A tightly held secret is being kept from today's young people. Not having children can be great! Amazingly, it appears to be time -- again -- to tell young women and men alike: whether or not you have children really is up to you. And yes, two people who relish their loving adult relationship with each other can, if you work at it, be a wonderful family on all counts -- just you two -- without making or getting babies of your own. In every sense of the word, this is a profoundly political subject.
So this is for those who have asked me about the fact that my husband and I do not have children. (While he is in full accord with this, I speak only for myself.) It's also to all those who have wanted to ask but refrained, and to those who've forgotten that this is a vital and legitimate question for each and all.
Here's my long and short of it: Not having children -- either biologically or by adoption -- can be a gift to the world as well as to yourselves. Deciding either way takes a certain amount of courage.
Why is this simple fact being kept from our young people? (I'll save my answers to that disturbing reality for another day.) So, yes! It is possible to be a great couple and to remain child-free. There are plenty of adorable creatures of all species out there to further enhance to your love and devotion, both for each other and for the rest of life on earth. It is way more than ok not to have kids, especially if you're not ready or simply not convinced that you really want them!
As a couple, my husband and I chose the path that allowed us to hold each other's hands instead of having children swinging between us, either for good or for ill. And here's what no one seems to be saying any more: I am now, more than ever, reaping tremendous rewards for having chosen that path.
What have I missed? No telling. And besides, that's the wrong question. Ask instead, What have I found? A great deal! A startling number of my 20- and 30-something friends are starving to hear this.
Young women especially keep sidling up to me, hungering for role models of good strong child-free couples. With all the push of this consumerist culture for babies babies babies, young people are hard-put to find examples of adults who took the other great leap, who chose not to succumb to the powerful pressures that too often push the ambivalent over the edge into parenthood when they really do not want to go there.
And like everything else in life, there are costs as well as benefits to whatever you -- individually and as a couple -- decide.
Either way, your life together will have it's rough patches. That may be why so many of my young friends are struggling with this decision. They should. Sort-of-deciding won't do. The worst not-decision is just giving up that important struggle, falling into bed one night and waking up having made a baby because it's so much easier than deciding.
There is no pat answer as to whether or not you individually and as a couple should have children. One guidepost I've found useful -- if either one of you is actively hostile to having children, I believe that should weigh more heavily in the balance of the decision. (And if you haven't talked seriously about this before heading for bed, either within or outside of marriage, know your contraceptives and be VERY, VERY CAREFUL.)
Being an au pair for a year during college was a defining experience for me. If you've never had extended care-giving responsibilities for someone else's children you may not know about the downs that go with the ups. That roller-coaster is exquisitely real even if you're very good with kids and passionate enough about your mate to make the added commitment.
As for me, I need all the fingers on my hand to count my own most direct teachers on this profoundly important subject. I'll refrain from the obvious -- all the terrible parents and their awful kids I've known over the years. Here they are, in order of appearance:
1.) The late, great Gwendolyn Carter. I met her in the 1970s, in the company of the incomparable South African stateswoman Helen Suzman. They both were passionately working for justice in that troubled land. Already impressed, I then discovered Dr. Carter also was author of one of my college textbooks. She had my attention! After videotaping an interview with these two remarkable women, we adjourned for tea.
With all their experience in the big world, I was startled to find them curious about me. Remember, this was the '70s. "Women's lib" had finally gotten wind in its sails, so perhaps it was not all that surprising they were curious about the future I envisioned for myself. I rather nonchalantly told them that -- as I considered myself a liberated woman -- I planned to combine my budding career with the children I was actively planning to have in the very near future.
To my considerable surprise, Dr. Carter, the more blunt of the two, scowled. "If you expect to be exceptional at either one or the other of those two pursuits, you much choose. You cannot have it all." What?!? Ms. Suzman was in full agreement and I was caught completely off guard. This was, after all, The Seventies! "Superwoman" was all the rage.
I did not take this counter-intelligence from two superior women lightly. It forced me to ask myself -- who is the person I am intent on creating of myself?
2.) John and Elaine. (No, of course those are not their real names.) These dear friends of ours are deeply honest people, unflinching in the face of tough questions, two splendid individuals whom I greatly admire -- individually, as a couple, as parents, and as professionals. Each is at the pinnacle of their very different pursuits. They met in high school, married young, supported each other through some terrible times, and came out the other side stronger. Theirs is one of a best marriages I've ever witnessed. They have two grown children who, in spite of the kids' best efforts, I expect one day to be fine adults.
Some years ago, at a transition point in all of our lives, John and Elaine sat with us over a bottle of wine. We were exploring the many things we have in common and where we all were headed. It was they who noted that our path was opening every-wider and theirs was contracting. Finally, with the light of recognition in his eyes, John said, "Ah, but you don't have children."
Then he turned to Elaine and said what few who have gone down the parenting track are willing to voice. "When we were young, we were wonderfully happy together. Why on earth did we have children?" This was a serious question, earnestly pursued as the evening unfolded. And yes, we were soon past the giggly part -- that the conception of children generally occurs when people are ... well, shall we say ... not thinking.
And John's question is an EXCELLENT one, well worth pondering. Add it to another posed by one my most trusted friends whom I hugely admire. Focused on the fact that we are child-free, she answered a similar question which she posed to herself. "If I had it to do over again? I most certainly would NOT have had kids. We just assumed that having children was what one did." And that in no way detracts from the fact that their offspring are terrific!
