In my observation, it seems there is a slight tension between women who are child free and women with children. While this is not always the case, I have felt there is an invisible dance of quiet comparison. Though I don’t usually receive much negativity in regards to my reproductive choices, I have been called selfish. Some people seem put-off and uncomfortable by the word child free. Perhaps there are some internet harpies who go too far in denouncing those with children as breeders. There is also a certain ageism in the framing of “child-free.” Imagine labeling yourself “elder-free” or “disabled-free” to denote the lack of elderly people or people with disabilities in your life. This would come across as…well, quite offensive. Childfree is a push back against childless. The former is meant to honor the choice of not having children, whereas childless denotes that something is missing. So that is why it is used, though perhaps a better, less ageist term should be invented.
A few weeks ago, I was curious and decided to Google “Are child free people happier?” In a brief overview of some articles, it would seem that yes, this is true. At least, if happiness is measured as relationship satisfaction, child free people tend to be happier in their relationships. Of course, this kind of casual internet searching is a bit pointless, since happiness and meaning are so subjective. Nevertheless, I did come upon a blog which asserted that people without children live empty lives. Since it has been sitting in my head for a while, I decided to address it. http://thoughtcatalog.com/sarah-larson/2014/01/i-think-people-without-kids-have-empty-lives-and-im-not-sorry-about-it/
The main points of the blog are A. There are truths you can only know if you become a parent. B. Parenting allows people to experience “firsts”, transmit values, and learn humanity. C. Parenting teaches deep love and selflessness. D. Kids create stability and center. E. Children help you to live more purposefully. There may be other points, but these are the ones that I will hone in on.
A: There are truths you can only know if you become a parent. I think, to some degree this is true. Just as there are some truths you only know if you are a member of a communist party or some truths you only know by studying sociology. I don’t know what it is like to be pregnant or become a parent, just as I don’t know what it is like to go to war or be a man. A parent may not know the truths of being a single, child free, feminists. Certainly, experiences give insights. So yes, parenting would give individuals certain insights. I guess, where I disagree is that these truths are somehow more valuable or meaningful. While these experience may give certain authority to speak on matters of parenting, just as being a veteran of war might give authority to speak on war, there is a diversity of experiences! Some soldiers go to war, yet love their country and support future wars. Some go to war and become life long pacifists. I don’t believe there is any ONE truth of parenting, just as there is no singular experience of parenting.
B. Parenting allows individuals to transmit culture, values, and “firsts.” Again, I can’t argue there. However, teaching and youth work do the same. A college professor, who meets young adults as they are leaving their families can also play a pivotal role in transmitting values…and even challenging values. Volunteering, mentoring, teaching, baby sitting, coaching, etc. are each ways that adults can partake in the socialization of young people. And while parents certainly play a central role early in life, as children age, peers, school, television, larger culture…and so on begin to replace the role of parents in this regard.
C. Parenting teaches deep love and selflessness. Well, it can. It is hard to measure deep love and selflessness, but there are certainly parents who are selfish, abusive, egotistical, and neglectful. There are also parents who become parents not out of selflessness, but by accident or because they are lonely, want to control someone, hadn’t thought about it, or thought it would make life meaningful. These are not terribly noble and selfless motivations. And, to the “good” parents, what option is there? The dominant narrative of parenting is that it is a meaningful sacrifice. It is thankless work done out of deep love. So, parents who are not deeply loving and selfless (i.e. maybe they don’t want to buy so many toys, they want a vacation, they want to have their kid out of the house more, they don’t want their kid to play hockey or have braces, etc.) can feel guilty that they aren’t a martyr. Really, this is a terrible narrative. It is a narrative that is used to justify the unpaid labor of women and child centered consumerism. It is also a narrative that makes parents compete with other parents in the production of childhood. What is the production of childhood? It is the tireless efforts of parents to produce a happy childhood for their children. The children consume this childhood…entirely alienated from the sacrifices and work that their parents put into it.
D. Children create stability and center. This may also be true, as having children does put a damper on some options. It makes it harder to go on an Antarctic expedition, for instance. Children create an extra consideration in life, which would lend itself to stability and center (resistance to change.) I don’t really idealize these things, so I won’t argue there.
E. Children help you to live more purposefully. Again, this is a generalization. What is purpose? What makes one person’s purpose better than another’s? There are certainly purposeful people who do activism or volunteering. Some nurses and doctors do work in developing countries. Some teachers work in low income schools. There are professors who teach in prisons and war zones. There are researchers who develop cures for diseases. There are advocates for people with disabilities, victims of abuse, those who have been trafficked, undocumented workers, and so on. These all seem pretty purposeful to me. Is the average parent more purposeful than the average cancer researcher? How can these things be measured against each other when they are so different?
The truth of the matter is that these kinds of arguments and questions (who is happier? who is better?) create a false dichotomy between parents and child free. They also lend themselves to antagonisms between the two. To address the false dichotomy, although I am child free, I am not REALLY child free. I have done a great deal of youth work and continue to interact with children/youth each day. My past experiences with youth work required enormous personal sacrifices at minuscule pay. There were many parents who saw their children for an hour or less each day due to work schedules. Teachers probably interact with children more than most parents as well. Therefore, although parents bear the responsibility and martyrdom of parenthood, the care and supervision of children and youth is spread out across society to some degree. It should be spread out more. The burden of parenting, especially in terms of thankless, unpaid labor, should be shouldered by others in society. With that said, no one should be child free, as part of living in society means interacting with people of all ages. To avoid a certain age group, as I said before, is ageist.
As for the antagonisms between parents and non-parents, these serve to divide people and obscure commonality. When I was younger, yes, I did look down on women who stayed at home and who had kids. That was the opinion of an angry, young feminist. Now that I am an angry, older feminist, I can see the error of my ways. I looked down on women who stayed home and had children because to me, they were embracing a traditional gender role and turning their back on what women fought for. We fought to be a part of the workforce and a part of the public sphere. This fight continues. However, the work force should not be idealized. While the opportunity to work has allowed women some measure of independence from men, working women bear the burden of unpaid household labor as well as unequally paid wage labor (compared to men). Work itself is alienating and exploitative. Therefore, women can choose to be unpaid laborers (in the house) or wage slaves (workers/no kids) or wage slaves and unpaid laborers (workers with kids). These are choiceless choices. Women cannot be blamed if they would prefer their exploitation in the form of unpaid household drudgery. (Yes, I don’t idealize diaper changing, dishes, and laundry….so sorry to those who may love these things).
The challenge then is building solidarity between the two camps, which really aren’t that different. Common ground may be hard to find, as values and traditions…as well as narratives of martyrdom and selfless meaning, obscure the commonality. Work conditions should be improved in terms of wage parity, an end to sexual harassment and rape culture, paid childcare and maternity/paternity leave, and free childcare options. This would make work more attractive and enjoyable for women, but also more possible for parents who want to work but can’t because of daycare costs. On the other hand, unpaid household work needs to be valued….and ideally, paid for. Capitalism benefits from the free childcare, laundry, dishes, and cooking services that women are offering their families. We should consider, why is this normal? Why is this private? Why do we consider this “good?” What are the alternatives? Socializing this labor requires a consciousness that thinks against tradition and gender roles. Yet, because children and families are highly regarded in society, demands in this respect should honor these values and choices…while challenging them. This is tricky. How can the fight for women as workers be extended to women as unpaid workers? Does the fight for one benefit the other?
In the meantime, what should childfree people call themselves? How can we honor this choice without making the other choice seem inferior? The range of words, from antinatalist to childlessness, neither embody either the choice not to have kids nor the notion that children should be supported.