On any given day, photos of babies (human, feline, canine) probably attract more positive attention in our social media newsfeeds than posts that are actually newsworthy. As someone who delights in videos starring spastic baby goats and who follows @thebabyanimals on Instagram, I understand this phenomenon. Beyond the obvious allure of all things cute, on a biological level, the adorable factor drives us to protect and nurture children (rather than serve them for dinner), which is a good thing for a species’ continuation.
But while some, like me, feel certain about the decision to procreate, others are content to coo from a distance ad infinitum. Though many still struggle to get access to the medicine and treatments they need, thanks to advances in birth control and awesome organizations like Planned Parenthood and Women on Web, choosing to remain childless is simpler than it used to be. Today, with more control over our reproductive systems—and thus our lives overall—a lot of U.S. couples are waiting longer to have kids, or, increasingly, opting out of parenthood altogether. The trend is clear, but for everyone that happily identifies as a DINK (dual income, no kids), there seems to be someone freaking out about the impact of decreasing birth rates on the economy and society overall.
So far, none of this is shocking. What does shock is the tendency of some parents to disparage their childless counterparts. Since DINKs and families of one have more money and more time to devote to themselves, the argument goes, they’re obviously more self-involved. But doesn’t that accusation reek of envy? It makes me wonder whether some people procreate simply because they’re afraid of being labeled self-obsessed. Such a motivating force would make sense as an evolutionary adaptation designed to perpetuate humanity, but it wouldn’t make the underlying notion any less misguided.
To put it in celebrity terms for you: Are any of us qualified to say whether George Clooney, who, as of this writing, has zero children, is any more or less selfish than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who are on their way to raising a soccer team’s worth of kids? Before answering, please consider the below three reasons it’s silly to argue that the Clooney path is any more or less honorable than the Jolie-Pitt’s.
1. The best parents aren’t the reluctant kind.
The reasons for choosing a life free from diapers, banana mush, cartoon themed paraphernalia, and timeouts vary widely. Many who suffer from terminal illnesses and/or debilitating physical conditions don’t wish to pass on their genes, while others are simply too cash strapped to support offspring. Even if we limit the discussion to those capable of bearing children, who are mentally, physically, and financially well positioned to, it’s unfair to belittle those who opt out of childrearing.
It doesn’t matter why someone doesn’t want kids. What matters is that they don’t want kids, and that those who don’t want children probably won’t make good parents. If you come to realize, through sincere introspection, that you’re not fit to parent and thus determine to avoid it, you’re more sensible than selfish.
Of course there’s a chance that someone’s maternal or paternal drive will kick in unexpectedly during pregnancy or some other point in their child’s life, but the return/refund policy for human babies is exceptionally strict, so the wait-and-see approach is a gigantic risk. We should be wary of those who bring unwanted pregnancies to term, hoping that their desire to nurture will eventually sprout up from somewhere they can’t quite pinpoint. In the same vein, we should respect the choice to remain childless, which often requires discipline in the face of societal and familial pressures.
2. Parenting isn’t selfless.
Moms and dads have to sacrifice a lot. I get that, and I always send cards to my parental units on the designated Hallmark holidays. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t major rewards for the hard work of raising kids, all of which undermine the Theory of Parenting as a Selfless Pursuit.
When you birth an extension of yourself, you’re pretty much guaranteed unconditional love (which tends to present as hero worship in the early years), and the joy that comes with staring a mini-me in the face. Haven’t you seen that near narcissistic look of approval creep across parents’ faces on the subway or in the park as they observe their child performing some completely ordinary task? At least while you were young enough to be a convincing candidate for vicarious dream fulfillment, I bet you noted such undue awe in your own guardians’ expressions on occasion. It’s easy to be amazed by your very own creation, which, more than likely, resembles you somewhat, both in appearance and character. Even if your child isn’t related to you by blood, you get to impart your values onto them, thereby perpetuating your beliefs and ideas.
I’m all for celebrating parenthood, just not at the cost of stripping the childless of due regard.
3. Kids can be obstacles to achievement
As a society, we glorify the decision to have children. We coach nervous, expecting men and women with comforting phrases, such as “there’s never a right time,” and “you’ll figure it out as you go.” These affirmations likely survive because it would be detrimental to let ourselves regret the final decision to have a child.
But the fact is that parenting is a major commitment that will probably ruin your life as you know it. It may be taboo to say, but by devoting so much time and energy to the little ones, the laws of nature and economics dictate that you will have less time and energy to put towards other pursuits. There’s an opportunity cost to everything, including kids. Between your career, hobbies, volunteer work, and relationships, something will have to give, unless of course you’re insanely wealthy and can afford full-time help.
It follows that kids can be obstacles to achievement, and that in some instances humanity has probably missed out on advancement because smart people on the brink of discovery were too overwhelmed or distracted by their spawn to meet their goals. So if you’re some kind of genius on the verge of curing cancer, maybe put off having kids for a bit, or seriously consider dinkdom. Or don’t. Either way, nobody should feel justified in calling you selfish for answering the kid question however you wish.