An article by Doug Muder, 1992
The bulletin board in my office is filled with pictures of two-year-old Meg and one-year-old Joshua. I am extremely proud of them and I am quite obnoxious about dragging my coworkers over to the board to see the latest shot of me or my wife Deb doing something cute with the kids. I am like millions of other proud parents except for one thing: these aren’t my children. Meg is the daughter of our friends Margy and Jordan, and Joshua is the son of our friends John and Kathy. Deb and I have no children of our own.
No doubt you are expecting this to be the beginning of a story of great sorrow and frustration, about our Herculean but unsuccessful efforts to conceive or adopt. In fact Deb and I have no idea whether or not we are fertile, and if our birth control continues to work we will never find out. We have chosen not to have children. So we must be making some great moral sacrifice, right? Doing our bit to relieve the pressure on our overpopulated planet. Or perhaps we’re pessimists—we can’t face the idea of bringing more souls into this vale of tears. Nothing of the kind is true. Deb and I are just vain enough to believe that our offspring would be a benefit to the world (or at least would do it no more harm than we have), and on the whole we tend to be more optimistic about life than most people, including most of our friends with children.
So what gives? What gives is that the decision whether or not to have children is a lot more complicated than the popular media (or your parents) would have you believe. For us it was a decision that took several years to make and that we have now lived with happily for several more years. In the end, we decided that all the standard arguments for and against having children were either beside the point or just plain wrong. We ended up making a decision based entirely on our own unique considerations. And we discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that making a yes-or-no decision does not end the matter. Regardless of what any particular couple may decide, there is going to be another generation of humans, and raising them is going to take up most of our generation’s energies for a couple decades or so. We whether we are going to be parents or not, we all have to decide what our role in that enterprise is going to be.
The Arguments For Having Children
It’s remarkable how many people will try to convince you to have children. Your parents, your in-laws, your friends, your coworkers—even complete strangers. One day I was sitting in a bar watching the Celtics when the guy next to me shifted the conversation to tell me how wonderful it was to be a father and how selfish I was not to have children. I wanted to say “If your children are so great why aren’t you home with them?” but of course I didn’t, because it would have been rude. The rules of etiquette are stacked against the childless. People can tell you at great length what a mistake you’re making by not having children, but it would be a mortal affront for you to point out what a mistake they made by having them. And so the conversations tend to be a bit one-sided.
Old age. Because the conversations are so one-sided, people get away with putting forward arguments that are simply nonsense. I don’t know how many times someone has asked me “Who will take care of you in your old age?” Whenever I hear this question, I wonder how my parents would answer it. They shuttle between Illinois and Florida each year. My sister lives in Tennessee and I live in Massachusetts. When the time comes that they can no longer care for themselves, they are not going to want to leave their friends and familiar surroundings, and we are not going to want to quit our jobs. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I find it extremely unlikely that either I or my sister will look after them on a day-to-day basis. I call them every week or two and visit twice a year, but my sister and I are not in a position to play a major role in their lives. The old-age argument might have made sense fifty years ago, but our ever-more-mobile society presents us with a harsh truth: People who are counting on their children to fill their old age with meaning are probably making a big mistake. My children might well end up living in Singapore or Bangkok. No doubt they would love me dearly and show me the grandkids over the picture phone, but in my old age I will have to make a life for myself whether I have children or not.
Staying together. I have a friend who calls me once a year or so and always seems a bit surprised to discover that I am still married. “If you don’t have children,” he has asked, “what will keep you together when times get rough?” He says there have been several times when he probably would have walked out on his wife if not for the fact that he feels a sense of responsibility to his children. It never seems to cross his mind that those times might not have been so rough if not for the pressures of parenthood. (I could tell him this, but it would be rude.)
Short of an affair, having children is one of the worst things you can do for your relationship with your spouse. It amazes me that anyone can fail to notice this. People with children have no time to talk to each other, they have no time for sex, and they don’t get enough sleep. This is not how you maintain a relationship. It is a simple matter of observation that couples with small children do not communicate as well as they did when they were childless. They are less likely to know what each other’s concerns are and more likely to misinterpret what they say to each other. For some couples the damage is minor, and others will be able to repair their relationship when the children get older and require less attention, but for many this is the beginning of a long-term drifting apart. And I would speculate that even those couples who do manage to restore communication never catch up to where they would have been if they had been able to put that kind of effort into their relationship all along.
Immortality. “How can you stand the thought of being the end of the line?” For many people the urge to reproduce is the urge to clone themselves, or to find someone to carry on whatever their particular battle may be. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to see that they are destined for disappointment. Children have a way of finding their own identities, independent of what anyone wants them to be. They will find their own religions, their own politics, and their own sexual orientations. They will marry people of their own choosing, not ours, or not get married at all. (They might, God forbid, fail to give us grandchildren.) They may succeed where we failed, or they may fail where we succeeded. If you are counting on your children to carry on more than simply life itself, you are asking for trouble.