3.) The great mythologist Joseph Campbell said many things of great importance to me, none more so than boiling down the message of the Buddha to this: Eschew fear, attachment ("lust"), and social conformity.
Fear? Easy. It makes us stupid. Thinking becomes impossible. That includes the fear of having missed out on something. NEWS FLASH: Whatever we do, we miss out on something.
Attachment? Try moving after living in one place a decade or two. See how insidious attachment is. And that's only to stuff! Children are the ultimate attachment. And they'd better be! One had best face up to the profound requirements of what children require before you have them or the kids will be awful and you and your mate stand a fair chance of being pretty dreadful too.
And then there's social conformity. That, more than anything, seems to be what's driving my young friends. WAIT!! Has everyone forgotten what Women's -- and Men's -- Liberation was all about? We were working hard to create genuine choices for women and men, in all the corners of our lives. Yes, that includes choosing to be a full-time mother or father and checking the box marked "none of the above".
But, my questioners continue, what about all the fuss about grandchildren? Don't you have to suffer through children to get the "grands"?
Here's a hint. Take a moment to consider all those jokes about grand-parents and grand-kids ganging up on parents in the middle of the "sandwich." That Would Be You! Besides. Just because you choose to bear or adopt children does not mean that they will chose to be parents. You have friends with kids. Bond with them. Shower them with love (instead of all that other stuff.) Help them grow to be the best they can be. That's what grandparents do.
4.) Now this one is huge for me. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon, once again, lifts up a giant truth when he sings in "Born at the Right Time":
Too many people on the bus from the airport
Too many holes in the crust of the earth
The planet groans
Every time it registers another birth.
I'm among the many in my generation who heard and responded to the clarion call of ZPG -- Zero Population Growth. We took seriously the urgency articulated in their name. It's an idea whose time has come. Again.
And finally, there was Mary Catherine Bateson, twice over:
5.a.) When I experienced one last temptation to take the irrevocable plunge into parenthood, I found myself in Dr. Bateson's presence in Aspen, Colorado. I asked her a pointed question about having "my own children". She instantly got me back on track. "We will not begin to address the woes of this world until each and every one of us begins to act in the firm knowledge that ALL of the earth's children are 'our children'." I would add that this imperative goes far beyond our own species.
5.b.) Fast forward. Dr. Bateson has now twice been a guest on our long-running show. The second time, I'd gotten into a bit of a rut, asserting as a given that "We live in a time of great change." She again drew me up short.
"Every era is a time of great change," she replied flatly, authoritative by virtue of her unquestioned position as one of the world's most respected anthropologist, quite apart from being the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.
Then things got really interesting. What Dr. Bateson says does make our time different from any other era, at least since the beginning of agriculture, is that we now live in a time of great choice. That is what genuinely distinguishes our era from others, especially for women in the West. Tragically, one casualty of the culture wars is preparing our young to make the choices that effective contraception provides. One reason reactionaries abhor sex education is they know, or at least intuit, how profoundly and genuinely liberating being child-free really is.
Dr. Bateson also talked of the "stripped nuclear family" (1 to 2 adults, 1+ children) as a recent invention, one lacking the resiliency and support systems of "extended families" which include aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends in the community. These extended families are more adaptive and more appropriate to our highly mobile culture.
So that's where my young friends now stand. Whatever they decide, I've come to think of this as probably the most far-reaching choice any of us ever makes, especially for women. Sad to say, that gender distinction has not changed nearly enough over the decades since the Women's Movement nudged us along the way, even though considerable strides have been made.
In no small measure because my husband and I did not add children to our family, I've had more space in which to craft a sense of what personal integrity means and feel pretty comfortable in the degree to which I've been able to live up to that standard. I also know that I am a very lucky person to be half of a powerful twosome with a remarkable man. We've had our fair share of stresses, but among them were not what seem to me to be inevitable tensions that parenting intrudes upon a relationship. It has, simply, left us the spaces in which to do other things.
And here's the final thing I want my young friends to hear. I also now have more than my fair share of wonderful "children" -- young people other women birthed; whose diapers other men changed; who somehow got through the ravages of adolescence with and without me. Some of them now have chosen to have the babies I now count among my own wonderful brood of "grandkids." And that's just accounting for the human children!
The hard fact is that if my husband and I had chosen differently -- had birthed our very own or taken the worthy path of adoption -- we would not have been as able as we are to act directly on our shared vision of a more truthful culture with a full commitment to justice; a planet where choices like ours can lead to a life-affirming world; where there are fewer people in better shape and a whole lot of species spared extinction; a place where those who do live will be able to put greater resources to better uses in the profoundly challenging times into which we are headed.
Or put it another way. By defining the core of our "family" as the two-of-us-embedded-in-multiple-communities, child-free, I have been better able to live my life according to the wisdom gleaned from many great teachers, two modern day wisemen among them. Philosopher Frederick Ferré sums up the meaning of life as the imperative to create beauty in the face of death. James Carse captures a vital truth in his lovely perspective -- a vision of life full of play and possibility.
I find both ideas full of energy and joy. Neither requires children. Doors open; doors close. Sometimes you get to choose which.
Don't worry, there are more than enough human children to go around.