Monday, June 14, 2010

The Case for Being Child-Free

This is a precis of the MacCleans magazine article, "The Case Against Having Kids." with my thoughts interspersed.

Having kids is overrated:
  • Having kids is a career killer. Any honest parent will acknowledge that they devote less time and energy to work after becoming parents. Employers know it too, so they're less likely to hire and promote parents, especially moms because they, on average, want to spend more time with the children, self-efficacy inhibiting helicopter mom or not. The term "mommy track" exists for a reason.
  • Having kids burdens coworkers. When a parent says she wants to leave work early to see her kid's soccer game or drive her to ballet, let alone take the 12 weeks per year of allowed Family and Marriage Leave, her child-free coworkers must often pick up the slack. So child-free workers subsidize "the breeders," as author of No Kids: 40 Good Reasons to Not Have Children, Corinne Maier calls them.
  • Having kids is a relationship killer. It stresses a marriage, dampens sex life, and impedes friendships both because of unavailability and because parenthood tends to turn one into a one-track-mind bore: it's all about the kids. Many moms admit that being a parent "turned my brain into mush."
  • Having kids is anti-environmental. Greenies assert that overpopulation in developed nations is the #1 environmental problem. British journalist Polly Vernon writes, "Spare me the pretensions of martyrdom and selflessness. There’s nothing selfless about having a baby. “You really want to be selfless? Adopt."
  • Having kids often means giving up on yourself. Maier writes, “Children are often used as an excuse for giving up on life without really trying. It takes real courage to say ‘Me first.'"
  • Kids aren't as reliably a source of joy as is advertised. Maier calls labor, “torture,” and breastfeeding “slavery.” Even the best kids are wildly difficult, especially birth to two. And large percentages of kids get more difficult as they get older: trouble with school, drugs, pregnancy, and the common "I Hate You!" syndrome, which only sometimes ends after adolescence.
Many parents count on their children to take care of them in their old age. In fact, so many kids are estranged from their parents. I know more than a few adult children who'd like to see their parents dead.

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, reports that childless marriages are happier and that people derive more satisfaction from eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television than taking care of their kids: “Looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework." Ann Landers famously asked readers: “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” Seventy per cent of respondents said “no.
  • Having kids wastes education. For example, women now represent half of medical students yet most women physicians who have children work part-time if at all. With the shortage of doctors, that means that patients are dying or staying sicker longer because of the lack of doctors. If medical schools considered applicant's likelihood of having children, many lives would be saved. But fear of women's groups' ire precludes that.
  • Having kids is wildly expensive. It costs an average American $500,000 per child, not counting college. Maier describes kids as "money pits."
So it's not surprising that in today's era in which more women have rich career and avocational lives and so needn't rely on children as their life's main reward, the U.S. National Center of Health Statistics reports that the number of American women of childbearing age who define themselves as child-free is up 50% since 1982. And the more educated the woman, the more likely a woman is to choose to be child-free.

Maier advises, "If you really want to be host to a parasite, get a gigolo.”

The book I think is best on being child-free is Two is Enough: A Couple's Guide to Living Childless by Choice.


Maureen Nelson said...

It is tough to be child-free in this world but so worth it. Growing up, I was constantly told, "You'll change your mind when you're older." I kept wondering how old I'd have to be before I'd quit hearing that. Eighty? (It finally stopped in my 40s.) When I gave all the reasons I didn't want kids (noise, diapers, mess, expense), people would say, "It's different when they're your own."

I never was drawn toward children, never baby-sat and never desired love from a child. I feel completely fulfilled without kids and am able to put time into the things that are important to me, like my career. Yet I was ridiculed by family, friends and strangers for my stance.

At 21, I went to Planned Parenthood for assistance in having a tubal ligation done. They refused because, in their opinion, I was too young to know my own mind. I can vote, drink, serve in military, etc., but I can't have my tubes tied? I went on the pill instead, which raised my blood pressure so high that that became a problem. I finally got my surgery at age 27, but I will never forgive Planned Parenthood for discouraging someone who wanted to do a really good thing for the world.

j said...

What about the dilemma facing Europe today? The same practice appears to have left Europe to be inherited by Muslim immigrants.

Anonymous said...

And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. -Desiderata

Anonymous said...

