Nowadays, more and more people are childfree: they decided not to have children. Is it selfishly shirking your responsibility or the single best way to reduce your carbon footprint? Whichever side of the fence you’re on, it is a sensitive topic that doesn’t get much open discussion time. Most people have children and the pros are clearly visible everywhere. This post is mainly aimed at those who are still undecided whether to become parents, and those who feel guilty about not wanting to have children.
The choice whether or not to have children, or the perceived moral obligation, isn’t the same for men and women. Throughout history, women without children have been criticised or even killed. Today, this inequality remains. Take, for example, doctors’ reluctance to sterilise a woman despite birth control being almost solely her responsibility (1). Or the WHO’s alcohol action plan which cites prevention of drinking among ‘women of childbearing age’, without suggesting similar precautions for men (2). Similar to being single by choice, having no children is often seen as unnatural, a passing phase on the road to ‘success’.
There are many common reasons why more and more people are deciding not to have children. You may want to have more freedom, time and money to live your best life, allowing you to focus more on your partner, career, hobbies etcetera. You may not see yourself in the role of a parent mentally or emotionally: not having the urge to ‘mother’ children, not wanting to commit to this huge responsibility or still struggling with past issues. You may be worried about the toll on your body, exacerbating physical or mental health conditions or passing on hereditary conditions. You may find it better not to burden your potential children with a particularly bleak looking future, including economic instability, overpopulation, climate change and World War 3.
However, it can be hard to untangle what it is that we want deep down, to truly know ourselves and look beyond expectations and feelings that are not our own.
There is a lot of pressure from our history, society, culture, family and our own upbringing. Girls are given dolls to play with and are expected to care for others from an early age, too early for this to be their decision. Later life doesn’t feel much like a choice either, and more like a tick box exercise: get a degree, house, partner, baby... It is the common, safe, predictable path, which will be taken by most people around you. Taking the road less travelled means the future is unpredictable and, perhaps, more scary. Expect your parent friends to want to do different stuff and talk about different priorities. Expect lack of understanding, emotional blackmail and societal pressure...
Childless women are often seen as a failure. Some people really want to become parents but can't get pregnant. Others don't want children even if they are able to. Neither group should be judged. You don’t need to have children to continue the human race. There are other ways to contribute to the advancement of society or leave a legacy. Another popular opinion is that childfree people are selfish. They can have self-indulgent stay-in-bed Sunday mornings, move to a tropical island at a moment’s notice or easily achieve that high-flying career. One of the most common questions childfree women get is ‘Who is going to take care of you in your old age?’ How is that for being selfish? If you have elderly parents, most of you will have felt guilty, or been made to feel guilty, for not taking good enough care for them… Childfree women do not have more opportunities, they just have different opportunities.
Hormones, also known as baby fever or your biological clock, may be another form of pressure to want a child. Though opinions differ whether this is truly biological or existential (3), ultimately the decision to act on urges has always been yours. Most of us don’t have intercourse with every attractive stranger we pass on the street. Seeing, hearing or smelling a smiling baby may give you the urge to get your own bundle of joy, but seeing them vomit, hearing them scream or smelling dirty diapers can also do the opposite. We’ve all acted on an urge and regretted it later, so taking a moment to make sure you won’t regret giving into this baby urge is not a bad thing given it will affect the rest of your life, or at the very least a good 19 years of it.
There is also the fear of missing out; feeling other people are having something really good you should be having too. Especially in the age of social media bragging, this powerful sentiment can suddenly cause doubts to start popping up. ‘I’m not ready yet, I don’t have a partner, I want to focus on my career for a bit… but what if I leave it too late and wake up once too old to get pregnant?’ Well, firstly there are plenty of children to take care of in a range of roles with differing degrees of responsibility, ranging from adoptive mum to auntie to occasional babysitter. There are even rent-a-grandma programmes; it’s never too late to bring children (more) into your life. Remember, the grass is always greener on the other side, especially in heavily filtered and curated social media land.
Most childfree people are not unhappy or regretful. On the other hand, at least a subset of parents are unhappy and regretful, though it still seems taboo to utter this out loud (4). As someone once told me: having children means having some of the very best moments, and some of the very worst (e.g. accidents or life-threatening illness). Some parents regret it and can’t admit it, or don’t feel as happy as they think they should be, which may result in them pressuring you to join them (misery loves company). Also, we all know people we’re not sure are ‘good’ parents or had children for the wrong reasons, such as saving their floundering relationship or solving their existential crisis. This can have a lifelong detrimental effect on their children; for example what if you found out your parents didn’t want you…
Our ancestors may not have had much of a choice in whether to have children, but many of us do. As with most important decisions in life, there are pros and cons to each option, and not everyone around you will respect your choice or not make assumptions. It’s not an easy subject to reflect on; it can be confronting, painful, emotional. What do you do when your emotions (and hormones) are telling you one thing, and your logic the other? You are not alone. Taking the time to reflect and analyse your situation, and possibly talk about it with others, is not a bad thing. A conscious choice that fits your beliefs, values and feelings can prevent a lifetime of regret.