Choosing to be Childfree
Since I’m getting sterilized soon, I thought I’d write about my “childfree wish” and my vision on the ethics and philosophical justifications of (not) having children.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about ever since I first conceived of the possibility of me having kids. As a sixteen-year-old I didn’t want them,which was considered a normal thing for a teenage boy to say; I got told I’d grow out of it (I didn’t). At 20, I had a more strong conviction and had started formulating a host of reasons, some more pessimistic than the others; I got told I’d change my mind when I met someone (I didn’t). At 24 I’d lost my first relationship, partly because of my stance on children. In those days, I said I didn’t want children of my own but I was open to adoption. I made a distinction between the creating of another life, and the raising and educating of one (I still do); I got told I’d change my mind when other people around me would start having them (I didn’t). I’m 29 now, I still haven’t changed my mind. Maybe it’s time to accept it, both others as myself. That’s why I decided to take the permanent step.
The main thing I’d like to accomplish by talking and writing about this, is challenge the existing, pro-natalist discourse and help make the choice to be childfree equally worthy of respect. In the ideal case, not having children is not something that raises eyebrows and a load of questions and shouldn’t put people on the defensive immediately.
In the course of the last decade, I’ve heard a lot of different arguments for having children. Or rather: against not having them. I’ve heard them all. People seem to take the issue very personally and react fiercely when confronted by it. As do I, but in the other direction, to be honest. It’s kind of my thing.
You’re selfish (for denying a child’s existence).
This one is weird and can be turned around easily. Firstly, how can we deny something to someone who doesn’t even exist (yet)? The very thing that is supposed to be denied, existence, is the thing that is necessary to even be able to deny it anything. The denial of existence can’t be selfish, or else you should believe that not doing everything you can to maximize the amount of lives is bad. This leads to some sort of variant of the repugnant conclusion of utilitarianism. And we don’t want to go there, wouldn’t we?
Besides, couldn’t having children be seen as selfish itself? Why do some people have them? To salvage their relationship. To have their name live on. To give meaning to their lives. While I’m not saying that everyone has children because of selfish reasons (or that anyone has children for just one reason, for that matter), there are instances where part of them are selfish.
The selfish reasons for staying childfree, such as having more free time or money to spend, at least doesn’t harm a child.
You’ll change your mind yet.
Why is this argument leveled against childfree people, but never against those who want them? Isn’t everyone entitled to change their mind? Does that mean we can’t ever take their current viewpoint serious? Of course not: we don’t question people who say they do want children.
Could I still change it? Sure, but not likely. I’d have to live with the decisions I made earlier in life. Just like I would have if I had children and I changed my mind then. But the consequences are just for me.
What about your girlfriend? Doesn’t she want children?
If my significant other would want children, the relationship wouldn’t work. It’s simple as that. Staying together would hurt at least one person, and probably more: not having children would make the person that wants them unhappy for missing out; having them would hurt the childfree person and possibly the children themselves too. The best option is a peaceful separation to give each person the possibility to pursue their own goals in life.
I’m also quite lucky to have a partner that supports me in my decision - I’m very much aware of how difficult it can be to find someone like that.
It’s a special and unique experience that your missing out on.
Firstly, isn’t any experience a person has, unique, in some way, to that person? That would mean that staying childfree would be an equally unique experience, one that people with children are missing out on.
Secondly, should we do things because they are special and unique experiences? Bungee jumping is a special experience, but we’re not saying that people who have never jumped from a bridge with their feet tied to a long elastic band have an incomplete life. What about giving away all your belongings? Or committing murder? Taking poison? We don’t expect people to do things just because it gives them special experiences.
You’ll regret not having them.
Isn’t it possible to regret having children (apparently not, or you ought not to talk about it at least)? And isn’t regret an important part of the human condition?
Who’ll take care of you when you’re old?
First of all, having children isn’t a guarantee that they will be capable or willing to take care of you. For all the good intentions and care and education, people could turn out to be horrible. Or they turn out to be incapable to help, due to disability, sickness, poverty,…
Second, in modern, Western society there is a social security safety net and the possibility to plan ahead for your own needs. Investing in some kind of insurance for old age and saving money, so other people can help you when in need.
It’s (y)our purpose in life.
Don’t tell me what my purpose is in life. Just don’t.
While this isn’t an argument that I get to hear a lot, it’s used regularly as a sexist argument leveled against women. This reduced them to just utilities to create new life. More viscerally said: they are seen as birthing machines without personal agency.
There are multiple reasons I don’t want any children, but I think that any one of them would be sufficient to accept my decision. Better yet: I’d argue that the choice to have children should be an active one requiring introspection and argumentation.
