Four fears that compel us to have kids — and why I’ve chosen a different path.
I am 41 years old, and I’ve been happily married for nine years. Neither my husband nor I want to have children. In recent years, I’ve met quite a few couples like us, who, though biologically and financially able, have made the decision not to breed. As the childless by choice population increases, the decision not to have children will hopefully become a non-issue. At the moment, however, it’s something I think about often.
I’ve heard that having children is wonderful, rewarding, and occasionally heartbreaking. I tip my proverbial hat to all the parents who’ve risen to the challenge and raised the many amazing humans who populate our planet.
Occasionally, I’ve wondered if my lack of motivation to breed indicated extreme selfishness. I’ve thought hard about what it would mean to have a child in my life, along with what it would mean not to. I’ve never felt any kind of strong maternal pull toward other people’s children, and when I create a mental pros and cons list about whether I should reproduce, the arguments that carry weight are almost always based in fear.
These are the fears that, I believe, contribute to our desire to procreate.
1. Fear of loneliness
When I told a friend I wasn’t interested in having children, she replied, “Then who will look after you when you’re old?”
I’d never really considered this. I responded, “I hope to keep myself as healthy and sharp as possible until I die, and use my savings and insurance to take care of any problems that come up.” Even as I said this, I knew how impossible it is to predict what ills will befall us as we age, and how much care we’ll need.
Though having a child is no guarantee that you’ll have a caregiver when you’re nearing the end of your life, the idea of having someone more able-bodied around when you’re old (whom you don’t have to pay for professional care) can calm a worried mind. We expect that our children — even if for no other reason than obligation and payback for all you sacrificed to give them the gift of life — will keep us company in our latter days.
For children, the idea of forever is still possible.
Our fear of being alone is so powerful that some parents even project it onto their first child, saying or believing things like:
“We need to have another baby soon so little Jimmy will have someone to play with, and someone around when we’re gone.”
“Only children are weird and socially awkward.”
“A child needs siblings; they shouldn’t spend too much time alone.”
2. Fear of lost youth
I live in Hong Kong, and my parents live in Singapore. Whenever I return home to spend time with them, I notice that they’ve shrunk. They look frailer than they did on my last visit, with less hair and more wrinkles. I feel sad when I think of them losing their youth, and the inescapable fact that I will probably witness their deaths. I’m nostalgic for childhood, when loss, disappointment, illness, and death seemed worlds away. For children, the idea of forever is still possible.
“Youth is wasted on the young,” as the old saying goes, and indeed, youth does become more precious and desirable as we get older. Youth embodies mystery, strength, novelty, energy, sex, romance, adventure, and beginnings. Babies serve as the perfect symbol for the renewal of youth in our lives.
When an infant arrives, we admire the soft, unblemished creation to distract ourselves from our graying hairs, aching hips, liver spots, or ailing spouses and parents. Like looking at freshly picked fruit that hasn’t yet begun to rot, we look at the child and momentarily recapture the magic of youth. We watch as the child grows like a sapling, and we avoid the depressing inevitabilities facing all of us — the period of grief that follows a loved one’s death, and our own physical and mental demise.
3. Fear of not following the script
I did poorly in high school, so I worked as an artist’s assistant while the rest of my schoolmates went to college, then university. This hurt my self-esteem, because I felt I wasn’t where I ought to be. Years later, my peers were employed at major corporations. Some got engaged and began planning their weddings. Others bought their first cars, or made their first down payments on homes. I, on the other hand, was still living with my parents, trying to find freelance writing gigs, and stuck in a dead-end relationship. I was painfully aware that I was lagging behind, and that I wasn’t taking the socially sanctioned path most people follow when transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood.
When the relationship ended, I was 24. I decided to restart my education. I’d written for a number of publications by then and knew writing was something I could do for a long time, so I earned my bachelors’ degree in journalism. In retrospect, a late beginning was perfect for me. I had more self-awareness, and I knew exactly what course of study to pursue. Unlike many of my peers, some of whom flip-flopped between psychology and literature before settling for an MBA, I didn’t change course.
In my late twenties, I worked as an editor for a lifestyle magazine, and on weekends my friends would invite me to dinner parties at their homes. As a single woman, I was often given the seat at the head of the table because the couples wanted to sit next to each other. I frequently enjoyed myself, but occasionally felt insecure — not because I was unhappy on my own, but because I was different. I wasn’t following the social script of my culture, where most women are engaged or married by 30.
Fairy tales such as Thumbelina, Snow White, and Rapunzel all begin with “barren” women who are desperate for a child. When the child comes, she turns out to be some sort of wonderful, gifted darling who, in the Disney versions, sings in an annoyingly shrill voice.
In Singapore, where I was born, the government distributed leaflets at local universities using “modern fairy tales” to warn women 21 to 30 years old about the dangers of their bodies’ declining fertility. The tales included a story about Alice, from Alice in Wonderland, who wears a “YOLO” (“You Only Live Once”) T-shirt. “This cartoon Alice is curious about the world — ‘she gives up her cash to fly around rash’ — but the moral here is that this twentysomething Singaporean is so busy being ‘wild and reckless’ that she stands to lose her chance of starting a family,” writes Kate Hodal in The Guardian. Many societies, in particular nations with declining birth rates such as Singapore, take this stance regarding women who choose to be childless.
