Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reproduction as Deviance

I've come across many online opinions that suggested that being childfree is at worst some sort of deviant behavior or at best some sort of rebellion against society. In some cases that may be true, but I would add that being childfree is more about continuity than anything else. It's not necessarily rejecting, deviating, rebelling, or making a sharp turn away from something. Quite the opposite, in fact. Making a conscious, thoughtful decision not to change one's life in a certain way is not really veering off, but staying on course.

Being childfree by choice is not straying off course or stepping off the “normal” path. It’s actually staying on a path that everyone starts on. Everyone is born childfree. We’re not tribbles. No one is born pregnant. People who become parents are altering the reproductive trajectory of their lives. They are changing their status. I am not.

This is one of the reasons why childfree people are assumed to be immature and irresponsible, while parents are assumed to be more grown-up and wiser. By not having children, I am in continuity with something that goes all the way back to my birth. I can see how breaking a trend that you’re born with seems like a rite of passage, so therefore someone who doesn’t go through it has not really grown up.

But, obviously some things you should grow out of as you mature, like being unable to put yourself to sleep, but other things you really can’t grow out of, like breathing. I started breathing right after I was born. I don’t know if I can go through a rite of passage where I don’t breathe anymore. (Well, I could, but my life after that seems overly brief….)

This is also one of the reasons why parents may feel perfectly comfortable giving advice about a childfree lifestyle but not comfortable hearing advice from childfree people about being a parent. All parents were at one point people without children, so parents are people who have experienced both a life as a non-parent and a life as a parent. It’s sort of like the way that the oldest sibling has experience as an only child AND as the oldest sibling, but a younger sibling has no experience as an only child. I think a parent’s perspective can be quite valuable as a kind of “before and after” picture of parenthood, assuming the source has some degree of objectivity. But, someone who is a parent at 35 can’t really say firsthand what it’s like to be 35 and NOT a parent.
One counter to my argument is to point out the ways in which the human body is geared for reproduction, all the eggs and sperm and sex hormones and all the other biological foundations to having kids. You might say, sure we’re not born parents, but most people are born with the possibility to be parents, and nature sure does push in that direction. But again, there is nothing preprogrammed here, and it’s the nature of civilization to use free will and rational agency when looking at our own biology. Our bodies are also set up to be quite violent, even murderous at times, but we should not just give into those impulses just because they have a physiological basis.

Even if we just look at the physiology of it, anyone who’s gone through infertility treatment can tell you what a crap shoot it is to produce another human being. Even if you were completely fertile and had as many kids as humanly possible, 99.9% of women’s eggs will never be fertilized, and 99.9% of the sperm never fertilizes an egg. The vast majority of the human reproductive system “goes to waste” anyway, even without any birth control of any kind. (In a way, onanism is nature’s rule, not the exception.) If being childfree is some kind of waste of biological potential, it’s a 100 % waste instead of a 99.999 % waste. Not much difference. That's like saying my car is a gas guzzler because it gets 30 mpg and yours is a miracle of efficiency because it gets 30.01 mpg.

Of course, when you reproduce, you are creating a human being whose reproductive potential will be mostly wasted as well. Having a kid means over time that even more sperm or eggs will go unused for reproduction, a cycle of biological waste passed on to generation after generation.

By being childfree, I’m sticking with a course that has worked very well for me so far, and one that has the odds on my side. Biologically and mathematically, being childfree is not a deviant behavior, but quite consistent with the way that all humans are born.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Parents Really Are Better People -- A Memorial

Raising children is a thankless, disrespected job. It demands enormous sacrifice -- time, money, energy, even the sacrifice of the self itself. I don't think I could handle the demands that having children would make on my life as it is now. Among other reasons for being childfree, I recognize I just don't have what it takes to go through with all of that.

As a childfree person, I have no real appreciation of how difficult it is to be a parent. I will never get to be as mature as someone burdened with all that responsibility. I will never get to experience the enforced, inescapable demands that I be responsible for the health and happiness of a tiny, ungrateful dependent. I will never know the higher spiritual calling that comes with reproduction. I will never make it into the sacred inner circle, the winners circle.

Congratulations, parents. You win. You are in fact better people than I will ever be. You have achieved a form of martyred sainthood I can only emulate but will never really achieve. I admire people who are so deeply committed to a course of action that they abandon many things that I put in the categories of intelligence, planning, common sense, thoughtfulness, soul-searching, etc.

To those who took a massive leap of faith without much regard to the consequences, I salute your bravery. I admire your simple faith, flying in the face of all that evidence suggesting a different course of action.

To those who now have to find a way to reconcile their hatred of parenting with their love of their children, you have my utmost respect. It's a very challenging emotional feat that has rewards I can't even imagine.

To those countless parents who have modeled a way of life I have decided against, I thank you for the examples you have set for me. Without you, I don't know how I could have decided so easily.

To those parents who so fervently evangelize the gospel of parenthood, I thank you for all those helpful counterarguments that have confirmed the wisdom of my choices. I doubt you realize how helpful you have been.

