Tuesday 21 July 2020

More women like me are choosing to be childfree. Is this the age of opting out?

Ecological collapse is within sight – and yet parenting is still viewed as a moral imperative. But countless women like me are building a new normal: a life without children

Imagine a world in which, one day, you learned you’d eventually be expected to give birth to, then raise, an ostrich. It would be a long-lived ostrich, one residing with you inside your home for at least 18 years. 

This large, growing bird would require a great deal of care – daily, exhausting, heroic care, for which you wouldn’t be paid, nor, in general, well supported. In fact, you’d probably have to take time off from work; if you’re a woman, your ability to earn a post-ostrich livelihood would most likely be curtailed, perhaps severely. Plus, there would be the expense of ostrich daycare, ostrich violin lessons; in the future, god help you, ostrich college. Did you catch the part where you’re physically birthing the ostrich? It would tear open your body as it emerged from either between your legs or a gash sliced across your stomach, this larger-than-usual, speckled ostrich egg.

Then, imagine that, despite the pervasive societal expectations, you realized one day that you could opt out of having an ostrich. You never wanted the bird in the first place. Imagine how much more natural it might feel if you could just not.

I’m starting with illustrative ostriches because I’ve learned, over the years, that people tend not to believe me if I indicate that I don’t feel, and have never felt, the urge to have children. Indicate, because I rarely say it outright. If directly asked, I respond, “Oh, I don’t know, not yet,” as if there’s a question about it – as though I haven’t been certain, all my life, that I’m at least as disinclined to parent a child as I would an ostrich. I equivocate with the hope of heading off the arguing, the unsolicited assurances about what my body wants and how I should live my life: “You’ll change your mind,” I’m often told. “Hey, you never know.”

‘You never wanted the bird in the first place. Imagine how much more natural it might feel if you could just not.’ Illustration: Irene Rinaldi/The Guardian

Except I haven’t; I do. Thus, ostriches.

But how can this be so difficult to believe? My position should be, by now, plausible: the American fertility rate is at a historic 35-year low. The so-called “replacement rate” – the national birthrate believed to be optimal for population renewal and stability – is 2.1 babies per couple; today people with wombs are expected to have 1.71 children in their lifetimes. And that 1.71 estimate came before the pandemic; in this changed world, in which it seems all the parents of young children I know are having by far the hardest time of their parenting lives, it seems likely that fertility rates will keep falling.

Until recently, though, the US experienced more robust fertility rates than did other developed countries. We can thank immigrants for this: since 1970, any growth in annual births in the US is attributed to immigrant parents. Gretchen Livingston, from Pew Research Center, notes that “if immigrant moms had not been in the States, [the] overall number of births would have actually declined in that time”. 

Since the 2008 recession, however, the total fertility rate has fallen by close to 20%. This dwindling rate has demographers worried: an aging population with a disproportionately small base of working adults is one more susceptible to the vicissitudes of the economy – or a new coronavirus.

Looking around at the state of this country, as well as the world, it doesn’t seem particularly surprising that the birthrate would be declining. Parenting in the US is especially costly and difficult, for one. And then there’s the climate crisis: in a 2018 New York Times poll, a third of Americans of childbearing age cited climate change as a factor in their decision to have fewer children. 

Based on my experiences, I’d say one-third sounds, if anything, low. I’m in my thirties; a significant majority of my friends still don’t have children, and many say the climate is a serious consideration. Since the pandemic started, friends who’d been unsure if they wanted children have begun saying they’re leaning more decisively toward not. If I look at a still younger set of people, the college students and graduate students I’ve frequently encountered while teaching and publicly speaking, I’d say the one-third figure sounds lower still, and how could it not be? In the absence of massive systemic change, it seems possible that ecological collapse will happen within college students’ lifetimes, and they know it.

Prospective parents also see the deficit in other, essential kinds of support, community, fellowship, help. In the Atlantic, Alia Wong argues that America’s low fertility rate is “a sign that the country isn’t providing the support Americans feel they need in order to have children”. Even without a life-upending pandemic, trying to have a baby without consistent, legally enforced societal and medical support is indeed very hard. Or, as Anna Louie Sussman posits in the New York Times: “It seems clear that what we have come to think of as ‘late capitalism’ – that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities – has become hostile to reproduction.” 

