Yes, Your Childlessness is a Valid Choice. Have You Considered Shutting Up About It?

Dear sweet merciful God, but I am tired of the periodic Rebellion of the Childless. I never failed to find their screeds juvenile, even before I became a father. Now that I am one, I have less time to care. So I’ll take No One of Any Import’s summation of this year’s Barren-and-Loving-It boomlet as accurate, and address these words that follow to no one in particular.

Having kids changes you emotionally, whether you are man or woman. That’s what people mean when they say Kids Change Everything. It’s not just that you have to arrange your day around caring for the infant who becomes the toddler who becomes the grade-school child, etc. It’s that your basic core values are tested and laid bare. I’ll give you an example:

When I was 21, my favorite movie was Trainspotting. I’ve never done heroin, or even wanted to, and I’ve never much cared for the club scene, but there was something brutally truthful in that movie’s worldview that appealed to me:

There’s something there, even now, about the powerful vapidity of pop modernity that strikes me even now, but when I was 21 I watched this movie every chance I could get. It made me a Ewan McGregor fan to the point where I even sat through Velvet Goldmine with my housemates. It brims with contemptuous rage and righteousness, far more of a drug to the young than heroin will ever be. And after wearing out a VHS copy, I asked for and got a Blue-Ray edition for Christmas last year, eight days after my daughter was born. Full of excitement, I popped it in when mother and baby were asleep.

That did not end well.

If you haven’t seen it, there’s a scene in which an infant dies from her junkie parents’ neglect, and the audience is treated to a lingering shot of her cold corpse. When I was 21, this scene testified to the movie’s courageous refusal to flinch from the Truth. It was Cool, because it was Messed Up. Last year, I had to look away. I damn near cried. I cannot even think of it now without horror, not just the oh-that’s-sad, what-song-is-this way, but utter existential dread. Believe it or not, I actually felt sorry for Sick Boy, the baby’s putative father, because he cries at seeing her dead in the crib, and he sinks down deep into villainy thereafter. Now, I feel pity only for the baby, and if Sick Boy were on fire, I would not piss on him to put it out.

I told my wife she is not allowed to watch Trainspotting, and I never intend to watch it again.

Parenthood does that to you. The weltschmerz of our extenuated adolescence becomes instantly pitiable and small when the child of your body, your own flesh and blood, looks up at you with new eyes, confused and curious. I would not trade the joys my daughter has given me for the world. The world could never belong to me anyway.

And that’s the reason I became a father; the realization that the world is not mine, and I cannot, by any act of will, hang on to it, even if I were to conquer it whole. I am just passing through here, womb to tomb. This life of mine, this staggering muddle of impulse and reason, joy and sorrow, was a gift from powers that I do not control or even understand. I cannot claim such a gift; I can only pay it forward.

Now, not everyone is meant for parenthood. Some have different paths. This is not a fault, and we should always be just and charitable towards the lives of others. More to the point, I don’t need to know why someone else is not having kids. It’s not any of my business. If you are satisfied that your decision to remain childless stems from a just diagnosis of your vocation in life, and not merely a self-defeating attempt to cling to your youth, then that’s good enough for me.

But when I read people treating parenthood as an insuperable burden, I take exception, because it is no such thing. It is a joyful burden, a life-affirming pain in the ass.

Having kids is making a decision to live a life with strollers, diaper bags, breast pumps, sleep deprivation, and the withering looks from strangers like me, who wonder why you thought it was a good idea to bring your toddler to a Victorian painting exhibit.

Oh, get the hell over yourself. None of those things last forever. On the second day of my daughter’s life, I thought I would never sleep again. I was wrong. They sleep through the night eventually. No, really, they do. They eventually learn to walk, diminishing the need for a stroller. They learn to use toilets, sparing the diaper bag. The breast pumps vanish soon after the teeth appear. Crying can be soothed, naps can be regimented, and poop washes off (it’s just poop, not nuclear waste).

