Having children: not in my name

NotInMyName.jpgLionel Shriver had an interesting piece in the Guardian on September 17th. I’ve only just caught up with it, by way of Natalie at Philobiblion (with whom I completely agree).

Shriver says that as we have become richer, we have become less interested in having children, choosing instead to do other things with our lives.  I certainly recognize some of myself in some of these thoughts:

We are less concerned with leading a good life than the good life. We are less likely than our predecessors to ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask if we are happy. We shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty as the pitfalls of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don’t especially care what happens once we’re dead. As we age – oh, so reluctantly! – we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not ‘Did I serve family, God and country?’ but ‘Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat?’ We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but with whether they were interesting and fun. … In deciding what in times past was never a choice, we don’t consider the importance of raising another generation of our own people, however we might choose to define them. The question is whether kids will make us happy.

But Shriver is completely off beam with her suggestion that there is something virtuous about having children.   She talks of her decision, and that of her thinly disguised pseudonymous friends not to have children as an "economic, cultural and moral disaster".  She describes a decision to be childless as "the contemporary absorption with our own lives as the be-all and end-all" which "ultimately hails from an insidious misanthropy", and concludes:

When Islamic fundamentalists accuse the west of being decadent, degenerate and debauched, you have to wonder if maybe they’ve got a point.

So Shriver apparently believes that people who have children are selflessly perpetuating the human race, while those of us who choose not to have children are selfishly living for today, putting our own enjoyment before the well-being of the planet and the spieces.

This is complete balderdash.  I have nothing against people choosing to have children: for many people it is a very fulfilling and important part of their lives.  Furthermore, I would generally support people’s right to have children. But it is not a selfless sacrifice on their behalf for which I should be expected to express gratitude.  Parents choose to follow the strong instinct to propagate their own genes, and they enter into parenthood anticipating an enormous pleasure resulting from bringing up children.  In some countries, parents also see children as an investment in their own future.  Few people have children out of a sense of the social good of doing so; and if that were their motive, they would have made a miscalcuation about where the greater social good lies.  Increasing the number of people with whom we have to share the earth’s finite resources does not make us, or future generations, better off.  So while I am happy to tolerate the decision of people to have children, I do not accept that those who have children are selflessly acting in the interests of humanity.

Conversely, it is true that some people have chosen to remain childless because they think that children are would interfere with their trekking holidays or marathon training.  But there are also many people who feel that the contribution they can make to the world is much greater if they do not spend their time and money raising children.  Many such people are are sacrificing the chance to have their own children in order to create a better world, including for the children of others.

All of which makes it particularly galling that those of us who choose to remain childless should be required to subsidise so heavily those who choose to propagate their DNA. 

None of this is meant to argue for, or against, having children.  Make up your own mind, and do what you prefer.  But don’t give me any moralistic lectures about the sacrifices that parents make, or the selfishness of choosing to remain childless.  And don’t expect me to pay for the expensive choice that you have made.

25 thoughts on “Having children: not in my name”

  1. Glad to see you’ll be campaigning for the abolition of child support, maternity leave, paternity pay, a taxpayer funded education system and all the rest. Although it does worry me slighty that this inevitable consequence of your not wishing to pay for other’s choices does not extend to the children of other countries. You do keep telling us that we should be paying for free schooling in poor countries.

  2. Tim – I assume you are joking, as you are far too intelligent to stoop to schoolboy debating points. But in case somebody else reads this exchange and takes you seriously, I thought I’d better respond. I am in favour of transferring from rich to poor, within the UK and from rich countries to poor countries. I begrudge the money a little more when – as in the case of families with children in the UK – the extent of hardship is partly the result of a conscious decision; but I still believe that the world is a better place if we provide support for those who have less; and I believe that society’s first duty is to ensure that our children get the best possible start in life.

  3. I read Shriver’s piece and understood it to be less about one woman’s regret for not having children as about a recognition that an entire cultural group (feminist women) is committing suicide. Of course the Guardian prints so many whiny women pieces that your interpretation is understandable.

    Comments about selfishness become understandable in the context of the possibility that her cultural inheritance may die out if the sisters don’t reproduce. Culture transmits through the generations. Hence the reference to Islam as a different cultural phenomenon that transmits through generations.