Could this falling birthrate eventually affect how childfree people are viewed in the US? (Childfree, I’ll emphasize, not childless – a lot of people without offspring prefer to reserve the term “childless” for those who are unable to have children.)

With plenitude, comes acceptance, even normalcy, until the childfree seem unremarkable – something like that? 

It might be unlikely. Throughout history, people without children – women, especially – have often been persecuted, mistreated, pitied, and killed for their perceived lack. In ancient Rome, a woman who hadn’t borne children could legally be divorced, and her infertility was grounds for letting a priest hit her with a piece of goat skin. 

(The blows were thought to help women bear children.) In Tang Dynasty China, not having a child was once again grounds for divorce. In the Middle Ages, infertility was believed to be caused by witches or Satan; worse yet, an infertile woman could be accused of being, herself, a witch. In Puritan America, it wasn’t just having no children that was suspect. Giving birth to too many children could be perilous, too, and grounds, yet again, for being condemned for a witch. 

Also in the US, enslaved women were expected to have babies, and were routinely raped, their potential future children considered a slaveholder’s property. Some of the only times women without offspring have garnered respect might be when they have formally devoted their lives to a god, and to celibacy: nuns, vestal virgins.

Which brings us to a word I haven’t yet used, but which often is levied against childfree women like me: selfish. Despite everything, it’s still common to view parenting as a moral imperative, to such an extent that voluntarily childfree people can be viewed with such outsize emotions as anger and disgust. Pope Francis, a lifelong celibate, has said: “The choice not to have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: it is enriched, not impoverished.” Such judgments might be even more available now, at a time when so much, especially including parenting, has become more difficult for so many people.

I used to find this charge bewildering. How can it be selfish not to want? Why does it bother anyone if I refrain? The world is burning, and it’s been argued that the single best way an individual in a developed country can reduce her carbon footprint is by having fewer children. (Of course, what can really reduce our carbon footprints is ending our planet-strangling reliance on fossil fuels.) 

What’s more, a hundred children from a less economically developed nation could easily have a smaller carbon footprint than one American child. To be very selfless, I could move to a less rich land and help raise an entire orphanage. 

And the upset about the replacement birthrate – part of me is tempted to ask why it matters. Why is it prima facie an obvious good in and of itself that our species collectively keep overpopulating the earth? We abound, you and I. No other animals despoil this planet the way we do. But okay, if one wished to argue on behalf of the improved national social stability provided by having a younger population – well, in that case, let’s further open our borders. Let’s fling them open. As Adam Minter says in Bloomberg: “Until some country shows otherwise, immigration remains the most effective means of reversing a baby bust.”

Voilà, an elegant, satisfying, available solution for birthrate concerns. 

Back to the question of selfishness: I used to wonder, as I’ve mentioned, what could be selfish about wanting to live my own life, one in which I’m electing not to take care of this hypothetical, doesn’t-even-exist American child – or ostriches. And then, I realized. That’s it, right there, I think. I’m a woman; as one, I’m expected to look after others. To nurture. To mother: a child, most often. Plus anyone else who could use my time, really. That’s the most uncontroversial kind of woman to be: one devoted to caretaking.

Here is where, if I wanted to, I might include a detailed paragraph about the caretaking I already do. I could line up examples of how unselfish I can be, how passionately I care about family and friends, and how I give to my larger communities. I could talk about being an aunt; I could explain how I’ve tried to help sustain friends with children, all to say: Look, I’m not the monster you might think I am. 

But I don’t want to prove any claims to unselfishness here – nor that of other childfree adults. It’s irrelevant, and I shouldn’t have to. It would be as if I abruptly started telling you how much I love Valeria Luiselli’s writing. “What does Valeria Luiselli’s writing have to do with wanting or not wanting children,” you might wonder, to which I’d say yes, exactly, do you see?

Instead, I think of how, for as long as I can remember, I’ve softened my refusal to be a parent. The times I’ve said, “Not yet,” the parties at which I’ve smiled when a stranger informs me I’ll change my mind, as if he’s more familiar with my body than I am. The talk of ostriches. It occurs to me that this is yet another way I force myself to take up less space: I badly don’t want my private refusal to sound like an affront to anyone else’s desires. 

But one grows tired of extending courtesies that are too often not reciprocated, and maybe, for once, I’ll say it plain: I don’t want children, I never have, and it doesn’t feel like any kind of lack. To me, it just feels like being alive.

(Source: The Guardian)

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