As to the withering looks when some filthy breeder invades your clubhouse with her spawn, somebody’s going to have to expose the young to Victorian painting, or any kind of painting, if it’s going to survive. The alternative is Idiocracy, which I assume you’re helping to prevent in some other way. If you can’t be bothered to create the next generation of artists, thinkers, scholars (or the people who, at the very least, will be paying your Social Security), you can at least spare some that precious, self-satisfied disdain towards those of us who are.

I don’t think I can quite quantify how irretrievably immature some people sound when they try to justify their life choices to others. This spastic fear of the unremarkable (Strollers and Diapers and Breast-Pumps, oh my!) fairly screams “But I wanna go to the PAAARTYYYY!” to my ears. And no doubt, the return volleys of We Offended Parents will inevitably sound to them like the Cold Voice of Authority, bellowing “Thou Shalt Do Thy Fruitful Duty! Physical Exhaustion Builds Character!” So probably, I should keep my word and not make such judgements.

Remaining childless is a choice, with costs and benefits. If you are willing to pay the costs, and the benefits make you happy, then huzzah for you. Grant me the same, and we have a society fairly bursting with pluralism and tolerance, wherein you can pursue new dreams and I can make new people, who in 20 years or so can help them come true.

12 comments

  1. I’m not going to argue with you, because I believe everything you wrote! My two are big now (22 and 18), and neither is exactly fulfilling my fondest dreams for them… but they’re pursuing their own dreams instead, and their father and I are pretty sure things are going to be all right.

    1. Very cool. I rather envy you, not because I’m anxious to get mine out of the house just yet, but because I feel like getting them to maturity is winning.

  2. The only thing worse than the childless who won’t shut up, is the couple/mom who won’t shut up their screaming toddler at the Monet exhibit.
    Take him outside, settle her down. Take him home and come back later if need be. Alone if it is necessary. Giving birth is not a license to ruin the quiet space of the rest of the world.

    If you think they’re a handful at 4, just wait until 14…

  3. Joys are diffeernt things for everyone. It is hard for new parents to understand why there may others won’t feel the way they do. Having children does’t mean you will be euphoric or feel anything paternal/matrnal. This is why foster homes are full. Everyone is entitled to opinions.
    Parenting is the default of society. Everyone is expected to do it. When you deem someone’s choice as not politically correct and you act smug about your choice, yes they will get defensive. it is parents who need to get over themselves.

    1. “Everyone is entitled to opinions.”

      Precisely. This was mine.

      If parenting is a default and an expectation, it’s because society does not survive without it. Despite this, everyone is free to do as they like. The implication that “smugness” or defensiveness is found solely in one group and not another is not borne out by the facts. But perhaps I’m only inferring your intent.

      Cheers,

  4. I get tired of one group being allowed a voice and the other told to shut up. Parents are the ones who form these stereotypes of childless people. There is good and bad on all sides. There’s a large family blogger who basically says if you don’t live her life you are wrong. Those with fewer kids or no kids are selfish in her eyes. I gather she may be dissatisfied with her own life. Yes parenting is needed but does that mean EVERYONE? It is a decision that no one should enter half-heartedly. Maybe the focus should be on all the neglected , starving, and abused kids instead everyoen arguing about the right choice.

    1. That sounds fine to me. I wasn’t arguing about “right choices,” so telling me about someone who does is rather irrelevant to what I was saying. There is a particular section of singles and DINKS who like to make sweeping generalizations that I found obnoxious even before I became a parent. Yeah, there are parent-bloggers who do the same. Dislike them as much as you want, but don’t pretend I am one.

  5. Andrew – found you through our friend Linda – thank you. Deep down there’s a “I am screaming for relevance” gene in all of us. Some seem to be more insufferable in their expression of it than others…and I do love the point about “you’re welcome for having the children who will be supporting your retirement – and you’re welcome for the fact that we are raising them to have compassion on their elders as opposed to finding their elders utterly disposable once the productive years become consumptive years and you need someone to push your wheelchair”

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