July 18, 2014
I am 32-years-old, I will have been married ten years this August, and I don’t have kids, “yet.” At least, that’s what I’d tell you if I wanted the ensuing conversation to be brief. If I wanted to maintain the pace and energy of casual conversation in the supermarket, at a holiday barbeque, or sitting on an airplane, I would hear your inevitable inquiry into my reproductive past and respond, “nope, not yet!”
If you had already learned the age of my marriage you might twinkle your eyes a bit and give an earnest,“good for you,” “my husband and I waited and it turned out just fine,” or “lots of people are waiting longer these days.”
We then would be free to navigate to different topics, search out our common ground, and speak more freely about politics, literature, or religion – just not my reproductive choices.
But, I don’t think I’ll get away with such a conversational sleight-of-hand here on Look Both Ways, a forum for transparent, non-judgmental conversations.
Here I will state the whole truth: I don’t have children yet, nor do I ever intend to have children. My wife and I envision a childless life, stretched out past middle-age, retirement, old-age, and death. This is the life we plan for and choose every day. Never being a father. Never being a mother. Childless.
Do you see why I don’t mention this at parties? Did it send a chill down your spine? Did the news fill you with emptiness? Sorrow? Judgment? (Envy?)
It certainly fills me with all of those feelings from time to time. If sharing my story helps to generate acceptance and tolerance for this life choice, great. Nevertheless, I don’t expect to present this abnormal choice with such stirring humanity as to pass it off as “normal”. The best statistic I could find states that in 2002 women aged 40-44 (the presumptive end of childbearing years) were 6% childless by choice (another 6% were involuntarily childless, and 2% voluntarily childless but planning for children). That makes us childless-by-choicers a minority of a minority.
Most of my intersecting identities place me firmly in categories of privilege. I am of European descent. I am male. I am heterosexual. I rarely have occasion to reflect on the subtle disadvantages I might experience due to my membership in a group of disproportionate underrepresentation (and those I do belong to can hardly be described as disadvantaged).
In contemplating my exposure of the silent suffering of “my people” I did have the inclination to wail a bit. To grab your attention by leading with the pain of my childlessness, and frame my wounds as being salted by the insensitivities of a society of rampantly procreating oppressors. Seriously, I did. But then I stumbled on this radical, lighthearted blogpost on a friend’s Facebook page, which makes some great points, and made me hope to achieve a different goal – conciliation rather than discord; understanding rather than blame; and honesty, rather than sensationalism. Please wish me luck.
In that light, let’s take a look at the common assumptions often made about the voluntarily childless.
Assumption #1: “You must hate kids”.
So, the combative, adversarial point to make here is to share the fact that when you make this assumption about me it hurts my feelings. Please stop. It denies one of the deepest parts of my humanity, you know, that thing that we share?
Honestly, only a few times come to mind when a friend or close acquaintance has said this explicitly, i.e., “it was sooo cute, oh, never mind, I know you don’t like kids”.
Many other times this assumption is tacit, and evident only by inference, as when someone stops talking about children when I come into the room, or looks away from me and toward a “reproductive ally” (trademark pending) when saying something about children or parenthood.
On the other hand, the conciliatory approach (the one I prefer) is for me to say, “Hey, I know this is uncomfortable and you don’t mean to exclude me. Life is short, let’s not worry about policing our language. If you slip up and say such a thing, I already forgive you. I’m sure I say some insensitive things, and the truth is that this difference in experience is pretty fundamental to our lives, and can’t help but inform the way we talk to each other…
… and I happen to adore children, asshole.”
How does that sound?
Assumption #2: You are selfish.
This one is TOUGH, because it is one I worry about myself.
A month or two ago I was turning the compost with a pitchfork. I hadn’t turned it all winter. There was some nice fluffy compost at the bottom, but for the most part things weren’t breaking down much.
It was strange to pull up such well-preserved carcasses of the garden from last year. A boney spine of a tomato plant. A slimy stalk of a broccoli plant. I still could recall chucking them in there, five or six months prior. Why were they still recognizable?
I knew that by exposing new surfaces to the air I was hurrying their breakdown. I have little scientific understanding of this process, but in my imagination there were little bacteria floating around in the air, waiting to munch and decompose the buried vegetation. I felt like I was turning the vegetable bodies over and bathing them in a kind of death energy. Coating them in some invisible elixir that would make them evaporate and vanish. And I wondered, what makes me impervious to this soup of destruction.