    That’s not to say I agree with her. You might argue that a reduction in numbers is not suicide, or that feminism can be transfered in other ways than via mother to daughter. However, your comments seem to be more a reaction to the whiny woman article than the one I read.

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  6. I was with you until

    All of which makes it particularly galling that those of us who choose to remain childless should be required to subsidise so heavily those who choose to propagate their DNA.

    Subsidising every child produced by every couple may not be rational or prudent, but most people would think it reasonable to invest in the next generation, surely? There’s a debate to be had about how we do the latter without doing the former, but I don’t think this is a good place to start it. (But then, I am a father.)

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  9. Does it hurt?

    Owen – I am mulling over your argument that being childless can be a sacrifice to improve the world. I think that this is true for you and many others, but probably does not hold generally.

    There is a social divide between those who produce and those who don’t. I could benchmark / evidence-base it from my changing acquantances. It’s so apparent, and so depressing, as you dive from the child-free world to the suffocating social chat of parents. I do worry about the intellectual and ascetic inheritance of ‘our’ children. To this extent I share Lionel Shriver’s concerns.

    I think the answer hangs on to what extent it is a sacrifice to not have children.

    I had a similar career start to yours then 3 babies. I know about sacrifices and I expect/hope that I am at my peak sacrifice point at the moment – every struggling day I’m keenly aware of the alternative route I could have chosen. The CV page of your blog was very painful to read. I fantasise about what I could have done / might still do with my so-called life.

    I think you believe that parents make sacrifices. But do parents believe that the childless-by-choice make a sacrifice? It’s sad that the need to justify this choice is so pressing; it would be good for [parents/me] to know that the alternative hurts too.

    Of course, you could always say that you were saving the world from a future mass-murderer. Lionel Shriver has some brass!

    Your blog is great. It is the first one I have read and I hope I have time to visit and comment again.


  10. Heather

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and your kind words about my blog.

    My view is not really that I am making a sacrifice by remaining childless so that I can do other good things. I don’t think I am making a sacrifice at all: I prefer the life I lead as a childless person to the life I envisage I would lead if I had children. I do not expect to be thanked for that decision.

    My real point is that I do not think that people who have children are doing anybody any favours either. They are simply doing what they prefer (in part because they are under strong genetic pressure to reproduce). That’s fine by me. And some people who choose not to have children do so for reasons of their own lifestyle and happiness: that’s fine by me too.

    What isn’t fine by me is the implication that people who choose to have children are selfless and people who choose not to are selfish. There is no social benefit to having children, so there is no reason for those of us without children to thank people who have them, nor to feel guilty about making the opposite choice.


  11. On the specific point of taxing the childless to pay parents, the payments are aimed at the children, who didn’t choose to be born, and not at the parents, who chose to have them, and are potentially necessary to ensure the children grow to live a happy life and contribute to society. So I would say such taxes are justified in principle, whatever you think about the choice of having children. Also, in any case children are an investment in our collective future, in that a society without enough children is bound to suffer from a very high dependency ratio, and hence a lower standard of living. You can compensate by immigration, but this is unlikely to happen in Europe at the required rate to maintain a healthy dependency ratio. Anyway, that’s not to say that these thoughts actually go through the mind of people who decide to have children…

    Owen replies: I don’t agree that children are an investment in our collective future.  They have a future, which we have a duty to care about, and invest for; but purely selfishly we would be better off without them.

  12. "All of which makes it particularly galling that those of us who choose to remain childless should be required to subsidise so heavily those who choose to propagate their DNA."
    You know Owen, thats a masterpiece of analysis. I’m so ashamed of having two small children and all the goodies I’ve got from the UK’s benefits system that I want a write a cheque to you to pay back your contribution. Just tell me where to send it. 
    My mother also had a stroke recently brought about by smoking too much, the feckless idiot. I’ll add a contribution from her as well.
     There is no reason why well favoured metropolitan elite people like yourself should pay anything to the state in order to help people like us. We knew what we were doing. 
     Notions of social solidarity and creating a decent and humane society and all that stuff are garbage. If you are deserving poor then you can help, you might even do a fun run in an exotic location to show you are really a decent chap.
    Yes this was written in anger. I think what I’ve quoted  is a very stupid and selfish thing to say. 
    yours sincerely
    Kieron McNulty     

  13. Kieron

    I am sorry that you felt angry about this. 

