Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Gift of Life (I hope you kept the receipt)

In reading the response to a childfree author's review of a parenting book, I came across quite a few of the common "bingo" responses directed at the non-childed.

One responder wondered if childfree people like me felt guilty about being given the gift of life, education, childhood, etc. but was not going to pay that back by having children of my own. (The question was phrased in such a way to suggest I should feel such guilt.) Presumably I am supposed to feel guilty that I am not returning the favor. Returning it to my parents, society, the species, the universe, I’m not sure which.

What I hear in that argument is the suggestion that I was born with the obligation to reproduce. I would have to ask my mother about that, I guess. My take on that: if I was given something that came with such massive, life-altering obligations, I would not consider that a gift. To my mind, a gift is something given generously without strings attached. If giving it means the recipient goes into debt, then that is hardly a gift. When I get a new ATM card from my bank, I would hardly call that a wonderful, selfless gift from the bank.

Being born is a gift in the sense that I never asked for it. I never signed a contract and never gave my consent to the social contract that having a pulse requires me to get someone pregnant. It’s sort of like being kidnapped and then legally obligated to pay my own ransom. Or being kidnapped and then sentenced to jail because I was involved in my own kidnapping.
Also, I have zero children, which means my children don’t exist, so it seems odd that I would owe something to people who don’t exist and who never will exist. It also seems extreme to pay my gift forward by burdening my children with the same debt that I was burdened with. Presumably my children would take on the same debt to reproduce, like a chain of debt that passes down through the generations, like serfdom or chattel slavery.

I keep hearing that this is what’s wrong with this country, that this generation keeps putting the next generation in debt with our actions today. At least, that’s what I associate with political conservatives, ironically many of the people who expect that I should feel guilty that I am not reproducing, not putting my children into reproductive debt.
If there is a debt to society that is to be repaid by reproducing, then what is the message to those who are unable to have children? Are they tragic figures who will take a horrible debt to their graves? If I'm supposed to feel guilty for choosing not to have children, it sounds to me like childless people are supposed to feel shame for being failures. That sounds pretty heartless to me. I don't believe that's true.

If choosing not to have children is by definition ungrateful and selfish, then I guess that means that Mother Teresa was just a self-centered, ungrateful waste of space. (The only thing I have in common with her is that I’m childfree. It’s an extreme example, I grant you.) Everyone who becomes a priest, nun, or monk must simply be a selfish loafer unwilling to sacrifice anything for others, too stuck in their carefree lifestyle to do the responsible thing. F***ing party animals.

Life is a gift. Know what else are gifts? Freedom, rationality, common sense, foresight, a sense of social responsibility, choices, opportunities, the ability to plan, independence from peer pressure, birth control technology, and knowledge of human reproduction. Not to mention travel, career opportunities, financial independence, pleasures of life, free time, peace, and quiet.

There are thousands and thousands of people who worked for centuries to make sure that people could have more control over their reproductive choices.  I’m grateful for their sacrifice, and I honor them by being thoughtful and responsible about my reproductive decisions. It would be a slap in the face, a rejection of scientific knowledge, to make an ignorant, irresponsible decision one way or the other.

I do owe my parents quite a bit. They shaped me into the person I am today. After teaching me to be a responsible, thoughtful person, I want to respect their sacrifice by making the best decision for myself. And, if I can learn from their mistakes and not follow in the footsteps of their mistakes, that truly is a wonderful gift.


  1. Good post. One thing I would like to add here is that some of these non-existent children might actually consider life a horrific burden to bear, rather than a pleasant gift to - god forbid - pass on. For a parent to make the assumption that his/her children will consider life an appreciated gift is to make a highly hubristic and potentially damaging assumption.

    My parents, for instance, assumed I would enjoy life. To their dismay, I regret the day I was born and consider life not a gift, but a nightmare. Too bad the return process is a rather terrifying prospect, as well.

  2. Thanks for your readership. You make a good point here -- how can anyone make assumptions about how his/her child is going to feel about being alive?

    I suspect for many parents they assume their children will simply think and feel the way that they do. Just teach them to be good and they'll be good. Teach them to be happy and they'll be happy.

    If only would-be parents were required to be teachers for a few years. They would see that ultimately the next generation comes to its own conclusions. Saying the same thing to your kids over and over and over again does not make them agree with you. If that were the case, I would still be going to church every Sunday instead of... well...never.

  3. my cats were a gift i gave to us all, when i adopted them.
    my furry offspring...
    if i could bear kittens i would.
    no college to save for.
    no therapy to be responsible for.
    no regrets.
    no stupid 18to life sentence!
    just purring independent love-bugs.

    p.s great post by the way. it's nice to know we are a larger group than i guessed.