I love children.
I feel the need to get that out of the way now, before I explain why I don't want to have children. I worry that if I don't establish that I really do love kids, people will assume that the reason I don't want any of my own is because I hate them — or because I haven't yet realized how I feel about them.
I don't want to be asked if I've ever really held a baby, the way people ask if you've ever really tried to read Ulysses. I've done both. I love babies. I don't love Joyce. But explaining why you don't want children, even after telling people pre-emptively how much you love them, still throws people off in a culture where saying you love babies is shorthand for saying you want to give birth to your own. How can you possibly love babies without wanting to be a parent?
Maybe I feel the need to reassure people that I love children because so many of the public arguments for childlessness hinge on a lack of interest in children, or an active distaste for the mayhem they bring. So arguments about the "selfishness" of the childless often tend to focus on the folly of immature adults choosing boozy brunches and spotless furniture over family, love, and legacy.
But I don't want either of these things — or rather, I want both. I want love and mayhem — travel, messes, and the whole cosmos of love that is family, work, friends, and those friends' families and children — and then I want to die alone. I've thought this one through as well. I didn't get to be born alone — there was really no privacy at all — so dying alone seems like ideal compensation, and though you can't always get what you want, I like to imagine some sort of sudden heart attack or fatal stroke, ideally one that finishes me immediately after I've finished chopping wood. (I read too much Robert Frost at an impressionable age, I don't know.) I like the idea of looking at the sky, the trees — something natural, and quiet — and then nothing.
I don't know how children would improve this plan. And if the idea is to cheat death by having children, I have bad news: You're still going to die. Don't bring new people into the world to help you feel less anxious about your mortality. That's just not a nice thing to do to another person, especially when the task you've set up for them is so clearly impossible.
Clearly, I've given the baby argument some thought — maybe a little bit too much thought. But I've gotten acquainted with the feint, the parry, the counterattack, because the interesting thing about telling people you don't want children is that they often cannot leave the subject alone.
It's not that they want to convince you you're wrong, exactly. They just don't believe you. "Ah," they say. "You say that now. But then …"
Sometimes I imagine scenarios where I tell people about another major life decision — converting to Judaism, moving to Japan — and getting the same response. "Ah, you say that now. But then, when you're about to step into that mikvah …"
I can't imagine someone responding this way to any other similar statement. It would be unbearably patronizing: How else could you claim to know, so intimately, the contents of someone else's mind?
But childbearing is somehow different. The implication is that the choice to have kids isn't really yours to make. You can line up your reasons and perfect your arguments and decide whatever you want, but at the end of the day, it seems, your body makes the choice for you. Something inside you just knows. You go to bed one night with no interest in babies and wake up the next morning knowing you need one of your own. Or so people tell me.
I've done some field work with babies recently, because my friends keep making them. They're astonishing creatures. Ten minutes holding a baby so their exhausted mother can take a quick shower — watching their tiny, powerful fingers clasp and unclasp, letting them play with your hair, and meeting their placid, watchful, curious, unstinting gaze — will take you to the edge of the known universe. Here is the potentiality of all life and humanity, curled tight as a bud; the whole spectrum of behavior present, and yet a personality — a self — is already here. Here is a mind whose contents you cannot begin to imagine, even now. And so here is love. Also, that slightly sour milk smell. And now mom's done with her shower, and you can hand the edge of the known universe back to her.
I love watching my friends become parents. Something quite miraculous always happens: They learn, all of a sudden, to support and nourish human life. And they learn it so gracefully, I think, despite being sleepless, confused, and anxious. We are made, of course, to nurture. It's how we've made it this far.
Yet when we think about human nurture, it seems we often think about the humans we bring into the world for this purpose: so we can raise them, love them, help them grow up. Women talking back to the perceived "selfishness" of a childless life — in books and op-eds and responses to columns that, not to put too fine a point on it, argue that childless women are one of the greatest threats facing America today — often find themselves arguing for the validity of their entire existences.
"When strangers ask about my plans for a child-free life," Anna Goldfarb wrote recently in one such article, "it can come off as if they're really asking what kind of person I am. It takes effort to keep my cool. After a few deep breaths, I run through my usual answers in a measured tone: Yes, I love children, but I don't feel an urgent need to have my own. No, it's not because I'm a selfish jerk."
The idea that it is somehow "selfish" to not have children flies in the face of every logical argument. In fact, by not having children, you are simultaneously minimizing your ecological impact on the planet, and avoiding creating a new human life that may someday have to survive beyond the Thunderdome.
The argument that falling birth rates will leave a rapidly aging population without enough caregivers dismisses the argument that the babies America is most interested in producing — middle-class white ones — generally aren't the people who fill such jobs. Arguing that American women are "selfish" for abetting a falling national birthrate leaves out the fact that elsewhere, the world's population continues to grow at a staggering rate. If we need more young Americans, we can always open our borders. If we think we need more young white Americans, perhaps the best thing to do is stop burdening women with an argument that purports to be solely about economics but is — often to a decisive, if unspoken, degree — also about race.
What the "selfishness" argument circles back to, in the end, is that a woman must be "selfish" if she does not, at one time or another, decide that someone else — her baby — is the most important person in her life. Because if she keeps all her time, all her energy, all her bone density for herself — well, what can she possibly do with all those resources? All that self?
I'll tell you.
She can adore her friends and their children with abandon. She can love a romantic partner not for all the family and legacy they will someday give her, but for all they are today. She can have the time and energy to provide the nurture and babysitting hours that families need and so rarely have in a country where young couples often have children in isolation from extended families, and therefore lack access to networks of free childcare and emotional support.
She can work. She can look at the future and not worry that at some moment in the future, the energy she has for her vocation will suddenly be halved, or radically altered. She can do work that she finds emotionally sustaining, and that occupies so much of her emotional life that a child, attempting to fit in alongside such a passion, would get short shrift. She can care for and support her community. She can care for the people around her, even if they aren't her offspring.
And yet the greatest unspoken argument of the "You say that now" response — at least as far as I can tell — is that having children means knowing love, real love, for the first time. You're selfish and greedy if you don't, but you also don't know what you're missing: forced into emotional starvation even as you think you've created a feast.
I don't find this to be true, either. I will never know the love that grows between a child and a parent — at least not from a parent's perspective. Indeed, there is no substitute. The people who say I don't know what I'm missing are right. But the idea that real and unconditional love can only exist between a parent and child simply seems wrong. If what I have felt so far in this life — for my work and the emotional world within it, for friends, for community; in starry bursts both immediate and distant, lasting and instantaneous, platonic and romantic, and life-alteringly powerful — is not love, then I don't know if my fragile human body and mind could handle the real thing.