Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Condescending Parents: I Don't Want Kids, and I am an Adult

As a teenager I began to think that I might not want to have kids when I got older.  By the time I was in my
mid-twenties I was pretty certain that I wasn't going to have any kids.  Now, at the age of thirty, my thirty three year old life partner and I have decided, unequivocally, that we don't want to have kids.  We came to this decision for a variety of reasons including but not limited to our desire to travel, broader family issues, a desire to maintain and expand upon a lifestyle that is not necessarily amenable to raising children, and morally fraught proposition of bringing someone into this world that might not want to be here in the first place.  My partner and I had both been thinking about these things before we met, and have discussed them at length while examining and questioning our reasoning constantly.  In other words, we've put a lot of time and thought into this decision.

However, you would never know that if you saw how people react to us when we tell them that we don't have, nor do we want, kids.  The reactions are typically shocked, dismissive, and condescending, especially from those who have children.  Responses vary, but there are a few that are very common.  Among the most common are: "Oh you're still so young, you'll probably change your mind in a few years;" "But you'll never have a truly fulfilling life / be a true adult / know what love really is;" "Who will care for you when you're old?" and my favorite "But isn't that kind of selfish?"  Let's take these one at a time.

You're still so young, you'll probably change your mind
Yes, my partner and I at thirty and thirty three are so damn young.  Sort of.  Yes, we are biologically still of an age where we can easily reproduce, but that window will be closed in a decade or less without fertility treatment and all of the intended risks (to the parent and child) that come with that.  When I'm met with this response I find it to be very dismissive, invalidating, and condescending.  It was one thing when I was fifteen and I said I didn't want kids.  I was fifteen and wanted to sound cool and rebellious, and at that time I didn't know what the hell I wanted out of life.  Now, though, I've been thinking about these things for more than fifteen years.  I've put a lot of time and mental effort into this and my decision is based on intense moral reasoning and personal introspection.  When you say that due to my age I will probably change my mind what you are implicitly saying is that the decade and a half of thinking I've done on this issue is of little consequence; that all of the mental time and effort I put into this decision is not that important; that I'm the equivalent of a petulant child trying to piss off the elders.  So, thanks for telling me that my decision is naive and childish.

But you'll never have a truly fulfilling life / be a true adult / know what love really is
This line of thinking is summed up very well in a blog post by Sarah Larson entitled "I Think People Without Kids have Empty Lives and I'm Not Sorry About That."  Here is an excerpt that gets right to the meat of it:
I never thought of myself as the kind of person who judges other people’s choices. But after spending enough of my life with kids and without, I can’t deny what I really feel: It’s a perfectly fine choice to never become a parent, but there is absolutely no chance that your life will be as full or meaningful, or that you will learn as many essential truths about existence, as you would if you had kids. 
Because when it comes down to it, there are certain truths about life that you literally cannot know until you've become a parent. The list of those truths could go on forever (no, it really could), but the core truth behind all of it is about what human life is about, how we relate to each other, how to care for each other, and the tiny moments that, in the end, are what we do all this other shit to support.
This is so offensive that I don't even know where to begin.  Firstly, the author says she doesn't like to judge other people's choices, then jumps right into doing so.  It kind of reminds me of the old trope "I'm not racist, but . . ."  Yes Ms. Larson, you are judging my choices and telling me that I'm wrong.  Beyond that she writes about certain truths about life, such as how to care for and relate to others, that one "cannot"  know if they don't have kids (Interestingly, later in the post she says that people can learn these truths without kids, just that it will be more difficult and less meaningful).  Well, she's wrong.  Let's take her line about learning to "care for each other."  Having worked in education for several years, and specifically having spent time working in behavioral classrooms, along with having spent time caring for loved ones with mental illness, I have learned a lot about how to care for others.  I would argue that I am actually much more caring and compassionate, especially when it comes to children, than many, many parents that I know.  I've known kids with very 'loving' parents that beat them with coat hangers; that would say things like "Fuck you you little cunt!" to ten year old kids; that would leave their kids in daycare every night not because they had to work, but because the wanted to go out to happy hour.  When you argue that I can never truly care for others if I don't have kids you are invalidating all of the work I've done to care for others and to help make their lives a little better.  Try telling them that I don't know how to care, they'll disagree.

