Brian Shea believes that “because I don’t want children” should be every bit as acceptable a response as “because I want them.”
A recent edition of Time Magazine titled “The Childfree Life” profiles adults who decided to forgo children and links the childless with current demographic trends showing that people are having fewer children. The featured adults describe their experiences in terms of “explaining themselves” to friends who question their decision not to have children. In some cases, people who chose to remain childless are viewed as anything from unnatural to even selfish.
The Time piece explores valid questions about this choice–and it is a legitimate choice. But as Salon.com writer Mary Elizabeth Williams rightly observes in her August 1 commentary on the Time story, “the topic of whether or not to be child free is still presented in terms relating almost exclusively to women.” Williams cites one interviewee who describes the “questions of potential regret” she hears from parents as being “generally directed at me–not my husband.” Williams further notes that only one man’s perspective is included in the entire Time cover story.
As a married but childless male–by choice–the Time article resonated with me, but Williams’ more nuanced question echoed my own experience in a way I’d never considered. She’s right: I’ve gotten more of a pass on this point than my wife has. Neither of us should have to apologize for not conforming to others’ definition of normal. But my wife should not have to apologize twice.
At social functions, the question “do you have children?” is inevitable, as are the looks of barely contained astonishment when I say we have none and don’t plan to.
“Why not?” is the typical retort.
At this stage in the conversation, I recognize my old familiar friend: the wrinkle in their forehead as they absorb the notion that I am 44 and have no children. And that I don’t mind.
Their assumption that I should have or want children, and that not having any requires an explanation, is not always judgmental but simply small talk. Much of the time, they don’t really care if I have children any more than I care to hear another story about how advanced their children are for their age. It is the polite but uninterested choreography of party banter as old as language itself.
Just as often, unfortunately, my initial parry is ignored and a longer narrative is expected to explain my childless life. Unsolicited advice quickly follows or the particularly patronizing assurance that someday I will change my mind when I become as wise as they apparently are.
The interrogation my wife endures about children lasts much longer than mine. Her answers to their questions are somehow less acceptable and less understandable than when coming from a man. I’m apparently expected to disappoint and their effort to convert me is abandoned in half the time. In some cases, they even assume my wife must secretly want children but has deferred to my wishes. It’s a startling experience to witness enduring gender-based double standards among people who would insist they are incapable of perpetuating them.
If Time had interviewed more than one man in its profile, however, I’m not sure the magazine would have discovered much difference between the motivations of men and women who choose not to have children. In my experience, there is no separate list of “male” reasons and our motivations are not determined by gender. Women, however, are disproportionately expected to explain them on the cocktail circuit.
Despite the apparent social gap between parents and those who choose not to be, I think parents might be surprised to find that the two groups have more in common than either thought possible. In a very basic way, the motivations of both parents and those without children are rooted in the same instincts that drive any behavior. And, such instincts are organic and difficult to dissect.
I realized this at yet another social gathering in which I conducted a small social experiment. Asked yet again why I didn’t want children, I had a gruesome story queued up about a dashing sword duel in the Himalayas with the leader of an ancient warrior cult. I was victorious, but before I landed the fatal blow on a steep cliff as the morning sun rose, my nemesis, splayed on the blood-covered snow but still gripping his sword, launched a last strike upwards to save his honor. Several of my body parts necessary for reproduction were severed and I remained unable to produce an heir. That, I would explain while sipping my martini, is why I am the last of my kin.
But the person I was chatting with seemed a genuinely unassuming person. When she posed the question, I detected no desire to intrude on my personal life or judge my decisions. I enjoy making the presumptuous and closed-minded uncomfortable when they pry into my private life, but in this case, I saw an opportunity for a real exchange of experiences and views without the overcast of disapproval. I changed my response to spare her a graphic description of my dismemberment.
“You asked me why I didn’t want children,” I said. “Let me ask you this. Why did you want children?”
My new friend blinked several times and it was clear to me that she’d never really thought about how she would articulate her decision. “I just wanted them,” she said. “I’ve always wanted them,” she added, as if that provided further insight.
Her answer was a fair and honest one. She explained that her decision to have children was never something she had considered beyond that. Her husband felt the same way. It just felt right. It was instinct.
One can’t deny that humans have an instinctive desire to reproduce and are rarely asked to explain their reasons for doing so. When parents state that they have children, nobody responds, “Really? Why?” You shouldn’t have to explain the rhythms of Nature or why humans are as subject to them as the wind or the rain.
It may be difficult for parents to understand, but there are those of us who are simply devoid of the instinct to have children and it is as strong as their drive to become parents. Our lack of a baby gene is not because we are selfish and want to spend more time at the beach. It is not because we are too committed to our careers. It is not because we do not appreciate or even understand the emotional joy that children can bring to one’s life.
We understand all of these things much more deeply than most parents probably recognize. People who choose not to have children are not unmoved by the power of human bonds or love. In fact, we value them as much as anyone.
For many of us, the instinct not to have children is derived from the same root wiring that makes us love Mozart or hate cilantro. Science may offer multi-volume studies explaining the reasons, but the truth is, we just love Mozart, hate cilantro, and don’t want children. We can no more provide an objective explanation than one can explain a need for children. And, we should not be expected to explain it any more than parents are expected to justify the natural and joyful need to have them.
“I just wanted them” is the most common answer I hear from parents when I ask. It is an honest reflection of their need to make manifest a love that transcends the ability of any language to quantify.
Those of us without children do not presume to judge those who have them. We even understand them. Reciprocity, therefore, is not an unfair request. We empathize and respect parents who say, “I just wanted them” when explaining why they had kids. And, it’s a good enough answer that shouldn’t require further explanation.
“I just don’t want them” is good enough too.
If it isn’t, at least be gender-neutral in your astonishment that there are people who do not live as you do. My wife will assume you have the best of intentions and will do everything possible to make you feel comfortable. She will not likely tell you that you’re prying
I, on the other hand, have a great story queued up involving a very bloody sword fight in the Himalayas.
Photo by jdhancock / flickr