Women Choosing to Go Childless: Your Thoughts

Readers react to The Atlantic's review of an essay collection that tackles the question, "Is it selfish to forgo kids?"

Lauren Giordano / The Atlantic

Sophie Gilbert's review of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, triggered an avalanche of comments from readers—nearly 4,000 in Disqus alone. And Sophie told me she's never received so many tweets and emails on a piece, with most of the praise coming from women and all of the vitriol coming from men. Below are many of your best comments on the subject of procreation and the stigmas surrounding it. First, a snippet from Sophie's review:

[A]s a collection of manifestos, it’s hugely significant. It won’t influence anyone hell-bent on children away from having them, nor will it dissuade people who feel eternally conflicted about the subject. But what it does, more crucially, is refuse to accept the perpetuation of the myths that have surrounded childbirth for the last 200 years—that women have a biological need to procreate, and that having children is the single most significant thing a person can do with his or her life, and that not having children leaves people sad and empty.

This reader doesn't seem sad at all:

I always knew I wasn't going to have babies of my own. My mom got pregnant at 18, had three babies by the time she was 21 and two more after that. She was unhappy a lot of the time. She often told us, "Don't get married young, don't have kids." This was a warning to us that if we did, we would be similarly unhappy in life.

I also always knew I was going to college, no matter what. I was the first person in my family to do so. I did get married at 22 but my husband knew my position on kids. I said if the time ever came when I wanted them, there were enough kids available through adoption, already looking for parents. I had a tubal ligation at 23, after having to spend several sessions with a psychologist to make sure I understood the permanence of the procedure and that no on was forcing me to do it.

30 years later, I have no regrets. And I have lots of nieces and nephews if I need to see a cute baby.

And for all my fellow childless uncles out there, a quick tribute:

From the other side of the divide, this dad posted one of the most up-voted comments:

Well, I am not a woman, but I will say that fathering and raising my children was not only the most important but also the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life.

Another top commenter was kgasmart, countering essayist Lionel Shriver:

"Did I have fun" is not what I'll be asking myself on my deathbed. It's, "Did my life have meaning?" ...

Look, children may be lots of things, but children are love. It may not have been that way in your family, but I love my own children in a way I have never and could never love other human beings. And the love of my children for me—the way my 5-year-old son puts his head on my shoulder when he's tired; the way my 8-year-old daughter blows me kisses at bedtime—I would have been a far poorer man without these things, regardless of where I might have traveled or who else I might have met.

So I may miss exciting things by having kids; I'm sure of it. I would suggest those who opt for those exciting things over kids are also missing something. ...

I'm not suggesting I'm "better" than anyone. I am, however, saying that there is a fundamental difference between human beings who have experienced parenting and those who haven't. I believe there is a difference in how they understand the concept of love and sacrifice.

But much of the commentary coalesced around the counterpoint that having kids is the selfish choice. Here's Phranqlin:

Plenty of people have kids who really shouldn't have. Some feel it's expected of them. Some are careless or clueless about sex. Some want to satisfy their own emotional needs for unconditional love and social approval. Some do so out of narcissism. And some are simply too immature, violent, or damaged to be successful parents.

In other words, having kids can be a selfish choice. It would be better for everyone involved if these folks had enough insight, self-knowledge, and personal responsibility to realize that they should not have children.

I say this as the parent of two children. I've wanted to eventually get married and have children ever since I was young and knew I was taking on a huge responsibility by becoming a parent. It is not as easy as it looks to be a good parent, and it requires commitment and sacrifice. You are no longer the center of your life. You have to realize that your children will grow into independent, autonomous human beings. While you are responsible for their health, safety, and welfare, they are not you; they have lives, hopes, and dreams that are independent of yours.

One reader with the self-knowledge to skip kids is Zenmon:

I have deliberately avoided having children out of purely selfish motives and I am unashamed of saying so: I don't want the hassle, I don't want the responsibility, I don't want the worries, I don't want to feel obliged, I don't want to be held back.

