Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016
Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later
MEET THE ANTIMOM. When my seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, became a best seller in 2005, the story it told—about motherhood gone dreadfully wrong—drew fire from Catholic web pages for being hostile to “family.” Meanwhile, grotesque distortions of the book’s underlying theme (such as, “It’s all right to hate your own child, and if they turn out badly it’s not your fault”) spoored from article to article like potato blight. Devastated mothers sent me confiding handwritten letters detailing horror stories of hideous tyros just like the boy in my book. Women who’d declined to have children clamored to my readings, raising the novel high as proof that they were right. I earned my own little chapter in Nicki Defago’s Childfree and Loving It!
Yet by the time Kevin won the Orange Prize that year, when my role as poster girl for “maternal ambivalence” was jacked up to yet another power, something strange had started to happen. I sometimes departed from the script. When a London Sunday Times reporter (who clearly thought me a chilly, typically arrogant American bitch) asked if I didn’t think that declining to reproduce wasn’t essentially “nihilistic,” I said readily, “Of course.” Or a journalist would ask tentatively on a phoner: Wasn’t refusing parenthood a little … selfish? I’d cry boisterously into the receiver, “Absolutely!”
The truth is, I had started to feel guilty.
Childless at fifty-seven, I’m old enough for the question of motherhood to have become purely philosophical. But during my reproductive years, I had all the time in the world to have babies. I maintained two consecutive long-term relationships, one a marriage that continues to thrive. I was in perfect health. I could have afforded children, financially. I just didn’t want them. They are untidy; they would have messed up my apartment. In the main, they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.
Nevertheless, after talking myself blue about “maternal ambivalence,” I came full circle, rounding on the advice to do as I say, not as I did. I may not, for my own evil purposes, regret giving motherhood a miss, but I long ago wearied of being the Antimom, and would gladly hand the part to someone else. For anyone who’s interested, I have a T-shirt of an infant with a big red slash through it that’s going cheap.
* * *
Allusion to the West’s “aging population” in the news is commonplace. We have more and more old people, and a dwindling number of young people to support them. Not only health care and pension systems but the working young could soon be overtaxed, just to keep doddering crusties like Lionel Shriver stocked with Depends. Politicians sensibly cite age structure to justify higher rates of immigration. Long periods of look-the-other-way policing of American borders have indeed left the United States with an economically healthier age structure than we would have today without waves of young immigrants and their larger families.
Yet curiously little heed is paid to why the West is aging. Our gathering senescence is routinely referenced like an inexorable force of nature, a process beyond our control, like the shifting of tectonic plates or the ravages of a hurricane. To the contrary, age structure is profoundly within human control. Remarkably resistant to governmental manipulation, it is the sum total of millions of single, deeply private decisions by people like me and a startlingly large proportion of my friends and acquaintances.
We haven’t had kids.
Western fertility started to dive in the 1970s—the same era in which, ironically, alarmist population guru Paul Ehrlich was predicting that we would all soon be balancing on our one square foot of earth per person, like angels on the head of a pin. Numerous factors have contributed to the Incredible Shrinking Family: the introduction of reliable contraception, the wholesale entry of women into the workforce, delayed parenthood and thus higher infertility, the fact that children no longer till your fields but expect your help in putting a down payment on a massive mortgage.
Yet I believe all of these contributing elements may be subsidiary to a larger transformation in Western culture no less profound than our collective consensus on what life is for.
* * *
Statistics are never boring if you can see through the numbers to what they mean, so bear with me. The Total Fertility Rate is the number of children the average woman will bear over her lifetime. Allowing for infant mortality, the TFR required to maintain a population at its current size is 2.1. In 2013, American women had an average TFR of 1.9—a rate modestly below replacement. Many years could pass before that deficit will make itself felt.
Thus Jonathan Last’s provocative 2013 book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, is either disingenuous or off the beam. Americans are not about to die out. According to UN estimates, from 316 million in 2013, the U.S. population is likely to grow to 448 million by mid-century—although a massive whack of that growth is to result from immigration.
If hardly an endangered species, one population in the United States is contracting: white people. Politically awkward, yes, which is why Mr. Last’s alarm about low birthrates among “Americans” is a cover for his real alarm: about feeble fertility among people who look like him and me. As of 2010, white American women had a TFR of 1.79—a figure that might not sound terribly low, but one that has remained in that well-below-replacement-rate ballpark since at least 1980. Cumulatively, that shortfall has consequences. By 2043, whites will constitute a minority in the United States, while Hispanics, whose TFR is now a healthy 2.35 and was for decades closer to 3.0, will go from being one in six Americans to one in three. Liberally minded white Americans are not supposed to care. And I’m not claiming here that you have to care.
