I have to start off with saying that writing about not having children under the heading of “Divergent Lifestyles” is more than a little ridiculous. It was also ridiculous when I saw that it was the subject of a daytime talk show and a cover story for Time magazine. When I made the conscious decision years ago not to have children, I had no idea that I was doing anything people would consider rebellious or radical. I was simply facing a choice that everyone alive has to face, and I made my choice. It was not long, however, before the world let me know how frightened it was of my decision.
The first person to take issue with my choice was my mother. This was really no surprise. I am not sure how it came up, but I was in my teens when I said to her that I did not want children. In part because I was so young, and in part because she tended not to believe practically anything I ever asserted about myself, my mother was entirely dismissive of my statement. She replied with something like, “You’ll probably be the only one who gives me any grandchildren.” Decades later, I still have no children. My younger sister, however, has three.
This encounter was easy to shrug off as I simply chalked it up to my mother being my mother. The next encounter happened years later. While in college, a friend and I somehow got on the topic of the difficulties of child rearing. I pointed out that such problems were just one of the reasons that I was not going to have children. He replied, “What! You can’t . . . not have kids!” This was the first time I had ever heard anyone not dressed in a priest’s vestment speak of having children as though it were so some kind of duty, like I did not have a choice in the matter. I made it clear to him that I could indeed “not have kids.” “But who’ll carry on your family name?” Even if such a thing mattered to me (and it never has), I have enough relatives who are doing that just fine without me.
As irksome as these encounters were, they were nothing compared to what I have put up with since getting married. I count myself as extremely blessed to have married someone who also wishes to remain child-free. Her parents, disappointed as they may be at never having grandchildren, understand the common sense of our decision and have not made an issue of it. My mother, after briefly entertaining the ridiculous idea that I may have changed my mind, has dropped the subject altogether. The people who have made the biggest deal about our child-free status have tended to be little more than strangers. Coworkers and new acquaintances trying to get to know me are the ones who have reacted with wide eyes and dropped jaws at the simple statement, “I don’t want kids.” Then would follow long lines of questions or statements where they were trying to understand the gasp-worthy news they have heard or have tried to change my mind. Sometimes they have tried to do both.
The first time I recall this happening was with a manager at a coffee shop in Tucson I had just started working at not long after being wed. This manager, I should note, was herself single and without children. When I said that my wife and I did not want kids, her mouth fell open. She was shocked. To say the least, I was puzzled. She had just learned of one detail about someone she had just met, and she reacted as though it were something from Ripley’s Believe it or Not. I left work that day scratching my head. Why would someone I had just met be so surprised at learning that I did not want kids? She knew nothing about me before this day. Why would she assume that I wanted children? Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
The shocked face of that one manager turned out to be one of the mildest reactions I would get. Too many people that followed her would react with greater shock and, much to my annoyance, see it as their duty to convince me that I should want children. Sometimes it has seemed that everyone around me was following a script. An all-too-typical conversation I have had, once someone found out I was married, would go something like this:
Stranger: “Do you have kids?”
Stranger: “Are you going to?”
Stranger: (slight look of fear) “Not yet?”
Me: Not ever.
Stranger: (look of fear increasing) “How does your wife feel about it?”
Me: “She feels exactly as I do.”
Stranger: (looks away in shock and disbelief) “Well . . . as long as you’re on the same page.”
I am not exaggerating in the least when I say I have had that exact conversation, sometimes with subtle variations, dozens of times. And did you catch the barb in that last question? The stranger was assuming that my wife wanted children. What did that make me? Of course, I was the horrible man who was depriving his wife of the motherhood that she desperately craved. I wonder if any of them have actually believed me that she also does not want kids.
Worse than these people have been the self-proclaimed prophets. Or have they seen themselves as telepaths? Whichever the case, these are the people who have eschewed the above script and countered my statement to remain child-free with “Oh, you’ll change your mind.” These people, apparently, would have me believe that they have looked into my future and seen me with children or that they have looked into my own mind and seen that I actually do want to be a father. If neither is the case, then such a bold statement about a stranger’s personal life choice is really just arrogant and stupid.
