Don’t want kids? That’s not necessarily selfish. But it can be misguided.

(Olga Bogatyrenko/Bigstock) Last week, Caroline Miranda proclaimed that “childfree adults are not selfish” in a column for Time.  “This should … Continued

(Olga Bogatyrenko/Bigstock)

Last week, Caroline Miranda proclaimed that “childfree adults are not selfish” in a column for Time.  “This should not seem that radical,” she suggests, yet she details many ways that people treat her own childlessness as selfish.  Miranda offers a defense, naming her care of parents and friends as visible signs that she and her husband are not selfish.

Perhaps it will seem surprising for a Catholic moral theologian, but I agree with much of what she writes.  After all, how could I think otherwise, when we have the witness of childless couples, monks, nuns and priests who do many unselfish things?  I worry, too about the ways Christians are often guilty of shaming infertile couples for not having children, which unfairly emphasizes that pain.

Furthermore, some of Miranda’s reasons for not having children – for example, the economic concerns she names – can coincide with Catholic teaching on acceptable reasons for deciding that the present moment is not a time to try for children.

It is quite possible, too, to have children with some selfish motivations, especially the desire to have children of a particular gender.

So, Miranda is right to want to speak against our very strong cultural sense childlessness is selfish.

Yet in her attempt to discuss why being childless is not selfish, Miranda undermines her own argument.  One of the reasons she offers for choosing not to be a parent is that neither she nor her husband is baby-parenting material.  She suggests the way her husband holds a six-month-old baby awkwardly as an example, which confirms for her an almost biological reality: she and her husband cannot parent.  Miranda’s description suggests an underlying sense that some people are made for parenting and we can see that in how they act around and toward children.

Miranda’s assumed view that parenting is innate is at least as strongly held culturally as the idea that “childlessness is selfish” – and it is at least as strange a view to hold.  Both views make strong, generalized presumptions about others that are not carefully based in the reality of those other peoples’ lives.  If I awkwardly hold my own six-month-old (and believe me, I was not a “natural” at baby-holding) does that imply I, too, am not baby-parenting material?

What is more troublesome, though, is that this made for parenting idea is akin to a prominent cultural view of what love is supposed to be.  We also have the idea that couples must be made for each other.  The idea of “the one” or a soul mate all point to an innate sense of love: that there must be a particular kind of feeling or chemistry, or there really is no chance of love there.  That view of love is proclaimed not only in fictitious romantic comedies but it is there in the rationales real people offer for why they enter or leave relationships: “There is/is not that spark or connection.”

While we do often try to live and love this way, ultimately I suggest that this is neither the way we want to be loved by others nor is it an unselfish view.  A view that sees love as inherently innate is a view that enables people to love only those that they see as prescribed for them. It sees that love can only be enacted in reference to the kinds of love behaviors that are built into us.  Both of those are self-referential and focused solely on the individual who needs to do the loving, rather than the person he or she is in a position to love.  That’s selfishness.

It is not the view of love as innate, in other words, that enables Miranda to care for and love her father as he deals with brain cancer.  I doubt that at the age of one or 10 or even 20 she thought about whether she possessed the innate characteristics that might enable her to love, whether she decided then how she’d do things if it got to that point.  She loves him.

To love her friends and family does not mean that she has all the capabilities necessary to care for them, but it means she will find ways to give them what they need, including finding others who do have those capabilities.  To love them also means that she’s learning, with each new event – the illness, the niece going to college – what it means to love.

Lovers are made, not born, just as much as love is more an action than it is a feeling.  Many parents look at their newborn children in awe and have a “feeling” of connection, but just as many look at their children and find themselves concerned: “I have no feeling at all for this person.” (How many women with post-partum depression have agonized over that lack of “feeling”?)

The point is not the feeling or the innateness.  The point is that there are people who are dependent on you and part of your life.  It isn’t only children who are part of our lives in this way –though from a Catholic view, that is the most dependent it gets.  It is also parents and neighbors and friends and strangers.

What will our response to them be?   The hope is that all along the way, we will learn to love.

Jana Bennett is associate professor of moral theology at the University of Dayton.

 

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  • allinthistogether

    And, we have reached the point at which parents having more than one child per parent is inherently selfish, in that as the population grows we are killing off entire species every day – and those species have just as much right to live as we do. It is “species imperialism” to believe otherwise. There is no reasonable argument that more humans are needed on this earth, what we need is fewer people with a higher and more wisely informed quality of life.