    It was not my intention to make you feel ashamed.  Like you, I believe in social solidarity and running a decent and humane society, and I believe that we should support people who need our help.

    But I expect you would also agree that there are some choices that we do not expect others to support.  I have no hesitation in paying taxes to pay for health care.   But there are some choices that others should not pay for.  I would like to have a house in the Lake District, but if I did so, the mortgage payments would leave me with no disposable income.  Should you pay for my mortgage payments, as a matter of social solidarity?  Probably not.  So even for people who believe in building a decent society, there are some choices that people make that we do not expect others to pay for. 

    The question I was asking in my original post is whether having children is one of the decisions we should expect others to pay for.  Your comment was full of sarcasm and vitriole, but it did not explain why you believe (if you do) that having children is more like health care, for which there is a case for social solidarity, rather than like deciding to have a big house, for which there is not.


  14. Dear Owen
    Absolutely. I agree that  there are some choices that you should not expect the public to pay for – like your holiday home, my set of ancient history encyclopaedias and, in my opinion, tax help with private schooling and so on .
     But some kid of framework is necessary to provide the best possible start for the next generation. This might  be a little galling to some people but seems a reasonable and civilized way of proceeding.  
    Think of it as a social insurance scheme you are paying for. You are going to need the future generation of taxpayers, healthcare assistants in old peoples homes, that kind of thing  – we cant really given an itemised bill for every aspect of society. You can’t really opt out. Not without disastrous consequences anyway.
    I ‘d like to ask you a question. Why do you think we should have pay for healthcare for others?

  15. In some ways, I feel that those who choose to have children are selfish. To be honest, life is far more of a struggle than it is enjoyable. There is the constant pressure of achieiving at school and in exams, getting a job against ever increasing competition, increasing financial burdens such as students loans and very high house prices for the young. Those who fail at school, meanwhile, are trapped in a life of poverty with few prospects. Moreover, this life is full of suffering, worry and often with pain. Given the choice and the life that I have experienced, I would not have chosen to be born at all. However, I did not have that choice. Anyway, I would never choose to have children, simply because I would not want to introduce anyone else unneccesarily into this life of struggle and worry. I believe that doing so would be undoubtedly selfish.

  16. I agree with Thomas. This life is effectively unfulfilling, full of struggle and worry and ultimately pointless. There is no purpose to our existence on this earth, nor could life be considered to be in any way happy since the negatives (stress, worry, sadness etc) far outweigh any fleeting moments of happiness (which I do not deny exist, but far far too little). As such, why should we introduce any more people into this existence, only for them to suffer in the same way. As far as I can see it, there is no argument for having children, except to support us when we are old. True, babies are cute but surely we should look deeper than this when deciding whether or not to have children. Yet having children for this purpose is purely using them for our own ends. Why does it matter if the birth rate falls and the population declines or even if the human race dies out? There is no need to increase or sustain the human population on this earth. Fewer people simply means less suffering.

  17. Thomas, Peter

    I am sorry that you both feel that life is unfulfiling and more of a struggle than an enjoyment.  For my own part, I think that life is full of joy and I am very glad that my parents chose to have children.

    Where I agree with you is that I do not see any significant moral value in increasing the number of human beings, nor am I greatly concerned if, as a result of the fulfilment of the desires of existing generations, the human race gradually dies out. 

    It follows that I do not believe that people who choose to have children are making a sacrifice for which others should be grateful.  They should do it because it gives them pleasure, and not otherwise.


  18. I can only assume that Peter and Thomas are a right pair of old jokers with a very very dry sense of humour – unless they do consciously model themselves on Marvin the Paranoid Android from the hitchhikers books. If they are being serious then I suggest they put down their dog-eared copy of The Myth of Sisyphus and talk a long walk in the countryside followed by a curry and pint. And cheer up.    