Pride. “It looks like a lot of work now,” older relatives have told me “but you’ll feel differently when you see your friends’ kids graduate from high school and start to make their place in the world.” True, but this is only half the story. My great aunt and uncle raised a son, and by all accounts did a pretty good job of it. Then he died in a car wreck coming home from college. They seemed to live the rest of their lives with a cloud over their heads. And it may not be polite to say so, but despite parents’ best efforts not all children turn out well. Some of them have trouble finding a place in the world, and a lot of parents are still working to support their grown children when by rights they ought to be on the golf course in Key Biscayne. Some children grow up to become mental patients or drug addicts or criminals. If you know more than a handful of people in their sixties, you probably know someone whose children are a continuing source of sorrow in an otherwise successful life.
The Arguments Against Having Children
Being open to criticism from total strangers puts a bit of a strain on childless people, and unfortunately a number of us have chosen to respond by coming up with our own stupid and/or nasty arguments.
Overpopulation. “How can you bring more children into this overpopulated world?” a coworker asked one of my friends while she was pregnant. One of the best ways for childless people to be obnoxious is to point out that little Sally will use up X tankers of oil and produce Y tons of garbage in her lifetime. Sure, this is a concern, but tell it to people before they become parents, not after. What are they supposed to say? “I’m sorry Sally, but we’ve decided to send you to be raised by a couple in Kenya, where you won’t waste as much of the world’s resources.”
There are a few other concerns worth pointing out. First, if no one has children the human race will die out, which I for one would see as a bad thing. Second, if socially responsible people refuse to raise children and socially irresponsible people barge on ahead, the next generation is going to treat the earth even worse than we do now. Third, all these arguments for not having children (along with the pessimists’ vale-of-tears argument) are also arguments for suicide. So parents can turn the argument around: You tell me why you haven’t killed yourself yet, and I’ll tell you why I had children.
All the needy children. This is another moral argument. Rather than bring your own children into the world, you should adopt a child that no one else wants, like an orphan from a war-torn country, a child from an unfashionable race, or one of the physically, mentally, or emotionally handicapped. This argument is based on a presumption that I find offensive: that wanting to raise children is such an inherently selfish act that you have to balance it with some great sacrifice. People who are willing to take on the job of raising unwanted children are candidates for sainthood in my book, but you shouldn’t have to be a saint to be a parent. Wanting to be a parent and wanting to shoulder some of the world’s unwanted moral burden are two completely different things.
Money. Every year or two a new study comes out about how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to raise a child to adulthood. The studies themselves can be valuable pieces of information, but I don’t like the ways they get used. There is a not-so-subtle implication that only the rich have any business raising children, and that the life-without-Harvard is not worth living. Sure, it is irresponsible to have children if you have no idea how you’re going to support them, but if you can feed and clothe them and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to your lifestyle, why not?
And there is another question worth asking here: Children are expensive, sure, but compared to what? Most of us in the course of our lifetimes will have more time and make more money than is strictly necessary to see to our survival. If you aren’t going to raise children, what are you going to do? You could spend your surplus time and money helping Mother Theresa, of course, but then again you could watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island and buy the latest-and-greatest snowblower each year. Or maybe just pile up a lot of money and leave it to nobody in particular.
What We Thought About
When Deb and I thought about whether or not to raise children, we found that none of the arguments above captured the real gravity of the situation. This wasn’t like deciding what color of car to buy or how much to give to Greenpeace. We were deciding what kind of life we wanted to have. In fact, arguments of any sort missed the point. This wasn’t something to be argued like a point of law or figured out like a crossword puzzle. The only course that made sense to us was to try to visualize life-with-children and life-without-children in as much detail as we could and to decide which vision we liked better.
It was a long, messy process. We visited friends with children and stayed for several days at a time, rather than just the length of a meal. We asked people of all ages the kind of tough questions that you aren’t supposed to ask in polite company, and then later we assessed their answers: Did we believe them? Were they being honest with us and with themselves, or were they telling us what they needed to believe? We played endless games of what-if. What if our son did that? What if we found ourselves in their situation? We looked at our coworkers with children: What kind of effort were they putting into their careers? Were they asking more of their spouses than we could ask of each other? We looked at the other things we wanted to do with our lives: Would these things be enough? Would we feel good about living such a life? How much of it were we willing to give up for the sake of children? How much could we ask our children to give up in order for us to live the way we wanted to live? We looked at ourselves and each other. Would we be good parents? How would we split up the childcare? Whose job would take a hit? And we debated lots of questions that you have to answer even though they’re too big to answer: What kinds of children were we willing to raise? Under what conditions would we abort? What kinds of risks were we willing to take?
