Thoughts about large families and the childfree movement

This post was migrated from my Lifeblog.

Since my miscarriage, I have given parenthood quite a bit of thought, and I have something to admit: I am not good with children; and actually, I don’t like them much. I had the devil’s time in grade school, and both there and elsewhere, I have learned that children are some of the cruelest creatures nature has ever turned out. Adults are infinitely more pleasant. Now I don’t know many people who will admit to disliking children; so I hopped online to investigate and stumbled across a most curious and modern phenomenon: the childfree movement.

This is a group of people, many married, who remain childless by choice — and are very adamant about it no less. The decision does not surprise me, but their attitude does: I get a lot of bitterness, defensiveness, and an almost vicious anger. They seem right on the verge of lashing out. For example, many demand to know why stroller-and-toddler laden moms expect other pedestrians to yield the right-of-way; after all, their child-ful state was self-inflicted and deserves no compassion. Alas, the extreme defensiveness of the childfree group rather undermines their loud claims of happiness, security in their choice, etc. Now in their defense, they describe being showered with insulting remarks, everything from “that’s so abnormal” to “you know you’ll regret this later.” I can’t imagine it’s pleasant being told how stupid you are day in and day out.

I have to stop a moment and laugh. Why? Because for years now, the conservative right has donned long faces to discuss a very serious matter: the declining birthrate in the developed world. If we don’t crank out more children, the uncultured savages are going to sweep our country right out from under our feet. On the other hand, here are these militant childfree couples lamenting how “kid-centric” our culture is. Armed with grim predictions of overpopulation, they frantically implore people to reconsider their selfish desire to pass on their genes. Both groups are intelligent, educated, well-meaning people, and both are passionately convinced they are right.

I should mention that, actually, the two observations are not contradictory. We indeed have rather small families these days (many European countries are way below replacement rate). But even as we have fewer children, we become more obsessed with lavishing them with luxuries, the likes of which were unheard of a century ago. Now, every child must have a cell phone, music lessons, dance classes, and a parade of other extravagances; fail on one account and you are judged an abusive, neglectful parent. No wonder people can only handle one or two kids.

This also tells me something about how conformist our society still is. I know of many large families (6 or 7 children) who get rude remarks from complete strangers when out in public. Clearly, childfree couples get the same. Both have become aggressively defensive about their choice, no doubt from being ostracized so heavily. Sadly, I have observed that their chosen defense to close-mindedness is to be heavily close-minded themselves, attacking the other side without seeking to understand them. Listening to the extremely conservative, I had come to believe that childlessness was celebrated by society. Quite the contrary. The claims of the other side are equally false.

So where does that leave us? As a society, I’m not quite sure. On the one hand, it is true that birth control is extremely new and, in my humble opinion, not quite natural. In the wild, if you wanted to enjoy sex, then you had to enjoy parenthood; that was the bargain and there was no way around it. We consequently gave birth to a lot more children. On the other hand, as medicine advances, more children survive than before. In the old days, it was not uncommon to lose half of your children before their teens. Nowadays, the death of a child has become a rarely experienced grief. Even evolution doesn’t settle the debate anymore: Obviously, evolution will favor those who reproduce. However, popping out a bunch of progeny isn’t of any help unless you are able to sustain them. Also, there are a new crop of evolutionary biologists such as David Barash who argue that, far from being abnormal, the decision to remain childfree is an exercise of humanity’s greatest claim to significance: free will.

Ultimately, I think it’s a very personal choice. There are very good arguments for both sides. The only thing that truly angers me is the people who try to guilt others into adopting their position. The world won’t cave in if you have no children, two children, or ten. Probably the worst is the “for the common good” doom-gloom-and-overpopulation crowd. People have been Chicken Little-ing for centuries. Take Thomas Malthus who predicted 250 years ago that we’d all be dead by now. Clearly, he was very very wrong. When spurred by necessity, human genius is a very powerful thing.

So after all this, you might be curious to know where I stand. I shan’t disappoint. I definitely want children, and a good many of them. (How many? Well, I figure “somewhere between 2 and 20” should keep my options open.) I feel my maternal instinct very strongly, and even though I’m not ready yet, I will be one day, perhaps soon. Also, fifty years of childless selfish gratification seems awfully dull. Don’t get me wrong: I’m very much enjoying pampering myself right now. But I won’t for long.

As for my not liking children, my husband (who loves them) only smiles. He thinks that after I learn to handle kids, the fondness will follow. It’s easier said than done though. Children are impetuous, instinctive, and very unreasonable. They’re really more animal than human being; like a dog, they can’t be taken too seriously or given too much leeway. I find the little creatures savage-like indeed. But the reward for taming them — unconditional sweetness, adoration, and love — is very worth it. So I’m going to try. Wish me luck!