Potshots for Righteousness

Amanda Marcotte

Most of the time, the choice to have children occupies the moral high ground over the choice not to have children. So occasionally, it's nice (if weak) for me to get a potshot of moral righteousness, however unearned.

The other day an incident happened to me that could have been the day before or the day before that, it happens so much. I'm riding my bike back from the grocery store, and in order to make a left turn onto a residential street, I have to pull into the middle of the street and wait to turn left. It's a move no different than when a car would do in the same situation and takes as long to manage (which is as long as the cars in the opposite lane take to give you a chance to turn), but that doesn't seem to matter one bit to the woman in the SUV honking behind me, furious at having to share the road with one of those hippie bicycling sorts. I make my turn and look behind as she drives on to see the three kids bouncing around in the backseat.

Moments like those do not leave a person as the soul of generosity very often, so I muttered to myself, "You're quite welcome that I'm trying to save the planet for your kids, thank you very much."

It's a self-aggrandizing stance, of course. In a moment of less self-righteousness, I would admit that "getting exercise" and "avoiding high gas prices" rank far higher than "trying to save the planet for someone else's offspring" as reasons for why I ride my bike most of the time. But the deliberately childless spend enough time in a stance of cringing apology that it's nice (if weak) to get the occasional potshot of moral righteousness, however unearned.

Most of the time, the choice to have children occupies the moral high ground over the choice not to have children. Having children, after all, entails a litany of sacrifices — no more sleeping in on weekends, no more last minute Friday night dates, no more sex in the living room and you don't have the Xbox all to yourself any longer. And it's all sacrifice for a noble cause, which is the continuation of the human race and the provision of people to wipe our butts and pay into Social Security when we're old. From that perspective, the supposition that the deliberately childless are "selfish" does make sense. In the past, having kids was like paying your taxes; for the good of society, everyone who could had to kick in or else society ran the risk of not having enough.

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But that was the past. In the present, the world is facing population growth that makes the word "exponential" seem like an understatement. In such a situation, opting out doesn't seem nearly as selfish as it might have in the past. In fact, from an environmentalist perspective, scaling back on the carbon-emitting, resource-destroying American population might be a good thing. A moral imperative. A sacrifice, even.

As sacrifices go, not having kids seems very un-sacrifice-y, especially if you're someone like me who never saw the appeal in the first place of having kids. Yes, I'm "reducing" my consumption by not having a bunch of plastic toys around my house, but it almost seems like cheating. After all, parents who want to achieve the same low levels of plastic crap in the house generally have to suffer whining at minimum, and major temper tantrums much of the time. I had to suffer not even having to think about it at all. I put as much thought into it as I put into having to walk the dog I don't have.

Because of this, I don't want to fault people mild amounts of grief-giving over my choice. But as a general rule, the begrudging the childless meet with in life is not all that minimal, especially if they have the nerve to be middle class white people, the sort that would fit nicely into some ads for parenting magazines. I've been told I'm not really a woman unless I'm a mother, a threat that lost some of its power when I shrugged and said that whether I counted as "woman" in some essentialist eyes didn't matter all that much to me. I've been told that not having offspring is a form of hereditary suicide, which only makes sense if you think children are Xerox copies of you, instead of merely half of your genetic information (and grandchildren are 25% and great-grandchildren are 12.5%, so the live forever through genes theory literally has a Dorian Gray feel to it). I've been accused of hating children, which I don't, but if I did, I hardly see why that's an argument for why I should have them.

And I've been told that I'm living the stereotype of the oversexed, childless, martini-swilling, cold-hearted feminist. The "credit to your race" argument does have some power to make me feel guilty, but then I remember that it's not my revolution if I can't swill my martini to it. Women won't truly be free until we don't cower in fear of living up to stereotypes that are only considered bad because women's liberation makes people uneasy. If anything, my choice to be childless probably helps the feminist movement in the way that diversity generally helps us, by showing that allowing a wide variety of choices to women doesn't actually bring the doom and gloom scenarios relished by anti-feminists.

I try not to resent people who give me guff about childlessness. This is quite possibly the first time in history that the act of children is in itself a genuine choice, instead of just the unavoidable result of living or an unquestioned life expectation. Before now, people never had to come up with positive reasons to have children, which is especially daunting in the face of the enormous responsibility of it, and in face of the perfectly good reasons not to (sleeping in, the environment, not having "Barney" videos in the home). "I want to," rarely sounds like a substantial reason when you say it out loud, but it's really the best and only legitimate argument. Anyway, the most important decisions in life are the ones that you make for reasons of desire over reason, like falling in love or moving to an overcrowded but exciting city.

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childfree, Parenting

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