To breed or not to breed

Studies show that couples who choose not to have children are happier than those who do. So quit leaning on me to spawn.

Published May 6, 2003 4:27PM (EDT)

Editor's note: It all started with a letter.

A reader in her 30s wrote to Salon a few months ago, begging us to publish more stories like "No Baby On Board," an essay by Pagan Kennedy exploring her decision not to have children. The reader, herself struggling with the question of whether to procreate, spoke of the personal cost of giving up her salary as the primary breadwinner in her family. "What would the return be on the investment?" she wrote. "Are there any laws that would require my children to pay for my nursing home when I am old? Are they going to be a sufficient hedge against poverty and loneliness?" This woman's letter -- which was marked "not for publication" or else we would have published it in its entirely -- set off a fierce debate among the Salon staff. (Yes, we really do read your letters!) Some thought the reader was crass and "emotionally crippled," and said anyone who would think about childbearing in stark financial terms shouldn't be a parent in the first place. Others defended her, saying she was being refreshingly honest about her fears, and thought that the fact that she was painstakingly examining her decision to have children made her far more responsible than those who have kids simply because they feel they should.

Since the issues raised by this reader engendered such a spirited discussion in our office, we decided that it was worth pondering in a public forum. Why have children, anyway? And should you have them if you don't feel a biological or emotional urge? If you don't, will you feel those urges later, and regret it? Does having kids make old age less painful? Does choosing not to have children mean you're selfish? Or are those people who choose to have children to fulfill themselves, or to ease loneliness, or to take care of them in old age, the really selfish ones? Are the sacrifices to your body, your finances and your freedom worth it? And why do so many parents preach the procreation gospel to their nonparent friends? Beginning today with Michelle Goldberg's essay "Married Without Children" and continuing until Mother's Day on May 11, we will run a series of essays that explore these questions and investigate perhaps the most critical decision that anyone makes over the course of a lifetime -- to breed or not to breed? This week, that is our question.

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By Michelle Goldberg

May 6, 2003  |  When I tell people that I'm 27, happily married and that I don't think I ever want children, they respond one of two ways. Most of the time they smile patronizingly and say, "You'll change your mind." Sometimes they do me the favor of taking me seriously, in which case they warn, "You'll regret it."

I've heard this enough that I've started worrying that they might be right. After all, I'm not completely insensitive to the appeal of reproduction. In fact, I have a name chosen for the daughter I don't plan to have, and sometimes I imagine the life I could give her. Unlike me and my mortifyingly provincial childhood, she'd be one of those sparkling, precocious New York City kids I've always envied. I'd take her around the world, to study languages in Europe, to see the Potala Palace and the Taj Mahal. She'd have all I wish I'd had.

My husband doesn't particularly want children either, but there's no doubt he'd dote on her -- he's said as much. His wonderful family lives within walking distance of us, which is why his sister has more of a social life than any other young mother I've met. I think of his grandmother and grandfather, who live in a rambling house in rural Maine. Three generations of their adoring descendants admire them as few people admire the very old anymore, and seeing that makes me think that family can be the key to the best kind of life.

Still, the vague pleasures I sometimes associate with having children are either distant or abstract. Other women say they feel a yearning for motherhood like a physical ache. I don't know what they're talking about. The daily depredations of child rearing, though, seem so viscerally real that my stomach tightens when I ponder them. A child, after all, can't be treated as a fantasy projection of my imagined self. He or she would be another person with needs and desires that I would be tethered to for decades. And everything about meeting those needs fills me with horror. Not just the diapers and the shrieking, the penury and career stagnation, but the parts that maternally minded friends of mine actually look forward to: the wearying grammar school theatrical performances. Hours spent on the playground when I'd rather be reading novels. Parent-teacher conferences. Birthday parties. Ugly primary-colored plastic toys littering my home.

Raising a child is hard even for those who like all that stuff, according to Rick Hanson, a California clinical psychologist and co-author of "Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships." "Most parents, men and women, say they dramatically underestimated how intensely demanding, stressful and depleting parenthood would be," Hanson says.

I'm just not up for it. I can sort of see that it might be nice to have children, but there are a thousand things I'd rather spend my time doing than raising them. The daily grind of motherhood seems like a prison sentence to me.

But is it one I'll regret not serving?