    We do need to solve the economic challenge of maintaining a healthy economy without a growing population, but we are smart enough to do that.

  • allinthistogether

    And, we have reached the point at which parents having more than one child per parent is inherently selfish, in that as the population grows we are killing off entire species every day – and those species have just as much right to live as we do. It is “species imperialism” to believe otherwise. There is no reasonable argument that more humans are needed on this earth, what we need is fewer people with a higher and more wisely informed quality of life.

    We do need to solve the economic challenge of maintaining a healthy economy without a growing population, but we are smart enough to do that.

  • malusk03

    But doesn’t not having kids destroy the sanctity of marriage? After all, that’s it’s only purpose, or so the preachers keep telling us.

  • malusk03

    But doesn’t not having kids destroy the sanctity of marriage? After all, that’s it’s only purpose, or so the preachers keep telling us.

  • Samoset

    as the republicans work to make contraception expense and hard to get … closing the clinics where all women can get information on contraception …

  • Samoset

    as the republicans work to make contraception expense and hard to get … closing the clinics where all women can get information on contraception …

  • Samoset

    “What will our response to them be?..”

    To sit down and get your creepy fingers out of other people”s lives.

    Go “love” someone but adopting one or two of the 100,000+ children waiting for a loving forever home.

    Mentor in school … work in a soup kitchen … run for office – try to make a difference …

    The time wasted in this self-indulgent rambling article could have been put to better use …

  • Samoset

    “What will our response to them be?..”

    To sit down and get your creepy fingers out of other people”s lives.

    Go “love” someone but adopting one or two of the 100,000+ children waiting for a loving forever home.

    Mentor in school … work in a soup kitchen … run for office – try to make a difference …

    The time wasted in this self-indulgent rambling article could have been put to better use …

  • Hildy J

    This harkens back to the old catholic view that good women are either nuns or breeders.

  • Hildy J

    This harkens back to the old catholic view that good women are either nuns or breeders.

  • Catken1

    People learn to love in many, many different ways. Some learn to love more when they have kids – some have kids and never do love them, which is tragic for the kids. Some learn to love by throwing themselves into a lifework that suits them, building a circle of friends, being a teacher/counselor/mentor/guide, by protecting or caring for perfect strangers as police officers, firefighters, soldiers, or by devoting themselves to other forms of service.
    I agree that too often people focus on love as a spark rather than something that is built and nurtured. But one can nurture that flame in all sorts of ways – you don’t need to have kids.

  • Catken1

    People learn to love in many, many different ways. Some learn to love more when they have kids – some have kids and never do love them, which is tragic for the kids. Some learn to love by throwing themselves into a lifework that suits them, building a circle of friends, being a teacher/counselor/mentor/guide, by protecting or caring for perfect strangers as police officers, firefighters, soldiers, or by devoting themselves to other forms of service.
    I agree that too often people focus on love as a spark rather than something that is built and nurtured. But one can nurture that flame in all sorts of ways – you don’t need to have kids.

  • drmammal1

    I agree with Miranda. I am a 50-year-old, well educated, married female and do not have children. I have a great circle of friends, all of whom do. My career requires a lot of travel, many times overseas for extended periods of time (I am not in the military). I love my job, I love the opportunities I get to travel and meet and work with people of other cultures and belief systems, so does my husband. When he is able to retire, we fully intend to keep that up and are considering volunteering with the Peace Corps. I don’t believe it is in anyway “selfish” not to have children. To successfully raise and nurture children to be self-sufficient, open-minded, educated adults is a significant commitment. I applaud those parents who have chosen to do so. I was not willing to make the commitment I felt was necessary to do that successfully. What I have chosen to do is volunteer teaching science in inner city elementary schools, mentor middle and high school students during science-fair season, again at inner city schools, and try to be a role model for young girls in these schools as a successful scientist. Have I missed out on some things, more than likely. Do I regret the choice I made, no. Do I think not having my own children has somehow made me a “bad” person, again no. I, like Miranda, chose a different path, “the road less travelled” to quote Frost, and for me, that has made all the difference.

