Want to know what response to what question is absolutely guaranteed to be met with the blankest stare and most pregnant pause you have ever experienced in your life? Just answer “None” to the question: “So, how many children do you have?” I have never been disappointed. What I have been disappointed in are the sympathetic head-nods, arguments, cluck-clucks, and sometimes even downright hostile objections I’ve received when people do collect themselves enough to continue the conversation. That’s what I will discuss in this editorial – the right to remain childless, or childfree. While searching the Internet for resources, I found that this is the new term to describe someone like me. Childfree. Pardon me for saying so, but I do like the sound of that one. “Free” sounds so much better and more positive than “less,” don’t you think? Less implies that one is missing something and I have never felt deprived.“Your children are not your children.
In our pronatalist society, you will find that people like me are most often considered aberrations. While there are literally hundreds of thousands of sites, books, articles and so forth devoted to the topic of children, parents, and childcare, there are precious few devoted to a childfree lifestyle. One that I encountered while doing my research had even been banned from listing itself in AOL’s directory – they were told they did not adhere to AOL’s “standards for family-oriented” web sites. Even though their pages were quite informative and did not suggest anything close to child abuse or even anything that could be considered mildly subversive, they were told they were not welcome. It would seem that not wanting children is tantamount to being evil and perverted. Or at the very least, this lifestyle is terribly misunderstood and has many myths associated with it. I’d like to take the myths I’ve encountered as a childfree person and explode them for you.
Myth #1: People without children are selfish, indulgent, lazy, and/or irresponsible.
I suppose the best way to refute this number one myth is to discuss it from the opposite direction. The Washingtonian did an article once on childfree people. In it, they asked people who did have children why they had children. What most surprised me was the number one answer: “I don’t know why.” Most of the other reasons started with the word “I”: I want to nurture someone; I want the experience; I do not want to be lonely; I want to be cared for in my old age; I want the affection of a child; I want to pass on my genes; I want someone to look up to me; I want to keep my family name alive; I want someone to love. Seems to be a plethora of wants that are all coming from parent to child instead of in the more generous direction. Given these answers, one might surmise that people who have children are seeking validation. One could even go so far as to say that having children is selfish and indulgent. Another surprising and frequent response is that people had these children “accidentally.” In other words, these births were not planned and desired, but simply a matter of flawed birth control methods. Now who’s irresponsible?
Myth #2: People without children are immature and/or not fully actualized.
In our society, it is often thought that one does not become a mature adult, that one is not a “grown-up,” until one has children. Yes, from my own experience I would have to admit that not having children can keep you from feeling old. There is no one around to constantly remind you that you are aging, so it is quite tempting to go on believing that you are still eighteen. However, I don’t believe the fact that I am not a mother has precluded my maturation. There are plenty of other experiences I’ve been through that have convinced me I am indeed a “grown-up:” securing a good paying job, contributing to my community, buying and caring for a home, maintaining a household, and attending to my own aging parents, just to mention a few. And if those experiences don’t convince you that you are all grown up, the government does have a habit of reminding you every April 15th. Nothing like having to pay taxes to remember just how grown-up you are.
Myth #3: People without children are deviant, amoral, subversive or just plain “weird.”
This myth is applied especially to women who do not wish to have children. Whether we like it or not, femininity in our society has always been and most likely always will be closely associated with bearing and caring for children. As women, it is considered our biological imperative to reproduce. You may be surprised to learn, though, that in the U.S., one in five women in their early 40s don't have children -- and many of them chose not to. The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that 17% of women born between 1945 and 1960 (that’s over five million baby boomers) will never have children. While these numbers show that we are still in the minority when it comes to not having children, it is less odd than you might think to remain childfree and more women are feeling free to select this option every year. We are no more weird or deviant than any other minority groups in this country. I suppose what we are is less well organized. We very rarely march in parades or rallies, for instance. If we’re guilty of anything, I would say it’s not calling enough attention to the fact that we do exist.
Myth #4: People without children don’t like children.