Even more striking are the figures in Europe, whence my forebears hail (both sides of my family are German American). Among countries once renowned for their family orientation, Spain has a meager TFR of 1.3, Italy and Greece of 1.4; ditto Germany—where a staggering two-fifths of educated women are having no children whatsoever. The cumulative TFR for all of Europe is only 1.6, expected to translate into a net loss of population by 2050, and that’s including high levels of immigration. Already by 2000, seventeen European countries were recording more deaths than births. Absent immigration, their populations would be shrinking by now.
Elsewhere, couples still heed the biblical admonition to be fruitful and multiply. Niger has the highest TFR in the world at 7.6. By 2050, the population of Yemen—geographically a little smaller than France—is projected to increase its 1950 population by twenty-four times, exceeding the population of Russia. At 3.0 (excluding China), poor nations’ TFR is nearly twice that of the wealthier West, and these countries will provide virtually all the extra 3 billion people expected to inhabit our planet by mid-century.
As for what explains the drastic disparity between family size in the West and the rest, sure, we have readier access to contraception. But medical technology is only one piece of the puzzle. During the Industrial Revolution, Western fertility rates plunged in a similar fashion. This so-called “demographic transition” is usually attributed to the conversion from a rural agrarian economy to an urban industrialized one, and thus to children’s shift from financial asset to financial burden. But what is fascinating about the abrupt decrease in family size at the turn of the last century is that it was accomplished without the Pill. Without diaphragms, IUDs, spermicides, vaginal sponges, estrogen patches, or commercial condoms. Whether through abstinence, backstreet abortion, infanticide, or the rhythm method, people who couldn’t afford more children didn’t have them. Therefore the increased availability of reliable contraception around 1960 no more than partially explains plummeting birthrates thereafter. The difference between Germany and Niger isn’t pharmaceutical; it’s cultural.
I propose that we have now experienced a second demographic transition, which cannot be attributed to economics. In both America and Europe the engine driving the “birth dearth” among white, educated elites is existential.
* * *
To be ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lowercase gods of our private devising. We are concerned with leading less a good life than the good life. In contrast to our predecessors, we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we are happy. We shun self-sacrifice and duty as the soft spots of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture, or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and we’re not especially bothered with what happens once we’re dead. As we age—oh, so reluctantly!—we are apt to look back on our pasts and question not did I serve family, God, and country, but did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat? We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but with whether they were interesting and fun.
If that package sounds like one big moral step backward, the Be Here Now mentality that has converted from sixties catchphrase to entrenched gestalt has its upsides. There has to be some value in living for today, since at any given time today is all you’ve got. We justly cherish characters capable of living “in the moment”—or, as a drummer might say, “in the pocket.” We admire go-getters determined to pack their lives with as much various experience as time and money provide, who never stop learning, engaging, and savoring what every day offers—in contrast to dour killjoys who are bitter and begrudging in the ceaseless fulfillment of obligation. For the role of humble server, helpmate, and facilitator no longer to constitute the sole model of womanhood surely represents progress for which I am personally grateful. Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.
Yet the biggest social casualty of Be Here Now is children, who have converted from requirement to option, like heated seats for your car. In deciding what in times past never used to be a choice, we don’t consider the importance of raising another generation of our own people, however we might choose to define them. The question is whether kids will make us happy.
However rewarding at times, raising children can also be hard, trying, and dull, inevitably ensnaring us in those sucker values of self-sacrifice and duty. The odds of children making you happier are surely no better than fifty-fifty. Studies have repeatedly documented that the self-reported “happiness” index is lower among parents than among the childless. Little wonder that so many women like me have taken a hard look at all those diapers, playgroups, and nasty plastic toys and said no, thanks.
To illustrate my existential explanation for the knee-high birthrate among women of European extraction like me, let’s look at three other examples, and why they haven’t had children. These are all women (whose names have been changed to protect their privacy) whom I personally admire, whose company I treasure, and whose thinking on this and a range of issues I’ve been able to follow for years, because we all live in London. In a word, they’re my friends. Nevertheless, in sufficient aggregate, we are deadly.
* * *
Forty-four when I grilled her on these matters, Gabriella is an accomplished journalist who has published three acclaimed nonfiction books on Africa. She is bright, widely traveled, well educated, and physically fetching, with a distinctive acerbity and a candor unusual for her British upbringing. She is half Italian on her mother’s side.
