Have you seen the recent New York Times article, “No Kids for Me, Thanks”? Like Time’s famous 2013 article, “The Childfree Life,” it explores the idea that more and more people today are choosing to not have children. The number of childless women in their early forties doubled between 1976 and 2006, and, according to Time, the American birthrate is at a record low, with numbers steadily decreasing across all racial and ethnic groups.
“No Kids for Me, Thanks” focuses on the publication of a new collection of essays about how childless people feel stigmatized and take issue with the common accusation that their choice to not have children makes them inherently selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed.
On one hand, they have a very good point; it is incredibly obnoxious and damaging to be constantly told how to live your life by people who don’t know you or your situation and to be told that having children is the only useful, worthwhile contribution you can make to the world. On the other hand, it is more than a little ironic to read about how people who hate being judged for not having children end up heaping judgment upon those who do choose to have children.
I know that the comment section on most websites is better left ignored, but I was truly shocked by some of the comments on the article. Many referred to parents with multiple children as “overbreeders” or as people who have children just to get money from the government, with which they buy flat-screen TVs and then neglect their children. One commenter even said (and, yes, this is a direct quote): “The smart abstain; the stupid continue to multiply like rats.” Another referred to parents as “people who choose to help overpopulate our planet and drain our precious resources” and further argued that “you should get tax credits for not having children”—implying that some kind of one- or two-child government policy would be a good idea.
Lest we think the extreme views are only in the comments, in the article itself one child-free man quips, “The only thing I hate more than children . . .are parents.” Another calls parents selfish, “pointing to [how] families typically own larger cars and use up more resources.” Then there’s the assertion that childless people typically volunteer more for charities and public service, thereby making them more selfless citizens and worthwhile human beings.
Needless to say, this is a heated subject.
I don't blame people for being unenthusiastic about the idea of parenting. It is a huge responsibility and not a decision that should be taken lightly. Parenthood is not for everyone, and it does not automatically make you a more worthwhile human being than anyone else. Just like with any other difficult occupation, it can bring out the best and the worst in people. Any leader can be corrupt, any army commander overbearing and cruel, any doctor lazy and dishonest, any scientist self-centered and dangerously shortsighted.
Whatever the arguments are for or against having children, though, one thing is for certain: All of this finger-pointing must stop. Ultimately, no one will find deep and satisfying validation for their life choices by scorning someone else’s.
The problem is, in our rush to defend our own life choices, we too often end up criticizing someone else’s, as journalist and filmmaker Sadhbh Walshe inadvertently did in the UK's Guardian when she defended women who don’t want children by referring to them as “smart women making smart choices.” The implication, of course, is that women who do want children are stupid women making stupid choices.
It is totally OK to not want children yourself and even to not enjoy or seek out the company of children, but it is not OK to hate them and their parents, and it is downright self-destructive to try and undermine their existence. As Laura Bates writes in her book, Everyday Sexism, “The idea that women are ‘selfish’ for taking maternity leave or that their jobs shouldn’t be safeguarded if they ‘choose’ to have children is quite ridiculous when you consider the fact that society depends on reproduction in order to physically continue.”
Just about everyone feels judged and belittled in one way or another, and whether or not we have children, we can’t seem to win.
As a mother in my twenties, my experience reflects the opposite side of the coin. Every day feels like a battle with people’s offhand judgments of me and my life. “She must be a very simple, unambitious kind of person to have children so young, and by the way, what on earth is she doing letting her child run around the restaurant? This place shouldn't allow children, anyway.” Many days I come home exhausted and discouraged, thinking that perhaps it would be better to never set foot outside my home in case my 18-month-old’s completely natural and healthy behavior will provoke disapproval and annoyance from the people around me.
At moments like these I need to remind myself that having children doesn’t mean retreating into solitary confinement as if your life is over. This can be the way that an anti-child society makes you feel, but in fact the opposite is true: Life will be different from before, and may be harder in some ways, but it will also be richer for all of that. Children aren't an interruption, an afterthought, or an annoyance; they are a challenge to continue living our lives to the fullest.
Further, what some people consider special treatment for parents is really just reasonable treatment. Simple things like parents with young children being allowed to board a plane first so that their babies don’t have meltdowns in long queues are not signs that society is valuing parents more highly than anyone else, it’s just an acknowledgment that parents have different needs and that children are worthy of participating in society. They are the future, after all. Just like providing wheelchair access or Braille signs, these things enable a large portion of society to participate more fully in public life, which is ultimately good not just for parents and their children but for all of us.
Imagine how much better all of our lives would be if parents and nonparents thought of themselves as partners working toward the same goal. Ultimately, despite the reactions the article provoked, its message—“We need to reframe the conversation, otherwise it just becomes, ‘Who’s more selfish?’”—is a wise and positive one. We need to acknowledge that we can’t do this alone. We live in a community, and whatever your vocation in life, you matter, and you need to be supported and enabled by those around you to be the best version of yourself. It takes a village, not only to raise children but also to make your own contribution to the world, whatever that may be.