So, a few days ago Amy posted a link to a news article on our Facebook page. The article summarizes research findings on the relative happiness of parents vs. the childless. The study in question had some interesting findings:
- “…childless couples have happier marriages and feel more valued in their relationships…”
- “…women without children were the least happy with their lives overall…”
- “…mothers were happier than any other group, even if they had troubles in their relationships.”
- “…fathers were twice as likely as mothers to report a lack of sexual intimacy as the biggest problem in their relationship.”
For some reason, this Facebook post really attracted attention from parents, something we haven’t gotten a lot of to date, but which we invite. After all, one of our goals is to make being childfree a generally acceptable choice. That means engaging meaningfully with parents.
Speaking of, while reading and responding to comments on the post, one thing became clear to me. The childfree and parents were often talking past each other. In my experience that means we’re each starting from a different set of assumptions. I did try to discuss this in a couple of comments but admittedly a Facebook comment thread is not all that conducive to getting across more complex ideas. So, I’m taking another stab at it here by trying to address two assumptions that I think are behind the confusion.
Childfree & Parenthood Are Equivalent Choices
Everyone has a choice…to be a parent or not to…
Why can’t we just let people that want to have children have them and those that don’t want them, leave them alone. I think people can be happy either way and you are welcome to choose for yourself.
The previous quotes are comments from parents on our Facebook page. They indicate to me an assumption by these parents that the choices to have children or not to have children are equal, so there really is no issue here. I have two reactions to this.
First, to those parents who feel that the decision not to have children is not an issue, I want to give you a heartfelt thank you. Second, I want to point out that not everyone is like you.
Actually, most people and organizations aren’t like you. In fact our society is overwhelmingly pronatalist. The notion that having children is an unadulterated good and therefore everyone should have them or at the very least, everyone should want to have them, is widely accepted and enshrined. From families to religion to movies and TV to governmental policy to the workplace, society promotes and supports childbearing. Further, the pronatalist position does not allow for any criticism. As a result the childless are to be pitied as their lives must be empty or at least less than they could be. The childfree are actively suspect for making such a decision – What is wrong with them? – and subject to judgment.
In today’s world choosing to have children or choosing childfree are not equivalent choices.
Why Should You Care What Other People Think?
You guys analyze other people’s feelings too much. What matters are your feelings.
You don’t have to explain your decision to anyone. Just smile when they ask when you are having a family and say, I have one thank you. Too stressful to have to defend personal decisions that are no one’s business.
The parents quoted above do allow for the fact that people judge the childfree for their decision. The assumption here though is that it’s just not a big issue and that the problem is solved simply by not caring what those people think about you.
How ‘not caring’ should manifest is unclear. In the quote above, tactfully sidestepping (inappropriate) questions is an option and I can get behind that in a limited number of scenarios. I’ll assume that ignoring people is also an option. If “What matters are your feelings” is true – and by extension, other people’s feelings don’t matter – then I suppose telling people to shove their questions and opinions forcefully up a bodily orifice is also an option. However, whatever form “not caring” actually takes, I have at least two problems with this suggestion.
First, this assumption tacitly allows for people to treat the childfree differently. If you’re a parent, imagine for a minute the following scenario…
While waiting for a flight at the airport, the stranger sitting next to you starts up a conversation and asks where you’re headed. You respond that you’re headed home and that you really hope the flight is on time as you need to be back in time for little Johnny’s recital.
Suddenly the stranger’s lips curls, and with a look of disgust and confusion, says “You have a kid? What were you thinking? You’ll pour love, time, energy, and money into him and in the end your kid will probably just put you in a nursing home and wait for you to die so he can inherit whatever money you have left.”
Leaving you stunned, the stranger walks away saying “You’re going to regret it” .
Parents please re-read the above scenario.
Really, think about it. Consider how this would make you feel.
If this scenario actually happened to a parent, I theorize that most parents would not give the advice quoted above. I believe there would be outrage and the advice would be more in the vein of “You shouldn’t have to take that kind of sh!t from anyone!”
To be crystal clear, the above scenario is only imaginary in so far as it is happening to parent. It’s very real for the childfree – we get this treatment all the time, from strangers, from colleagues, from friends and family. People use words like selfish and self-absorbed. This should not be ok but that it is acceptable to treat the childfree this way illustrates, again, the difference between how our society treats the decision to parent and the decision not to parent.
Second, this assumption implies that there are no, or minor, consequences to not caring what other people think. This is simply not true. Here are some examples of real outcomes of not caring what other people think:
- Alienation from some or all of your family
- Loss of friends
- Exclusion from certain groups, esp. religious
- Ongoing personal pain that comes from having to “grin and bear it” as people including strangers, friends, families, colleagues, and others constantly question and judge your personal decision.
These are clearly not minor consequences.
Supporting the Childfree
At the end of the day, most childfree people really want one simple thing – to have their childfree decision respected. If you’re a parent who wants to support childfree people in your life, or maybe more importantly, be supportive of those making the decision whether or not to become parents, there are some things you can do. The best place to start is to realize that the childfree do face bias for their choice and then not be part of it. Some simple examples include:
- Don’t assume everyone has or wants children and be ok with that. It’s not a judgement on your choice to have children.
- Don’t harass your children to ‘give you grandkids’ (or your sister/brother to give you ‘nephews/nieces’ or someone else’s kid to give their parents grandkids). No one owes anyone children. Instead encourage people to actively think through the ramifications of having children and to fully commit if that’s what they want.
- It’s fine to ask if someone has kids (see bullet one). It’s not fine to ask if ‘they have a family’ meaning ‘do you have kids’. My wife and I are a family. We don’t need kids to be one.
- If someone doesn’t have kids, find something else to talk about. You do have a life beyond your kids so share something about it. Also, showing interest in someone else’s life is always kind as well.
- ADVANCED: At work, just because someone doesn’t have children doesn’t mean they aren’t busy. Don’t expect them to put in more time or to work around your kid’s schedule. Their time is as precious as yours.