The Preachers of Parenthood

My friends have begun to breed. Some have children, some are pregnant, some are trying. They are all excited, but I have begun to feel like a heathen in a convent.

I don’t want children myself, and I don’t usually enjoy other people’s children much. But I’m learning to keep all that to myself, because so many people seem compelled to convert me.

When some people discover that I am not down with the parenthood program their inner Jehovah’s Witness surfaces, intent on delivering the Good News. And like Christian evangelists, they have two tactics: first they preach joy, a joy so profound I just can’t imagine it until I have my own children. When that doesn’t work, they tell me I am a sinner, selfish, immature, and destined for the eternal hellfire of a lonely old age.

I’ve heard a couple of theories about these mommy missionaries. Some people who do not want children posit that misery loves company or, in a more nuanced variation on the theme, that my happy, childfree existence undermines the belief of unhappy parents that having children and making the attendant sacrifices is inevitable.

Some parents never did ask themselves whether they wanted to have children; it was simply the next step after marriage. And some of them must regret it, if only in a small, quiet corner of their minds. If having children is the right thing to do – even the only thing to do – they can suppress that regret, because they really had no choice. But if I have a choice, then they did too, and maybe they made the wrong one.

Another theory is that parents are so happy they can’t help but proselytize when they see me making what they believe is a terrible mistake. It is undeniable that many people consider parenting the most rewarding thing they have ever done, but that doesn’t explain why otherwise rational and open-minded people feel compelled to force me to do as they do.

Whatever their motivation, these preachers of parenthood are guilty of extreme arrogance, or at least a lack of imagination. Otherwise, how could they believe that whatever makes them happy will satisfy me as well? It is obvious to the point of triteness that different people have different tastes, and most folks understand that well enough: suburbanites don’t try to convince me to leave New York City, though they might tell me what it is they like about their lawns and attics and isolation; SUV drivers can usually see the thrill of a speedy sports car, though they personally consider Camaros too dangerous and impractical. But when it comes to parenthood, some are convinced that one size fits all.

The most compelling reason I have for not wanting children is that I simply don’t want children. I lack the desire. Babies don’t make me coo or squeal; I don’t fantasize about having my own children. That leaves me with no motivation to do what it takes to be a parent.

And it takes a lot. Sometimes when I am lounging in front of the TV after a long day at work, or completely absorbed in a 900-page novel, or heading out for a spontaneous shopping spree, it occurs to me that if I had a child I would have to be doing something else – driving to soccer practice, or providing the voice for a stuffed animal, or saving money for orthodontia and tuition. Those who want children may be happy to spend their time cleaning up bottoms and apple juice and Legos, but that’s the thing – I don’t want children, so why give up the things I do want?

There are many advantages to lacking the mommy gene, if such a thing exists. I don’t face the family vs. career struggle that so few female professionals manage to resolve to their satisfaction. My husband and I have as much intimacy and spontaneity in our marriage as we did when we first wed, and we don’t have conflicts over carpool schedules, curfews, or whether to send the kids to private school. I have the time and money to learn how to make stained glass or travel to Italy.

I don’t find the threatened disadvantages of not having children particularly persuasive. One popular threat is a lonely old age, but there is little evidence that spending my prime years raising children would improve my final days. My children would be more likely to put me in a nursing home or to live several states away from me than to live across town and bring the grandkids by every weekend. In fact, studies have found that elderly people who affirmatively chose never to have children are just as content as those who reproduced. This makes sense to me – they probably have more money to spend enjoying their retirement, less obligation to stay anyplace they don’t want to be, and maybe even better health thanks to all the child-related stress they missed.

Another threat I sometimes hear is that I am somehow preventing the world from becoming a better place by withholding my offspring from it. The argument, which I have heard far more often than you might expect, is that I would raise children who would share my beliefs and join the forces for good in the universe. But given my liberal politics, my money says that I would wind up with a bunch of fur-wearing Young Republicans. In any case, I wouldn’t want to raise children with the selfish expectation that they would be just like me, because I would be unfairly disappointed in them if they were not.

While I do think there are reasons other people shouldn’t have children (the planet is overpopulated, and Americans consume and pollute more than the citizens of any other country), I don’t expect to convert anyone who feels that powerful, bone-deep longing for children. I just wish that fewer parents believed they could convert me.

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13 thoughts on “The Preachers of Parenthood

  1. Aviv Roth says:

    So true. Welcome back to blogging!

  2. RD says:

    Too bad your kids won’t get to read this….

  3. I think it’s unfortunate that anyone has tried to convince you that you should have children or should want to have children, for any reason. That’s just not true.

    I myself was very ambivalent about having children for several years after I married, for many of the same reasons that you mention, and in typical librarian fashion warily read Of Woman Born and searched databases using the term “whether to have children” for many years before deciding with my husband that, for us, the pros would probably outweigh the cons, and began trying to get pregnant.

    Of course, it took us four years, tens of thousands of dollars, countless doses of Clomid, several rounds of artificial insemination and a last-ditch effort with in vitro fertilization to conceive our first child, which gave us plenty of time to change our minds, and paradoxically (or perhaps not, given how people tend to want most what they can’t have) our desire to have a child only increased with our seeming inability to do so.

