing debate about Which Are Better: Cats or Dogs. Our most important decisions in life are all profoundly irrational ones, made subconsciously for reasons we seldom own up to, which is why the worst ideas (getting married for the third time, having an affair with your wife’s sister, secretly going off birth control as your marriage is collapsing) are the most impossible to talk anyone out of. It’s pointless to refute all the rhapsodic slop about how kids make your life meaningful, since it’s all pretty obviously rationalization, like the perfectly sensible reasons people offer for carrying out posthypnotic suggestions. There is one reason people have children: they’re programmed to. Whatever reasons they may offer for it—selflessness, wanting to pass something on, having so much love to give—I don’t believe they choose children any more than naked mole rats decide to start tunneling. Human beings are basically big complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions constructed by genes to copy themselves, and only as an unintended side effect build mosques, make screwball comedies, and launch interplanetary probes.
I know, for my own part, that not having children wasn’t the consequence of some carefully deliberated decision, taking into account the world population, my bleak economic future, or my incapacity to take care of anything more demanding than a cat. It simply never even once occurred to me to have children, any more than it ever occurred to me to enlist in the Coast Guard or take up Brazilian jujitsu. I never understood why anyone else was doing it; I did not get what was even supposed to be fun or fulfilling or whatever it was about parenting that compelled everyone else to do it. Everyone seemed to have agreed, on some day of class I missed, that this was obviously the thing to do. Who knows why I’m devoid of such a nearly universal human impulse? I always intended to be an artist, and never imagined a wife or children in any future I envisioned—though this is such a pragmatic rationale it’s obviously suspect, and, after all, plenty of other artists have had families and been just as indifferent and distracted as parents with day jobs. My own upbringing was fine, although I was given up for adoption when I was a few days old, which, I’ve since read, can do something of a number on a kid. My mother tells me I never liked babies, even when I was one. To this day, whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always answer, “No, thanks.” I have been advised that this is an impolitic response. Not long ago my friend Zoey made me hold her one-year-old and took photos of me. Wincing gamely with the kicking child on my lap, I felt the way I imagine women do when their boyfriends cajole them into dressing up as Catholic schoolgirls or Princess Leia, indulging some fantasy that has nothing to do with them. Later she sent me the photos as “proof” that I am not such a bad man after all. To me, I look in these photos as if I am holding some South American animal I have never heard of before that I’ve been assured is not dangerous.
Suffice it to say this has sometimes been an Issue in relationships with women, most of whom sooner or later seem to want kids. Somewhere in my thirties I started preemptively letting women know that I had no interest in having children, had never considered it, not for one second, and there was absolutely no chance I was ever going to change my mind, not even if the Right Person were to come along. It must’ve seemed as if I was being gratuitously blunt about this, but in my experience people have a bottomless capacity to delude themselves that their partners will eventually change. This policy didn’t exactly end any relationships, but it did obviate some potential ones, and/or kept others circumscribed. But whatever awkwardness it’s occasioned me is nothing compared to the suffocating societal pressure that women who don’t want children are subjected to. After all, there’s a sort of role model or template for a man who doesn’t want kids—the Confirmed Bachelor, roguish and irascible in the W. C. Fields tradition. At worst, we’re considered selfish or immature; women who don’t want to have children are regarded as unnatural, traitors to their sex, if not the species. Men who don’t want kids get a dismissive eye roll, but the reaction to women who don’t want them is more like: What’s wrong with you?
Having children is self-evidently the less rational decision—hugely expensive and inconvenient, consistently demonstrated in studies to increase stress and reduce happiness both in individuals and between couples. A friend who’s currently writing a novel about the widening divide between people who have children and their friends who don’t, and who is himself childless, asked his friends with kids to help him out and explain to him the appeal of having children. The cons were evident; what, he wondered, were the pros? They admitted that yes, it was exhausting, they drove you crazy, you never had a free moment, but, they’d say, “When your child smiles at you, it just makes it all worth it somehow.” He had no fucking idea what they were talking about. To be fair, he said, they all seemed aware that they were groping for the goopiest clichés to describe the experience: “They were like someone trying to explain an acid trip in which It All Made Sense, even as they realized that you had to be there.” It’s apparently something either so ineffable or primal that it resists articulation.
Of course most people are inarticulate on all subjects, especially the profoundest ones; it may be instructive to listen to what some of our most hyperarticulate artists have had to say about parenthood. Even that old sourpuss Cormac McCarthy seems to have been transformed by fatherhood; his novel The Road, best known for its unrelieved bleakness (it includes flayed babies roasted on spits), is the first in which he’s written convincingly about a truly loving relationship (as opposed to an obsessive Liebestod for a beautiful doomed prostitute or the enduring bond between a boy and his wolf): the love the nameless protagonist feels for his fragile, ineducably decent son, a love that redeems the world even in the face of extinction. If he is not the word of God, God never spoke. The book’s fundamental question is, what, if anything, makes life worth slogging on with, given the fact of inevitable and universal death? His only answer is: this child does.
