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Child-free in the Modern World

miksang photo by Charles Blackhall

miksang photo by Charles Blackhall

article by Crystal Gandrud

About a year ago my 10-year-old niece asked me if I was happy without children. I replied in the affirmative, adding, “And I really like spending time with you.” She was pensive for a while and then she said, “I think maybe I don’t want children either.” In that moment, I had an opportunity to respond differently than I had been responded to. Instead of knowingly assuring her that she’d grow up and change her mind or saying Don’t be silly, how will you know what true love/meaning is if you don’t?, I said, “You may not have children, or you might, either way you can have a fulfilling life.” Then she moved on to her fantasy about owning a koala farm and I felt pleased with the way I had handled the topic.

My niece’s comment may reflect her generation’s attitude toward having children. It turns out that when I knew I didn’t want children at a young age, I was reflecting a future statistic. We are in the middle of a childless revolution. According to the U.S. census bureau, a little more than 1 in 6 women over 40 are childless. The birthrate is at an all-time low, dropping incrementally every year. Predictions that immigration or science would boost the numbers have fizzled in both North America and Europe. If other sociological trends are anything to go by, we’re unlikely to turn back once we have gone this far down a particular path. In short, more and more people in the future will be childless and/or child-free. (“Child-free” describes those who are content with the situation; “childless” is used when that cannot be known.)

Statistics aside, being child-free is still an incendiary topic…for now. I can attest to a legion of unsolicited comments on an almost weekly basis. Unpleansantries range from condescending to downright cruel. Most hurtful comments focus on either my loveless existence or fear of what is in store for me as I age. If children represent anything besides love, it is the future.

I have been asked if I hate children; how I could be so selfish; who will take care of me when I’m old; do I feel sad and/or lonely; what if I regret it later. I have been warned that my life will be incomplete or meaningless; that I cannot know what real love is; that I am missing out on the best thing in life; and (my personal favorite because of its logic—which I hear less now that I’m on the other side of 40), “You think you don’t want children, but once you have them you’ll change your mind.” I have also repeatedly heard that childless women are less sane as they get older than women with children. Buddhists like to repeat that “a child was going to be reborn anyway so why not give her or him a Buddhist rebirth?” (Studying the Twelve Nidanas would make neat mince of this belief.) Even people who mean to be supportive or sympathetic will imply that I’m child-free because I want all my resources to myself.

The minute humans have choice about anything, we begin to develop and hone opinions about that choice. Around the time that we developed meaningful control over how many children we can have, how many children to have developed into opinion rather than unavoidable fact. To have or not have children is an issue that invites so much opinion precisely because it is important. Demands to explain yourself, however, are beginning to trend the other way. Many thoughtful mainstream books and essays have been published in the past ten years mulling over the data and landing (often with refined ambivalence) on the childless side of the argument. The question is slowly evolving from Why don’t you have kids? to Why do you have kids?

Consciously or not, resources affect human behavior. We are more and more aware of just how vulnerable the earth is in hosting us. Even diehard limited resource deniers are beginning to admit that we’re in for a bumpy night. We are also increasingly aware of the limitlessness of human suffering. It gets harder to feel all romantic and cozy about having babies when you know details about their grueling lives in other parts of the world. By the time my niece is of childbearing age, considerations of resources and extensive suffering will likely play a much larger role in procreative decisions than they currently do.

With opinion comes its natural attendants: judging others and believing one is on the moral high ground. Whether is it selfish or not to have or not have children, it is certainly self-absorbed to demand that others do or have what we do or have. I am confident that the vast majority of people without children have thought about it…often quite deeply, whether it was ultimately a choice or an enforced reality brought about by circumstances beyond our control. The truth is that I know things those with children will not know, like what it’s like to not have children for example. Truly, there is no need to enlist others in our own experience, no matter how meaningful they may be to us.

Undeniably, raising good human beings is meaningful, but I am here to say that being with my niece and nephew and a few friends’ children has been incredibly enriching, too. And I offer those children a window into an alternative that will become more and more common. I offer them a positive example of someone who did not do the assumed procreative thing—and I’m just fine. Existing outside the assumed norm is always a useful contribution to society; it augments and enriches our understanding of reality.