I see me friends with children, how they slave, how they tire, how they grow old so much faster than I do, how they are emotionally torn when their marriages fail, how they are being blackmailed by their ex-partners using the kids as negotiating chips. I see and hear the screaming kids around me, I see them as a nuisance. I want to tell all the parents who cannot control their offspring to get a bloody grip, tell them that with their choice comes the responsibility which they are so often happy to throw at "society".

I was so lucky to find a young woman, who is now almost a middle-aged woman, who felt exactly the way I do. We have a great life, we laugh, we spend time together, we take care of each other, we are attentive of each other in ways I never see our friends who have children be.

Libby Hunter has an interesting twist on the "selfish" question:

How about the women who don't think they would make good mothers because they were too damaged by their own mothers, who wanted children but were emotionally and/or physically abusive? These may be brave women who sacrifice their desire for children to end the cycle of abuse. People should stop shaming women for such difficult and courageous and lonely decisions.

Luke Stanek thinks of the lonely children:

I think it's selfish to HAVE children when you can adopt. There are limited resources in the world, and there are millions of children who need a parent. So adding another hungry, resource-consuming mouth to the world is neglecting one already born, already in need.

Here's how Marty frames the debate over procreation's impact on Mother Earth:

Not having children because you don't want to (the Lionel Shriver rationale) is a perfectly reasonable stance.

Not having children because human beings are a cancer on the earth, etc etc, is a much more problematic position. Second and Third World populations, as well as fundamentalist populations in the First World (especially Mormons and Muslims) will grow whether or not Sophie Gilbert has any children. If you don't want to have children, then don't. If you think you're doing your part to save the earth by going without, you're mistaken, and you might be missing out on something you would have enjoyed.

Sophie responds to Marty:

I agree that not having children because you don't want to is "a perfectly reasonable stance." But my thinking as regards to the problem of overpopulation is a little more complex. Obviously, I don't think that children are any kind of cancer on the earth, nor do I think that babies themselves are parasites (that particular word and that analogy in my piece was used somewhat in jest, although from the comments and the emails I've received, it certainly seems like people found it extraordinarily offensive, for which I'm sorry).

But for people who feel a degree of anxiety about the state of the planet—who interpret the drought in California and the earthquakes in Oklahoma and the extreme weather all over the globe as a sign that perhaps things aren't quite right—there can perhaps be a reluctance not only to bring another person into an overburdened world, but also to bring another person into a world whose future seems to be more precarious than perhaps it ever has been.

I remember my mother telling me she had a sense of anxiety about this back in the late '70s, before I was born, and that in having children, she felt like she was expressing a sense of hope for the future. But if it's hard to feel that sense of hope that things will get better, then choosing not to have children is certainly understandable.

From west_coast_ange:

Honestly, the whole "I'm helping save the planet" thing is just pushback against the selfish charge. It's an attempt to demonstrate how absurd that charge really is. Because one could easily flip the insult and proclaim those who say, give birth to nineteen-kids-and-counting, are the selfish ones.

But cw84 wonders:

I am a bit out of the loop because I'm a man, but how bad are these maternal pressures really? I'm not saying they don't exist, I'm just seriously curious. Is it mostly moms? Really other people/friends? A feeling of what people must be thinking based on what you see on social media?

It seems to me that the best approach is live and let live, and try to live your choices without insecurity. Some of the smugness mentioned in the article really seems like insecure defensiveness.

Some smug from the comments section:

Essayist Laura Kipnis stated that the more education people get, the less children they have. If this is true, than logic demands that the less education people have, the more children the have. So intelligent people are in fact being selfish in the respect that they are directly contributing to furthering the ignorance of society as a whole. Anyone see the movie Idiocracy?

This is where we are headed if more smart people don't reproduce and keep intelligence in the collective gene pool.

Moving along, SAlfin speculates that the decline of motherhood is due to the rise of helicopter parents:

I'm thinking this is a backlash to a style of intense parenting (mothering?) that didn't really exist two generations ago. Oddly, with women attaining higher levels of education and working outside the home more, the expectations for mothers have actually increased, not decreased.