Finally, to those espousing the hateful childfree lifestyle, I curse you. Because of you I have been further lured into a life reeking of individual identity, peace and quiet, freedom, uncountable individual opportunities, and a soul-crushing expanse of free time. Because of your detestable seductiveness, I now must face a second-class life devoid of instant martyrdom. I must search harder than parents do in order to find the same level of smug condescension laced with envy. (I found the smugness and condescension, but can't seem to locate the envy.)

Now I must somehow trudge onward, living a lesser life than others. I only hope parents will overlook my inferiority. I hope they leave me to admire them from afar. I'm so undeserving that I am not even worthy to be in the same buildings as their children. In fact, I suggest parents call attention to my perverse inferiority by boycotting all the theaters, restaurants, stores, and public spaces that I frequent. I hope parents show how magnanimous they are by leaving me to stew in my own regrets. Let the silence of my coffeeshop, empty of their children's screams, be the fitting penalty for my terrible mistake.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guilty as Charged, Thanks

For the moment, I will accept for the sake of argument that I am selfish for being childfree. I admit that I do have self-interested, self-centered, self-defined reasons for choosing to be childfree, and I can see that perhaps “selfish” is an appropriate word to describe my decision. Let’s go with that label for the moment. Let’s see where that takes us.

When judging the morality of particular actions, one important issue is the question of social harm. How much does a selfish decision negatively affect other people? I can imagine some arguments that my not having children could be bad for society, but I’m having a hard time agreeing with the assumptions behind that point of view. I suppose society needs a supply of new people to continue to exist, assuming that the continued large number of people in the world should be maintained. I suppose you could say I owe it to future generations to reproduce, but then again if I don’t reproduce then my descendants don’t exist in the first place.

The other side of the harm issue is the question of “lesser harm,” which happens when you do something harmful that prevents even worse things from happening. Because I think I’m the best judge of what my future self would be like, I can imagine that my being a parent would not be in the best interest of my own child. I can anticipate that my children might just as easily make the world a worse place as make the world a better place. I’m convinced, selfishly or not, that many people would be better off if I were to be childfree.

Let’s assume my selfishness really is completely narcissistic, and I truly am out only to do things that I enjoy, no matter what the effects on others. Objectively, we would have to agree that that kind of person would be a horrible parent. Given the behavior of many parents I have had the pleasure to observe over the decades, I have come to the conclusion that having children is no guarantee that a person will stop being selfish. So, the more selfish I appear to be, the better reason I have to be childfree.

Parenthood is not a cure for narcissism. Parenthood just helps narcissism find new victims.

Furthermore, the selfish behavior of individuals is not always a bad thing for others. There are plenty of good things that happen when people pursue their own self-interest. (I’m not making a plug for free market capitalism here, though I would note that most of the evangelically pronatalist are perfectly comfortable with the idea of private economic self-interest powering society.) I donate clothes and household items to the local Goodwill store, where I also shop for bargains. I donate things and shop there largely for selfish reasons: I want more closet space, I don’t want to spend time setting up a garage sale, I would have to pay for garbage pick-up, and I prefer to buy things at the lowest price possible. All of those are terribly self-centered reasons. The result? This charity gets free stuff to sell and then gets revenue from selling items to me. The greedier I am with bargains, the more money Goodwill makes. My reproductive selfishness may be working the same way. Even if my decision is bad, let’s remember that often good comes from bad.

What does it say about being childed if childfree people are considered selfish? Presumably, that means that being without children comes with many benefits. It suggests that having children comes with many sacrifices and many disadvantages. It implies that childfree people are enjoying an unfair amount of fun or free time or money or any number of positive things in life.

In fact, if choosing not to have children is a horribly selfish act, that means that having children is a major sacrifice that childfree people are not making. We are choosing NOT to take on the horrible challenges that come with children. We are choosing a life of enjoyment, limiting something that would make our lives needlessly difficult.

Now, of course, if having children is the greatest joy in the world, and if I’m going to regret being childfree later in life, then ultimately my decision is going to hurt me most of all. I am consciously choosing something that could make me profoundly unhappy, forgoing the chance at the greatest joy possible, and doing that with eyes wide open. It’s like a kind of self-denial, really. I mean, if I’m choosing to miss out on such wonderfulness, you could hardly say that I’m selfish.

You can’t have it both ways. If being childfree is selfish, that must mean that having kids is not enjoyable. If having kids is the greatest joy in the world, then I’m not actually selfish for giving up the chance. If childrearing is the most rewarding job in the world, then I have consciously chosen a lesser option. How greedy and selfish can I be if I’m shooting for second place while everyone else is going for first place?

I see one good objection to my position here. A person can make a decision out of selfish motives, thinking that the result will be fun, only to discover that the choice made his life worse. Possibly this is what I have done, choosing to be childfree for selfish reasons, only to realize at some future date that it made my life worse. If that happens, I can’t claim I wasn’t selfish before just because I’m suffering now. Suffering in the present does not excuse the fact that I was selfish before – there is no retroactive selflessness, reading the effect back into the motivation. Being selfish now could make me miserable later. This is all too true.

Therefore, by all rights, I can say the same thing about being a parent. Just because parenthood costs you so much today does not mean that you chose to have kids for unselfish reasons. Perhaps you had them for selfish reasons and now you have regrets. Perhaps that is why my childfree reasoning seem so selfish. If you were to choose again between parenthood and childfreedom, your informed choice today would make childfreedom look much more enjoyable.

