On Not Having Children
I have a sneaking suspicion that I should want a child more than I want my next travel adventure. As I have never wanted to be pregnant, give birth, change diapers, or go to school plays more than I have wanted my next trip to London, Tokyo, or even just Denver, I think not having children was probably the right decision for me.
“But you can do both!” parents and parents-to-be will cry. “I’m a parent and I still have a life!”
Yes, that’s true. But it’s hard. I learned that from observation. I knew that by the time I was five. (I was that pain-in-the-ass kid.)
I actually have good role models in my parents. They were married five years before they had their first child. We were both planned. They’ve now been married 40+ years and have spent more of their married life child-free than child-rearing. (Although, yes, they’re still parents after my brother and I moved out.) They both worked full-time while raising two kids and my mother even finished her bachelor’s degree by going to night school while we were in elementary. They have passions and hobbies and full, complete lives outside of us and that was deliberate on their part, from what they’ve told me.
Nevertheless, somehow, both my brother and I decided not to have kids and found stable, long-term partners who feel the same. I actually feel worse for my parents than for myself, because I think they would be wonderful grandparents. But with my brother and I now in our late thirties, I think they understand that’s unlikely.
For many years, I wondered if I would ever have children. I left the possibility open. The answer was always “not right now, but maybe someday.” I know people change; I know I change. I always wondered if I might have a child for the sake of a partner who deeply wanted one, especially if that person had an excess of those nurturing instincts I don’t find much in myself.
As I get older, I grow more thankful of my decision and more resolved not to have any children at all. And, yes, I do look around at people my age (or younger) with kids and think “I’m so glad that’s not me.” I’d lay down my life to protect a child, any child, but I don’t want one of my own.
They’re lovely parents and lovely children. I can see how enriching it’s been for that person to have a child, what a good job they’re doing raising their baby, and how wonderful that child is as a tiny person. But people who run marathons also find it personally fulfilling and I don’t want to do that either.
The decision not to have kids, however, is a little more loaded than the decision about whether or not to run marathons. Society feels like it has a right to weigh in and judge my character based on that decision. This has always baffled me completely.
I feel like it’s simple. If you don’t want kids and take the necessary steps to not have kids, then good on you. No social intervention (or even any commentary) needed.
If you don’t want kids and end up with one (or more) or if you do want them and can’t have them – then that’s where society may get involved. Adoptions agencies and fertility clinics exist for these reasons and they do a fairly good job of trying to help people get what they want one way or the other, despite the stress of either situation.
To me, kids are like small alien creatures that don’t make much sense. They’re fascinating and baffling and frustrating all in turns. I understand my dog better than the average tiny (or adult) human.
What it really comes down to is that I don’t want to reorient my life around being a parent, not even for the decade or two of primary child care. I love my life just the way it is. I watch parents sometimes in public places and they have their mind on their child all the time. Even when said child is sitting quietly and the parent is reading a magazine, their eyes regularly dart to check on their kid. That’s what a parent should do, but it’s just not something I want to do.
And I’ve heard all the accusations of selfishness, but don’t people also have kids because they want to? Aren’t both decisions ultimately about what I/we want?* Children conceived accidentally are joys to people who ultimately want to be parents in the long run. Even ‘accidents’ never considered have a way of turning into gems and I often wondered if this would happen to me, all the while doing everything I could to prevent it.
Once the child arrives, a certain amount of altruism is necessary to keep them alive, healthy, and happy, it’s true. The same could be said of keeping a company running or volunteering for a local charity or any form of social advocacy. With monastics as the Buddhist ideal of an altruistic life, I have many living role models of both paths, both ways to be selfless in the service of others. I try to be selfless everyday (and fail everyday) through a career that helps others.
There are lots of socially compelling reasons not to have children: climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion, growing inequality, etc. For those compelled by such reasons, adoption becomes even more attractive. That’s not why I made my decision, however. I simply don’t want to be a parent.
Siddhartha Gautama named his newborn son “Rahula,” which is translated as “fetter.” He then ran away from home to become the Buddha. Many people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, have rightly questioned this.** Are children really fetters? Was Siddhartha being cruel? Did he ever regret his action, either before or after his awakening as the Buddha?
I think Siddhartha maybe just saw a simple truth of parenthood – that life as a parent has a tendency to revolve around your child(ren), at least for many years. Who can meditated on the interdependence of all phenomena when the baby needs changing or the screaming toddler is throwing spaghetti?
Many modern Buddhists do just this, in fact. But it’s hard, I’ve hear them say. Many have incorporated parenthood into their practice and achieved greater wisdom as a result. Rather than being incompatible, parenthood and practice can be complementary. This is praiseworthy, but if it were the only way to wisdom, those monastics I know would be out of luck and that doesn’t seem to be the case.
There are great things about being a parent that make the diapers and the spaghetti stains worth it (to others). Those wonderful times (one hopes) also draw the full attention of the parents, but it’s an attention I’d just rather spend on other things. Being an astronaut is also awesome, I hear, and I don’t want to do that either.
I’m now 36. I’ve felt this way since I was 16. I’ve taken the steps I needed to not have children. I’ve used every hormonal method of birth control out there (some of which have since been recalled) and they all come with bad side effects for me (though I know they can work better for other women). I’ve used every other form of birth control as I should and it’s worked so far, but not without a good share of anxiety and fussing I could happily live without.
Now that I am 36, however, my doctor didn’t question me when I raised the topic of tubal ligation, that is, permanent sterilization. Moreover, the procedure is now far less invasive than when I was 16 or even 26. It can even be done laparoscopically, just like my dad’s knee surgery, as an outpatient procedure. And, it’s finally covered by my insurance. This was a crucial step since for many years it either wasn’t covered at all or I just didn’t have insurance.
I am interested to hear from women who’ve had the procedure so I know what to expect and so I can weigh the pros and cons of my two options (essure or clips). For those of you who’ve read this far and are still thinking “How horrible!” or “She’s so selfish!” or “She’s sure to change her mind!” I don’t need to hear from you. You’re welcome to your opinions, but please share them elsewhere. I’m good.
*For folks living in developed countries with some level of female empowerment, access to reproductive health care, and bodily integrity. Without these, having children is often not much of a choice at all, especially for women.
**Siddhartha, the prince, did not leave his child in poverty without care. As the Buddha, he eventually returned and Rahula and his mother became disciples who, purportedly, obtained enlightenment themselves.