Jul 27, 2010

Lazy post: Childless by Choice


A few weeks ago, I gave an email interview for an online piece about women who choose to remain childless. It all ended up on the cutting room floor - fame, dear reader, continues to elude me - so I thought I'd share it with y'all anyway. It's easier than writing a whole new post, that's for sure.

Q: Why did you choose not to have children? Was it a conscious choice?

I never wanted children; it's just something that never appealed. I did read "The Handmaid's Tale" aged 14 and was deeply influenced by it, but that could have just made me deeply pro-choice (which I am), I don't think Atwood can be blamed here!

I used to get a vast amount of interrogation and aggression around this subject, though not so much anymore as I get older and more divorced. But in my twenties when I was getting married etc., it was a never-ending barrage of having to justify myself. I played the game, and came up with better and better rationalisations to explain myself: feminist rebellion against biological determinism, the state of the planet, the population time bomb, fear of being a bad parent, inability to take responsibility, relationship issues with husband, financial instability, how selfish and insufferable people (of my class and background) get once they have kids... I even used my Jewishness, saying that I don’t want to go through the dilemmas and struggles of raising bi-ethnic children!

But to be honest that was all just excuses. In reality, the more people asked me “why don’t you want children?” the more I thought “well, do I? Should I?”, and navel-gazed and examined my own desires. And because of this emphasis on wanting, desiring children, the more I didn’t find this burning need within myself, the more I became convinced about not wanting to be a mother. It’s a bit circular, but that’s how it worked.

These days I’m a bit more sceptical about exactly how much of a burning desire having a family is for women, and more in the camp that gender and even class expectations have something to do with it. But the short answer, for me, is that I was warned about my biological clock so much that when I couldn’t hear it ticking, I thought this was a significant fact about myself and that I that should make decisions based on it. Reverse psychology!

Q: Do you think people choosing to be child-free is a good or bad thing for society? Why?

I think it’s fairly neutral. You could speculate that there will be some unforeseen long term consequences from changing the demographic makeup of human societies so drastically, but I think the aging of the population would have more to do with it than the fall in the number of children. If you want to be a bit evo-psych about it, then they used to be just as much of a scarce resource as old people, because infant mortality was at something like 50% for most of human evolution. Anyway, you could equally well speculate (with some basis in observed fact) that fewer children mean that every child will get more care and education and be less vulnerable to abuse and neglect, which could ultimately only be a good thing for society as a whole.

In the short to medium term though, societies like Japan where the birth rate is low but immigration is almost zero will be the most vulnerable to the economic and cultural impact of an older population. The US and Europe, with all of their kvetching and occasional posturing on the topic, will continue to benefit from the influx of skills, enthusiasm and population that you get through migration. And that’s a good thing from start to finish, because it takes demographic pressure off of places like India and Africa that can’t necessarily support growing populations right now and redistributes it to where more economic and social agents are needed.

Will it mean the loss of ethnic purity in some places? Yeah. Will there be some evolution or even disappearance of the current national/regional cultures in the host countries? You bet. So what’s new? It’s not as if the Italian espresso can be dated to the Pleistocene. Or Italian. Or the Italians. I can’t get excited about that aspect of things, which makes me a terrible Jew and a traitor to my entire clan of aunties, but there you have it.

Q: Would you say the class expectations that you mention are middle class expectations?

I'd say where I came from - a working class area in Jerusalem, which is a very traditional city as you might expect - the expectation is that you have a large family because "children are a blessing" and it's what women do, and then you work very hard and make sacrifices to give them what you didn't have in life. Or just work very hard and make sacrifices because it's what you do, even if you don't have class aspirations for your children. It's seen as deeply and bewilderingly strange to not want to have "a family", because family is such a strong social glue in that environment.