A university professor friend of mine once quipped, “It seems all the really intelligent people aren’t having kids, but all the others are still at it like rabbits, making more babies than they can take care of.”
The powers that be… have programmed us to believe that people without children will have no access to some unseen realm where altruism, self-sacrificial love, and a superior morality exists.
Singapore’s former prime minister, the eminent Lee Kuan Yew, was so concerned about this problem that he implemented a new policy. In the ’80s, a Singapore national census showed that women who were better educated were having fewer children. Lee feared this would lead to a decline in the “right” type of babies being made in Singapore. To counteract it, Lee implemented soft eugenics in 1984 with the Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme, a policy that offered generous tax benefits to mothers who had the Singaporean equivalent of a high school diploma. The government also gave their children priority admission to schools.
The powers that be — society, history, religion, the media, and even governments — have programmed us to believe that people without children will have no access to some unseen realm where altruism, self-sacrificial love, and a superior morality exists.
Coded or uncoded, these are the messages childless-by-choice people often hear:
- Did you have a bad childhood?
- You don’t want one now, but once you have one, I’m sure you’ll be a wonderful mother/father.
- Don’t wait until it’s too late.
- If you’re emotionally immature, then maybe it’s better not to.
- If you want to stay selfish, then don’t.
- You might regret it.
- Once you’re a mom/dad, you’ll understand.
- I think you’d be a great parent.
- There’s no love comparable to the type of love you feel for your child.
- Having a child made me a better person.
- Now that I have kids, life is much more meaningful, because I’m not just living for myself.
- That means your parents will never get the chance to be grandparents. How sad for them.
- You think you’re tired, but you don’t know what it feels like to be tired (as if they — poor martyrs — are somehow capable of doing more in a day, and pushing themselves further, than you).
- You’re missing out on one of life’s best experiences.
- You think you don’t want children, but once you have them you’ll feel differently.
- It’s a mom/dad thing.
- You’ll understand if you have kids.
- You’re not really a family until you have kids.
- All the animals do it. (Exactly!)
Last week, a friend proceeded to ask me yet again about my decision not to have a child: “I suppose if you don’t want to make sacrifices, then maybe you’re not cut out for it.” (Subtext: I think I am a less selfish person than you.) “If you have second thoughts, you can always babysit my son sometime. See if you like it.” (Subtext: My kid is so wonderful, that I’m sure if you spent an hour with my child you’ll change your mind, envy me, and desire one of your own.)
Not wanting children means battling these messages every day. Wouldn’t it be easier to just pop one out so you don’t have to answer to the government, your family, or anyone else who thinks they know what you should do with your body and the remainder of your time?
The fear of not fitting in may not seem like a strong enough reason to have a child, but the world’s tenacity can wear down even the most stalwart resistors.
4. Fear of disappearing without a trace
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time,” the British graffiti artist Banksy supposedly said. If we don’t have children, who will remember us when we die? What will happen to our accomplishments, our failures, the sum of our lives, if not a single person in the world knows about them? Without children, we are left with no one to inherit our legacy.
What will happen to the business you spent so many years building, or the house you spent years saving for and finally built? Who will you share old photographs and memories with? Who will inherit your lilac gown, your gold watch, your yacht, or your vintage Aston Martin?
As parents see their children grow, they begin to see parts of themselves in their children, and take comfort in knowing that these parts will continue to exist long after they are gone.
For some, children may be a way of buying additional time to complete unfinished tasks. Like transferring liquid from a crumbling old vase into a shiny new one, the act of child rearing allows us to impart our values, dreams, beliefs, and all of the lessons we’ve learned, onto another. As parents watch their children grow, they begin to see parts of themselves in their scions, and take comfort in knowing that these parts will continue to exist long after they are gone. Looking at a child mimicking daddy or mommy is delightful, and for a moment, parents might believe they’ve preserved a part of themselves in their child, thus extending their own lives. Through the memories of their children and then grandchildren, they can achieve the closest thing possible to immortality.
And so, whether we are conscious of them or not, these four very powerful fears drive us to make babies as a form of psychological and emotional protection. Taking into consideration these very primal fears, I believe that not having children is the more difficult decision. It’s not selfish at all, but perhaps in some ways even more courageous.
We each have a limited amount of time and attention to give to the people and activities we love. When more people and activities vie for our time and attention, we have to ration both. There is no doubt that children require copious amounts of both time and attention. By not having a child, I have more hours in the day, and more mental and emotional reserve (not to mention a little more patience and tolerance) for my husband, my family, and my friends, as well as the time, focus, and vigor required to write and do the things that make my heart sing.
Having seen the mechanisms of fear animating the biological clock, I now know that with or without children, we all have to face the unavoidable fact that this wonderful thing called “our lives” will end. Rather than seek comfort in an adorable cherub of a life preserver, my hope is to do a better job loving those in my life right now, to be brave enough to embrace aging with grace, to sit with grief and loneliness when it’s time to exit, and to march with conviction to the beat of my own drum.
If I’m lucky, maybe some of my words and the ripple effect of my good deeds will live on when I’m gone.