Lilit Marcus’ Mother’s Day article in the Guardian, Just because I love my mother doesn’t mean I have to become one myself, responds to the assumption some people have that women who don’t want children must have had a psychologically or emotionally damaging upbringing. Unfortunately, she responds in a way that ultimately harms rather than helps.
She begins powerfully (but it doesn’t last), addressing what is arguably one of the more obnoxious angles those who think everyone should have children take against those who don’t want them:
There are a lot of assumptions that people make about child-free women, and, as someone who’s been outspoken about my choices, I’ve heard all of them: we’re selfish, we’re lazy, we’re failing our fundamental role in life. But the one that stings the most – and makes me the angriest – is that we must have had terrible mothers…
Where her piece goes wrong begins with the end of that last sentence, which goes like this:
…because nothing could be further from the truth.
Except, maybe some people who don’t want kids did have terrible mothers. Maybe they had terrible fathers. Maybe they were abused by their teachers or the nanny or their older sibling. And maybe many others – like Marcus – had a “mostly idyllic childhood.”
But what our childhood was like is irrelevant, because the fact that we don’t want children doesn’t – and shouldn’t – matter to anyone but us and the people we’re romantically involved with.
Before that ending is where Marcus’ focus should have remained. She nails it late in her piece, making what I think is the most salient point in the conversation:
It’s hard not to notice that people in the position opposite to me – those who had difficult childhoods but choose to be parents – are celebrated for their desire to have and raise children. [...] Nobody attributes any pathology to their choices, or assumes their parents were “bad” or “abusive”, or suggests that they need to get therapy to examine their real motivations.
However, rather than allow that very valid observation to be the crux of her article, she spends three paragraphs defending her childhood (or, more accurately, her parents), offering examples of the exemplary care she received:
1. Her mom was a stay-at-home mom who made sure she had everything she needed;
2. Her mom and dad taught her that people are all unique and different;
3. Her mother encouraged her to dream, to be whatever she wanted to be.
In the next paragraph, she further weakens what could otherwise be a powerful statement by attributing her lack of parenting desire to a failing on her part.
After being raised by a devoted stay-at-home mother and seeing how much love and commitment my mother was capable of, I knew that I just didn’t have the same capacity myself – and that every child in the world deserves the amount of love I got growing up. There’s only one of my mom, and I’m not her.
In other words, she’s not good enough. She doesn’t have what it takes.
While I can certainly appreciate her individual, personal perspective – it seems she feels the best parenting is stay-at-home parenting, and she doesn’t want to be a stay-at-home parent – I don’t know that her explanation necessarily does her a service.
Marcus may well not have the capacity to be a devoted SAHM, but I’m betting she would have that capacity easily if being a SAHM were something she WANTED to do. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it’s just not her thing. So why not say that? Saying she lacks the capacity implies she would be a mom if she could, but she just can’t.
Which then provides ammunition to those who would question the childfree’s motivation/psychological or emotional fitness and who will gleefully latch onto the notion that there most certainly is in us, even if we had the best childhoods, a “problem.” We can’t do the work (but we want to, so we’re still good people!), or we’re not capable of the love.
Marcus understandably had a strong reaction to the implication behind “you had a bad childhood.” Translation: “You had bad parents.” And I can sympathize with her desire to defend her parents.
But childfree people don’t need to, and shouldn’t, defend or explain themselves. Answer questions if someone is curious, sure. Have a conversation with those who truly and genuinely don’t understand but WANT to understand, ok. But there’s no reason to dignify a baseless (and irrelevant) assumption about upbringing with a defense of that upbringing.
Look at it this way: let’s say a childfree person did have a rough childhood. Now let that person dare say the childhood has nothing to do with the decision to be childfree. (Good luck with that one.) Now let’s say a rough childhood DOES have something to do with being childfree. (“Oh, you poor, pitiable woman who was so tormented as a child that you don’t want kids!”) There’s no winning.
I wrote No Children, No Guilt precisely because there was already too much material defending the choice, analyzing the choice, researching the choice, explaining the choice, questioning the choice…
All of which combined says about the choice, “You’re screwy!”
What is more important, I think, is continuing to communicate to those who don’t want children that you don’t have to want kids, you’re not weird for not wanting kids, and all of these articles and books inadvertently making you feel like a freak for not wanting kids should be ignored. You’re normal. It’s fine. Live the life you want to live.
After all, that’s how we treat people who do want kids, regardless of whether, as Marcus writes, they’re doing it to right a wrong, fill an emotional hole, trap a mate, be less lonely, or simply create a person out of love who they can show wonderful experiences.
We allow blindly for all of that. We don’t know why people are having children, don’t explore what psychological issues might be influencing their choice (and, potentially, their future children).
We don’t know because we don’t ask.
Somehow, choosing not to create an entire human life we’ll be responsible for raising with love and care is far less important to the larger community than why people do make the critical choice to create a new human being and whether they’re making the responsible choice in doing so.