Strangely enough, the opposite is most likely true. Many people without children are highly involved with other people’s children. The childfree are our teachers, our little league coaches, our Girl Scout troop leaders, our church group organizers, etc. Because we do not have children of our own, we often have more time to volunteer for civic and social organizations devoted to the welfare of children and children’s causes. The childfree are aunts, uncles, and mentors to many of today’s youth. We play an important, though secondary, role in children’s lives. And considering how involved we are with children, it seems absurd to state that we don’t like them. What we do enjoy, however, is the fact that we can send these children home to their parents at the end of the day. That much I will admit.
Myth #5: People without children are anti-family, anti-religion, and have no values.
Again, looking at this myth from the opposite direction is enlightening. One need only turn on any number of daytime talk shows or evening news reports to realize how dysfunctional some families can be. Incest, child abuse, divorce, and other horrors are being pulled out of the closet and placed on public display. It would seem that having children is no guarantee that these families will be religious, whole, or healthy. A family life that includes children does not ensure appropriate “family values” just as having no children does not make you a heathen. I am not anti-family in the least. I enjoy my own and my friends’ families very much and feel quite blessed to be a part of them.
Myth #6: People without children are materialistic, hedonistic, and/or career-obsessed.
I believe we are no more materialistic, hedonistic and/or career-obsessed than the general population. Many people with children value material possessions and the careers that make those possessions possible. In fact, they may have even more reason to chase after money – after all, there are children to support, educations and medical expenses related to child-rearing to pay for, and large vehicles to buy to tote all those children around to basketball games and piano lessons. By some organizations’ estimates, it takes nearly $180,000-200,000 to raise one child from birth to age 18 in the United States. That does not even include the costs for higher education, family vacations, and all the other expenses children incur (though successive children do cost less). Want to save some money? It would seem that not having children is an excellent way to do so.
Myth #7: People without children are biologically flawed or infertile.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have been met with looks of true concern and sympathy when I admit that I am childfree. People naturally assume that there must be some medical condition preventing me from bearing children and they pat me on the arm and tell me that it’s god’s will. It never even occurs to them that, yes, there is a medical condition related to my infertility, but no, god did not choose it, I did. It’s referred to as voluntary sterilization and has become quite a popular method of birth control. While men seeking sterilization do not encounter the same resistance as women do, it is still possible to select this option for yourself. I am in no way trying to discount the true pain and sadness of those couples who find themselves involuntarily infertile. This is a very distressing situation and I sympathize with their plight. However, not all of the infertile are dismayed at their inability to give birth. Some of us actually choose this path. And yes, there are some of us who chose not to give birth because of genetic abnormalities. However, it is not the only reason for remaining childfree.
Myth #8: People without children will have a lonely old age.
One peek beyond the doors of a nursing home should dispel this myth completely. Having children is no guarantee that they will either want or feel the need to care for you when you become old and infirm. According to the CDC, 1.5 million elderly people lived in nursing homes in 1995. The U.S. Bureau of the Census also maintains some interesting statistics. In 1995 living arrangements of persons 65 or older were as follows: for men, 20% lived alone or with non-relatives, 73% lived with a spouse, and only 7% were taken care of by a relative. For women, the split was 42% living alone or with non-relatives, 41% living with a spouse, with only 17% being cared for by a relative. So, it would seem that the majority are not spending their final days with their children as they had hoped. In addition, I found the following quite interesting. In 1997, 2.4 million of our nation’s families were maintained by grandparents who had one or more grandchildren living with them, up 19% since 1990, and 3.9 million of the nation’s children lived in a grandparent’s home, up a whopping 76% from the 2.2 million who did so back in 1970. Yes, of course, this only proves that some of the elderly are indeed not lonely, but I do believe raising grandchildren after they have already raised their own children was not what they had planned for their “golden years.” Have children and for some, the child raising duties never end. In summary, if you do not wish to be lonely in your old age, it is up to you to gather the friends and support systems you will need. You should not rely on anyone to do this for you.
Myth #9: People without children are too concerned with world overpopulation.
This is sometimes a useful myth and has proved very convenient for me. I will admit that I have used it as an excuse when someone will just not leave me alone with regard to this subject. Start quoting Zero Population Growth’s statistics about world overpopulation and most will agree that the world is already burgeoning with more than enough people. However, it is not the main reason that I chose this lifestyle. While I have a concern for this earth that I live on, if I wanted to have children, no amount of statistics on hunger and poverty would have prevented me from doing so. My reasons were varied and world overpopulation was just a small one.