I am interested to see Marty posting this given his oft-stated concern about immigration.

If folks in the US stop having kids in droves, the economy truly fails. Our economy requires continuous population growth to feed the Ponzi scheme.

If lots of current US residents go childfree or simply elect to have only one or two kids, we stop replacing population. The government will have to become more and more open about inviting new immigrants, and particularly new immigrants from cultures that are more fecund, to keep the influx of kids coming.

In fact, given that the number of childfree couples and couples with few children has increased a great deal, perhaps this is already going on, quietly supported by both government (need to run social security and need workers to provide geriatric care) and business (need to fill the worst jobs, like changing grumpy old guys' diapers.)

I am childfree, but I am aware that as a childfree person I may well be putting a net drain on society.

My choice and similar choices by folks like me are driving a demographic shift.

Personally, I'm fine with that shift and am happy to encourage it.

But I had though that you were very unhappy about it?

Marty Nemko said...

I'm interested in net benefit to the world. And I believe more child-free people, en toto, would benefit the world.

By the way, I do not accept the contention that America would need to import more people if our birthrate went down. I agree that a consumption-centered society is ultimately a Ponzi scheme. I'd like to see a less materialism-centered society.

Jeffrie said...

In these discussions on whether or not women should pursue career, parenthood, or both, the viewpoint I hold never seems to come up.

I am single & child-free. I grew up in a family where many of my relatives had children early, and I had to look after a lot of them at times. This made me come to an important realization: I did not have the necessary tools to properly raise a child.

Why is this viewpoint never raised? Do potential parents ever stop and think about whether they can provide what one child needs, let alone several of them? It's not just money. You also need to give love, support, & caring. You need to give a lot of your time, and make time where you previously thought there was none. You nee to become a teacher, because your child is constantly learning. And you need to have a lot of patience.

I can't give a child what it needs. If I could, I might be a mother now. For me, it's never been about "child or career."

If more people stopped to think whether they could provide for a child before they had sex, the world's population might not be so rapidly approaching the 7 billion mark.

Marty Nemko said...

Excellent comment, Jeffrie.

Anonymous said...

"....people derive more satisfaction from eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television than taking care of their kids."
How sad. My four (now in their teens and 20s) bring their dad and me great pleasure.

"Children are often used as an excuse for giving up on life without really trying. It takes real courage to say ‘Me first.'"
"Me first" is the definition of selfishness, not courage.

"...childless marriages are happier."
Sorry, 31 years and counting, and we're hoping for at least 60 before we check out.

"It costs an average American $500,000 per child, not counting college."
Beans. We raised our four on less than 70K annually (and less than 50K most years.) And that was in the Chicago area, which isn't cheap.

"....the more educated the woman, the more likely a woman is to choose to be child-free."
Not this college grad.

I do agree that anyone who doesn't want children shouldn't have them. But preferring to be "child-free" doesn't make you some kind of genius; the self-congratulatory tone seems a bit over the top.

BTW, my kids are paying into that Ponzi scheme that supports many of you. You should thank them.

A breeder

ALP said...

My "childfree" cred: tubes tied at age 27 (approx. 1988). Thus, I have followed this parent vs. childfree debate for over 20 years.

Let me tell you - if I had to pick the more selfish, annoying, tiresome side of the fence, it is definitely the childfree side.

I used to participate and be a member of on-line childfree communities. But I stopped participating after a short time - I was utterly disgusted by some of the whiny, spineless attitudes I found there. I knew the "victim mentality" had come full circle when people without children began to whine about their "plight". I have never, NEVER encountered a more unpleasant, insecure group of people. Unpleasant in that most cannot tolerate even a moment in a room with a LAUGHING child without running to the internet to complain; insecure in that they are so utterly DESPERATE for everyone to approve of their choice - EVERYONE! Every mild off-hand comment by a total stranger ("you don't want kids? You are selfish")sends most childfree folks whimpering to their support group for validation ("Wah, the new girl at work called me selfish"). Folks like Maureen Nelson personify this attitude by her opening statement: "It is tough to be child-free in this world..." Give. Me. A. Friggin. Break. Folks like Maureen need to grow a damn spine, forget what other people think, and get on with her life...despite it being SO VERY HARD!

