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Actually, Maybe it's Selfish to Have a Child
The Pope says that not having kids is "a form of selfishness" that "takes away our humanity." But it's probably more selfish to have a kid than to choose not to.
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“Today,” says the Pope, “we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child. Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children. This may make people laugh but it is a reality.”
Having pets instead of children is “a denial of fatherhood and motherhood and diminishes us, takes away our humanity,” he said. And as a result, “civilization grows old without humanity because we lose the richness of fatherhood and motherhood, and it is the country that suffers.”
I’m not sure any of us should be taking reproductive advice from a childless misogynist who resides in an Italian palace and heads one of the largest organizations of child molesters in the world. And as a person who has two cats and zero children, I will absolutely cop to high levels of selfishness (I will not, however, cop to lower levels of humanity). But here’s the thing: Intentionally having a child when you know we are living on a burning, flooding, dying planet that cannot sustain perpetual population growth is at least as selfish as not having one. Particularly for people who are wealthy by global standards, having a child is just about the worst thing you can do for the wellbeing and future of the earth. So why are those without children the only ones accused of being self-involved? Why aren’t we talking about how deeply selfish it is to bring a child — or multiple children — into a world that already cannot sustain its 7 billion inhabitants?
Because parents and those who want to be parents would freak out, for one. The vast majority of adults worldwide are either parents or will become parents; people like the Pope, who seek to maintain influence, power, and public support, don’t typically point fingers at huge majorities and call them names. And in the US at least, there are few myths more sacred, and few demands more intense, than that of maternal selflessness. The idea that having a child might in fact be a selfish act runs counter to just about every narrative and ideal we have about parenthood in general, and motherhood in particular. Just look at the total meltdown that happened over a story written by a mother in New York magazine that included the line, “The decision to have children has always struck me as an essentially selfish one: You choose, out of a desire for fulfillment or self-betterment or curiosity or boredom or baby-mania or peer pressure, to bring a new human into this world. And it has never seemed more selfish than today.” She had a child anyway, and the entire rest of the essay is about the hope and optimism inherent in having a kid, but the internet fully lost its mind at the mere suggestion that perhaps having a baby is not an entirely selfless act.
Another reason we don’t hear all that much about the self-interest of entering parenthood: Because it’s a stupid argument. Branding all parents as selfish is overly simplistic, false, and insulting.
And yet “selfish” is also an insult tossed at people without children all the time, from some of the most powerful people on the planet, including those — like the Pope — who head organizations that shape what kinds of reproductive health care and life opportunities women and girls can access. So it’s worth asking: Does the accusation stand up? Or, on balance, is the choice to have a child a more selfish one than the choice not to?
Even asking that question engenders waves of parental rage. I suspect the reason parents respond angrily to even the extremely rare suggestion of selfishness is because the many-years-long act of parenting — if you’re a decent parent, that is, which a whole lot of parents are not — is a repeated exercise in generosity and self-sacrifice, especially for mothers. Your body, your energy, your time, your food, your health, your work, your love, your friendships, your sex life, even things like your body’s nutrients and the stability of your hip joints and the tissues and bones that keep your teeth in place — so much of you gets redirected toward a child, to a degree that non-parents like me cannot even begin to fathom. And now someone comes into your inbox and says you’re selfish for having a kid? How dare they. (How dare I?)
But here’s the thing: We can distinguish between the decision to have a child and the act of carrying, birthing, and raising a child. The act of parenting (or at least the act of parenting well) demands significant sacrifice and selflessness. But the decision to bring a child into the world does not — and in fact, I would argue that, particularly among those at the top of the global totem pole, the decision to bring a child or multiple children into the world is almost always largely self-interested.
Why do people have kids? Many people have them because of a deep desire (“I’ve always wanted children” or “I just really want them”). Some people have them because they want someone to love them, or they want someone to love, or to repair an unstable relationship, or to forever tie them to a particular partner, or to find some meaning in life, or to have someone to care for them as they age, or because all their friends are having kids and it would be weird not to. Some people have them to feel like they’re real adults, or to secure a place of status in their communities, or because they’re bored and want a change.
