It never occurred to me that parenting could be a choice (like many other conventions of course). When I first heard about it from an acquaintance , the idea of choosing not be a parent was truly shocking to me, to say the least. I couldn’t comprehend the reasons behind the sentiment. But that was 8 years ago. My perception, view, and understanding of world and people has widened to a non-trivial extent since then.😛 And now besides being curious about the phenomenon, I can totally understand the decision.
I, like most, have been led to believe that raising offspring is the most meaningful aspect of one’s life. What about happiness? Of course, having and raising kids is the source of unsurpassed happiness. Isn’t it? But academic research had not been so conclusive about it. In fact, several research studies suggest that young parents are far unhappier compared to non-parents. The happiness benefits rather seem to roll in much later for the parents – when the kids are grown up. Hmm! Such a dismal outcome!😦
That parenting is an ordeal is undeniable. It is exhausting physically and emotionally. And the expectations of “modern parenting” only add to the anxiety. According to Jennifer Senior, the concept of parenting and childhood as exists today is only about 70 years old. In the past, kids used to work and were treated as economic assets. Now, kids are economically worthless but emotionally priceless, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer puts it . Jennifer, the author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, says that the happiness of our kids is an unfair burden both for parents and kids. We should instead focus on creating circumstances in which they become productive and confident. Happiness can only be a by-product (Listen). Despite the parenting crisis, parents usually vouch for the contentment it brings along the way. Nevertheless, when someone decides not to have kids due to the above or any other reason, they need and should not be judged.
I would think this particular phenomenon has been on an increasing trend in recent times. But maybe not universally. It is mostly seen in advanced/developed societies. This observation brings up many interesting questions. Where is it most prevalent? It is in individualistic societies or collectivist societies? What other cultural and social factors are correlated to this trend? (Adding to my to-read list: Japan: The Childless Society?: The Crisis of Motherhood.) Is it because people have become selfish, shallow and self-absorbed?
Meghan Daum tried to probe the question through “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed” a collection of essays from 16 writers who “chose” not to have kids (a few decades ago). I don’t know what I hoped for, but the reasons they cited for their decision are not very dramatic. The simplest and most straight-forward reason is that they never liked kids, never felt any emotional attachment to any kids, and hence did not envision themselves raising any. Other reasons included: not ready or up to take on the huge responsibility; didn’t think they could do a good job; to focus on career passion etc. Whatever the reason, the decision was not always an easy one, given the social expectations and personal dilemma. But this may be changing recently and the practice is gaining wider acceptance. A 2012 statistic states that 22 percent of women in 40-44 age bracket are childless by choice. (Source).
To choose to be childless, especially for a woman, is largely perceived as very unnatural. This is due to the pervasive notion that women are mothers first and people second. But as Laura Kipnis explores in her piece in the above book, the mother-child bond is highly overrated and has evolved only more recently. She questions and explores the so called “maternal instincts”.
Another interesting observation made in the book was the possible implications of this decision. If a significant proportion of a particular segment of people, say for example, highly educated white people, decide not to have kids, will it not result in an imbalance in the genetic mix of the next generation? Well, maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s part of the grand scheme called the “human evolution”!🙂 Also, of course there could be economic implications – lesser workforce, greater social security costs, school enrollments, vaccine demand etc. (See here).