Some coworkers of mine have reacted even more ridiculously, being so shocked by my child-free marriage that they cannot drop the subject for days afterward. Some, behind a facade of matronly kindness, have wasted countless words describing to me how fulfilled their lives are because of their kids. To say the least, this grew tiresome and it made downtime on a shift more annoying than it should have been. Imagine that practically any time you state a fact about yourself, a fact that you may not think should be terribly significant to anyone else, you are badgered and forced to defend or justify this fact. That is what I have gone through because of my decision not to have children.
Through the magic of the internet, I have learned of countless other happily child-free people who have endured similar nonsense from others. The most ridiculous one I have heard is the allegation that we are being “selfish.” Merriam-Webster has three definitions of the word “selfish:”
1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others <a selfish act>
3: being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function <selfish DNA>; also : being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication
Before anyone says anything, I am well aware of the dangers of relying on dictionary definitions to make or settle an argument. While it is true that dictionary definitions often fail to cover the varied connotative uses of many words, I have yet to encounter a use of the word “selfish” that differs at all from the first two listed and it is doubtful that most people using the word in an accusatory manner are thinking of the third one. I have more than a little trouble seeing how the accusation makes sense regarding my child-free status. I have decided for numerous reasons, both personal and practical, not to have children. This decision affects no one else. How am I disregarding others with this decision of mine? How does this make me “selfish?”
My wife has a theory as to why so many people who barely know us have shown surprise and believed terrible things about us child-free people. She thinks that most of these people had kids, not because they genuinely wanted to, but because they were expected to. From their youngest days it was drilled into them that they would grow up, get married, and have kids. So that is what they did without question. This was their world. This was normal. Then they met us. Suddenly there was a question. We talked of child rearing as an option, something they never did. In an instant they thought of all the dirty diapers, the illnesses, the frustrations, the cancelled plans because there was no babysitter, and the school fees that they and all parents have had to deal with. They realized that we have never and never will deal with any of that. They became jealous. In their jealousy, they became angry. Rather than admitting that they went along with what was expected of them unthinkingly and possibly missed their chances at better lives, they have tried to convince us that we were the ones who made the mistake.
I admit that, after an encounter like those described above, I may vocally agree with this assessment. Most of the time, I find it quite extreme and a little harsh. (Sorry, my Love.) I do, however, acknowledge a seed of truth in there. When people have reacted badly to our being childless, no matter what they have said, there was always one obvious commonality between them: fear. Sometimes it was subtle, but most of the time it was plainly obvious. They have always reacted as though our straying from their perception of “normal” has threatened them and the world they know. I will not bother looking up the dictionary definition of “normal” here, because the definition that most people carry around with them is simply “like myself.”
Too many people believe that how they live is the only way. They surround themselves with like-minded people who live basically as they do. Naturally they see themselves as basically good. So when they encounter anyone who lives differently in any way, they worry. Is this person bad? Is he/she going to destroy those things that I love in my lifestyle? What to do? Change this person! Make him/her more like myself! Then I will be safe!
Well, parents and parents-to-be, while I can only speak for myself and my wife, I assure you that we are doing absolutely nothing to tear down the institutions of parenthood. If you want children, I want you to have them. Just do not expect that everyone on the planet wants them and accept it when you encounter those of us who do not. You need not fear us.
On that note, I want to end with a caution. While I am certain that fellow child-free and happy folks will find validation with this article, I have to warn you all not to become your own enemy. Frustration and anger over the kinds of encounters described here have driven many child-free people to lash out with a sort of “breeder hate” where they lump all parents together into one nasty group and bash them simply for being parents. To do this is to miss the point entirely. My wife and I were never angry with these people because they had children. We were angry with them for belittling our own life choice and trying to force theirs upon us. That is a crime none us should ever commit.