By Christie Aschwanden | May 9, 2012 | 22 Comments
On Monday, Cassie explained how the reproductive choices available to her felt like both a blessing and a curse. “I want to want a child,” she said, while admitting that, as of yet, she doesn’t. She’s not sure what to do.
I can’t (and won’t) tell Cassie what to do. The thing about the decision to have a baby or not is that there’s no right answer. Whichever path you take will become your life, and you’ll make it work. There’s no way to know for sure which choices will make your life most satisfying, and so, as Tim Kreider writes in his seminal essay, the Referendum, “We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated.”
As someone who’s childless by choice, I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Though I’ve never longed for a child of my own, I know that I’m forgoing a powerful human experience, and once in a while I wonder if that should bother me, before assuring myself that it doesn’t, because I’m also missing out on the inverted exorcist, the terrible twos, and the chance to fill my house with a bunch of sticky plastic crap.
The question of baby or no baby touches on one of the most fundamental decisions we face as adults—how will we focus our attention? Because no matter how wealthy or successful you become, your time and energy remain fixed and finite resources. Life offers an almost infinite variety of possible experiences, and the hard truth is that it’s simply not possible to experience them all.
Growing up, I was primed to view life choices as my right, but I was, perhaps, under-prepared for the actual decision-making. That having choices meant eventually making them and actually closing some of the very doors I wanted the option to open came as a shock.
I’d always believed I could have it all—a husband, a child, a career, a full travel schedule, an active social life, and an endless array of personal pursuits. And it’s true that women of my generation really can have all those things, but they can’t have them all, 100 percent, at the same time. Every hour spent changing diapers or leading a board meeting or commuting to work or meeting a deadline is an hour you’re not reading a novel or writing one or reading to your child or learning to salsa dance. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all, and so we set priorities and make choices.
For me, that has meant saying no to motherhood. There are at least 100 reasons not to have kids, but in my mind, it really came down to this: how do I want to spend my 30’s and 40’s? And my honest answer is, not engaged in the exhausting work of raising a child.
Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, caught tons of grief when she declared in the New York Times, “I love my husband more than I love my children,” but I understand what she means and feel the same way about the children I will never have.
I love my husband, and I don’t long for interlopers in our marriage. I like that lingering in bed together in the early sunshine and sharing leisurely breakfasts while discussing the morning newspaper are not special occasions for us, but regular pleasures that don’t require any pre-planning. At a recent women’s weekend, a mother friend remarked how wonderful it was to sleep past eight am. Last time she’d slept that late uninterrupted, she’d jumped out of bed in a panic, wondering why her kids hadn’t rousted her yet. (Turned out, they were occupied googling images of “boobies.”) Her story made me chuckle, but it also made me grateful that my life is fully my own.
Without children to care for, my husband and I can focus our attention on ourselves, and I doubt we would have achieved the marital happiness and intimacy we currently possess if the time we now devote to one other was instead spent hustling to get kids ready for school or supervising homework sessions.
Some people consider it selfish for people like us to decide not to sacrifice our autonomy for the children we’ve chosen not to conceive, but I’ve never understood this logic.
The idea that it’s noble for my mother to devote her life to nurturing me and my needs and yet selfish for me to apply myself to the very same task is exactly the kind of sexist judgment we need to move past.
As Lionel Shriver, writes in her Maybe Baby essay, “There’s a crude logic to the idea that your own life has to be worth living on its merits, without having to redeem itself by producing another; someone’s life has to be worth something for its own sake, or all of human existence is pointless.”
I’m not one of those militant “childfree by choice” people who complain every time they’re forced to share a public space with children. I like kids. I enjoy their company, and I’m happy for my friends who have them. I don’t want to change anyone’s mind about having children. But please don’t call it “starting a family”—my husband and I are a family too, and we don’t need children to make us complete.
In fact, research shows that childfree couples are happier than those with kids. An eight-year study of more than 200 couples found that marital satisfaction dropped following the birth of their first child, and a 2005 study concluded that, “There is no type of parent who reports less depression than nonparents.” A widely discussed survey of more than 900 working Texas mothers asked them to rate the enjoyableness of 19 routine activities. These mothers ranked child care as less pleasurable than 15 other activities, including preparing meals, shopping and housework.
What about all those mothers who insist that their kids are the best thing that ever happened to them? “Children are the best thing in a parent’s life,” Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness told one reporter “but only because they tend to get rid of every source of joy we had before they came along.”
In a provocative 2010 New York magazine feature, Jennifer Senior discusses a meta-analysis of 97 children-and-marital-satisfaction studies published in 2003 by psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge. “Not only did they find that couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids; they found that every successive generation was more put out by having them than the last—our current one most of all.”
Researchers have a hypothesis to explain this. Previous generations went from being children themselves to becoming spouses and new parents in their first independent households, without ever experiencing the unencumbered lives that most people now enjoy in their 20’s. In other words, people who delay childbearing get a taste of child-free adult living, and so they know what they’re missing.
Given the data, childlessness seems like a reasonable choice, yet there remains the worry that Cassie expressed—will she regret not having kids? Probably not if they aren’t something she’s always longed for. Laura Carroll, author of Families of Two, has interviewed thousands of childfree people and says, “not one person has spoken of regret. Instead they talk about the regret they would have if they had had kids.” But while this is true of the deliberately child-free, it may not hold for people who find themselves involuntarily childless.
And while most parents trumpet the virtues of parenthood, some do regret their decision to procreate. In 1975, Ann Landers asked her readers with children, “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” A whopping 70 percent of respondents said no. For obvious reasons (no one wants their child to feel unloved or unwanted) parental regret remains a taboo topic, yet the internet has given parents a chance to finally vent their true feelings anonymously. I imagine these parents are in the minority, but that’s doesn’t make their experiences less valid.
What about Cassie’s other worry, “If we don’t reproduce, who will take care of us? Who will visit us when we’re old?” These are important questions, but children aren’t necessarily the answer. Studies suggest that elderly people who are childless are no worse off than their parent peers. A 2011 study of nearly 500 Swedish 85-year-olds concluded that both parents and childless people this age were “equally likely to end up in institutional care, to have friends close by and to be in contact with neighbours.” Middle-aged and elderly people without children aren’t lonelier, unhappier or more depressed, nor are they less satisfied with their lives than those who are parents.
Social interaction, whether from family or friends, keeps us vibrant at any age, and these social ties don’t have to involve family. As one of my happily child-free friends told me recently, “It will probably be a lot better to have friends around us in our dotage instead of children or relatives with all the attendant emotional baggage that family ties can create.”
Expecting your children to take care of you as you age straps them with a huge financial and emotional burden. I’d rather save the $221,190 I’d spend raising a child over the next seventeen years to pay for care in my golden years.
Of course decisions about whether to have kids rarely come down to money. Instead, they take us to the mythical stadium that Cameron describes in her motherhood post.
When I was a child, my mother gave me a record album titled, Free to Be You and Me. The title song spoke of a land where “you and me are free to be you and me.” Now that my generation has entered into that fabled land, we face a challenge that our feminist forebears probably didn’t anticipate–deciding which me we want to be. I have chosen to be nobody’s mother, and it’s a choice that feels exactly right.