Gabriella was negative about childbearing from the get-go: “I was someone who loathed the onset of sexual maturity. Menstruation, pregnancy—all these biological processes that you couldn’t control, which caught you unawares and seemed designed to embarrass you in public—felt like a baffling, humiliating negation of my existence as a thinking, reasoning adult.” By her twenties, her hostility had hardened. “I remember being astonished to meet contemporaries who had decided to have children within years of leaving university. It seemed utterly nonsensical. Here we were, just emerged from the tedious constraints of a seemingly endless education, financially independent for the first time, tasting our liberties at last, and the first thing they decided to do was to enter the prison of child rearing, with all its boring routines and dreadful responsibilities. Having children in my twenties would have spelled the end of everything I had spent my life working toward and was about to really enjoy: the ability to spend my money the way I wanted, travel where I wanted, choose my partners, live as I wished.”
By her late thirties, however, she had misgivings. Friends were having children, and she felt left out. Encountering other people’s children, she realized “there were great joys to be had from the process” and that “watching something [sic—to nonparents, children are often mistaken for objects] growing and changing each day was also an intellectually intriguing process.” Ergo, kids just might be interesting and fun. Yet her then partner was an older man averse to parenthood, partially on (sound) medical grounds. At no point did Gabriella’s pining for children become a make-or-break matter in her relationship, from which we can construe that the pining was either mild or theoretical. For the most part, “the issue was ignored, avoided, allowed to slide, or used as a bargaining chip when things got difficult.” Indeed, when that relationship hit crisis point and her partner did a U-turn on fatherhood, his offer of a family was insufficient to salvage it for Gabriella. Happiness, in this case the romantic variety, trumped motherhood, period.
Thereafter, Gabriella grew resigned that she would not have children. “Could I now cope with the sheer exhaustion of the early sleepless years? Could I accept, as my friends have, that for the first five years I would stop having interesting conversations with adults my own age and settle for glaze-eyed exchanges I’ve witnessed as an outsider?” No.
When I ask her what she believes redeems her life in the absence of children, her answers are unhesitating. “First, my work. Not in the sense of ambition and earning power (ha-ha), but in the sense that the only imprint I can leave on this earth is my work. My motto, as the years go by, has become that of Voltaire’s Candide: ’Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’ We need to tend the garden. Do it as well as you can. Writing is my only skill; I apply it to the best of my abilities.” Second, “I live for friendships and family. I have friendships that have gone on for so long and have been so close that I suppose they constitute a form of marriage.”
On her own account, she has no regrets. “Had I had children, I would have written no books, nor would I have been a particularly successful journalist. I certainly wouldn’t have gone off to Africa. I’d rather pine for children than die saying to myself, ’I could have been a contender.’ I was a contender.”
Yet in the larger social picture, Gabriella concedes, “If people like me don’t reproduce, civilization may be the worse for it. On both my mother and my father’s side, I come from generations of academics, historians, diplomats—thinkers and doers—and as the years go by, I begin to see that far from being an exception or a maverick, I am in fact the very obvious carrier of a certain genetic inheritance. I am a typical product of my family; I can see the thread stretching back through the generations. Do I think it’s a shame that this genetic inheritance won’t continue? Yes, I do. I’m arrogant enough to actually think that the world will be a poorer place without my genes in it. But the fact is that I don’t care enough to do anything about it. There wasn’t time to do that and the other things on my list.”
When I press her on the implications of a contracting European population, she readily concurs, “Many Western cities will be largely black/Hispanic/Asian in fifty years’ time. Does that bother me? Well, I vaguely regret the extinction of gene lines that in their various ways played a part in the establishment of Western civilization. But the gene lines coming in from the developing world will have their own strengths, energies, and qualities, I guess.” That poignant but politically charged “I guess” captures a conflicted melancholy that many liberal white Westerners will only give expression to in private—if then.
Last, I told you that Gabriella was candid, and this is the sort of statement that many a childless woman—or man, for that matter—of my generation might honestly make but that you will rarely read: “I’m an atheist. I’m a solipsist. As far as I’m concerned, while I know intellectually that the world and its inhabitants will continue after my death, it has no real meaning for me. I am terrified of and obsessed with my own extinction, and what happens next is of little interest to me. I certainly don’t feel I owe the future anything, and that includes my genes and my offspring. I feel absolutely no sense of responsibility for the propagation of the human race. There are far too many human beings in the world as it is. I am happy to leave that task to someone else.”