    We now have two children (the second was a “surprise” – go figure) and no regrets about starting a family. It’s really not what I expected, however. Perhaps I don’t have the “mommy gene” either, or perhaps I wasted all of my maternal instinct crying and wringing my hands during the whole in/fertility process, but from the moment my first baby finally arrived (via C-section after a planned home birth) I have been repeatedly struck by the surprising ordinariness of the whole experience.

    I never felt that rush of joy and wonder that so many new mothers talk about. Pregnancy was interesting, but uncomfortable, and frankly something I’d prefer not to repeat. And giving birth is pretty incredible, really, when you think about it, but in neither case did I have the deeply spiritual experience I had hoped that it would be.

    When I held my babies in my arms, the sensation resembled relief more than anything else. There we were, finally, the way that it was supposed to be. It always seemed very natural to me, and not in any way extraordinary (even when my second child was born 5 weeks early and weighed less than 5 lbs.)

    And the responsibility of raising another human being reminded me a lot of taking care of pets – at least for the first year or so. I admit that babies are much more demanding than pets, and there were times when I felt like I would never be able to eat a meal, or read a book, or sleep through the night without being interrupted for the rest of my life.

    In truth, now that my children are 3 and 6 years old, there are still relatively few times that I get to do any of those things in peace, and I do look forward to the handful of times a year that I travel for work for a couple of days at a time, shunning business socializing for the quiet and solitude of my own hotel room. But missing sleep and eating cold food is not as big a deal as I thought it would be.

    I’m resisting the urge to launch into all the joys that motherhood has brought me. But the things I’ve learned most from having children are not things that would be impossible to learn otherwise. From the time that the babies graduate from being “pets” to toddlers, they start to develop their own personalities and I’ve been struck by how little influence we may actually have over them in the long run. Mostly, raising children is about learning to live with respect and kindness towards others. And for me, the biggest impact has probably been learning how to live in such a way that I would like others to emulate (something that’s definitely still a work in progress). I hope that I am developing compassion for myself and others when I don’t live up to my own desired standards of parenting and my children’s behavior disappoints me.

    I know that the kind of love and acceptance that I have for my children, even when they’re mean, angry, tired, crabby, needy and annoying even to me has something to do with the way that I’d like to open my heart more to others. So it’s been a good thing, for me.

    But parenthood isn’t for everyone. I’ll admit that soccer bores me to tears. I don’t even like kids’ birthday parties very much and am glad, glad, glad that I have a great child care provider and a decent school system that allow me to work outside of the home half time. I get tired of being responsible for making nutritious meals every evening and picking up after everyone all the time. I am surprised at how much my family has settled into traditional gender roles, and I know that we’re not that uncommon (even among college-educated, feminist parents). Having children didn’t cause this situation, and it doesn’t preclude a more even distribution of work and power in the household, but it does suck up a lot of time and energy that could be channeled into addressing those issues.

    In Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety Judith Warner posits that our society is to blame for the lack of support of families and working mothers. She contrasts our government with that of France that offers mandatory paid maternity leave, state certified high-quality child care and subsidies for families in which a parent chooses to stay home to care for a child. She suggests that the European view of motherhood also allows for a woman to retain more of an identity outside of her role as mother (which, I learned in my pre-conception research, is a primary factor in determining a high level of happiness among women with children).

    What I think matters most to all women is that we listen to our inner voice and follow the path that is most likely to teach us what we most want to know. We are most fortunate when we have partners and friends and families who support us on this quest. Piper and Aviv are lucky. They have chosen a life that suits them well. (And any couple, with or without children, who have managed to maintain the same level of intimacy and spontaneity that they had when they first started dating deserves to be applauded.) It’s fun to visit with them and get to play with cats, instead of kids, once in a while. And it’s always great to think about things in the way that Piper’s writing always makes me do.

    I’m looking forward to following this blog.

  4. sartreisacelticsfan says:

    It’s amazing what solidarity I’ve found with my few happily-childless-nearly-fourty-something friends. And a nice piece of info for the crunchy, loving, advocates of reproduction: the single most environmentally beneficial choice a person can make is not having children.

  5. Rache says:

    A brilliant article, I share your views exactly – at 38, single and childfree I love my life – no stress, no money worries, lots of travel, photography, outings, gardening, motorsport, rock climbing, hobbies, freedom, spontenaity, PEACE AND QUIET. I’d not give it up for the world!!! Yay for Childfree!!!

  6. Scarlett says:

    Thanks for a great article Piper. I always say the most important reason that I don’t want kids…is that I don’t want kids! Also, when people ask “why don’t you want kids?” my favoured response is “for the same reasons that you do”. I hope that makes them think a little bit.

  7. “providing the voice for a stuffed animal, or saving money for orthodontia”…classic!

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  9. [...] has been that it takes courage to be true to oneself against the tide of what I have called the “preachers of parenthood.” Gies’s experience sounds similar — like me, she has been told that she was [...]

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  12. [...] decision than people who choose not to have kids. I hope this encourages the nudges out there to stop telling the childfree that we will regret our decision when it’s too late — like the doctor [...]

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