So, I think I'll embrace the "selfish label." It reminds me that I'm making the right choice.

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.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pity Accepted

I have heard people say that they feel sorry for childless or childfree people. I have mixed feelings about that. It sounds condescending and patronizing. It sounds like someone saying he knows what’s good for me more than I do. It sounds like an insult disguised as warmth.

But, okay, I hereby accept the sympathy of the childed. I accept that I am a valid recipient of your pity. My life lacks the purpose or rewards that a life with children brings. Thank you. I welcome your sympathy.

Now, let’s see what we can do with that pity. I would now like to explore how far it goes. I hope in your mercy you will be willing to extend the same income tax breaks to me that parents get. After all, the phantom children that I am supposed to have deserve just as much consideration as other children do. I hope in your appreciation for how empty my life is that you will be willing to let me take the same time off work that you do. I hope you will remember my piercing loneliness and not mention your children in every conversation that you have with me. I pray that you understand how much I envy you, so please limit your complaints about how hard it is to be a parent.

Or, as I saw on a postcard recently:
"I don't envy you because of your baby. I envy your maternity leave."

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Children Integer

(I've been following numerous threads on being childfree and what that means. As a result, I have a few things I'm mulling over for this blog.)
Everyone has a number of children. My number is zero. Other people choose (or have) one, two, three, etc. Many people who have more than zero decide to stop at the number they have. Some stop at one, two, three, etc. I have decided to stop at zero. Zero is the optimal number for my life. When people ask me if I have children, I think I’ll tell them “I have zero children.”

Some people arrive at the number after considerable thought, some do not. Some overthink it, some don't think enough. In some cases, the optimum may actually be a different number than the current number. I would say if you are going to be off, better to err on the side of underestimation -- better to have fewer children than you can handle than to have more children than you can handle.
I like to think this could be a bridge between those who are childed and those who are not. Can't we just see this as a number, just like any other? 

A number is a number is a number. Mine is zero. What's yours?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Horoscopes, For No Particular Reason

I have an idea that star signs based on birthdays might have some general utility in predicting some things on the individual level. I’m not saying that horoscope predictions or Zodiac personality descriptions could withstand scientific rigor, just that I can see some plausible correlations to reality. Or, at least astrology could be recognizing some very general patterns that do exist even if “the stars” are not the reason. I’m not someone who believes that “every myth has a basis in fact,” because that is obviously not true, and I’m not trying to rehabilitate the image of astrologers. I’m just saying it makes an interesting thought exercise.

Here’s a proposition: all other things being equal, people born in the same time of year could tend to act in similar ways. Or, people with birthdays around the same time might be more similar to each other than similar to people born at other times of year, if you could factor out all other differences. It seems plausible that people raised in the same culture, for example with the same holidays, same celebrations and same calendar system, could grow up with some similar personality traits. For example, it seems plausible to me that people with a birthday near Christmas would often have a common experience of getting fewer presents in a year than others did. (Assuming they celebrated Christmases and birthdays.)  They might get only one set of presents for Christmas and their birthday, so therefore experienced a childhood of envy of other kids, felt short-changed by their childhoods, or early on discovered other measurements of happiness besides material possessions. Gross generalizations here but there may be something to it.

Along the same lines, if children are born into an education system that has summer vacation, then plausibly children who celebrated birthdays in the summer might have a very different experience than children born during the school year. It may be more isolating or marginalizing for a child to have a summer birthday, so he or she grows up with a different relationship to peers than schoolyear-birthday kids do.

In this case, it’s the cultural and social context that sets up the distinctions, not the actual stars. It would depend on the meanings that are already out there about different times of year. Someone whose life is strongly identified with a certain time of year, and if that time of year has a special meaning, would conceivably have a different sense of self than someone who identifies with another time of year. Again, all other things being equal.

This is aside from the force of expectations or power of suggestion that the astrology system itself may set up. It could be that if you are told your entire life that as a person born at X point in time you must have the personality traits Y and Z, that could actually make someone have those characteristics. It could be a case of predictions making themselves true. At the very least there could be a confirmation bias at work. People may notice the things their sign charts say that are accurate much more than what they get wrong.

I could also see a testable biological correlation here somewhere. I think the likelihood is small, but it’s a question that could be tested empirically. All other environmental factors being equal, there could be some developmental similarities in utero among people born at the same time of year. I could imagine this being true especially in pre-industrial agricultural societies where there may be more and better food at some times of year and not others. Different parts of the year might mean different maternal nutrition, different levels of maternal exercise, different forms of stress, all of which could theoretically translate into different birth outcomes and even different early development. Possibly as a winter newborn one’s infant experience could be very different from that of a summer newborn and this could have an impact on personality. Surely giving birth at a time of less sunlight could increase the chance of post-partum depression, which could have a long-term effect on a newborn. (This is only focusing on mom and baby, I realize, but it’s just by way of example.) It’s a bit of a stretch, but you could say that celestial bodies do influence personality, if you include the sun and the tilting of the earth in creating seasons.

