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.

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