Another meme that comes along with this line of thinking is that one will never truly experience unconditional love without children.  When I write 'unconditional love,' I mean loving someone no matter what they may do to you or others.  For example, despite the fact that your spouse routinely beats your with a paddle and limits your autonomy you still love them and feel obligations towards them.  That's unconditional love.  I feel unconditional love for many people, and I'm working hard to stop doing that.  Unconditional love has led me into a toxic, enmeshed relationship (not with my life partner, but with another loved one) which I would have ended long ago had it not been for the 'unconditional love' that I feel for this person.  Because of that 'unconditional love' I'm spending large amounts of time and emotional energy to try and salvage a relationship that most sane, rational people would tell me to end ASAP if this person was not a loved one.  Instead I'm doing all I can to salvage a relationship that negatively impacts my life and damages my relationships with others.  Maybe if so many people didn't love their spouses/ parents/ children unconditionally then many fewer people would be the victims of domestic violence.  I've experienced unconditional love, and I want nothing to do with it.  Unfortunately many people take unconditional love as permission to verbally, emotionally, and physically abuse those giving the unconditional love.

Furthermore, I am a fully realized adult, and my life does have meaning.  I find meaning in every child that I finally understands multiplication after I help them with their homework.  I find meaning in the deep, loving, and trusting relationships that I have with my life partner, my friends, and my family.  I find meaning in the smile on my niece's face, and the grunts that come from her mouth, when I ask her if she wants to play monkey.  All of these experiences contribute to the person that I am and have helped me to mature into the adult that I am today.

Who will care for you when you're old?
Probably the same people who will care for you: the nurses, doctors, and orderlies in the nursing home that your children put you in.  Additionally, if one of the main reasons why you want to have kids is so that someone will care for you when you're old, then you're being incredibly selfish.  Additionally you are assuming that your child will actually love you enough to take care of you in your elder years.  You can be the greatest parent ever and still end up with adult children who hate you.  I wouldn't plan your retirement assuming that your kids will care for you.

But isn't that kind of selfish?
Admittedly, at least in my own experience, I am met with this reaction less and less these days.  But I still get it regularly enough.  I guess you could say that it's selfish of me to not want to give up going out of town on a moment's notice, or to give up sleeping in on the weekends and having a long lazy morning.  And I'm not sorry about that.  I don't want kids because I don't want to begrudge them or resent them because I had to give those things up.  Unfortunately, too many parents end up doing exactly that.  The truly selfish ones are those that have kids because "That's what people do," or because "Kids are so cute and I love playing with them."  Regarding the latter, if you want kids because they're fun and cute, get a job in a daycare center or a day camp.  Regarding the former, having kids because it's another milestone in life that everyone goes through is probably the worst reason to have a child.  You are bringing a human life into the world.  This is not like taking a shitty job or moving into an apartment in sketchy neighborhood when you're in college.  You can change those things, but you can't change the fact that you brought a human life into the world.  If you have kids because you think it might make you feel better, or that you'll seem like more of an adult in the eyes of others, then you are the selfish one.
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In the end, the people hurt most by these types of responses are not people like myself and my partner, but parents and children.  The responses I go into detail about above are part of a larger juggernaut of social pressure  and obligation to reproduce.  Many, but not all, parents became parents not because they truly wanted to.  They became parents because it was expected of them.  They never questioned their desire to have children.  They never asked themselves "Is it me that wants to have children?  Or is it other people?" So many people bring children into this world without considering what it truly means to create a human life. I'll give a pass to those that have children at very young ages.  Often very young parents made a mistake, and they know it.  What I cannot every respect is those who have kids because that just what you do at a certain age.  Your child is not a new car.  Your child is not a college education.  Your child is a human being and you'd better be damn sure that you are ready and aware of what a monumental task this is.  If you haven't done that but you still had kids, then you are a selfish prick who is potentially going to create and subsequently destroy a life.  

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