There could also be other similarities that are already built into the fact that two people are born at the same time of year. Having the same birthday means, on average, being conceived at the same time of year, so presumably people with the same birthday may already have parents who are similar in their behavior. For example, two people born nine months after Valentine’s Day could both be raised by parents who are conventionally romantic, which could translate into similar parenting.

I recently had a conversation with someone who joked about what his daily horoscope predicted for him that day, and I replied that I hope he had the correct birthday for himself, or else he would be prepared for the wrong thing. I didn’t think about that before I said it, it just came out, and then it hit me: how do you really know what your birthday is? I don’t remember my birth, so I’m dependent on other people to tell me when it was. (I suppose even if I claim to remember the day, my memory could be faulty.) My birth certificate tells me what day it was, but it’s just a piece of paper and paper can be forged. If a birthday-based astrology system is accurate, it won’t be fooled by an incorrect birthday, because the stars know the truth, right?

It occurs to me that the whole birthday epistemology question is a good basis for testing the accuracy of a birthday-based astrology system. Theoretically, instead of starting with your birthday, an astrologer could start with other information about your life and work backwards to predict accurately what your birthday is. Astrology could verify the accuracy of one’s birth certificate, in principle. It’s possible that if the horoscopes are accurate then a long-term survey of your daily horoscope could reveal that your birthday is in fact not the one that you thought but in another month entirely. (Does anyone who follows the star signs come to imagine that his birth certificate is wrong?) Or, you could simply monitor what happens to someone around you and figure out that person’s birthday if you didn’t know it already.

Of course, if all these non-star factors (seasons, holidays, agricultural rhythms) are true, you would need totally different prediction systems for different religions, cultures, climates, and regions. If your personality or destiny really is linked to visible star formations or the solar seasons, then you would clearly need a separate system for the southern hemisphere. I don’t know what to tell you if you’re born in Australia and you’re not sure what your birthday is, but I might come to some conclusions about you if you celebrate Christmas….

Monday, February 21, 2011

The "Screamachine" -- An Allegory

Let’s say I had a seriously malfunctioning portable robotic stereo.

It went off at random moments playing screeching sounds at high volume, and I had very little control over it. Sometimes it wandered off in a random direction regardless of safety or other people. Sometimes I could coax it to be quiet and be still, and sometimes nothing I could do worked and it would go on and on until it went quiet on its own. If I brought this machine into a coffee shop or restaurant or store or library or theater, I might get some dirty looks from all those selfish people who were expecting some quiet time.

“But wait,” I would say, “it’s very important for me to take this with me everywhere. It’s who I am. If you don’t have one of these, you have no idea what it’s like. Show a little sympathy, because your dirty looks are not really helping me, are they? Maybe if you had one you wouldn't have such an empty, meaningless life."

Perhaps I took ownership of my noise machine before I really knew what they were like. Perhaps at one point I was afraid that I would have a big hole in my life without such a machine so I went right out and got one. I could tell you this machine is in fact the future of technology and at some point we will all be dependent on it when we get older. It has some kind of artificial intelligence, theoretically, that will make it function better as it learns more and more over the next two decades. Don’t you care about the future?

“Besides, just about everyone has one, and once you grow up you will want one, too. (Uncle Sam even gives me a little tax break – sort of like green energy credits, only not.) Those days when you could go into these places and not hear these angelic machines are a thing of the past, really. And, what can you do, these things just make those noises. It’s what they do. You should see them when they make really sweet spontaneous noises, or when they sit in sleep mode. I wish I could show you that right now, but the thing keeps screeching. You’ll just have to believe me. Maybe when you get one of your own you can see that it’s all worth it. That’s when you know you’ve grown up and added something to society.”

“It’s just going through a rough few years right now, but over time it will get quieter. It will run around on its own a lot more then and spill things on you, but the screeching will be a little less spontaneous. Sometimes I’ll even be able to shout at it and activate the voice-recognition quiet mode from a distance. That is, unless it’s tired or amped up or bored or frustrated or interfered with by other noise machines.”

Now, I’m thinking if I had such a thing and I did disturb other people, I could rightly be labeled inconsiderate. I should at least minimize the noise that it made or apologize when it was disturbing others or make sure that everyone could see that I was at least trying to deal with the challenge. I should not mind minimizing the effect of my noise machine by staying away from quiet areas or keeping my machine from moving around and screeching in the ears of others.

If I were to impose the sensory effects of my choice on others, I would certainly hope I would not try to induce others to join the  club. I would hope I would be able to respect the fact that others without screamachines may not want the hassles that go with them, or else they would have them. Who knows, maybe the people out in public have machines of their own and just wanted a space outside the home where they could get away from their own machines.

When are you going to get a screamachine of your own?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Agreeable Disagreement -- Fighting Bingo with Bingo

(I wrote this one for the childfree audience, so that's the "we" and "us" I mention.)

I have an idea I’ve not tried yet, but it seems promising, and I wonder if anyone else has had success doing something similar. It’s this: agree completely with pronatalist reactions and use those same arguments to support the idea of NOT having children. Let their own arguments show how sensible it is to be childfree. I’m having trouble keeping sarcasm out of my answers, but maybe that’s unavoidable. This approach also kind of assumes you’re debating with someone in a rational, open-minded conversation, which is often not really the case.