    As for Owen he seems to have some kind of not-so-intelligent computer program answering posters on his behalf.
    I ‘ll just test this hypothesis….I’m really angry that he does this and he should  post himself, the big  bludger. Right if the next post says something like..
    " Kieron I am sorry that you feel angry about me not posting myself and my use of  a computer program to post comments . I am sorry you feel I am a bludger." … then I know I am right.  


    Owen replies: Keiron: I am sorry that you feel angry … etc …  Perhaps you think I should be as rude to commenters as they are to me?  I don’t think that would enhance the debate.  You are a guest here – I intend to be polite to you, even if you are unable to reciprocate.

  19. My apologies Owen
    I am sorry if my biting wit got to you. It was meant to be funny not insulting. I I don’t meant to be ‘troll’ as I think they are called in blogland. Yes I do think you are entitled to be rude, do your best. I probably deserve it.

  20. I think it’s a shame that there has to be such a divide between those that choose to have children and those that don’t – my husband and I have decided not to have children – it is, afterall, a lifestyle choice these days.  But my best friend has just had a baby –  and I couldn’t have been more excited or happy for her.  It just seems a real shame that people seem to align themselves to opposite camps – I’m assuming that all of us know, and like, people who have/haven’t chosen to have children.  I think everyone should respect other people’s choices to have, or not to have, children…BUT, crucially, everyone should have to fund their own lifestyle choices! 
    I think it’s a shame that people like Keiron seem to get so angry when defending their lifestyle choice…equally it’s a real shame when others paint parents and children as the enemy…also I can understand the concerns of Thomas and Peter….if you think too much, you begin to question our own existence…which is why I wholeheartedly agree with the moderate views of you Owen. 
    I don’t think people who choose not to have babies are selfish…however, neither do I believe that people who choose to have children are selfish…it is simply a lifestyle choice – much like getting a dog – which, by the way, I highly recommend!!
    If you are happy with the choices you have made, you can laugh at the misfortune of others who have made different choices – you don’t need to get cross about it!

  21. Dear Heather
    I wasn’t attacking anyones ‘lifestyle choices’. Of course I know and like people who have chosen to not have children. I was not defending my ‘lifestyle choice’ either. What I was doing was attacking Owen’s comments – not the fact he has chosen not to have children – about ‘subsidising so heavily’ and paying ‘ for the expensive choices of others’ .
    I’ve reread his piece and it still seems selfish, sorry. I wish Owen would explain how he is being penalised or overtaxed by the state making some provision for the welfare of familes with children? Is his tax bill so big?

  22. Kieron

    No, I don’t feel overtaxed (and because I live and work in the US, I don’t pay much UK tax at the moment).  But that does not mean that I do not care about the priorities that are chosen for tax revenues.  I would prefer that my tax revenues were not used to purchase nuclear weapons, not used to subsidize agricultural businesses, not used to subsidize private schools.    I would also prefer that they are not used to compensate people for the expense of having children.

    However, I also do not want children anywhere in the world to live in poverty, and I am happy for the taxes I pay to be used to preven this.   But I resent the general transfer of resources from childless families to families with children.  If you are relatively well off, and your children are not going to be brought up in poverty, then why should you be compensated for the expensive lifestyle choice you have made?

  23. Owen

    This is a fascinating string and debate. However, it seems to me that your response underlines precisely the point that Lionel Shriver appears to be making, i.e. that lots of people like you view your life in a radically different way from most people in the past. Traditionally people have not seen having children as a matter of preference or to put it more provocatively a lifestyle choice; rather they have given it some kind of grander significance. People have not traditionally done as you have done, i.e. decided that they prefer the life they would lead as childless people to the life they envisage they would lead if they had children. They have simply not thought about it in those terms (but not because they were all thinking – I know I am a hero, so I am going to do the selfless thing and have kids!). So I think Shriver is right to underline the massive shift in perspective and it is not surprising that you do not agree with her suggestion that this is a shift in the wrong direction. I assume you would say that those who do not assess the question of having kids in the sort of terms that you do are letting biological instincts or cultural/religious conditionning prevent them from thinking about things in a clear and dispassionate way.

    Paul – the happy father of two kids who are no sacrifice at all.  

  24. Paul

    Not at all.  I don’t really care how or why people who choose to have children make that choice.  All I ask is that people like Lionel Shriver do not judge those of us who make a different decision as selfish.



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