Yesterday evening I eavesdropped, as it were (I’m sure there’s appropriate terminology, but I don’t know it), on a conversation between two people I follow on Twitter. One has just had a child, and was remarking on how amazing being a father is, and the other concurred. Rather than interrupting their shared reverie, I thought I’d ramble on about how I don’t entirely get this, and also how society’s attitude to the production and raising of children is rather odd.
Let me start by saying that I’m not criticising the fathers I was reading, nor parents in general. If you want to have a kid, and believe that you can raise them to be a good person and have a decent standard of living, go for it. Although these caveats touch on some of my thought: now it’s not my place – or anybody’s as far as I’m concerned – to make decisions for prospective parents, but I do wonder how much thought people give to having children. Not, of course, that they don’t think about when to do it, and how they’ll reorganise their lives, but the pressure of expectation is so great that the idea of, y’know, not doing it at all doesn’t come up. And of course there should be nothing wrong with saying ‘no thanks, having kids isn’t for me’. Yet this is treated as a strange, or even radical position.
Nor am I interested in the purely biological imperatives to have kids/perpetuate one’s genes, etc. There are fundamental reasons why other organisms reproduce – if there weren’t we wouldn’t be here – and I get that these contribute to human nature. But this still doesn’t explain why society fetishises parenthood – human civilisation is one of the things, for good or ill, that differentiates us from the rest of nature. As an aside, this is one of the reasons I don’t understand the pull of evolutionary psychology: trying to explain everything in terms of our hunter-gatherer past rather misses the point of what we’ve been up to for the past few millennia, and at best it’s a long distant starting point.
So you’re thinking about having a baby
Great, many people consider it to be the most rewarding experience of their lives. You might too, but don’t count on it. You’re about to invest a huge amount of your time and energy, to say nothing of money, in this project, so it’s probably worth giving it some thought. Probably best to at least put your plans on hold if you’re only doing it because you think it’s something you should do, but without knowing quite why. Ditto if you’re doing it because your partner, family, friends, colleagues say you should do it. These people’s opinions are all important, to varying degrees, but they’re not you. Most difficult is going to be the case of your partner, but if they want kids and you don’t really, it’s probably best to part ways amicably now.
Oddly enough, I reckon that the most commonly cited factor, that of money, is the least important factor in making this decision. Plenty of people, generally those with money, will go on about making sure that you’re economically stable and comfortable. Quite apart from the impossibility of knowing where you’ll be decades in the future, there is no such thing. People manage on every conceivable income, and expectations tend to fit the circumstances. For example, I have been amazed to read about a number of people who cannot even imagine not sending their offspring to a private school. I remember reading a piece in the aftermath of the initial banking crisis which tried to give some perspective on the modern class system, and which featured a banker who genuinely believed that it was impossible to raise a family on a salary of less than six figures. I guess he might have made some concessions for people living outside London, but he listed off various expenses as necessary, apparently oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of the population live without them. Which tangent brings me to a real requirement: empathy. If you can’t think of other people, you probably shouldn’t have kids, cos they won’t just be extensions of your self, however much you might like them to be.
Anyway, if you reckon you can muddle through, and genuinely want to, then go for it. Billions of people have managed it before, which is not to say that it’s not challenging, as they’ve met with varying degrees of success. But it’s not a completely outlandish idea. Quite the opposite, which is my real issue here: why does society at large see the need to continually celebrate parenthood as if it’s the greatest thing in the world?
I get why politicians do, as there are a lot of votes in it, but that’s merely a function a) there are lots of parents, and b) that they think that what they do is worthy of recognition. So that get’s us nowhere. But as a broadly political matter, it makes no sense, as people kind of do it anyway, and besides the world is already full enough (in terms of the current infrastructure – I’m not suggesting that there’s an arbitrary limit). I might make exceptions for people who take a narrowly nationalistic position and who’s national populations are in decline, but this is already a piece with the idea that a growing population is a Good Thing. And besides, anybody who doesn’t view immigration as a viable solution to this is at least latently racist.
So if there’s no wider incentive, why get so much more excited about it than almost every other possible human activity. I agree that we should celebrate people who do a good job of it, but no more than we should congratulate those who produce good art. But in both cases we should withhold the praise from those who do it badly. It’s true that the very attempt at either might be good for the person or persons themselves, but that’s no reason for the rest of us to weigh in uncritically.
Anyway, for all of the above reasons, and also because I don’t want to, I shall not be having children. Good luck if you plan to, but don’t think you’re special. Billions have done it before and more will after; some will do a better job than you, and many will fuck it up a whole lot more. I hope that wilfull childlessness will gain something of the status of modern atheism – but without the Dawkins, if you please – it may always be a minority choice, but is a viable one where neither side gains any special moral currency from making what is simply a personal choice.
One final point about the oddness of people who regard producing children as if they’re doing a favour to the rest of society. The whole business about providing for the future of the human race is about the most spurious argument you can make. Firstly, it doesn’t look like we’re in any danger of dying out from this. Through destroying the environment, maybe, or even a massive nuclear exchange. But there are plenty of people already having kids, and many millions of young people who could do with food, shelter, and dignity first. Let’s look after the children we have before we start thinking about having more.
And this last brings me to my second and final point: it’s odd how those who go on most about looking to the future of the species here, and are most pro-‘family’ – which is to say conservatives – give the least consideration to others in the rest of their lives. Anybody who has or wants to have children should really be a green (more-or-less, and I’m thinking of the ideology, rather than the party itself, as you can disagree on specific policies). If you’re looking at the future in one fashion, you should really be looking at it in every area. It makes no sense to want ‘the best’ for your offspring, while cheerfully screwing up their future. And this isn’t really about people who deny anthropogenic climate change – that’s a scientific discussion that I’ll leave elsewhere – but the fact that even if you don’t think the science quite holds up, any ethical parent should probably at least be thinking about the, in no way outlandish, idea that we might have some effect on the world of our children, and adjusting their behaviour accordingly.
Stop Press: Fuck the Pope