Some examples:
1. “You’re being selfish and immature.”
Response: You’re absolutely right. I am in no position to be a good provider or role model to a poor, innocent, vulnerable little angel. Parenthood takes a lot of self-sacrifice, and people who are not prepared to be selfless or are not mature enough should definitely not have children. Thank goodness I didn’t make the mistake of having children in my condition.

2. “You’re one of those people who hates children.”
Response: Unfortunately, you are correct. I think something is deeply wrong with me, something wrong with the way that I’m wired. Perhaps I need a lot of therapy to figure out where that malfunction comes from. Until I can cure myself of this deformity, I should probably not be near any children. Everyone should keep their kids as far away from me as possible, out of earshot, never even mention your kids to me, until I get this straightened out. Or, if that’s not possible, let me have my own spaces devoid of children. Thanks for reminding me that it’s entirely possible for someone who hates children to become a parent anyway. Thank goodness I haven’t made that mistake.

3. “Someday you’ll regret it if you don’t have a child.”
Response: I could not agree more. I think you’ve just touched on a really profound bit of wisdom, there – it is possible to look back on a reproductive decision and feel deep regret about it. I shouldn’t be hasty and rush into something without looking realistically at my life.  It’s a really good idea for me to take a detailed look at all the possible futures before doing something monumental like deciding whether or not to have a child. The wrong decision could be totally devastating for me.

4. “Once you hold one in your arms you’ll feel differently.”
Response: You are so right. I keep forgetting that people with different experiences than mine may have something wise to contribute to my understanding of myself and my life. I see I can be just as happy or even happier if I had made a very different reproductive choice. And you are totally correct that once you have a child your life will be completely different and your old life will be a distant memory.

5. “You’ll need someone to take care of you when you’re old.”
Response: Yes, sir, absolutely. Having children is most definitely an economic decision that redistributes resources, redirects labor, and creates whole new social obligations. I have to think about my later years and make the best investment decisions now so I can have the most comfortable retirement possible. I better think long and hard about how I invest my time, energy, and money right now, because making a bad financial decision today could spell disaster in twenty or thirty years. Thanks for reminding me I need to invest my salary wisely in things that are most guaranteed to pay off later.

6. “Society would collapse if everyone thought like you did.”
Response: I know, and I hate myself for that. The only way I can feel better about being such a non-contributor is to remind myself that at least I won’t pass on my selfishness to any children. We childfree misfits will probably die off because of our own shortsightedness. Thank goodness my monstrous perversity is not contagious – people who have children are fortunately so much in love with parenthood that they are immune to any temptation to live an “alternative lifestyle,” and lucky for them they can’t switch sides anyway even if they wanted to.  Fortunately for society, we can encourage people with children to have as many as they physically can; since parenting is such a joy, they won’t mind picking up the slack for the rest of us.

7. “You’re missing out on the most fulfilling thing you could do.”
Response: Totally true, and it breaks my heart. I am deeply flawed, self-destructive, and in denial. I don’t have the courage or toughness to put myself through what parents go through every day. Parents are my heroes. I can only look on in awe at the things they can do and wish somehow I could risk so much to achieve so much. They’re like the people who climb Everest without oxygen tanks. Thank goodness those rare, special people are out there to inspire the rest of us in our lesser everyday lives. I can only hope to find a fraction of that fulfillment some other way. My fear and weakness are quite disgusting, really. Maybe I don’t deserve to be happy, so I really don’t deserve the ecstasy that comes with being a parent. I haven’t earned it, and I’m not sure I ever will. I’ll try to carry on as best I can with a second-rate life. Please think of the less fortunate, like me, around tax time or when it’s time to promote people at the company. Throw me a bone, I have nothing else going on in my life.

8. “You’re only thinking of the negatives and don’t see the positives.”
 Response: You got me. It’s true. I have let myself be so overwhelmed by 1) all the complaints I hear from parents, 2) all the things I see are hard about having children, and 3) all the ways that children drain people of their energy, that I haven’t left room in my heart to believe them when they backpedal and say how much it’s all worth it. I’ve let myself be taken over by logic, self-reflection, and critical thinking, when really I should have more blind faith that the good parts outweigh the bad. I need to listen to the truth underneath all the chatter. There’s some more good wisdom here: you have to be skeptical about what people say about having children – the true ratio of positive to negative may be largely unspoken, so you have to read between the lines sometimes.

9. “You get to experience a whole new kind of love.”
Response: So true, so true. I hate that I have been missing out on that. I’m spending all this time with friends and family, developing as an individual, that I completely missed out on that special love. I’ve gone without this unique bond for so long, and I’ve become so self-sufficient in my life, I think I’ve spoiled my chance at creating that relationship. I have this irrational fear that the relationship with my children will compete with my other relationships, but that clearly would not be the case, since the more kinds of love you can experience the better, right?  You’re so right about how important it is to have love in your life and not to do anything to endanger that possibility. Love should be protected, encouraged, and nurtured, and I should let nothing stand in the way of that. Good thing I don't have kids, then.