Most people’s operating motive in life is pretty obviously not the pleasure principle, given the joyless choices they make; what they want is to be needed, to have a compelling reason to get out of bed every day. If having children doesn’t necessarily provide meaning, it’s certainly an effective way to obviate, or at least postpone, the question of meaning throughout the prime years of life. You may wake up at four A.M. panicked about the mortgage payments or want to hang yourself rather than go in to work one more day, but too bad, it doesn’t matter; you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, because your child is depending upon you. Whereas there’s really nothing stopping me, on any given Tuesday morning, from taking up heroin. All this maundering about What Is Life for, Anyway is a luxury of the unencumbered. Children serve as an inarguable rebuttal to all those existential anxieties and doubts. As one noted American philosopher put it: “You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you.”
It wasn’t until relatively late in life, when I met people I was biologically related to for the first time, that I had some glimmering of how parents must feel about their children. I like my half sisters enormously as human beings; they’re smart, funny, kindhearted girls, and we’re similar in ways that feel deeply familiar to me (I’d never noticed the obvious etymology of familiar before). But I also adore them in a gushy, ferocious, unconditional way that has nothing to do with who they are but with what they are to me. I would love them just as much if they were junkies or Republicans or thought I was creepy and wanted nothing to do with me. When I look over at one of them next to me in a car or at a party I secretly thrill with a warm, narcotic love. If one of them needed a kidney, I would give her one; if the other one needed one, I would, with some regret, give her the other. It makes me so happy just to know that they exist that I can almost empathize with the weirdly ecstatic reactions of grandparents to the unremarkable toddlers produced by their own children. It gives me a glimpse of what having children might be like, and also of what I would be like as a father—doting and indulgent, pathetically mushy with love. And I have to admit to myself that although I have plenty of sound reasons for not being a father—I know I would also be inconsistent and moody, alternately smothering and neglectful, plus I will never, ever be able to afford riding lessons or braces, let alone college—one of the reasons I don’t want children is fear. I’m afraid that if I ever did have children of my own I would love them so painfully it would rip my soul in half, that I would never again have a waking moment free from the terror that something bad might ever happen to them. Some friends of mine lost their young daughter a few years ago; most people, me included, recoil from even trying to imagine what they’ve suffered.
Is it possible that I will regret not having had children when I am old and dying alone? People with children love to ask this of us childless types, the way evangelicals like to imagine your tearful deathbed repentance or belated contrition in Hell. Since I already regret every other thing I have ever done or failed to do, I don’t see why this decision should be exempt. Sure: no doubt I will realize, once it’s far too late, as usual, that I have failed to do the one dumb job it was my charge to do during my brief time on the planet, a job countless fungi, flatworms, and imbeciles have successfully carried out for eons. Perhaps at the eleventh hour I will convince a kindly nymphomaniac nurse, such as I understand to be a fixture at most hospitals, to bear whatever child my tattered chromosomes can produce. But I am long practiced at pursuing paths I know lead inevitably to regret. I am much too old and weird and selfish by now to endure the fatigue and anxiety of new parenthood, to feign enthusiasm for recitals and pageants and soccer matches, to be dragged uncomplainingly to Pixar sequels and Chuck E. Cheese’s and American Girl stores.
Being childless is inarguably saner and more responsible in the present world situation than having children, but let’s not pretend we’re actually doing it for sane or responsible reasons. If the childless really feel a need to claim some moral superiority over the child-ridden, it should be simply by virtue of not kidding ourselves. Let’s be honest: we are unnatural—as unnatural as clothing or medicine or agriculture or art, or walking upright. By not having progeny we are depriving ourselves of the illusion of continuity, and have to invest ourselves more deeply in other, more austere illusions: that our lives matter for their own sakes, or that we’ll secure a kind of immortality through art or ideas or acts of decency, by teaching or helping others or changing the world. Maybe we’re an evolutionary adaptation; spreading memes instead of genes is a more efficient means of reproduction, less destructive to the environment. We’re propagating ourselves throughout the noosphere instead of lousing up an already overpopulated planet with yet more human beings.
The last century was the first time in history that a sizable percentage of the human race attempted to live without delusions of eternity; it was also the first time that any significant number of us voluntarily renounced procreation, abandoning the false consolation of posterity. (I wonder, sometimes, whether the negative population growth in the secular West might subconsciously be linked to the death of faith.) It’s only very recently, within the last fifty years, that not having children has become a practical option, both medically and socially. Formerly, childlessness was seen as a private tragedy; the only people who chose it voluntarily were clergy, who, in theory, had religion to sublimate their erotic drive. We childless ones are an experiment unprecedented in human history. We are unlikely, for obvious reasons, to take over. Like the Shakers, who also declined on principle to procreate, individually we are doomed to extinction. Although so is everyone else. But as an option, an idea, who knows? We may thrive and spread. We are an object lesson—an existence theorem, which demonstrates that a proposition is possible—to the rest of the species. At the risk of sounding grandiose and self-congratulatory again, I’ll venture to suggest that we childless ones, whether through bravery or cowardice, constitute a kind of existential vanguard, forced by our own choices to face the naked question of existence with fewer illusions, or at least fewer consolations, than the rest of humanity, forced to prove to ourselves anew every day that extinction does not negate meaning.