I strongly believe in each person’s right to self-determination. Logically, this also extends to reproductive health. This is exactly what made the sexual revolution that was the invention of the pill so important. In the 20th century, we definitively broke the yoke of the natural drive to reproduce. Suddenly, we were given the choice not to, without the need to give up a normal life (by going into the monastery for instance). This possibility opened up a lot of reasonings to change the way we view and think about family life and reproductive health. We have a lot more choice and freedom in choosing when, how and with whom we want to have children and if we want them.
Here I want to list some of my own personal reasons to answer negatively on the latter question.
Something childfree people tend to say a lot is that they don’t hate children (on the contrary, they often exclaim they adore them) as some sort of defense mechanism. How could you dislike children, you monster? But I think we should be able to admit this. It’s not a personal hate against the child itself (while that’s possible, children can be horrible little people), but a general dislike of what they imply: they make a lot of noise, they are helpless and require a lot of attention.
There are egoistic reasons too. I don’t have enough time or money as it is. Children cost money and take up time, time I’d like to spent differently. When I come home after a full days work, after all the household chores and other necessary tasks, I only have a few short hours to spend for myself. Valuable time I’d like to use for a myriad of things I never get to do even without having to care for some little person.
I also like to do grown-up things, talk in a grown-up way. I enjoy a lot of things, but in a grown-up way. Even things that are considered for kids can be enjoyed as an adult. I have no wish to deal with infantile things I don’t get anything out of.
Having and raising children is a huge responsibility and a life long commitment not to be taken lightly. Not just to a the child in question, but also to yourself, to a partner, friends, family, teachers,… In short: society itself.
I’m also of the opinion that having children and raising children are two different things (I want neither), the first being more existential, the second being more practical in nature. Raising someone without being responsible for its existence is also a huge responsibility, but one you take up in compassion. Deciding to have child and raise it is more far reaching in scope. See below about the existential side of things. But even raising someone, educating someone, is something I’m not sure I’m fully capable of. I’d be afraid of doing a bad job at it, failing to teach them something important. While some people may be able to deal with these kind of doubts, I can’t.
And worst case scenario: what if there’s something wrong with the child? Even when equipped to raise a child, it could turn out to be more than expected, in terms of time, money, effort (physical but also emotional) and happiness. Especially if the quality of life of the child can be doubtful (I’m thinking of children that won’t live past a certain age, not children with down syndrome). I find the risk too great.
Most arguments against children, I think, are dependent on one’s own valuation of certain experiences or outlook in life. They’re subjective. But the ecological arguments go beyond those and have harder, more weighty moral value. While not conclusive, they are something that everyone should be aware and take account of.
The idea boils down to this: a child, any child, is an extra human being that consumes and pollutes. Especially in the West, where we have a carbon footprint multiple times larger than those in the developing world. So every extra person is an extra burden on our planetary carbon capacity. When talking about overpopulation, this is the point, not food production. Overpopulation isn’t a Malthusian problem, it’s a pollution problem. And one that’s, rather counter-intuitively, more important in the developed first world.
Existential & the value of life
Lastly, there is the existential question: is (more) life worth it? This question needs an answer, because that’s also what hangs in the balance. A new life, with it’s own experiences, anxieties and problems.
In contrast to antinatalist thinkers (like David Benatar), I think that life as such is morally neutral. It’s not possible to know if a life will be worth it or not. That is to say: I think it’s entirely possible to have a life that has sufficient value to the person in question.
One of the takeaways here should be that, since it’s not possible to judge the value of life a priori or as a bystander, it’s up to the individual them self, and thus, an argument in favor of total self determination.
Since it’s impossible to evaluate the worth of a life before it exists, the decision should be a weighing of all other aspects by the prospective parent(s) and there is no way of implementing the future life of the person as a factor. Are the conditions suitable, are they prepared to take on the responsibility, are their intentions good,…? There are some elements of a wager inherent in this choice.
Is having children always bad?
All this is not to say that I’m against having children per se. I think that it’s certainly possible to justify having them and in the end it’s a personal choice, there’s no imperative to have or forgo having children. But the argumentative burden does rest on those wanting children, and not the other way around, as it is now.
Christine Overall, in her 2012 work “Why Have Children?”, analyzes the more common arguments for having children and dismisses most of them. She does argue for the active choice to have someone new to be part of your life, with all that this entails. A total commitment and choice to generate a new relationship, specifically the parent-child relationship.
Update june 2020: I was interviewed by some students in journalism about my choice. You can read, listen and watch here (in Dutch).