When we started the visualizing, we were thinking about having children in a couple of years. A couple of years later the future-with-children was much more detailed, but it seemed no closer. I wondered if we were just going to stall until time made the decision for us. It was hard to imagine either closing off the possibility of parenthood or saying “Put away the diaphragm, we’re ready.” And then, for no discernable reason, it crystalized: We liked the future-without-children better. We liked having the time to talk to each other. We liked having the time to think. We liked having money to give away and the prospect of starting our second careers sooner rather than later. We weren’t ready to accept the risk of having a severely handicapped child, or the risk that all the effort we put into our child might come to nothing. We could stand the thought of growing old without children, but we realized that we would need to put a lot of effort into building a network of friends who could grow old together. Without children to tie us down, we would be free, but we would have to worry about the problem of rootlessness. Without the demands of parenthood, we would have less stress but we would have to avoid purposelessness. The vision had its pluses and minuses, but on the whole we liked it.
In the end that was all we had to say for our decision: We liked it. If someone else envisioned the future differently, or looked at the same two visions and liked the other one better, there would be nothing we could say to convince them, even if we wanted to convince them. As I was growing up, my mother was fond of telling me that it takes all kinds to make a world. Our long, messy process hadn’t shown us the Truth, it had just shown us what kind we are.
The Real Problems of Childlessness
In the old days, there were fertile women, there were barren women, and male infertility was such an unthinkable fate that there was no name for it. Until there was safe, reliable birth control, the only people who were intentionally childless were priests and nuns. There is no longstanding model of ordinary people who are intentionally, joyfully childless. That in itself is the biggest challenge of childlessness: we are making it up as we go along. We can’t follow our parents’ example, and there aren’t many people we can ask for advice. About all we can do is compare notes with each other about the various opportunities, traps, and pitfalls that we find along the way.
Fulfillment. If you aren’t going to have children, what are you going to put into your life? Will it be enough to make your life satisfying and fulfilling? We all have to answer these questions for ourselves, but I will take this opportunity to pass on a couple of things that I have found in my own life: career is not enough and consumption is not enough. I figure that someday if we are lucky we will all be at the beach or on the golf course or doing whatever we imagine that successfully retired people do. And nobody will give a damn that you were your company’s youngest vice president or first female partner or that you bought a new BMW every year. You won’t even care yourself. It’s just not going to matter. What will matter? That you invested effort in something that continues to hold your interest. That’s the role that children fill in the lives of most old people. If you aren’t going to have children, you’re going to have to think of something else to fill that role.
Friends and Community. Society is set up for raising children, and children draw us into society. Parents typically look for a community when they begin to think about their children starting school. They look for a church when their children start asking about God. They make friends with the parents of their children’s friends. Parents carpool with other parents. They trade nights of babysitting. They help each other put toys together. They look to each other for old cribs, used snowsuits, advice about pediatricians, and a thousand other things. Raising children is the major project of the generation between the ages of 25 and 50, and if you don’t have children of your own, it will be easy to be left out of it.
Childless people have to rely on a network of friends for their socialization, and we can’t rely on our children’s activities to build the network for us. There are two possible strategies: either you can try to find a place for yourself in the child-raising project, or you can try to build a community out of other childless people. It seems absolutely hopeless to try to build a network of friends who have children if you plan to take no interest in their children. (You’ll see them for a night out every six months when they can get a babysitter, and you’ll never find out what they’re really worrying about. That’s not much of a friendship.) A network of childless people has its own difficulties. Childless people have this annoying tendency to cease being childless, and what will happen then? Also, childless people are often rootless. Just when you think you’ve found a group of people you can grow old with, someone will pick up and move to California or take a job in France. It’s a risk that goes with the territory.
Envy. What will happen if the childless life works out the way you hope it will? What will happen when your friends with children realize that since your last conversation you have had more time to think about their problems than they have? That you understand what their spouse is saying, but they don’t? That you just got back from Fiji? That you have more energy to play with their children than they do (and the children love it)? That you’re talking about books they haven’t had the time to read or movies they haven’t had the time to see? That you and your spouse still find each other exciting? I don’t have good answers to these questions yet. I’m just bringing them up so that you can start thinking about them sooner than I did.
