8.16.2009

follow-up: macleans readers prove me right

In late July, I posted an old essay of mine about choosing to be childfree. This was occasioned by a Maclean's cover story about, as the writer called us, "a tiny but growing minority challenging the final frontier of reproductive freedom: the right to say no to children without being labelled social misfits or selfish for something they don't want."

The main point of my post was how intolerant our society remains of a choice that hurts no one, and in fact strengthens society. Our planet is over-populated, and unwanted children do not make happy and productive citizens. (Note that I said unwanted, not unplanned. There's a universe of difference.)

Maclean's has run a follow-up, not on the story itself but on the incredibly harsh reaction it garnered from readers. Usual warnings about comments apply - double.
We knew "The Case Against Having Kids," the August 3 cover story, would elicit response and debate. But we weren't prepared for the deluge — well over a hundred letters and more than 1,000 comments on Macleans.ca (at last count). Clearly, the subject struck a nerve — and as one email indicates, even a gastrointestinal tract or two: "Disgusted," was its subject line. "It made me nauseous to read the article…in fact, I'm not even sure what was the point of the article aside from promoting yet another fad and the ultimate age of selfishness." [L note: this person is calling my own most personal reproductive decision "a fad"!]

So to recap the point of the article: to examine the small but growing strata of people who are choosing not to have children. . . .

The topic is so new in mainstream discussion that many readers assumed it has to be anti-child—reading "The Case Against Kids," rather than "The Case Against Having Kids." One inflamed letter writer even suggested it's not safe to send trick-or-treating children to my house on Halloween (It is! Honest!). A pregnant woman expressed her displeasure, concerned the article could affect her domestic harmony: "But I have got to say that I, being a mom-to-be for the first time, due in 5 weeks did NOT appreciate my husband being welcomed home after a hard day at work to this headline." Some readers complained the story was one-sided: "I presume you're going to give equal space to "The Case For Having Kids," a reader fumed, as if civilization itself didn't provide that. [L note: "Why isn't there a heterosexual pride day?" "Why isn't there a men's history month?" Look around you!]

Most of the mail came from parents, which isn't surprising: despite declining fertility rates in Western society most people do have and continue to have children. Many wrote to testify that being a parent is the most wonderful and gratifying experience life has to offer — the corollary being that those who opt out are deficient somehow. Chris Boyd, who writes that he has one young child after years of thinking children weren't for him, summed up the sentiment: "I now feel genuinely sorry for those who focus on their selfish existence too long and end up lonely and bored and childless," he wrote, adding: "Oh, and number two is due in December, I guess our lives are over based on 40 Good Reasons to Not Have Children. Really, I could give you 100 reasons you should."

Ironically, such judgment is at the very core of the stigma felt by those who are childless by choice: The fact they don't want what so many people desperately want, that they're opting out of an experience frequently described as life's most profound, makes them suspect; they're viewed as social outliers or "selfish."

One email referred to people without kids as "living a 'lifestyle' of barren self-gratification." Yet that wasn't my observation researching the story. Many people who choose not to have children had given thoughtful, careful (sometimes anguished) consideration to the decision. They were acutely aware that parenting is an experiment, one they cannot control, and they weren't willing to take the risk for varied reasons. Others just knew intuitively from a young age that they weren't cut out for parenting. As one woman told me: "I don't think I could be the kind of mother my children would deserve."

There's a reflexive assumption, it seems, that people don't have kids because they want more stuff — bigger plasma TVs, holidays, a SubZero fridge. Reader Melanie Wallace echoed another viewpoint, one voiced by childless people I spoke with: that she believes she can make a greater social contribution if she didn't have children. "I, too, do not feel the 'calling' to parenthood, and very much appreciated your efforts to help your readers understand that those of us who choose to remain child-free are not narcissistic ego-maniacs," she wrote. "On the contrary, we are often giving back to the world as much as any traditional parent. Through choosing not to parent biological children, I have found that I have the time, energy and resources to "nurture" the world and the people already in it in new and creative ways."

Some expressed gratitude that Maclean's was addressing the topic and hoped that it would foster greater understanding — and result in less pressure being placed on those who don't want children to have them. One woman wrote: "Many people seem to think that they are entitled to give me their two-cents worth on my decision not to bear children. I hope this article enlightens the public as to how rude, inconsiderate and ignorant their comments are."

(The tone of some of the mail suggested they weren't imagining the censure: "Bravo to those brave child-free couples," one reader wrote. "If they fail to see how their genetic seed could possibly enrich this world, I for one, do not want their progeny either. Perhaps they should go one step further and voluntarily sterilize themselves, lest they change their minds once that biological clock starts ticking.")

A few parents even shared what they feel unable to say publicly: that had they to do it again, they wouldn't. One woman wrote: "Parenting is full of worry, upset and grief. A lot of doors close when you have a child. Yes, the good tends to outweigh the bad. I love my kids and would give my life to protect them, but if I could turn back the clock and go back? I'd have chosen to be child-free. I glad to know after reading your article I'm not the only one."

An educator wrote in to voice her support. "As a society, we should applaud these people," she wrote. "Too often, over my 20 years as a teacher, I have taught children who are 'raised' by parents who obviously regret having had kids. Those are the parents who have no patience or time to spend with their children. They are the ones who resent their kids, let the teachers do the raising, and then blame us when their children are a disappointment to them."

Story here. Thanks to James for alerting me.

11 comments:

impudent strumpet said...

"If they fail to see how their genetic seed could possibly enrich this world, I for one, do not want their progeny either. Perhaps they should go one step further and voluntarily sterilize themselves, lest they change their minds once that biological clock starts ticking."