* * *
Irish-born and forty-six at the time of our interview, Nora was then an events planner for an engineering organization. She enjoyed her work, at which she was renowned for her effectiveness and good humor, but she placed equal emphasis on her life after hours. She maintains a large, lively set of friendships, and regularly partakes of the city’s concerts, films, and plays. She’s sharp, droll, and quick-witted.
Astonishingly, Nora and all five of her siblings have neglected to reproduce: “Each of us is quite independent, with goals that were more immediate and career-oriented than children.”
Unlike Gabriella, through young adulthood Nora always assumed she would have children. Yet she is romantically fastidious and willful. Though she admits, “I went through a phase when I was coming up to thirty where I got very depressed because it appeared to me highly unlikely that I would have children,” motherhood “was never so important to me as to compromise on the man.” As smart, appealing women, both Nora and Gabriella might have had families were they willing to marry Mr. Not Quite Right, but kids weren’t important enough. Once again, personal happiness trumps kids.
Nora is firmly resigned that children are off the table. She grants that she’s “a bit” regretful, but notes, “As I grow older, I feel a greater need for solitude, and for ’me time.’ Perhaps it’s work that does it—being responsible for ten staff and having a fairly ’open-door’ policy makes me delight in going home, closing the door, and relishing the peace.” A recent holiday to Canada with her young godson was sobering. “Yes, he’s great—funny, intelligent, well mannered, interested—but I felt that the responsibility of taking him into bear country was huge. A metaphor for life, perhaps?”
Nora’s maternal regrets are skin-deep. “I think I have a lovely life. I can see myself continuing to have fun, to enjoy my job, to meet interesting people, to go on great holidays, to read interesting books, to support my family and friends.” (Note that I did not plant the words fun and interesting in my interviewee’s mouth.) When I ask what she sees as redeeming her life, she balks. “I think that’s a very Protestant question! I’m not sure my life needs redemption. Maybe I’m too much of a hedonist.”
Still, Nora sorrows, “I think my parents came from an excellent gene pool, and it’s a shame that to date that hasn’t been passed on.” Though she has many cousins, the loss of the combined heritage of her particular parents is “a sadness.” As for perpetuating her ethnicity, her parents both taught Irish, and she has “a mother tongue that is under threat.” But, she says, “In the wide scheme of things, I am conscious that languages disappear every year.” We are of a generation grown accustomed to loss—of habitat, wilderness, biodiversity, fish. Why not Irish, too?
Be that as it may, at the end of our exchange Nora declares to me fervently, “You and I should have had children!”—hastily appending that she meant not for our own sakes, but in social terms. “We’re blessed with brains, education, and good health.” The longer our discourse continues, she admits, “the more I think I am a squanderer of my gifts and my heritage. But I live in a decadent age where that doesn’t seem such a problem. Anyway, devoting my whole life to promulgating my ethnicity is a big ask.”
* * *
Last, at only twenty-six, more than a generation younger than I, Leslie will have to stand in for the staggeringly numerous younger women who have shared with me their lack of enthusiasm for the familial project. When we discussed the issue, Leslie was a publicist for a small literary publishing company in London, to which she was devoted. She was very good at her job (an aptitude from which I personally benefited). Her sunny, perky quality provides a welcome counterpoint to my jaded older friends, and she’s optimistic about the future; that is, hers.
Leslie does not want children. “When I think about my future, I envisage the fulfillment of ambitions such as traveling and furthering my career, not having babies. I can’t imagine I will be able to give up the lifestyle I lead to become a parent. Financial independence is very important to me, as is retaining my own independence in any relationship. Something would have to give in order for me to properly care for a child, and, unfortunately, it’s most often the mother who has to forgo some aspect of her life.”
When I ask her, an only child, if it matters to her whether she carries on the family line, she says honestly, “It’s not really something I’ve thought about.”
On the other hand, Leslie offers evidence that Be Here Now—living for the present—is not always morally arid. “I certainly don’t see my purpose as being to perpetuate the human race. What makes my life worth living for me and also what, I think, redeems my life is my relationships and interaction with others, be they family, friends, lovers, colleagues, total strangers. I think what redeems individuals is their acts of humanity.”
Moreover, like most of her generation, Leslie isn’t concerned with maintaining the Anglo-Saxon identity of Britain in the slightest. “Is there any true British race now anyway? I think it’s far too late to start worrying about its preservations at this stage.” She has embraced multiculturalism, and faces the prospect of Western cities going majority-minority with cheer. “Most of my friends are from different ethnic backgrounds, and I feel lucky to live in London, a city full of such diverse cultures, religions, and races. I think diversity adds to British culture rather than destroys it.”