BTW: Maureen, if I was a Dr. - I would not tie the tubes of 21 year old girls either without having them sign copious documents releasing me from any and all liability in the future and making them 100% sure I'd sue the crap out of THEM if they came back to me wanting it reversed. YOU may have been sure, but I doubt a doctor wants the potential lawsuit on their record.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Marty. As a 30 year-old woman, I'm often asked when/if I'll have kids. When I reply that I do not want to bear children (or adopt for that matter), inevitably the follow up question is, "why not?". Here are my reasons:

1) I love to work, and like you I feel that working hard is a noble pursuit. In today's world, there's no way I could work a 70- or 80-hour week and raise a child. I'm a military officer and my work requires a lot of travel (especially overseas); moreover, my colleagues (men included) with children are constantly torn between developing a career and getting home early to see the kids.

2. I used to be a high school English teacher, and I have witnessed firsthand just how terrible this generation of parents has raised their children--and I believe it is only going to get worse. Many (not all) children are truly cruel. I refuse to allow someone else's bad parenting to come into my house and reverse my good intentions. Sooner or later kids start following the examples set by their friends, not their parents. I know that I just don't have the will to deal with this plague.

3. I don't have the patience or the desire to be a "helicopter" parent. With the litany of negative influences people face today, keeping a close eye on your kids is an absolute necessity--and many times you can't catch everything that's going on in their lives. Parents have a tough battle to fight--much tougher than my parents had when they were raising 4 teenagers in the mid- to late-1990's.

4.Lastly, I like having the time and money to do the things I enjoy and I feel are important to incorporate into my life. My parents gave up too much of themselves when they raised us. I always wanted my parents to have time to themselves, their own hobbies, a vacation away from the kids--but there was never enough time and money.

Dante said...

I was one of the happy childfree for many years, to point of ridiculing those with kids at work when they had to skip out early to pick up the kids...

But, after careful consideration, in our mid 30's, my wife and I decided to have one child. We're still in the first year and I truly enjoy it - far more than I ever thought I could with a crying baby in the house! There's something so human and fundamentally satisfying about bringing a child into the world and caring for it. I understand it now.

I thought it would put a cramp on my dreams and it has in a purely monetary sense. On the other hand, it made me think deeply about what I truly want from my short time on Earth and what kind of man I want to be for my son (which has nothing to do with money).

So, strangely, I think the best thing I can do for my kid is to be selfish, to show him how to live life to the fullest and that nothing in life is truly free, but earned the hard way. (How naive, I know. But if I eventually realized my father was right about a lot of things, maybe he will too!)

As far as the childfree choice, I still support it entirely. I feel personal freedom is inviolate and I despise government or society attempts to mold it (via tax policy, overzealous zoning, etc).

On the other hand, there's a guy Joel Kotkin who talks a lot about how the U.S., being the only advanced economy with replacement birth rates (among other reasons), will continue the dominate the 21st century economy and culture. Even everyone's favorite - China - has birth rate issues. I don't buy it entirely, but it's an interesting counterpoint to all the "America in decline" talk lately...

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting article from the far conservative perspective:

Contrary to what you might think, the writer isn't advocating big families.

Pete said...

If I had a time machine, and could travel back in time to speak to the former version of me who had not yet had a child, the one aspect of the experience I could never convey to him would be this: Love. I never understood love before I bonded to a child.

To be sure, I claimed "love" all the time. I routinely said "I love you" to people. But in each of those cases, the connection I felt would more accurately have been described as a mix of strong fondness and loyalty. Love is more -- a freedom beyond these feelings. Love is a happiness beyond self in which you would gladly spend all of whom you are for the sake of adding to another person's joy. The person who can experience this privilege without parenthood has a far wiser heart than mine.

Marty Nemko said...

Pete, I love your comment. It's precisely the sort of comment that adds so much. It differs with my post yet presents and important other perspective. It also, candidly, makes me a little more open to the having-children position. Thanks, Pete.

Sid said...

I don't think a case can be made that being child-free is good for society, from the people who usually make it. People who opt for that lifestyle are usually well-educated, productive, farsighted and intelligent. They opt out of child bearing believing correctly that children require world resources. Where they are mistaken is when they believe that they should be the last of their line.

What is happening is that more and more wealthy and intelligent people are having fewer children, if any at all, while poor and unintelligent people are increasing their ranks. A well-to-do European couple decides that their potential children would overpopulate the world, while scores of Third World babies are born and devour what resources were made available by the European couple having no children.