I'd love to! Why don't you round up your Think Of The Children lobby and help advocate for sterilization on demand?

Steve said...

I get the sense from a lot of people that they want, you, dear reader, to be as miserable as they--whether it's the crap they put up with at work, or the amount of time they have off, or the sometimes struggle they have in having children, they want you to experience and be the same.

Bev said...

It is a fascinating discussion and I as a 30 some year advocate for parents have read both your and the Macleans commets with great interest and endorse both views actually. Those who do not want to have children should not feel badly for their decision and some close friends of mine are wonderful assets to the community both in their professions and as neighbors, without having borne offspring. I have to say though that the 'walk a mile in my shoes' reservation may be applicable to both sides. Each feels hard done by by 'society' and this may mean society is also of two minds. And by the way, choosing to not have children is not a new idea. It has been the voluntary or just circumstantial fact of the lives of adults all through history. Birth control is evidence of the strong desire some have to not bear young and we've always had some sort of birth control. It must be noticed however that society itself needs someone to have children or it will end. That being admitted, we need to respect those who do, even to the point of tax breaks because raising kids is a tough tough slog. Worth it, but not easy.

L-girl said...

I get the sense from a lot of people that they want, you, dear reader, to be as miserable as they

I agree! I think a lot of it is that.

L-girl said...

It is a fascinating discussion and I as a 30 some year advocate for parents have read both your and the Macleans commets with great interest and endorse both views actually.

Both views? One view is "I want to live my life the way I choose, please allow me to do so without judgement". That is the case for all people, whatever their repro choices.

The other view is "How dare you live your life in way different than mine! You are mean, selfish, misguided, etc."

The two views are not to have children or not to have children. Child-free people are not trying to talk people out of having children.

Each feels hard done by by 'society' and this may mean society is also of two minds.

People who have children - the vast majority - feel hard done by society? In what way?

And by the way, choosing to not have children is not a new idea.

Of course not. But it is relatively new to consciously, purposely, choose to remain child-free for life, and to discuss it openly and unapologetically as a legitimate choice.

Birth control is evidence of the strong desire some have to not bear young and we've always had some sort of birth control.

Birth control is evidence of the need to plan when and how many children to have. Most parents have used birth control at some time in their lives.

It must be noticed however that society itself needs someone to have children or it will end.

We are in no danger of that ever happening. Those who choose to be childfree will always be in the minority.

That being admitted, we need to respect those who do

Do you see any evidence of lack of respect for parents?

deang said...

The assertion that consciously child-free couples are a "growing" phenomenon goes against my impression in recent years (meaning the last, say, decade). Maybe it's just because of where I live in the States, but it seemed to me that during the late 70s, the 80s, and the early 90s there was more a tendency than there is today for couples to choose childlessness. Back then, it was often explicitly for ecological reasons of overpopulation, destructive levels of consumption and pollution in wealthy countries, etc. I hope my impression is wrong and it is actually growing anew.

L-girl said...

I have a feeling "Bev" is a hit-and-run commenter and has not, will not return to read responses to her post. But it occured to me later how ludicrous her statement about birth control is.

People use birth control because they do not want to get pregnant every time they have sex. They want to be able to enjoy sexual activity without pregnancy.

Almost everyone in modern western society uses some form of contraception at some point in their life. Very few of those people will choose to be childfree, permanently.

Contraception use and choosing to be permanently childfree have about as much in common as playing softball in the schoolyard and becoming a major league baseball player.

L-girl said...

Dean, I wonder what the stats show - it would be interesting to know. Maybe Guttmacher has some figures on it, or the Population Council.

Also, I thought that part of what the writer described as a "a tiny but growing minority" was being out about the choice. Not just making the choice, but rejecting the negative labels associated with it.

impudent strumpet said...

"But I have got to say that I, being a mom-to-be for the first time, due in 5 weeks did NOT appreciate my husband being welcomed home after a hard day at work to this headline."

This got me thinking. First I was thinking how sad that must be, to be in the process of gestating your baby and to feel like your husband is so uncertain about the decision that his mind could be changed by a magazine article. Then it occurred to me that a lot of people seem to think my mind can be changed by showing me an adorable baby or telling me something cute a child once did. There are people for whom the fact that I can cuddle and squee at a baby then go home and take my birth control pills does not compute, like they can't grok the fact that there's more to it than just a moment of "Awww!"

So maybe there are parental people for whom there isn't more to it than a moment of "Awww!" and maybe the lady in that letter is one of them? So maybe they think my CFness is the result of being on an airplane with a crying baby or something equally transitory?

It also occurs to me that maybe people who want to impose their lifestyle on others are going to be overrepresented in the parental contingent, because you have to want - or at least think it's okay - to impose your lifestyle on others at least to a certain extent to make the decision to become a parent.

Bev said...

Can't we all just respect each other's choices? The sad stories of people who can't be parents who desperately want to be, who accidentally get pregnant and have to abort, who end up raising children who drain all their money and energy and who need a pat on the back that this role does matter and help to hang in there, or those who feel shunned and pressured to have children when that's not in the picture for them.
Social policy should value all adult roles- earning and child-rearing, alone, or together.

L-girl said...

Imp Strump, I agree, it's quite amazing how many people think a Major Life Decision like being childfree could be swayed by something superficial.

About people wanting to impose their choices on others, that's what the majority culture generally does to the minority culture, and choosing CFness will always be in the minority.

Bev, I agree, we should all respect each other's choices. I'm not sure what or who you're responding to, but yes, that would be best. (Why do I get the feeling you're cutting and pasting comments from elsewhere, without actually reading what other people here have written?)