Actually, never mind me -- even I find my own existential dilemmas a little tedious. But what about you? If you've read this far, it could be because you are or think you might be one of the quarter of American women who, according to Hanson, will never have children. The numbers are similar in other developed countries. According to an article published last year in the Guardian, 41 percent of British women born in 1969 don't have children. Some of these women can't have kids, but others simply have other priorities. Hanson says that of the quarter of American women who don't have children, three-quarters are physically able.

They won't always be. Fertility starts declining in your mid-30s. Sylvia Ann Hewlett's 2002 book "Creating a Life" may have been shoddy, irritating and smug, but it was accurate in its assessment of the dismal odds stacked against women who seek fertility treatments in their 40s. After a certain age, having a baby is no longer an option. So will women who choose not to have children regret their effrontery in defying the whole history of the human race? Are they -- or we -- setting ourselves up for a lifetime of barren desolation?

The answer, happily, is no.

When I started writing this story, I would have described myself as ambivalent about childbearing. Yet when experts told me I was unlikely to suffer debilitating psychological fallout if I spared myself motherhood, I felt enormous relief, as if I'd been let off the hook. It turns out that people who choose not to have children (as opposed to those who desperately want to have children, but can't) tend to have better marriages, better finances, less stress, and are no more likely to be unhappy in old age than parents. Most people, and especially most women, have a physiological yearning to reproduce, whatever the costs, and are glad they did. Yet being born free of that desire can be a gift.

"Some women really do love mothering," says Madelyn Cain, author of "The Childless Revolution: What It Means to Be Childless Today." "I happen to be one of them. I love being a mother. It's the greatest joy of my life, but what makes me happy and brings me fulfillment doesn't necessarily make everyone else happy."

The notion that different people have different desires shouldn't be a difficult one, but when it comes to motherhood, many people can't get their heads around it. Even Cain had trouble at first. She began "The Childless Revolution" in part because she was angered by the dismissive way her childless friends were treated, and because she was struck by the newfound social acceptance she experienced when she had her first baby at 39. Yet part of her still believed that "deep down every woman wanted to be a mother," a misconception undone by the more than 100 interviews she did for her book.

What she discovered was that choice, not motherhood, is the real key to happiness. Cain divides the women in her book into three groups -- those who affirmatively decide not to have children, those who can't have children, and those for whom circumstances never align to make motherhood happen. Citing her own interviews as well as books like Elaine Campbell's "The Childless Marriage: An Exploratory Study of Couples Who Do Not Want Children," Elaine Tyler May's "Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness," and Marion Faux's "Childless by Choice: Choosing Childlessness in the Eighties," Cain says, "The ones who decide they don't want children, they don't regret it."

Cain has come to believe that lack of interest in childbearing might be biological, like being gay. "Researchers have found that within mice there is a gene, the Mest gene. When it was in place in mice, and the mouse gave birth, it was a nurturing mother. When the mouse was Mest-deficient, it was a non-nurturing mouse. I think down the line we're going to discover that just as homosexuality is something that's physical, the same thing will be discovered about women. Why do some women melt at the sight of babies while other women are indifferent? It would seem to me it's something innate."

That's why Cain says women who don't want kids should ignore the well-meaning advice they're often bombarded with. "Don't second-guess yourself," she says. "Trust your instincts."

That might seem obvious, but the strange thing about being a woman without much interest in mothering is that many people you love and admire will tell you not to trust your instincts. Motherhood, they say, is, for all its struggles, an experience of such ineffable joy that those who've done it can't imagine life without it. Motherhood evangelists have a store of conversion stories. Either they, or someone they know intimately, had once been like me, cherishing their independence and impatient with children. But when bathed by the blissful hormones that accompany procreation, they saw the light and now their lives are richer and more meaningful than they ever thought possible. They say those who haven't parented can't even begin to comprehend its radiant satisfactions.

People do not behave this way about other pleasures. I enjoy sex with men, but don't go about badgering lesbians to see what they're missing.

That's why some defiantly childless women insist that maternal proselytizers are expressing an unconscious insecurity. "I don't know why people have to take this so personally," says 35-year-old Shauna Wright, a San Francisco woman who runs the Web site and mailing list A decade ago, Wright called off an engagement when she realized her fiancé was determined to be a father, and she was sure she didn't want to be a mother. She's never wavered from that decision. About those who try to cajole her, she says, "They're jealous. They have a lot of self-doubt, otherwise they wouldn't feel the need to trumpet their decision and try to talk me into doing the same thing."

Yet Hanson insists that there's often authentic passion behind preaching mothers. "For most people, that switch flips and they are besotted because this extraordinarily intense biological process kicks in, hormones start to flow and people become smitten with their kids," he says. "Often those happy, goofy smiles you're seeing are genuine. They really do think it's fantastic, even though before having kids they weren't sure it would be that great."