The problem is that in developed Western countries, having children is a materially expensive strain with few tangible benefits to the individual, whereas having children in Third World countries ultimately increases the family's wealth. Ultimately, I'm not sure how we can avert this dysgenic cycle.

Anonymous said...

You've had at least one kid, and have posted about your pride in her here in the past, so by definition you aren't in the child-free camp.

You may owe your daughter an apology and a nice set of flowers by now if she is as bemused by your new openness to the having-children view as she could be (if you get email from her that reads "Dad, WTF?" you'll know it's time to call FTD.)

Marty Nemko said...

Let's just say that my daughter and I have long had issues.

Marty Nemko said...

Sid, that is an excellent, compelling post. Alas, I have no answer. Indeed, you're right, rationally, it makes sense for many middle-class people in developed nations to have few if any kids and for low-income people in third-world nations to have more. Especially, played out over generations, that doesn't bode well for the future. Yet, those trends have been in place for a very long time without armageddon. As I wrote the last sentence, it felt pollyannish. Darn if I know what to do about this potentially very serious problem.

Shawn said...

To not have kids means you are extinct. Why let the masses from the South and other aliens inherit what should be your bloodline's? Why let civilization fail -- since such is the case when Third Worlders rush to inherit the wealth.

Marty Nemko said...

I suppose that if you and your partner have the genes for considerable ability and likely to provide a great environment for your kids, it would be a generous donation for such people to have lots of kids.

Shawn said...

Right. And I also like Sid's comment. High IQ people are the ones who tend to have future-time orientation, care about the environment, help bring us closer to the singularity, etc., etc. Unfortunately, these types tend to subscribe to child-free more than those who contribute to a transgenic society.

Anonymous said...

The concern that Shawn, Syd and apparently Marty have - that our 'best' genes aren't being passed on - has been being raised quantitatively since Malthus (ca. 1800) and more forcefully by some after Darwin published.

And for all of that, we just finished a century of spectacular advances in engineering and technology, with relatively few of the former prime families retaining their overarching prominence and many, many new families stepping up. The last I saw, Carlos Slim was the wealthiest man in the world; Buffett, Gates, Ellison, Jobs, the Waltons - I think these are families in the US who weren't hugely powerful a century ago?

I once saw Kurt Vonnegut give a talk in which he stated that in Poland after the second world war, "all the smart people had been killed." What he meant was those folks who were upper middle class and/or had lots of formal schooling. Very different from "all the smart people."

Vonnegut's generalization and the fear that the elites will go extinct and we'll all be dumbed inexorably down are wrong, as there are plenty of smart people born to average parents and, as one can see in royal lineages, plenty of dullards born to the upper crust. The current crop of Kennedys, to my eye, illustrates this well.

This latter phenomenon is "regression on the mean" and it's very well-known. There isn't a single gene for virtually any characteristic, certainly not one as complicated as brains. And while there are genes, there are not an infinite, continuous set of them. Lately we know there are probably about 30,000 in people, and many of those devoted to biochemistry that we share with starfish. That granularity of genes gives interesting results.

Take two people who're both very smart. There will be a role that genetics plays (heritability for intelligence tends to be estimated at, at best, around 60% with the remainder being environmentally driven - and that figure jumps around depending on how intelligence is measured, etc.)

The odds are very low that it's the same genetics in each parent that are contributing; their kids, then, will wind up with a scrambled half-measure from each parent. If both parents are on the upper range of the trait, odds are that their kids will be closer to the average than their parents. (By the way, trait here can also be height, running speed, physical strength - anything which has a genetic component governed by lots of genes acting together, as opposed to eye color, for instance.)

I don't understand the use of "extinct" or "transgenic" in a conversation about individual humans. I go extinct when I draw my last breath, whether or not I've had kids. Whether I've had kids may determine who's in the room when I go, but not the fact of my extinction.

The species keeps going until the environment changes faster than it does or it gets outcompeted.

ST said...

It's interesting that the couple of commenters who are a little defensive and even made digs to the other posters are the ones with children.