Personal Growth. On the one hand the opportunity for personal growth is one of the major attractions of the childless life. On the other hand it is one of the biggest traps. The childless life leaves you time to think, but if it gives you nothing to think about beyond yourself (or airy abstractions like “society” or “the planet”) you can get stuck in a big way. It’s easy to become a therapy-and-workshop junkie. This week you’re finding your inner child. Next week you’re questing after the whole-body orgasm, and the week after that you’re rediscovering Zen Buddhism or Native American spirituality. Children take you out of yourself. They give you real problems that keep you from constantly re-solving imaginary ones. They insure that your experience will be rich and varied enough to point out your shortcomings and keep you from overestimating the amount of spiritual or psychological progress you’re making. By contrast, the childless life can give you too much power over your experience. You can make life fit your pattern so well that you never even realize that you are stuck in a pattern.
The phrase “personal growth” is itself part of the problem. The idea that growth can or should be “personal” is an illusion peculiar to the 1970s. Beyond a certain point you can only grow as part of something larger—part of a couple, part of a family, part of a community. In order to grow you need more than time to think. You need experiences that are worth thinking about. Where are you going to get them?
The New Extended Family
When I was trying to picture a life with children, I was completely intimidated by the prospect of being a parent in a nuclear family. The idea of being a devoted husband, a competent professional, and a committed father all at once just overwhelmed me. I kept looking for some way to change the rules or break the job up into more manageable pieces. But two challenging careers and parenting one or more children is simply too much to expect from two adults. Two extremely competent people can still survive passably well, but it seems to me that a lot of people are making a hash of it. It’s fashionable to blame the parents for this (and a lot of parents blame themselves), but it’s really not their fault. The job is just too hard and the rewards are too few. It’s insane that society has reached this point, and I think that something will have to give before another generation goes by.
Part of what has to give is that fewer people should be having children. People who have shaky marriages or a poor sense of responsibility or who aren’t fully committed to the idea should just pass it by. It needs to be socially acceptable for them to pass it by. Not every child needs to become a parent, and not every parent needs to become a grandparent. There are quite enough children in the world without making unwanted or half-wanted ones.
But the main thing that needs to happen is that more childless people need to find a role in the child-raising project. I’ve already discussed a number of the reasons why we need to do this for our own growth and fulfillment. But beyond that, society needs us. There is no way to relieve the pressure on nuclear parents unless childless people take a role. No government program imaginable could benefit parents more than having a few good childless friends who were willing to pitch in. And no child ever suffered from having too many good adult role models.
Finding a role is amazingly easy to do. No matter what kind of life you’re planning to have you need to make some friends, so why not make friends with people who have or plan to have children? On the whole, they are more rooted and more dependable than people without children. (They don’t have a lot of time, so you will have to be flexible, but flexibility is one of the virtues of the childless life. Probably the only change you will have to make in your ordinary habits is that you will have to make a special effort not to lose touch with friends you already have when their first child arrives.) Once your foot is in the door it will be only too obvious how you can help. Some very painless efforts on your part can make a big difference to the parents. Some evenings Deb and I will simply watch television while Joshua sleeps in another room and John and Kathy go out to dinner. One afternoon I carried Josh around on my shoulders so he could watch John do yard work. Lunch with adults can be a big daybreaker for a stay-at-home parent, and if one of you is willing to play with the kid while the other listens to the parent talk, you can restore a lot of sanity in a short time. Margy and Jordan can relax in group settings, knowing that we won’t lose track of Meg no matter where she runs off to. After you get into it you can do more intensive things, like take the child overnight or for a weekend. (Or you can take a parent. My college roommate’s wife has come out to visit us twice for a “Mom’s vacation”. After a week of sleeping in, eating out, and staying up talking to adults, she returns home a new woman.)
What do we get out of it all? More than they do, probably. It melts my heart to come into a room of people and find out that Meg has been looking for me. No workshop will ever bring out my inner child as well as Joshua does when he gives me a turn with his push-toy. Years of meditation practice did not do as good a job of teaching me to live in the moment as the evenings I’ve spent watching the kids play with a stack of coffee filters or a balloon. And no monotonous chant has ever been as effective at making me give up my agenda as reading Goodnight Moon five times in a row. (“Again!” Meg says. Where else in my life do I get such unambiguously positive feedback?)
Most of all, we get an indescribable sense of investment in the future of the world. Meg and Joshua have become our kids. Sure, they have their own parents and we have no wish to supplant them, but they have Deb and me as well. We have a commitment to them and to their parents. We will do our best to be a part of their lives for as long as they need us or want us around. We’re a new kind of extended family, committed in the way that grandparents and aunts and uncles used to be in the days when they didn’t live a thousand miles away.
That’s what we get. That and several stacks of really, really cute pictures. Have I ever showed you the one where Josh and I are pushing toy trucks off the end of a table? I have? You must be exaggerating, it couldn’t have been that many times.