A historian studying the 1880’s once noted that it was a time when people didn’t know the “good news that sex and procreation could be separated”. Thankfully, word got out – in a big way. With the slow-but-steady progress of women’s liberation, along with the adoption of more inclusive liberal views in many countries, individuals are now freer than ever to choose if they would like be “mommy” or “daddy” or none of the above. In addition, the pool of potential parents and children has widened. Gay couples can now adopt in many countries and adoption is slowly becoming more widespread. That being said, while individuals are not legally required to procreate, opting out of parenthood is often met with social and cultural scorn. Those who reject childless adults as social pariahs often do so without question. The latent belief being: procreation is “natural” and therefore categorically good. On the converse the thinking goes, choosing not to procreate is “unnatural” and therefore irredeemably bad.
Heidi, a 30 year-old Agency Management Consult has often had to bear the brunt of such narrow thinking as she together with her husband have chosen not to have children. She laments “It seems some people will find any excuse to persecute. It ranges from a well-meaning, but condescending; ‘Oh, you’ll change your mind’ to being called ‘unnatural’ and ‘less of a woman”.
Experiences like Heidi’s illustrate the intersectionality alive in this debate. While the argument for “otherhood” arouses questions of freedom and its expression, importantly, it also highlights the sexist understanding of womanhood and the role of women in society. The freedom to decide whether to be a parent is irrevocably linked to the freedom to be an individual and not merely a living breathing gender stereotype.
B*, an online media specialist, simply says that she never “longed to be a mother” and finds it strange and frustrating how she has to regularly defend her decisions: “It’s often as if people would understand it better if I had a more concrete reason than just saying I don’t want any… we both just didn’t feel like there was a gap in our lives that needed filling”. B and her husband have encountered a slew of interrogation-style questions and even hurtful scenarios: “My friend even said I would grow old and have so many regrets. The friends we had when we were in our 20’s have all had kids and deserted us. We stopped getting invites out to supper - different life phases, I suppose. But it hurts. It’s as if people with kids don’t have space for people without kids. Their new friends were all people with kids who could relate to them. As I mentioned above, people just don’t know how to talk to you when you tell them you don’t want kids. They either try convince you to give it a go, saying things like, ‘Go on, you’ll never be ready ’…or else they avoid you.”
Christine Overall, author of the book “Why Have Children?” argues that the current logic that individuals like B who choose not to have children are required to justify their choice more than the individuals who have them is simply misguided. Overall adds that the onus of justification should be placed wholly on those who do choose to have children. Although the decision to have children is undoubtedly personal, with an estimated eight billion people on the planet in 2025, it is also a pertinent ethical decision.
Samantha, a 29-year old Marketing Manager has also chosen not to have children, as she and her husband decided instead to devote their life savings and time to seeing the world and not adding to the global population. Samantha says: “We had both considered the possibility of having children but, as time went on, we realised it wasn't on the cards for us… people have sometimes disagreed with us and considered us to be selfish but, how can we be if there is a planet that is overpopulated already? I’m open to re-evaluating our decision when I’m 40. But, even then, we would seek to adopt a child”.
Admitting the undeniable financial benefit that comes with opting out of parenthood is somewhat of a taboo. While Samantha’s reasoning is widespread, many critics feel particularly pained by such “selfish” reasoning, a kind of “you can’t have fun, if we can’t” attack. Thankfully, despite the threats of loneliness, lack of fulfilment and old-fashioned hellfire, individuals are free to determine their own definition of adulthood.
While many people opt out of parenthood altogether, many more wish to delay the journey until the time feels right. Cultural norms dictate that having children is the “right thing to do” but as the world rapidly changes the “right time” is being pushed against the limits of biology and social norms.
Cathryn and her husband Neil have consciously chosen to put off having children until the ever-elusive “right time”. They “regularly check in on the subject; more because I think we both want to make sure it’s okay with each other than we’re both still happy to wait… I think the peer pressure of being this age has a lot to do with it. With every pregnancy announcement the topic of babies comes back up on the agenda but we’re lucky because our family doesn’t pressure us. Oddly enough, the fact that both of our sets of parents are already in their late 60’s is probably the strongest motivating factor for us considering it every few years. We would want our kids to know their grandparents… for now though, we’re perfectly happy with the two of us and our three dogs”.
Embedded in ideas of legacy, duty and familial pressure, having children is a personal issue that is knotted to the core of the human experience: we want our lives to mean something. Having children is the tried-and-tested legacy vehicle that traditionally ensures that your life has meaning even if you do nothing more than procreate. Moreover, having children, although a deeply personal decision is also a decision made on behalf of all the people who share this planet. Bringing new life into the world changes it. There is no static idea of the future so long as people consciously and often unconsciously decide to give life to another. This is cause for celebration and concern, for nothing is given and yet there is everything to lose. With every child born, we invest more deeply in this wonderful, fearful planet that we share.
*This interviewee would prefer to remain anonymous.