10. “If your mother thought the same way you did, you wouldn’t be here.”
Response:  Absolutely rock-solid logic.  Nonexistence is really tricky that way, isn’t it? You have reminded me that it’s pointless for me to try to predict how I’m going to feel about someone who currently does not exist. It’s impossible to say how the existence or nonexistence of someone else is clearly going to make my life better or worse. The concrete is much better than the abstract. Thanks for reminding me to look at my own experience within my own family for guidance about parenting. I can now look at what I know about my mother’s life in order to decide whether or not I should really do what she did. And, there are good words of warning here: sometimes parents can raise rotten, ungrateful, selfish, and immature children who fail to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Luckily, if I don’t have a child, I won’t be adding any more of those useless “childfree” people to the population.

I’m not saying that pronatalist reactions are fair and accurate, but chances are the people who want to argue with you are not really interested in debating the accuracy of anyone’s view. It can be very disarming to accept other people’s reactions and run with them to show them where those arguments lead.  We can thank them for the ways that their wisdom supports our choices. This could be a great achievement for CF people – so many of the arguments, both the good ones and the bad ones, support the choice to be childfree that even the most fanatical pro-parenting people agree with us!

The No-Birth Announcement

Recent converts tend to be the most zealous and the most obnoxious, and I think I'm in that category with my recent embrace of the childfree life. Some things that slightly annoyed me before now seem like things I want to subvert in my own annoying way.

The latest example: the workplace birth announcement. At my company, any time an employee or spouse of an employee gives birth, someone sends out a mass e-mail to everyone in the department giving the name, weight, update on the mom, etc.

I don't think this is a terrible thing, for the most part. I'm not inconvenienced any more than any other blanket e-mail containing information I don't need.

What I've been thinking, though, is that if announcing a birth is a valid use of e-mail, then really ANY legitimate reproductive choice is a valid subject for an e-mail. (I say "legitimate," because I have to draw the line at announcing infanticide or castration without consent. Arbitrary and biased of me, I know.)

So, I've been toying with the idea of a "no-birth" announcement, heralding the non-arrival of a baby into the household. One of the great things about this is that you can send one even if you already have children, and you can send one as often as you like. Feel free to copy or edit as you see fit. Convert to metric measurements where applicable.

I also want to make some kind of illustration for it, but I'm not sure how to draw a stork carrying a bundle of freedom, enjoyment, peace, and quiet.

Here's what I have so far:

__________ and I would like to announce the arrival of no new family members yesterday. Forty weeks ago we successfully used birth control, and thanks to good planning we welcome ourselves back home from no hours of labor. Both of us are resting comfortably, and not too tired at all, really. We're both hoping to get our pre-non-pregnancy bodies back the way they were as soon as possible.

Name: Continued Freedom, Peace, Quiet, Autonomy, Enjoyment, Disposable Income
Time of birth: N/A (life is continuous)
0 lbs., 0 oz.
0 in. long

Thank you for all your prayers and best wishes.
_________ and __________

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Okay, I'll Multiply: One Times One Equals One

I'm not really part of a social circle that encourages me to reproduce for religious reasons, but apparently there are still religious communities in which there is pressure to have children as part of some larger holy mission. A few of the childfree sites banter back and forth about the "be fruitful and multiply" quotation from a current English-language translation of what many simply refer to as "The Bible." For now, I will focus on one tiny fraction of the religious universe: an unrepresentative sampling of early 21st century US English-speaking Christianity, mostly Protestant and/or evangelical.

Before I can really contribute my two cubits, I have to agree to some things just for the sake of argument, whether I really believe them or not. Let's assume that the most common current English-language versions of the Bible are more or less consistent with each other. Let's assume that it matters to me what they say. Let's assume that the variations in the versions of the Bible over the past nearly 4000 years don't really matter, that there was some clear, single, original intent to the document, and that the original intent has been well preserved into the present versions. Let's assume my very old memories of (Protestant) Sunday school and church and very superficial theological studies since then are enough to generate evidence to make a good case.

By the way, I call them "versions" of the Bible because that is what they are from a historical standpoint, and because that is the label found on most of them: New International Version, Revised Standard Version, King James Version, etc.

Here's what I've noticed:

Even if the Bible unambiguously says God wants me to have a kid, and I'm not sure that it does, but even if it did, I wonder where that command/wish fits in with all the other imperatives in The Bible that very few present-day Christians follow. For example, according to what I remember, the Bible also tells me:

1. Don't eat cheeseburgers or bacon.
2. Don't shave my face.
3. Don't wear blended fabrics -- no cotton-poly blend or cotton-wool blend.
4. Eat bread with a sweaty forehead.
5. Rich people can't get into heaven.
6. Disobedient children deserve the death penalty. (And, be ready to cut open even your well-behaved son if a voice you hear tells you to.)

Then there's that limited-edition 17th Century print run of a Bible in England that included the misprint "Thou shall commit adultery." The printers recalled the books and managed to get most of them out of circulation. I call it a "misprint," but that is of course a very value-laden term and suggests a real bias on my part. I can see how that version could in fact reinforce the command to procreate....