Myth #10: People without children will be sorry.
Ah, this is my favorite myth. In fact, it is the most quoted statement at the end of every conversation I have had about this subject. “OK, OK,” people have said. “I understand that you don’t think you want children now, but someday you will be sorry,” they trumpet. It was also the number one reason given to me by the many surgeons I had to consult to find the one willing to perform my tubal ligation. You will be sorry, you will be sorry – it is used almost like a religious chant. Well, I am happy to report that I was neither sorry after my sterilization at the age of 24 and I am even less sorry now. In fact, the passing of the years, the habits of a lifetime I have acquired without children, and watching my own friends and relatives struggle with child-rearing have only made me more positive that I made the right choice for myself. Oh, I am many, many things – unburdened, unpressured, unharried – but I am definitely not sorry. My life has been extremely rich, filled with many activities, interests, and friends. I often find myself wondering if I had had children, just where I would have put them!
I hope the many myths I have exposed and discussed about the childfree will help you to understand this lifestyle choice from a different perspective. While there is a good bit of information for you to chew on in this editorial, it is only a summary of what’s available for people who want to know more or who are perhaps struggling with the decision about whether to have children or to remain childfree. I point you to these resources for additional information:
Childless by Choice
In addition to the myths that many childfree people find distressing, we also find people’s reactions to our childlessness either inappropriate or unnecessary. One of the articles on the "Childfree" site states the following and it's been my experience as well. People who try to coerce others into parenthood fall into three basic categories: those who are wildly happy about having children themselves and who feel they must convert the entire world; those who are secretly envious about the freedom of childfree individuals; and lastly, the “you’re supposed-to’s.” While those first two groups are understandable and even tolerable, it’s the last group I find most annoying and/or amusing. Where is it written that I’m supposed to? Just because I was born with a uterus, that doesn’t oblige me to utilize it for its intended purpose. I have an appendix too, but I’ll be damned if I even know what that organ does or why I need it. I would never try to convince anyone to remain childfree and I would simply like the same respect in return. The choice to have or not have children is intensely personal and no one should feel pressured when making this decision. And parents who wish to be grandparents should reconsider asking their children over and over when they will have babies. Having children does not guarantee grandparenthood.
I must tell you that my favorite of all are those people who look at me and say, “You’re so ‘fill-in-the-blank’ (intelligent, kind, sympathetic, humanitarian, etc.), you should have had children!” I can tell you this beyond a shadow of a doubt – intelligence, kindness, sympathy, et. al., are not reasons to have children. There is really only one reason to bear children and spend the rest of your life in servitude to them. And that is because you want to take on the duties and responsibilities of parenthood and that you realize that doing so will often bring no rewards beyond the smiles on your children’s faces (and many are often denied even that). Any person who does not realize that this is the most difficult job on the planet (no pay, no sick days, no vacation time, and no retirement), has not considered this “no-going-back” decision carefully or thoroughly enough in my opinion. Parenthood is the ultimate act of sacrifice; it is a lifelong commitment, and there are some of us who are just not up to meeting its demands. I thank you for taking the time to read this editorial and if you are a young person still struggling with this decision, I wish you luck, intense consideration, and careful thought as you make your way through this most important journey. Please remember – it’s your choice! And for those of you who have no children and are wondering what the number one response is to the question, “Why don’t you have children?” I found this one most amusing: just say “I can’t bear children!” On that note, I will leave you with this quote from Kahlil Gibran:
They are the sons and daughters
of life’s longing for itself . . .
you may house their bodies,
but not their souls,
for their souls dwell
in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit
not even in your dreams.”
Author’s Note: My thanks to the owners of the web sites I mentioned above as well as the CDC and the U.S. Bureau of the Census where I found most of the information and statistics for this editorial.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this editorial is for informational purposes only and the author does not support nor discourage either the choice to have children or remain childfree. She believes above all things that everyone should be allowed to make their own decisions in this and other highly personal matters.
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