As for whether she worries that she might regret giving motherhood a miss, Leslie would subject the decision to one test only: whether she might be “discontented” in the future. “But then who’s to say that I would feel more content if I did have children?”
* * *
Contentment. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fun. There’s nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with these concerns, but they are all of a piece. They fail to take into account that our individual lives are tiny beads in a string. Our beloved present is merely the precarious link between the past and the future—of family, ethnicity, nation, and species. We owe our very contentment—which disasters from Hurricane Katrina to Fukushima remind us relies heavily on potable water and toilets—to the ingenuity of our ancestors. Yet it rarely seems to enter the modern “childfree” head that proper payback of that debt might entail handing on the baton of our happy-happy heritage to someone else.
To the above three case studies, I would add myself. There is no generalization in this article, no matter how harsh, that would not apply to me. I care about my own life in the present. I think I should be, but—doubtless because I don’t have children—I’m honestly not very fussed about what happens after I die. I’m proud of the Shriver family, but not enough to help to ensure that it outlasts me. As Nora pointed out, my genes are swell. But like my friends’, my sorrow at having neglected to pass them on is vague, thin, and abstract, and no match for Be Here Now. I fancy I work very hard, but in socially crucial respects, I am lazy. Like Gabriella’s, my stunted progeny are eternally eight inches high and made of pulped trees, and if they keep me up at night I can quiet them by rewriting a lousy chapter in the morning. If I feel, oh, a little wistful about the fact that the country of my birth, the United States, will probably within my lifetime no longer be peopled in majority by those of European extraction like me, that passing dismay has never been considerable enough for me to inconvenience myself by giving lifts to football practice. Frankly, if I can’t be troubled to replace myself with a reasonable facsimile, immigrants willing to nurse sick little boys through their fevers have truly earned the right to take my place.
Of course, that “wistfulness” of mine is political dynamite. Yet maybe the immigration debate has sufficiently matured for us to concede that white folks are people, too. We encourage minorities of every stripe—Jamaicans, Muslims, Jews—to be proud of their heritage, as well they should be. We don’t assume that if immigrants from China cherish their roots and still make a mean moo shoo pork they are therefore bigoted toward every other ethnicity on the planet. So can Italians not champion Italianness? The native British their Yorkshire pudding? White Americans their apple pie? Indeed, the tacit PC consensus—that every minority from Australian aborigines to Romanies should be treasuring, preserving, and promulgating their culture, while whites with a European heritage should not—is producing a virulent, sometimes poisonous right-wing backlash across America, Britain, and the Continent. In the interest of civil, rational thinking on this matter, we should at least allow ourselves to talk about it. Collectively, a long-dominant population is contracting, and maybe by the time we’re minorities in our own countries we will have rights, too—among them, at least, the right to feel a little sad.
Meanwhile, as the West’s childless have grown more prevalent, the stigma that once attached to being “barren” falls away. Women—men as well—are free to choose from a host of fascinating lives that may or may not involve children, and couples are opting for the latter in droves. My friends and I are decent people—or at least we treat each other well. We’re interesting. We’re fun. But writ large, we’re an economic, cultural, and moral disaster.
There has to be something wrong when spurning reproduction doesn’t make Gabriella and me the “mavericks” we’d both have prided ourselves as in our younger days but standard issue for our era. Surely the contemporary absorption with our own lives as the be-all and end-all ultimately hails from an insidious misanthropy—a lack of faith in the whole human enterprise. In its darkest form, the growing cohort of childless couples determined to throw all their money at Being Here Now—to take that step aerobics class, visit Tanzania, put an addition on the house while making no effort to ensure there’s someone around to inherit the place when the party is over—has the quality of the mad, slightly hysterical scenes of gleeful abandon that fiction writers portray when imagining the end of the world.
Not to disparage old people, but senescent is not a pretty word. Large sectors of the Western population have broken faith with the future. In the Middle East, birthrates are still quite high, whereas many Europeans, Australians, and European Americans cannot be bothered to scrounge up another generation of even the same size—which would presumably mean fewer holidays, more tedium, less leisure time—because children might not always be interesting and fun, because they might not make us happy, because some days they’re a pain in the butt. When Islamic fundamentalists accuse the West of being decadent, degenerate, and debauched, you have to wonder if maybe they’ve got a point.