What happens when having it all means not having children?
This is the question asked by Lauren Sandler in her Time Magazine cover story “The Childfree Life.”
“Having it all” is a phrase that haunts parents – particularly mothers – everywhere. Balancing the demands of family life and a career in order to walk the high wire act of personal fulfillment can seem like an impossible task.
Well, y’all, I’ve got bad news. Stop trying to walk that tightrope because it turns out we could have skipped the circus all together.
According the article, an increasing number of men and women are choosing to find personal fulfillment without pursuing parenthood. Between 2007 and 2011, the American fertility rate has decreased 9%. In 1976, one in 10 women ages 40-44 were childless. Today the number is one in 5.
Sandler examines some interesting theories on the decreasing fertility rate from the recession to intelligence. (Spoiler alert! Smart people chose not to have kids apparently.) Whatever the causes, these choices are difficult in a society that promotes family – and motherhood in particular.
Don't get me wrong. I felt real sympathy for many of the women who spoke of how indelibly linked motherhood and womanhood are and how difficult it can be to separate the two.
Women feel so much pressure to reproduce and are questioned more openly about their decisions. (Of course, I’m not sure the article is actually helping address that stereotype when it devotes an entire page to celebrity “non-moms” without giving equal time to famous men who have chosen not to have children.) In particular, one expert argues “women are living in a ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’ social context in a country that she believes emphasizes self-sufficiency equally alongside a deep commitment to motherhood.”
I remember returning home for my great-grandmother’s funeral mere months after marrying my husband. As I stood in line, one of my high school teachers asked if I was pregnant yet. I remember looking at my watch and informing him I’d only been married a couple of months. I couldn’t believe the pressure to reproduce was already starting.
Nicholas and I waited almost six years to have kids and there were even more questions and inquisitive conversations over that time. However, we married young. I was only 22 and had Griffin at 28. I can’t imagine how intense the pressure would have become had we waited ten years or chosen not to have children at all.
Making a choice that strays from the societal norm is always difficult. For better or for worse, people feel you are judging their choices. They get defensive. It makes them uneasy and they feel the need to explain. I was on the receiving end of those explanations when I chose home birth and have been encountering a similar response when I mention my interest in homeschooling.
Of course, those of us who chose to take a different path can be just a defensive. Many of the people interviewed for the article clearly feel the need to not only defend their choices but attack the choice to have children. One woman states about her childlessness, “I feel like I have to be about it.” I wish we could all acknowledge this "damned if you do damned if you don't" means we are ALL damned - those of us who chose motherhood only to find we're never quite living up to the ideal and those of us who don't chose motherhood and feel constantly judged for their choice.
Listen, parenting is difficult - no doubt. However, the article seems to present parenting only as a long list of demands, frustrations, and missed opportunities. It seems to be an accepted societal truth that parents are miserable. Or so says study after study on quality of life and marital satisfaction among parents. Rufus Griscom and Alisa Vokman, the founders of Babble.com, have a wonderful Ted Talk on parenting in which they explain what studies on happiness are missing when they note childless people have higher marital satisfaction.
Specifically, he uses this graph to show what the researchers are missing with their single gray line.
When we think about parenting - especially parenting small children, the truth is the lows are VERY low but the highs are REALLY amazing.
I always loved the way author Caitlyn Moran described the true joy of raising children in her book How to be a Woman.
Fifteen-thousand-pound bottles of vintage champagne; hot-air balloons flying over wildebeest migrations; sharkskin shoes with a diamond on the sole; Paris: these are all, ultimately, consolation prizes for those who don’t have access to a small, ideally slightly grubby child whom they can mess around with, poke and squash a little—high on ridiculous love.
Now, here is the point where I have to make something incredibly clear lest I be lumped in with the mama mafia in the article.
Children are ABSOLUTELY not the only source of true joy. Anyone arguing otherwise has clearly never heard of Oprah. Life is full of connection and journeys and opportunity that bring real and fulfilling joy to people all over this planet - people who don’t have children.
I think what this article gets very wrong is that the mere absence of children does not produce that joy - any more than the presence of children does. The cover image starts making the argument the moment you pick up the magazine. A couple lay relaxing on the beach - smiles and sunglasses firmly in place. The implication is clear. THIS is the lifestyle of the childless. Footloose and fancy free.
One women even states explicitly at the end of the article “We can do anything we want, so why wouldn’t we?”
Really? ANYTHING? I somehow doubt that. Not to mention these people’s lifestyles seem to have as much to do with their income level than their childless stature. Children are expensive. No doubt. However, merely NOT having children doesn’t launch you into the upper-middle class.
My biggest problem with the article goes beyond the cursory treatment of individual choices. My biggest problem is that for a piece on changing societal trends there was no real examination of what the increasing number of childless citizens means for our society. There is a mention of the question most childless men and women get asked about their decision.
“Who is going to take care of you when you’re old?”
However, there is no real time spent on the answer. As an increasing number of baby boomers face end-of-life care decisions and with a large number of those boomers without children, there have been many other articles examining elder care among the childless.
The overall consensus seems to be - we have no idea what’s going to happen.
I’m not arguing that one should have children solely to take care of them as they age. However, familial care is a structure we have all depended for hundreds (if not thousands) of years and we need to have an honest conversation about how that structure will change as more and more people chose not to have children.
In fact, I would like more honest conversation across the board from the pressures parents place on others to join their ranks to the misperceptions childless couples hold about parents and their priorities.
Maybe we can begin the conversation by agreeing there is no one way to "have it all" ... and that we all have fun at the beach.
Have you chosen to have children? Have you chosen to remain child free? How you be more honest about what your choice (or the other side's) really means?