One would expect that the more responsibility one has to a full-time job, we'd make it OK for women to outsource some of the childcare, or at least have a more equitable division of labor between Mom and Dad. Instead, it's just the opposite: women are expected to breastfeed for six months or more, they are expected to supervise their child's every waking moment, they are expected to manage a schedule of playdates, enrichment activities, and school volunteerism, and they are expected to cheer on the sidelines of every single soccer practice and weekend game. And of course, the prepping for college these days starts early and is practically a full-time job unto itself. This is on top of parents' paying jobs—and we wonder why they can't cope with the endless To Do List and why women drop out of the workforce if they can afford to? Or that young women are opting out of motherhood altogether?

In my parents' day, the focus was on what made the lives of the adults easier or more convenient; the kids were sent out to play with their friends and to camp for the whole summer! I don't think my working mother ever set foot onto my school grounds, with the exception of attending performances, teacher conferences, and/or award ceremonies. She never once came to one of my softball games after school—she was working! This was not unusual; it wasn't like I was the only kid whose parents weren't present—nobody did this, so I didn't think it was a big deal.

I think we're due for a pendulum swing in the other direction. Instead of opting out of child-rearing, I think dialing back the pressure on women to mother with such intensity is warranted, and probably a lot healthier overall.

In a later comment, SAlfin continues to reflect on the Good Ol' Days:

I just though of another reason why women might be opting out of motherhood: really, really bad parenting. Not to sound like an old geezer, but the child-centric model of parenting that today's culture endorses makes for really spoiled, entitled children who run roughshod over their parents—and their parents let them get away with it!

I've never subscribed to the model of parent-as-friend. I think parent as authority figure may be old-fashioned, but it generally turns out more kind, empathetic, and respectful kids. Don't get me wrong: by "authority figure" I don't mean tyrannical. But I do mean less negotiating and more rule-setting, with clear consequences for screwing up, and definitive follow-through with meting out those consequences. Parents today are too concerned about whether or not their kids "like" them, when they really ought to be concerned about whether they respect them.

Kids come around eventually when they start to get older and realize how obnoxious some of their peers have become. My 17-year-old daughter, after having spent some time recently with a poorly behaved kindergartener, came back home, gave me a hug and said "Thank you." "For what?" I asked. "For raising me well and not letting me become a monster."

Meanwhile, a few readers point to another perceived stigma: having just one child. Here's shebaone:

This article says "kids" as in plural. I have noticed that stopping at one is even something that people question. I had the option of "increasing" my progeny and chose not to. Many people seemed to question my decision, as if not wanting to provide a sibling and create a more traditional family was crazy when I had the option to do so. After having one, I felt that was one more than I'd ever planned to have, and it didn't make me warm up to the idea of more.

In fact, each milestone my child achieved seemed like a stepping stone to more freedom. Having another baby, only to struggle through weaning and potty training and picking up MORE Cheerios off the floor, seemed to me a depressing prospect. Yet I watched as everyone around me went to great lengths to ensure their existing children would not be only children.

Jules can relate:

Casual friends and strangers seem to think I am weird to just stop with the one kid. I love my child, but I am fine with one. It's amazing what people will say without any knowledge of the basis of my life decisions. They judge without knowing the four miscarriages, battling with insurance to pay for the care involved, and so on. I am old enough at this point to not want to go through the sleep deprivation, stinky diapers, and re-child proofing.

The final word goes to Skarphace:

Is the decision not to have children selfish? Of course it is. Who in their right mind would want to dedicate 20+ years of their life to tending after somebody else? If you do not want to do this, then it is your right not to.

However, the decision to have children is also selfish. People want to be loved, and the thought of having children who will always love you is a selfish one. The idea of being respected for raising "good" children is a selfish one. The idea of having someone who will be willing to care for you when you get old and frail is a selfish one.

Be selfish, but do not be ashamed. If you do not want to have children, then don't. If you want to have children, then do. It really is that simple.