Sunday, 26 April 2015

Who wins the moral highground: child-focused or child-free?

A rare child-free moment

A recent article in the New York Times, "No kids for me, thanks" has sparked a lot of debate around the changing demographics of essentially industrialised societies. No longer following the traditional "marriage then 2.4 kids" scenario, more adults are exercising the choice that comes with improved birth control. The decision not to have children at all. Gone is the rather sad phrase "childless" to be replaced with the more positive "child-free".

While previously this choice might be associated with homosexual or asexual people, reproductive technologies and adoption programmes are allowing people of all sexual orientations to become parents if they wish to. But it seems that among the heterosexual population, breeding is no longer a given. Women and men are liberated from biological destiny and get to have choice!

What was really interesting for me in this article was the notion of your decisions about having children in some way being "selfish". For people with children, the prospect of choosing to be "child-free" can seem to devalue the sacrifices that all parents make. The sleepless nights, the 24 hour responsibility, the costs involved in keeping growing children fed, clothed, entertained. There is also that hint of jealousy, what child-free people can enjoy - late nights, lie ins, relaxing holidays, FREEDOM.

The assumption is that if you don't become a parent, you don't really know what it means to care for another human being. Clearly parents don't have the monopoly on caring, as anyone who has cared for sick friends, elderly relatives or even dying pets will know, and usually children progress towards independence at some point or other. Pregnancy, birth and the uniquely changing demands of growing children do though present a physical, mental and emotional challenge that many parents feel deserves recognition and sympathy.

For others, having several children can appear selfish, especially in industrialised countries with high energy consumption per head. As the world's population hits the 7 billion mark, increasing populations put a burden on the earth's limited resources. In terms of energy consumption,  a woman in India would "have to have more than 10 children to match the impact of an American woman with just one child" (World Population Balance). With huge inequality both within countries and across the globe, rising populations inevitably puts pressure on limited food, shelter, healthcare and educational opportunities. Parents become pre-occupied with the needs of their offspring, above consideration for the needs of anyone else.

As a mum myself, I don't envy child-free couples. I always knew I wanted children and, as I got older, I valued less my "freedom", feeling it being slowly replaced by a sense of emptiness. Even now with demanding under 5s, I would always rather be with my children than without them. But it doesn't follow that I think everyone should have kids! Some people like bowling or horseriding or climbing, I like reading bedtime stories. We're not all the same.

What worries me is when people feel pressured into having children they don't really want, be it through pressure from their partner or family. Maybe pressured to continue a pregnancy when birth control fails, becoming a parent then by accident instead of by choice. This babycentre post talks about the prenatal lows of an unplanned pregnancy, a sense of it being a mistake rather than a joy. Of course, the likelihood of all kinds of mental health issues increases if you feel trapped into a life-changing event over which you have little control.

I also feel strongly that children deserve to be wanted. They deserve love and attention from people who want to give it to them. Parenting is a huge challenge because babies, toddlers, kids, teenagers, young adults don't make it easy for you. They have complex needs that are hard to recognise, understand or sometimes empathise with. Especially if you yourself are knackered, under the weather, stressed, anxious or depressed. Even the best and healthiest family life is sprinkled with moments of misery, drama, emotional blackmail, hysteria, illness and exhaustion. You need the patience of a saint and to want to do it!

Resentment for a life you have lost, yearning for the freedom of a life without children, is not healthy for you, your family or society. And not having children does not mean that child-free people don't contribute or care in other ways. As the New York Times article highlighted, having the time to volunteer or campaign or advocate are all vitally important things that keep civic society going, as much as the community that forms around families.

So in that sense there is no "selfishness" inherent in choices about whether to have children. Being a "good" person is nothing to do with whether you would make a "good" or "bad" parent. Having the ability to know yourself and how you relate to other people of any age is, in my opinion, very mature and will probably help you make more positive, healthy relationships, rather than ones born out of a sense of duty or obligation. Don't want kids, don't have 'em!

If you do want children, there are ways to bring up kids with a sense of responsibility towards the rest of humanity and the earth's resources. We have to be able to be free to create a family life, without "selfishly" privileging the needs of our own children above those in our community or further afield. Certainly, reducing our environmental impact has to be a focus for families - sharing, reusing and recycling toys, books, clothes, nappies etc rather than indulging in the endless consumption associated with modern childhood.

So rather than interfering with the choices of people who don't want kids, I think it's more helpful to look at how we can help people who do want kids in their lives to be the best parents they can be to their biological kids, step-kids, adopted kids and all young people. And to remember that even if you do have kids, you will get a lie-in again. One day.... 


  1. I really liked this. Something unexpected that I've found is because I write about being a parent, people sometimes assume that I am really into never being apart from my children or being content and never craving time away. In reality, I go out (sans kids) at least one night a week, and I love that time. I don't crave freedom of not having kids (in the sense that that article was suggesting) but I am still a complete human being when they're not around. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Yeah parents' night off tastes very sweet indeed! Have to remember though for single parents, people who work late or can't afford babysitters/don't have family to help or parents with kids with special needs, time off can be something virtually impossible to organise. Holiday kids' clubs and creches etc are all great if you can stretch to them and your kids are up for it. I reckon for a lot of people parenthood is just non-stop exhausting but hopefully still worth it!