Now, I can see the most powerful way to counter my list is to say the Bible is not necessarily meant to be taken literally in all cases. Even the most diehard literalist Christian fundamentalists leave some wiggle room for metaphor and allegory and possible mistranslation. ("No, see the 'Eye of the Needle' was actually an opening in the wall around Jerusalem, and camels COULD go through it if they hunched a little."  Or "Well, it doesn't mean 'no other gods before me' literally, it's more like don't put money ahead of God and stuff like that.")

To the suggestion that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally word-for-word, I say:  EXACTLY.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

No Reproducing

       I've been thinking a lot and reading a lot about choosing not to have children, what many people call being "childfree" (instead of "childless," which implies that not having a child means you are lacking). I've gone to numerous blogs and websites, though my favorite one so far is childfreedom. I like the blog so much I've posted to it multiple times over the past two weeks, and I'd like to respond to some of the stuff there in this very blog.

       I find a lot of the childfree arguments compelling, much more than the reasons to have children, though I can't quite agree with all of the childfree reasoning. I don't want to drink the pronatalism Kool-Aid, but that doesn't mean I'm going to chug the dark cherry childfree stuff either. I guess I'm looking to whip up my own batch.

Friday, February 11, 2011

That Whole Environment Thing

This is in part a response to some of the posts and comments on the childfreedom blog, for example the “Agent Smith is Right” piece.
I find myself constantly agreeing with the things people say, at least the conclusions people come to, but I keep wondering if I’m coming to the childfree choice from my own weird angle. Sometimes the reasons I hear for being childfree seem as foreign to me as the reasons people give for having children. One example: the environmental reasons.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that going childfree will minimize my impact on the planet’s carrying capacity, that overcrowding is a problem, and that choosing to add one more person to the world seems irresponsible. That makes a lot of sense on an individual level, and I would encourage anyone who wants to be childfree to be childfree for whatever reason works for you. Even if your reason for being childfree is bonkers, especially if your reason is bonkers, you should be childfree.
My reasons for being childfree are not really about carbon footprints or environmental responsibility. That reasoning doesn’t fully resonate with me, not because I don’t care about unsafe water and poverty and starvation, just that being childfree for me is more about me than the rest of the world. I don’t think I can have the life I want to have if I have a child. (Sure, selfish maybe, but it’s a selfishness that destroys itself. If my being selfish results in something that you consider good for the planet, then let me be selfish.) The way I see it, if the situation were reversed and being childfree was more harmful to the world than having a child, that wouldn’t change my mind in the least. I still wouldn’t have a kid even if it HELPED the planet. I don’t care much about “my long-term legacy” either environmentally or dynastically, and that means I don’t feel all that guilty about my carbon footprint AND I don’t want to leave a living legacy of my loins.
The environmental reason is generally good wisdom. All other things being equal, a parent plus child will use more resources than a childfree individual. A good rule is that all other things being equal a family of 3 consumes more than a family of 2. Again, all other things being equal: economic system, cost of living, access to resources, income, appetites, lifestyle expectations, medical conditions, consumption patterns, housing types, climate, childraising practices, etc.
I just think there’s a little wiggle room here, and the “using fewer resources” reason is just not enough for me, intellectually, because it’s kind of relative. How many resources your household (for lack of a better word) consumes has a lot to do with individual choices or local factors, not just the number of people. An environmentally conscious family of 3 could consume less than a rampantly consumerist family of 2. A childless American billionaire by himself surely consumes far more resources than a low-income mother and her 2 small children. Not to mention that an American child consumes as much as a dozen children in Haiti (guessing here, too). If I choose not to have a kid so I can fly all over the world several times, I’m just trading one pollution for another. The child is worse than the airline jet, but it’s still substituting one for another, not going from big impact to no impact.
And, of course, there are all sorts of culturally loaded value judgments about how to use resources, and this leads to some inconsistencies. If I said I went childfree so I could more easily pursue a dream of starting a ranch and raising horses, I’m guessing many if not most of the blog readers, even the more environmentally conscious ones, would find that a beautiful dream and a great reason to be childfree. Even if a herd of horses that my ranch breeds over and over again consumes more resources than that one child would have. (I’m guessing about that – I may be na├»ve about how much the little yard apes eat.) Breed giant, highly destructive grazers and sell them as luxury items, great; breed a child, and it’s killing the earth. If I said I wanted to start a cattle ranch instead of a horse ranch, that would probably be much more controversial, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with cows consuming more than horses. (I’m not sure they do.)