In the middle class culture I ended up belonging to as an adult, there's definitely something consumerist about having children. It's dressed up in the language of nurture and sometimes "science", but it's also and economic life stage. It's something to upgrade to - you need to get a bigger house, and change your car to a 4x4, and then there's all the accoutrements like four different buggies and two car seats and a high tech cot and developmentally correct toys and and and. There's endless consumption around the growth of the family, and if you're my age and don't have a large house and a large car there's something wrong with you. I'm struggling to put it into words, but it's almost like if you're my age and living in a small flat and take the bus then you're an economic failure. And if you say "you know, you don't *need* any of this stuff", people immediately say "oh well I do, because I have the kids to drive around and I just couldn't do that if we only had one car". They use their family as a pretext to consume.

There are, of course, also just nice people who love children and have well adjusted normal families because, you know, they love each other and have the urge. And upper middle class people who have the luxury to "opt out" and bake organic home woven birthing yurts. And there are different class dynamics associated with those scenarios. But the above two are the main aspects of my personal experience.


  1. "I think it’s fairly neutral."

    That's why I have never understood what all the fuss is about on the part of people who are aghast to hear that someone doesn't want kiddies (or get married, for that matter). Why shouldn't it be treated just like anything else? I wanted kids, other people don't. I want a piano and to learn to play, other people don't, etc. Why is it so surprising to some people that not everyone wants the same things? I would think that people who have kids choosing to have fewer of them might have more of an impact on society than people choosing not to have them at all unless things changed quite a bit. I imagine there have always been people who didn't want children - unfortunately, in many places and times including now in a great deal of the world, women didn't have the choice.

    With regard to how having kids changes people, in my own experience, having a kid has both been and not been an excuse to consume.

    We have one car (the same we had before a kid) and what many people (especially in the States) would consider an itty-bitty house*. No dining room? No second bathroom? No craft/play/entertainment/family/etc. room?! Gasp! Tedd sometimes talks about putting in more bathrooms or some other thing, and my answer is why bother? My house was built in the 50s, and somehow people lived and raised kids in it without adding more showers.

    On the other hand, I do have stroller-mania, but for me it's about grownup toys. Some people have bike mania or stereo mania or computer mania. Strollers, for me, are less a thing for baby, and more a thing for me, since she's just the one sitting in it while I'm the one using it and I wanted to have one that can still be used in the dead of Boston winters on our shitty sidewalks since I walk much more than I drive. Having a semi-fancy stroller means that I get do what I like to do, which is walk everywhere in ridiculous weather. That said, if I'd had to pay for it myself, I'd be pushing a $15 drugstore umbrella stroller and staying in from roughly December 1 to May 1. My baby has survived just fine with Freecycled toys and handmedown clothes, just like we have ;-)

    Uh, not going anywhere in particular with this - just adding my own thoughts/experiences.

    *In 2008, the average square footage of homes in the U.S. topped out at 2,629, and has dropped since but not by much. Our house is about 1,000 square feet and not all of it is usable at this time. People always assume we'll upgrade if we have more kids (especially my MIL who once said "You can't use all your rooms? Then just buy a bigger house!"), but I like my house.

  2. That's a very good interview. I find that I have two circles of friends, those who have children/are trying to or plan to...and those who may or may not want children but the subject has never come up and it doesn't seem like a priority in their life at the moment. I think I've only ever asked anyone once if they were planning to have kids, and it was someone I was very close to who I knew had never liked kids and was simply curious what her current stance was. And I have noticed that the majority of the people I am friends with that I interact with irl are actually people who don't currently have children and I have no idea if they even want children but it doesn't seem to be something of a priority. Does that make sense? I don't question their choices, and rarely even think about the presence or non-presence of children aside from wanting to socialize my son. When Chris and I want to socialize, we just call everyone and see who shows up.

  3. An interesting interview indeed. I think you're totally right about the consumption part of it- it is a kind of "upgrade", and it's so cynical... at least here in the US. In Israel I think it's different- I think adults there are almost considered disabled if they don't have kids: useless and weird. I am very much pro-choice and that includes the choice to have or not have children, the flip side is that having children in one's life is a wonderful thing in many ways- it's surprising and challenging, it gives strength and a sense of purpose- not always, but a lot of times. If it were my choice, I would choose for you to have kids because your kids would have the opportunity of growing up with a smart and witty mother and most kids don't get that.