Where I work, it's a breeding utopia. Most employees are in their late twenties, early to mid thirties. Usually both spouses work, not necessarily at the company. The incomes are decent, and with two, there's plenty of cash flow to raise a family. I would say from I see, there's also a lot of peer and family pressure to start a family. It's always a big deal when someone is expecting a baby (big contribution of money for a conference room baby shower, with lots of gifts, cake and punch, etc.).

When I was married (for 18 years), my ex went through a few periods of wanting to start a family. But, our careers won out, because we were both dirt poor when we met, and just the thought of the cost of kids was enough to deter the decision for many years. When we did both establish well paying careers and good outlooks for the future, we made the decision permanent with surgery (me, not her). I still say part of the reason for our split might have been now that kids were no longer in our future, and since we had grown apart over those 18 years (the main reason), there was nothing left to hold us together (of course thinking kids would have held us together at the end would probably been a [really] bad decision).

As far as the world, I don't think we have to worry about "dumbing down" the world population because intelligent people chose not to have kids. Many of the tail end geniuses in the world who made a break through were born from average or humble families. And let's face it, the average person in the world, is well, average. If you know the statistical normal distribution (the bell curve), you know there are only so many really smart people in the world and only so many really retarded people in the world, and lots and lots in between. Also, intelligence doesn't mean you'll do any better anyhow (better being a matter of interpretation), some of the richest and otherwise most work or family-satisfied people are somewhere in the middle in intelligence (just by using IQ for example). Being born in humble (versus elite) beginnings may also generate the intense work ethic sometimes required in ground breaking work. I think with 7 billion people in the world, we'll produce plenty of really intelligent people in the future for our break throughs (many from China and India).

As far as world over population, I don't know. Projections will usually turn out false. Movements of people consciously deciding to be child free will be part of the reason the Earth's population will not explode. Other reasons may or may not be very happy.

Anonymous said...

Childless here. Mostly because we are in relatively poor health and tired all the time already, we substitute dogs instead. Neither of us is giddy when around kids (wife loves infants, though) and my wife was a nanny for years before we met. She says she's had her fix of that kind of thing.

Well aware of the pros/cons. We are aware we are giving up some "pros". Many seem to think that ANY pro existing means you have to do it.

Our observation of dozens of parents we know is that it causes a lot of pain, unhappiness, and frustration, and only periodically the "father knows best/Hallmark card" moments.

We have also independently noticed that these people are loath to admit that kids are causing them misery. The damage it does to the marriage can be immense, as kids come first.

My brother walks into family gatherings drawn with tension and doting over his kids nervously. Away from his family he is completely different. Also the need to maintain a parental "image" when kids are around also sucks the personality out of many parents. Even when they're not around their kids, they mostly become stodgy, boring, and ultra-conservative in attitude. What would have drawn a belly laugh before results in a "tut tut" response of disapproval. This doesn't apply to all, but for many this is the case.

They are also insanely defensive about anything kid related. Happy well adjusted confident people are not defensive about little things like that.

Some are definitely well suited for parenthood. But many are not. Go to a public school, observe the kids there, and ask yourself if their parents were up to the task.

I wouldn't want my precious kid put in with some of those animals out there.

Tom said...

Having kids burdens coworkers - this is so true and I constantly see it in my work. It seems like a child based reason for missing work is totally acceptable to use as needed but when those of us without kids want to leave early or miss work for something like a vet appointment or even to get to a concert, it receives scrutiny.

Shawn said...

"At 21, I went to Planned Parenthood for assistance in having a tubal ligation done. They refused because, in their opinion, I was too young to know my own mind. I can vote, drink, serve in military, etc., but I can't have my tubes tied? I went on the pill instead, which raised my blood pressure so high that that became a problem. I finally got my surgery at age 27, but I will never forgive Planned Parenthood for discouraging someone who wanted to do a really good thing for the world."

Maureen -

Did you know that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25? So I think Planned Parenthood's stance was okay as it relates to you.

I am not sure how to respond to the saying, "look at how many things I can do after age 18, or 21." And, I'm not if we could have a military if we only allowed those over age 24 to enlist.

Anonymous said...

It annoys me when people say that there's something so "human" about procreating, almost as if you're not a complete human being until you've passed on your genes. And obviously, reproduction is not a uniquely "human" process considering the fact that the entire animal kingdom reproduces. I don't know, maybe these people should be looking for a different word, like "primal."