By the same token: I have two cats at home. Surely my house would consume less without them, and surely the world would be better off without so much biomass going to feed our pets. (Isn’t there enough pressure on the tuna population already?) But, I dare you to try to convince me to give up my cats to save the planet.
As for the inevitability of human extinction, that is a virtual certainty, but not primarily because humans are especially self-destructive to their environment. The main reason is that humans are a species of life and species go extinct. It’s just what we life-forms do. Extinction is actually the RULE in the history of the planet, NOT the EXCEPTION. The fact is that 99% of all species of life that have ever existed on earth have become extinct, and that was long before humans ever appeared. If humans are like a virus because we reproduce regardless of the future, then ALL life is like a virus. (There’s some debate about whether viruses themselves count as life.)  Get rid of humans and extinctions will happen at a slower rate, certainly, but extinctions won’t stop.
There is no “balance” or “healing” to return to once humans are gone, because there is no absolute biological sustainability. Eventually the sun, an object that is burning through its fuel at an unsustainable rate like a giant SUV, will burn out in the next few billion years, which would probably be the end of life on the planet. The idea of a natural, steady-state equilibrium, a delicate “balance of nature” is from human imagination, not a natural law. Not everything in the universe is balanced or cyclical, and it looks like nothing is really eternal either. To me the “natural balance” or “health of the planet” idea borders on creationism – this one way is the way that the earth is meant to be forever and ever.  For most of the planet’s existence, actually, there was no life on it at all, so if humans somehow destroy all life on the planet, maybe we’re coming full circle, back to the way things were “meant to be.” It’s sort of narcissistic of me as a life-form to think that my planet has to have life on it at all. If we really “listened to nature” we should be comfortable with the idea of extinction for all life.
I guess you could say that humankind has lived in its own self-interest at the expense of the rest of the planet. However, I’m not sure the earth actually has its own interest, now that I think about it. It’s not clear that the earth is meant to have life on it at all, and it’s not even clear, given the way the universe seems to work, that the earth is meant to last forever even without life on it. This sounds counterintuitive, maybe, but just because something happens does not prove that it was meant to happen, certainly not that it was fated to happen. But, if you argue that everything happens because it was meant to happen, that means that all the horrible things humans have done were also meant to happen.
As for exploiting the earth, that’s certainly true. Humans use resources that could be used by other life forms, and we have altered the ecology everywhere we go. But, that’s what EVERY species does to some degree. Maybe humans are just the worst of the worst, but it’s not like everything else is in natural harmony and humans are the ones changing the world. I’m sure the field mouse would love to go on living instead of being eaten by an owl. The little fellow would probably find the whole thing terribly exploitative and think the owl was horribly selfish.
As for the “rape of the earth” metaphor, maybe I’m just a clueless male brainwashed by my violent, repressive, patriarchal society, but I don’t think that metaphor really rings true if you think about it. It’s true that everything humans do today is without the consent of the planet, but then that’s always been the case, really. If it’s about not having the planet’s permission, then every human has been a rapist, really. Has anyone gotten the consent of earth to forage or breathe or develop an immune system? Did you hear the voice of The Earth saying it was okay to plant a garden in your backyard? I don’t quite see how clear-cutting is the same as sexual violence, except that both make me outraged.
The rape metaphor also tends to suggest that the planet is female (the whole Mother Earth/Mother Nature thing), which is itself a whole big gendered can of worms. Of course rape is not something that is only perpetrated against women, and theoretically it could be a male Earth being raped, but I’m guessing that’s not where most people’s minds go. I hate to be “that guy,” but let’s face it, the earth has no gender, just like a country doesn’t really have a gender – America is not a “she” either. I’m not making light of violence or environmental issues, and I am not trying to be disgusting, just trying to say that sometimes the rhetoric goes overboard. If the problem is taking too much from the planet, I would totally agree, modern humans have been very “rapacious,” in the sense of being greedy.
In fact, if the extinction of humans will make the planet a better place, why not get it over with sooner rather than later while the sun still burns?  Encourage more babies, spew more pollution, make a total collapse happen today instead of tomorrow, so our wonderful rainbow-and-unicorns-and-Avatar planet can get back to its lovely natural state. Too bad during the Cold War we humans missed all those chances to wipe the slate clean. Maybe with nuclear proliferation we can get those chances back again.
If we’re imagining the end of human beings on the planet, though, let’s not forget about all the species that have thrived from human activity that will face huge die-offs if humans are suddenly gone – roaches, rats, crows, sea gulls, pigs, cows, dandelions, house sparrows, domestic cats(!), marijuana, corn, the list goes on. Don’t the little beasties that feed off human society deserve a chance to thrive? (No, I don’t mean me.) Not all those things will go extinct right away, but they would be what today we call “endangered species.”
I like to think I’m environmentally conscious. I support making the world more livable and making society more sustainable. I just think that there are forms of environmentalism that are well-reasoned and realistic, and some that are soft-headed and herdlike. Like with global warming – the evidence is overwhelming that it’s happening and that humans are causing some part of it. Some people believe it because they know the evidence, while others believe it for all sorts of other reasons. There are plenty of people who want to help the planet because the cool kids say they should. Or, they buy something because it has light-green packaging and a leaf drawn on the front, therefore it must be better for the environment than the other choices. I have a fear that “being green” is just a fad and that all those corporate marketing departments will eventually move on to something else, and the small herd currently moving in a good direction will move in another. In a way, I hope the green fad does change, because the color green is not the best model for every situation – in desert areas, aiming for green everywhere is the absolute worst thing to do, because of the consumption of water. In Tucson, “staying brown” would be much more sustainable than “going green.”

You can't fight smog with smug.

Sui Generis and En Medias Res

So, you're probably thinking the first post is where you'll find some kind of introduction or something, some rationale for this blog to exist. I wish I could tell you, I really do. I don't really know what it's about. I won't know what it's really all about until it's over, and maybe not even then. If you figure out what it's all about or how to describe it, please let me know.

We now join our blog, already in progress....