Thinking about the conversation with my niece later, it occurred to me that many of the responses I had received when I had ventured that I might not want children were a not-so-subtle way of denying my self-knowing. By telling my niece she can do what she likes with her womb, I am positively responding to both her insight (whether fleeting or lasting) and the realities of having a female body. I did not imply that urges or sense would overtake her later and she would do something socially acceptable that she didn’t want to do (or wasn’t sure she wanted to do). I don’t care whether my niece has children or not, in part because I am know that a meaningful life full of love is entirely possible without giving birth or adopting.

On his child-free status, Samuel Beckett said, “Neither I nor my wife can bear the thought of committing a child to death.” (I’m right there with you, Sam, but I’m a recovering nihilist.) Some of us want children. Some of us do not. Some of us want children but we cannot have them (for a kazillion different reasons). Some of us might not have had children but accidents or social pressure prevailed. All of us can know love and notice our tendency to enlist others in our opinions about this most significant of life’s realities.

Buddhists train in observing our opinions about absolutely everything as they arise and cease. When we notice opinions, the instruction is to have a sense of humor about it and not take them (or any of our thoughts) so seriously. If performed gently, it can be fun to make note of how opinions make us feel. Do we feel great? Are we relaxed when judging? Not usually. We are not trying to stop judging—that is a useless endeavor—but we are training in noticing. Noticing organically softens opinion and we relax a little. In this realm, it means seeing all our rationales and beliefs around having children or not having children without believing any of it. And then being just a little bit kinder to all the dying people we know, both young and old.

~~
Crystal GandrudCrystal Gandrud
is an experimental writer who work has appeared in London, Paris, New York and Ireland. Her most recent publications are “Xeno’s Paradox (Can Also Be Filed Under Zede)”, The Encyclopedia Project (2015). In collaboration with painter Nuala Clarke, she has developed an online installation entitled Dream of the Drawing for Everything. She is a Shambhala Vajrayana Buddhist and lives in Boston, Massachusetts and Normandy, France.

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5 responses to “ Child-free in the Modern World ”
  1. Jeanne Cain
    Aug 21, 2015
    Reply

    I appreciate your exploration of this topic, Crystal. It has given me a chance to ponder my life from new angles. Thought provoking.

  2. Nick Wright
    Aug 21, 2015
    Reply

    Interesting topic, and well-considered by Ms Gandrud. There is another approach: “If I have a child, that is fine; if I don’t have a child, that is also fine.” But it may be difficult, or rare, to be so dispassionate about it.

    Feeling compelled, by strong desire or aversion, either to have or not to have children (or anything else in our lives) should inspire us to examine our motivation and to develop greater clarity around the issue, rather than acting out of compulsion one way or the other.

    If we then decide to go ahead and have a child, he or she will tend to be born into a saner, more open environment, one less fraught with the anxiety that always comes with compulsion. If we decide not to have a child, we will tend to be more confident about the decision and less prone to doubt later on. Having the courage to examine and let go of compulsion is an expression of freedom.

    On another hand, where there is no strong desire one way or another, being open to whatever spontaneously arises, and being content to go along with that completely, is also an expression of freedom–whether there is a child or not.

    I always smile when I see people trying to build their lives based on strong concepts about this and that. I also smile when I see people trying to impose those same concepts on others, but not quite so much.

  3. Crystal, thanks for your article.

    Actually, I was interested in reading more from you, and Google wasn’t helpful in directing me to your recent reference…Xeno’s Paradox. Can you help me get to it?

    Regards,

    Ira Zukerman

  4. Jay Lippman
    Aug 20, 2015
    Reply

    Yes, this is such a difficult issue, especially these days considering everything that is happening in the world around us. I appreciate your thoughts Crystal. Still, when I see a group of young Shambhalians I sometimes can’t help but think that we elders are looking at our future parents.

  5. I so appreciated your article, Crystal. It was a topic I seldom see explored. Becoming a mother happened to me after I got married, and I would probably not have done it if my husband hadn’t wanted children. So my experience was as a woman who never considered herself a mother actually becoming a mother and living with that reality. Some women want motherhood. They have vision of themselves as mothers. When you see yourself as a mother before you become one, you become a different kind of mother than if you had lived without that vision for yourself. I’m sure that my mothering style has produced children who feel different about themselves than children whose mothers always expected to have them. It has caused me some sadness to realize that my children might have gotten a raw deal, even though I love them and did my best.
    Your encouragement to do the Buddhist thing and look at how this realization makes me feel has been illuminating. I hope we hear more from you on this page.


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