  • drmammal1

    I agree with Miranda. I am a 50-year-old, well educated, married female and do not have children. I have a great circle of friends, all of whom do. My career requires a lot of travel, many times overseas for extended periods of time (I am not in the military). I love my job, I love the opportunities I get to travel and meet and work with people of other cultures and belief systems, so does my husband. When he is able to retire, we fully intend to keep that up and are considering volunteering with the Peace Corps. I don’t believe it is in anyway “selfish” not to have children. To successfully raise and nurture children to be self-sufficient, open-minded, educated adults is a significant commitment. I applaud those parents who have chosen to do so. I was not willing to make the commitment I felt was necessary to do that successfully. What I have chosen to do is volunteer teaching science in inner city elementary schools, mentor middle and high school students during science-fair season, again at inner city schools, and try to be a role model for young girls in these schools as a successful scientist. Have I missed out on some things, more than likely. Do I regret the choice I made, no. Do I think not having my own children has somehow made me a “bad” person, again no. I, like Miranda, chose a different path, “the road less travelled” to quote Frost, and for me, that has made all the difference.

  • ranyhyn

    “some selfish motivations”

    Some? Who says, ‘I want to have children to benefit my culture/species?’ Few of us put that anywhere on the list, let alone at the top. The primary driver of reproduction is an inherent need to pass on one’s own genetic material – arguably a very selfish trait, though a very ancient and basic one, too. Anybody who says ‘I want kids,’ rather than ‘I should have kids’ is working from a selfish standpoint. ‘I want kids because they’ll make me feel this or that, they’ll grow up to be this or that (which, hey! will make me feel this or that), etc.’ Anything that start with an ‘I want’ and doesn’t have a ‘but’ in there somewhere describes a basically selfish motivation.

    The person who says, ‘I want kids, but how will THEY feel, growing up in these circumstances?’ – that person is looking beyond their own satisfaction.

  • ranyhyn

    “some selfish motivations”

    Some? Who says, ‘I want to have children to benefit my culture/species?’ Few of us put that anywhere on the list, let alone at the top. The primary driver of reproduction is an inherent need to pass on one’s own genetic material – arguably a very selfish trait, though a very ancient and basic one, too. Anybody who says ‘I want kids,’ rather than ‘I should have kids’ is working from a selfish standpoint. ‘I want kids because they’ll make me feel this or that, they’ll grow up to be this or that (which, hey! will make me feel this or that), etc.’ Anything that start with an ‘I want’ and doesn’t have a ‘but’ in there somewhere describes a basically selfish motivation.

    The person who says, ‘I want kids, but how will THEY feel, growing up in these circumstances?’ – that person is looking beyond their own satisfaction.

  • edbyronadams

    Everybody has a mother. Hidden in that adage is the truth that for everyone on the planet, somebody took the considerable effort to bear and raise them. I can’t see taking that gift and not paying it forward as anything else but selfish. Everyone has the freedom to make that choice and the freedom to rationalize it, but , to use another current adage, it is what it is.

  • edbyronadams

    Everybody has a mother. Hidden in that adage is the truth that for everyone on the planet, somebody took the considerable effort to bear and raise them. I can’t see taking that gift and not paying it forward as anything else but selfish. Everyone has the freedom to make that choice and the freedom to rationalize it, but , to use another current adage, it is what it is.

  • Labelle Trawler

    As a Catholic male from a family of ten, that feels like I raised four childen; I say no to any contribution to the gene bank. Anyone who thinks thats’s selfish can kiss my ***.
    Not having childern has nothing to do with love; but it sure gave me a chance to travel a lot in the passed 40yrs.

  • Labelle Trawler

    As a Catholic male from a family of ten, that feels like I raised four childen; I say no to any contribution to the gene bank. Anyone who thinks thats’s selfish can kiss my ***.
    Not having childern has nothing to do with love; but it sure gave me a chance to travel a lot in the passed 40yrs.

  • haveaheart

    Far too many couples have children without thinking about whether they want them.

    They do it because it’s expected that they will. Or because it’s assumed that they will. Or because it’s the next step in life’s journey. Or whatever.

    But most don’t ask themselves if they WANT to have children before they go ahead and have them.

    And they should.

    Does this sound selfish? Well, how selfish is it to be a person who, deep down, doesn’t really want to have kids — to raise them, nurture them, teach them — but does it anyway? No kid should be raised by a parent who doesn’t really want to be a parent.

    There is nothing morally, ethically, or socially wrong about not having kids because you don’t want kids. And the people in your life who insist, “Oh, just wait ’til you hold her/him in your arms; you’ll feel 100% differently” are advocating a very dangerous and risky game of roulette.