And that's what makes the decision to breed so hard. There are few experiences in life that come more highly recommended than parenting, so how can you ever know if you're making a mistake by rejecting it? It's fairly easy to find stories of those who regret not having children, but it's difficult to find a mother who will say she wishes she'd made a different choice.

"It's very rare for a woman who has children to regret having children," says Hanson. "You will find women who say, on the one hand, 'I love my children, they're profoundly fulfilling and I can't imagine not having had them.' But on the other hand they'll say, 'Boy, this is really stressful. This has really strained my marriage. My health has never been up to par since I had my first or second child. I really regret the impact of having kids on my career. Having children has made me financially dependent and really limited my options for making money.' I hear them say all those things, but you rarely hear moms actually saying, bottom line, I should never have done it."

Yet Cain insists that more women feel that way than might admit it. She points to a famous survey advice columnist Ann Landers took of her readers in 1975. A woman wrote to Landers with qualms much like mine -- she and her husband were torn about childbearing and asked, "Were the rewards enough to make up for the grief?" Landers put the question to her readers, asking, "If you had it to do over again, would you have children?" Astonishingly, 70 percent of her respondents said no.

Hanson agrees that even if mothers say they don't regret having children, as a group they're not more satisfied with their lives than nonmothers. For all the truth about the innate physiological rewards of mothering, he says, "The happy people are the ones who wanted kids and had them or didn't want kids and didn't have them."

This is true even in old age, a time when many assume the childless will suffer alone while their peers are comforted by grandchildren. Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a sociology professor at the University of Florida who researches aging, recently completed a study based on surveys of 3,800 men and women between the ages of 50 and 84. "For years we have heard warnings that if you don't have children, you will regret it later," she said in a press release. "But beliefs about childlessness leading to a lonely old age are simply not supported by our study." In a previous report published in 1998, Koropeckyj-Cox concluded that there is "no significant differences in loneliness and depression between parents and childless adults."

Besides, what some parents gain in intimacy with their children, they lose in intimacy with their partners. Hanson says, "Research has shown that on the average the greatest challenge to a couple is becoming parents. Many marriages hold together for a few years when the child is young, but they've been strained beyond repair by everything that comes from having kids and the couple divorces, maybe by the time the kid reaches first grade. Some people think they will save their relationship by having children. It almost never happens." He cites a study by John Gottman, a renowned expert on marriage at the University of Washington, which estimates that couples have eight times more arguments after becoming parents. Hanson says he's seen this in his life as well as his practice. "Many couples overcome all this and having children brings them closer together. That's certainly true for my wife and myself. But during the early years -- our kids are now 15 and almost 13 -- boy, we quarreled and were emotionally distant and troubled in our marriage like we'd never been. We argued about all the issues that new parents commonly argue about -- how to raise the children, who is doing more, the inevitable lack of time for an intimate relationship."

Cain reprints one of those 1975 letters sent to Ann Landers in her book: "I am 40, and my husband is 45. We have twin children under 8 years of age. I was an attractive, fulfilled career woman before I had these kids. Now I'm an overly exhausted nervous wreck who misses her job and sees very little of her husband. He's got a 'friend,' I'm sure, and I don't blame him. Our children took all the romance out of our marriage. I'm too tired for sex, conversation or anything."

Such alienation is less likely when people don't have children. "Statistics show childless couples are happier," Cain says. "Their lives are self-directed, they have a better chance of intimacy, and they do not have the stresses, financial and emotional, of parenthood."

This assessment is shared by Shari Bennet-Speer, a 34-year-old corporate trainer in Richmond, Va. The decision not to have children, she says, "has absolutely 100 percent" improved her relationship with Geoffrey, her husband of 12 years.

Bennet-Speer says she'd never been very interested in children, but had assumed she'd have them because "that's what you do, get married and have kids." When she met her husband and he told her he didn't want to be a father, it hit her that parenthood was a choice, and she didn't have to choose it. "It sounded perfect to me," she says. "I truly was fine with [not having kids] as soon as he suggested it as a possibility."

"My husband and I are madly in love," she adds. "We hold hands, we cuddle in movies, we take long walks, we talk late into the night, we road trip every anniversary, just to celebrate our time together. We get to live spontaneously and we get to make life choices that are important to us. There are not many people who've made our choice, but I've never regretted it."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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