Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Whoever said kids are supposed to make parents happy?

This article is a response to a Time magazine article.

Whoever said it's my kids' job to make me "happy" right ... now?
The National Center for Health Statistics says, according to the Web resource Wikipedia, that the percentage of American women of childbearing age who have voluntarily (and presumably permanently) chosen not to have kids "rose sharply in the 1990s: from 2.4 percent in 1982 to 4.3 percent in 1990 to 6.6 percent in 1995." A small number but a big increase, and probably much higher now.

Web sites and books for people who choose to never have children (versus those many folks who would desperately like to have them but can't) have boomed and a new term was coined for the phenomenon in the 1990s: "childfree." Again and again, these resources celebrate people, especially married couples, who say they just want to live life on their own terms, and do what they want to do when they want to do it.
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In the end, that's a pretty good way to stunt a soul - and it's no accident it's a growing American trend.

Back to the little ones. Gilbert eventually explains that with kids it's not about a transient notion of happiness, but transcendent abiding joy. In admitting that our children don't necessarily bring us a daily dose of happiness, he writes: "... Rather than deny that fact, we should celebrate it. Our ability to love beyond all measure those who try our patience and weary our bones is at once our most noble and most human quality."

And, I would argue, only when we connect to something bigger than "it's all about me" are we stretched to experience real joy and satisfaction - in a way no animal can and even when our children are behaving like animals! I'm certainly not saying this has to, or can only, come through our kids. I am saying that only in very recent years would our culture even think to pose a question like, "Does Fatherhood Make You Happy?" And that does not bode well for this or future generations.
This article does what many do - on one hand, state that it is selfish not to have kids just because kids would make you unhappy, then on the other hand point out the 'transcendental joy' of parenting. You can't have it both ways folks. If you're going to talk about the greater joys of parenting, you can't then claim that it's a selfless act that should overcome the hard, unrewarding nature of the act.

I will propose something out of this very article:"It's the wrong question to ask." Even if one were to ignore that many justifications for having children are posed in selfish terms, or fail to question the claim that having children contributes to our overpopulated world, the conclusion that nonparents are selfish still is odd.

At best, parenting is one of many selfless things people can do for the world. How come we do not have the same condemnation of the "volunteer-free"? How come we do not label selfish those who refuse to adopt instead of giving birth, those who pass right by their local soup kitchen and go to the gym instead, those who could care for a pet but do not take one home from the local animal shelter?

Every person makes countless choices each day that result in passing up an opportunity to make the world a better place. Even the most self-sacrificing can't do it all; Mother Theresa, a person society almost unanimously conceives of as the pinnacle of selflessness, chose a life without children. Those who do choose to have children commit themselves long-term to a lifestyle that necessarily precludes many other contribution to society.

The only reason that parenting gets singled out is that it is simply the default position. Stemming from biology, from an historical need to have children work the farm, and from millennia without decent birth control, the ability to choose not to parent is relatively new. And since parenting is the one 'selfless' act that the majority partake in, those who refused to do so get labeled with a harsher brush than others who pass up opportunities to help. Perhaps if we could create a term for 'shelter-pet-free' we would be able to point out the fallacy of singling out this particular choice for mandatory status.

That being said, I don't buy the 'at best' logic above. Having children is much less certain to improve society than, for example, joining Meals on Wheels. There is no lack of children, and no guarantee that any particular person will have a child that contributes to society or even be a good parent. Indeed, parenting is one means of 'contributing' that is best left to those who love it. Faking enthusiasm for four hours a week with a homebound elderly woman is possible; concealing from children you live with that you don't really like children is damn near impossible.

And parenting is perhaps unique in one respect - if you can't do it right, it's probably better for society that you not do it at all. And by the time you find out that you can't do it right, it's too late to quit. So I will instead champion those who choose to dedicate their time to those activities that are sure to make the world a better place, and to those who contribute in ways better suited. Moreover, I will champion those who realize that doing nothing is a hell of a lot better for society than subjecting a child to a lifetime of unwilling parents because that very society has not really thought through what it is asking.

Also see the Letter to the Editor.

1 comment:

Mesabi Red ;) said...

Beautiful post! Especially as I sit here with my shelter cats laying by me, scheduling online my next blood donation, wondering how it is that people pushing the child agenda on everyone can wear such rose-colored glasses and neglect to notice that all children do NOT grow up to be good members of society!