Even though it was based on a childlike understanding of reality, the connection was very real. We commune with nature in many ways. I felt alive and connected to the planet in that moment.
The truth is, however it works, death rides everything. Waiting to claim us all. The creator and the destroyer, the circle of life. And the only thing that fills the void is the spark of life. If not for the frantic yearning to give life, the very real anguish of instinct and love faithfully felt and acted upon by an unbroken string of ancestors too numerous for me to conceive of, I would not be here.
What the hell am I doing?! Throwing this gift in their faces? I am indebted. The only way to repay this unspeakable gift of life is to give it to another, to continue the chain. To preserve that fragile little spark, faintly glowing in the darkness of a universe that is expanding, losing heat, and erasing order everywhere it happens to spring up. Procreation is my only purpose. I am made for reproduction. I have one spark of life to propagate before death gobbles me too.
I won’t rationalize away these struggles. They are real and life-long. But I will lob this rhetorical question into the air for you to consider, with as little agenda inside of it as I can manage: How do we balance this form of selfishness - my ancestral impudence - against the qualitatively different, but equally real impact that parents of four, five, six, or more children have on our “tiny blue dot” of finite resources, already burdened by 7.2 billion people? Who is being selfish here?
Assumption #3: You’ll change your mind, eventually.
I would like to recommend that when a person declares him or herself to be childless by choice that we think of the possibility of him changing his mind as no less momentous than a parent losing a child (the emotional characteristics being on a whole different planet, obviously). That is the depth of seriousness I would like to see given to this life choice. After all, when someone tells us that they had a baby, we would never think, “You’ll change your mind, eventually.”
However, the analogy is all kinds of yucky, and despite that, may be fundamentally flawed. As much as I would like to ask for parity, parenthood and voluntary childlessness will just never be the same in this respect. That is the blessing and curse of this choice, how imminently reversible it is. A person who chooses childlessness will always live under a thundercloud of “yet.”
But why go rubbing our faces in it? Clearly, to imply that this is “just a phase”, or a whim too transient to discuss is wildly invalidating (and again, hurts my feelings (can you hear the wailing?)).
Yes, this assumption is annoying when others make it, but its power is mostly an internal struggle. For me, transitioning into “manhood”, whatever that means to each of us, was massively complicated by childlessness. It must be such a natural transition to become a father in order to become a man. I imagine it must change your self-concept as drastically as it changes your relationship to your own parents, to your spouse, to your co-workers, and just about everyone. For the childless no such signal guides us into adulthood.
And if we keep our eye on that cloud of “yet” we might just stay in arrested development forever. Always being our parents’ son or daughter, never transitioning those roles (lots of developmental psychology theories on this).
What is the natural life course of us aberrations? We are unnatural.
I could fill as many pages as I have already, just unpacking the potent implications of the word “unnatural” in this context, “Childlessness is unnatural.”
Besides that, there are many other assumptions about voluntary childlessness that I could explore, but I think I’ve made my point.
I’d like to close by simply pointing out how damn hard it is for us to wrap our heads around the notion of choice at all. It is so easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a person makes a big choice like whether or not to have children because of something he or she IS. Some static trait that defines that person. But I’m no different than you in the ways that matter. I anguish at the void of childlessness as deeply as you would. I revel in its freedoms with as much glee as you might hope.
We are all on this planet together, all thrown into this life without an instruction manual, and all fighting the same existential fights. Your parenthood is part of my humanity. I hope my childlessness is part of yours. We each hear the call to make our ancestors proud, to leave the world more filled with life than death, in one way or another. Let’s share the joys and pain of parenthood and childlessness with each other, without assuming too much about each other based only on this choice that each of us must make.
Greg Arnold resides in Fort Collins, CO with his lovely wife, 3 cats, 1 dog, and thousands of pet bees. He holds an MA degree in Counseling Psychology. Under the employ of Psychotherapy.net he works with universities to integrate the inspiring real work of expert therapists-on-video into the teaching and training of the next generation of great psychotherapists. In his spare time he is the proud creator of Daily Becoming, a “hub for humanism and citizen science.”