    Shaming people because they choose not to have children is reprehensible in a society that struggles with so many aspects of child culture — education, abuse, violence, intellect, bullying, nutrition, role models, neglect, overparenting, etc.

    People who don’t want children SHOULD choose not to have them. It’s their only ethical choice.

    Asking oneself the big question — Do I want to be a parent? — and trying to answer it honestly are two enormous responsibilities that every adult should take on before ditching the birth control.

  • haveaheart

    Far too many couples have children without thinking about whether they want them.

    They do it because it’s expected that they will. Or because it’s assumed that they will. Or because it’s the next step in life’s journey. Or whatever.

    But most don’t ask themselves if they WANT to have children before they go ahead and have them.

    And they should.

    Does this sound selfish? Well, how selfish is it to be a person who, deep down, doesn’t really want to have kids — to raise them, nurture them, teach them — but does it anyway? No kid should be raised by a parent who doesn’t really want to be a parent.

    There is nothing morally, ethically, or socially wrong about not having kids because you don’t want kids. And the people in your life who insist, “Oh, just wait ’til you hold her/him in your arms; you’ll feel 100% differently” are advocating a very dangerous and risky game of roulette.

    Shaming people because they choose not to have children is reprehensible in a society that struggles with so many aspects of child culture — education, abuse, violence, intellect, bullying, nutrition, role models, neglect, overparenting, etc.

    People who don’t want children SHOULD choose not to have them. It’s their only ethical choice.

    Asking oneself the big question — Do I want to be a parent? — and trying to answer it honestly are two enormous responsibilities that every adult should take on before ditching the birth control.

  • pjs-1965

    I am child free. Mostly because I never ever had even the remotest desire to have children. The idea of being a parent never even entered into my plans for life for a second. Anyone who tells me I should have done otherwise can stuff it. It’s not selfish to choose not to bring yet more people in an already overpopulated world. Quite the opposite.

    The decision whether or not to have children is a personal one that should not be judged by others. One reason why I am a former catholic.

  • pjs-1965

    I am child free. Mostly because I never ever had even the remotest desire to have children. The idea of being a parent never even entered into my plans for life for a second. Anyone who tells me I should have done otherwise can stuff it. It’s not selfish to choose not to bring yet more people in an already overpopulated world. Quite the opposite.

    The decision whether or not to have children is a personal one that should not be judged by others. One reason why I am a former catholic.

  • Catken1

    “I can’t see taking that gift and not paying it forward as anything else but selfish”

    There are plenty of ways to pay that gift forward without being a physical or adoptive parent oneself. (And plenty of people were raised by selfish, cruel, neglectful or abusive mothers – do they owe the next generation less than children who had loving, caring, capable mothers?)
    Before a person has children, they ought to consider whether they can and will provide that child with the care and support every child deserves. If they can’t or won’t, it’s much better to contribute to the future in other ways, more suited to their talents and inclinations.

  • Catken1

    “I can’t see taking that gift and not paying it forward as anything else but selfish”

    There are plenty of ways to pay that gift forward without being a physical or adoptive parent oneself. (And plenty of people were raised by selfish, cruel, neglectful or abusive mothers – do they owe the next generation less than children who had loving, caring, capable mothers?)
    Before a person has children, they ought to consider whether they can and will provide that child with the care and support every child deserves. If they can’t or won’t, it’s much better to contribute to the future in other ways, more suited to their talents and inclinations.

  • KerryBoehm_

    So what’s wrong with being selfish? I don’t see the point of all this. If you want kids, have them, If you don’t then be sure to use birth control. I can’t stand either side of this pointless argument. On the one side you have folks telling people it is their duty to have kids and if you don’t you’re selfish. Well, I’m selfish and proud of it. On the other hand you have the childfree getting pissed off when they are asked the question, which I also see as pointless. Talking about kids is almost like talking about the weather. I don’t see why people get so touchy about it. I am in the childfree camp, not because I hate kids or anything, just that I hate having to be responsible

  • KerryBoehm_

    So what’s wrong with being selfish? I don’t see the point of all this. If you want kids, have them, If you don’t then be sure to use birth control. I can’t stand either side of this pointless argument. On the one side you have folks telling people it is their duty to have kids and if you don’t you’re selfish. Well, I’m selfish and proud of it. On the other hand you have the childfree getting pissed off when they are asked the question, which I also see as pointless. Talking about kids is almost like talking about the weather. I don’t see why people get so touchy about it. I am in the childfree camp, not because I hate kids or anything, just that I hate having to be responsible

  • leibowde84

    Why is it unselfish to have children?! Not that it’s bad either way, but to claim that it is somehow “good” to overpopulate the world even more is pretty idiotic. Then they claim that, even though it is illogical to push people to have children, it is “God’s will?!” Give me a freaking break.

  • leibowde84

    Why is it unselfish to have children?! Not that it’s bad either way, but to claim that it is somehow “good” to overpopulate the world even more is pretty idiotic. Then they claim that, even though it is illogical to push people to have children, it is “God’s will?!” Give me a freaking break.

  • mormonpatriot

    What if we sit back a second and think about the persons of most consideration in this question? I believe that the gift of life – the opportunity to live – is the greatest gift that two people can give to another. The question of whether a person gets a chance at life or not seems to me of more concern than whether the parents get to travel a lot, or have more money and time for a few decades, or engage in whatever else they find interesting for the rest of their life. I guess it’s comes from my feeling that life is inherently good, and so are people. I also believe that people are the best resource we have on this earth, and that people are what solve problems.

    Let’s be real about this – the Earth is completely capable of supporting all the life on it now, plus who knows how many more people. It is simply a matter of using our resources responsibly; working together and not against each other. Technology has vastly improved our ability even in the past couple centuries to raise food far beyond what it used to be, and to employ land that centuries ago wouldn’t have been considered arable. We can expect more of the same in any reasonable version of the future. If the issue to you is energy or other resources, let’s not pretend there aren’t solutions to that either. The point is, we’ve been more than capable as far as technology to address these issues, but the problems which prevent all the world’s population from partaking in these blessings are economic and political. In other words, selfishness.

    But it’s not that simple, is it? I think Americans in particular today are just not confident enough in their ability to solve problems. They tend to look to others (e.g., government) to solve their problems, and when those problems include people and relationships, the result is unfortunate. I guess I would just say that I know that there is nothing which calls for as much sacrifice as good parenting, but that its rewards are equally immense, for all concerned.

  • mormonpatriot

    What if we sit back a second and think about the persons of most consideration in this question? I believe that the gift of life – the opportunity to live – is the greatest gift that two people can give to another. The question of whether a person gets a chance at life or not seems to me of more concern than whether the parents get to travel a lot, or have more money and time for a few decades, or engage in whatever else they find interesting for the rest of their life. I guess it’s comes from my feeling that life is inherently good, and so are people. I also believe that people are the best resource we have on this earth, and that people are what solve problems.

    Let’s be real about this – the Earth is completely capable of supporting all the life on it now, plus who knows how many more people. It is simply a matter of using our resources responsibly; working together and not against each other. Technology has vastly improved our ability even in the past couple centuries to raise food far beyond what it used to be, and to employ land that centuries ago wouldn’t have been considered arable. We can expect more of the same in any reasonable version of the future. If the issue to you is energy or other resources, let’s not pretend there aren’t solutions to that either. The point is, we’ve been more than capable as far as technology to address these issues, but the problems which prevent all the world’s population from partaking in these blessings are economic and political. In other words, selfishness.

    But it’s not that simple, is it? I think Americans in particular today are just not confident enough in their ability to solve problems. They tend to look to others (e.g., government) to solve their problems, and when those problems include people and relationships, the result is unfortunate. I guess I would just say that I know that there is nothing which calls for as much sacrifice as good parenting, but that its rewards are equally immense, for all concerned.

  • Lalande21185

    As a grandparent and father of two, I can say with confidence (now that I am nearing the end of my own life), that of all that I have experienced, watching my children grow from infants to adulthood has been the greatest joy of my life. Weighed in the balance, the sum total of everything else I have done, seen, or in any other way been part of, does not compare to having and raising children.

    Selfish? What an odd word to describe willfully depriving one’s self of the greatest of all possible experiences.

  • Lalande21185

    As a grandparent and father of two, I can say with confidence (now that I am nearing the end of my own life), that of all that I have experienced, watching my children grow from infants to adulthood has been the greatest joy of my life. Weighed in the balance, the sum total of everything else I have done, seen, or in any other way been part of, does not compare to having and raising children.

    Selfish? What an odd word to describe willfully depriving one’s self of the greatest of all possible experiences.