We collectively tell ourselves stories about why we have children that allow us to fit that decision into our broader lives and our personal ethics. Take the New York magazine piece, which is very lovely. “On some level we still believe that a baby, our baby, will bring the world, our world, so much more than his carbon footprint,” Emily Holleman writes. “On another, we believe, like so many before us, that a baby can be the only balm after a loss. That it will transform me from a bereaved sister to something new and alien: a mother.” Sure, more children are not great for the future of the world, but also, my child might be the one to save the future of the world — a great many people wrap up their own desires for children in this language of hope and social utility.
For the record, I don’t think most of the reasons people have kids are bad ones (I think a few are, but also so what, not my business). But they are all primarily self-interested. Nearly everyone who makes the affirmative choice to have a kid does so for reasons of personal desire, in a world that has many billions of people on it and does not need any particular person to make this particular decision (and in fact might be better off if fewer people made this particular decision). Nearly everyone who makes the affirmative choice to have a kid signs up to spend significant amounts of money that could go to existing people who are suffering; a great many people spend tens of thousands of dollars on efforts to have or adopt children instead of spending that money on any of the one billion children who live in poverty. What is that if not profound self-interest?
Why does that reality — that most people enter parenthood for primarily self-interested reasons — trigger such anger?
And could pressing this particular button perhaps encourage a little more consideration for the many people who do not have children by choice or circumstance, and are often told that we’re selfish for not reproducing? Could it maybe push us toward a more thoughtful conversation on reproduction and self-interest?
“Selfish” is an inflammatory word. To be clear, I don’t think it’s bad or immoral or unforgivably selfish to choose to have kids. Yes, it’s absolutely terrible for the planet. So is eating meat, flying in airplanes, and cooking on a gas stove, all of which I do pretty regularly. Yes, people spend thousands of dollars on having and/or supporting their own children instead of spending that money on existing kids who need it; I personally spend thousands of dollars on things that make me happy and that make my life more comfortable instead of living a more modest existence and directing that money to a greater number of people in need. My point here isn’t to throw stones at parents. It is to say that the decision not to have a child is no more selfish — and perhaps less selfish — than the decision to have one.
But then, I don’t think it’s always bad to do things out of self-interest. I do a whole lot out of personal self-interest, and I think you should, too — provided that self-interest is weighed against other obligations to your loved ones, community members, and other human beings more broadly. Having children is usually a self-interested decision, and it’s also one that can bring about significant growth and connection. It’s one that can bring joy and hope and love. It’s one that may bring significant negative consequences to the natural world, and may bring big positive ones to your community and social universe. Reproductive choices, like so many of the biggest decisions we make in our lives, are not simple math problems or budgets to balance.
I do think we should be having more thoughtful discussions about population and climate change, and that those discussions should in fact pull in what people believe are simply private personal decisions, but “having a kid is wrong because it contributes to environmental devastation” is a very bad way to go about that conversation. It’s all just much more complicated, because most aspects of human life don’t exist on a binary of good / bad or selfish / selfless.
But let’s just be honest about it, instead of accepting this entirely false idea that parenthood is inherently selfless and a childfree life is not. Who is living more of a selfless life: The person who has a child, or the person who spends her life rescuing and caring for a series of abandoned dogs? (My vote is for the lady with the dogs).
People who don’t have children by choice or are ambivalent about having kids are also usually acting out of self-interest, just to be clear. Many of us like our lives the way they are; many of us would rather spend our time, money, and energy on work or travel or adventure or fun or our partner or our friends or, yes, our pets. Many of us look at our lives and think a child would make things worse, not better. Self-interested? Sure! Selfish, in the sense of putting one’s own desires ahead of the needs of others? Eh… I’m not sure non-existent children need anything, and certainly the decision not to procreate doesn’t hurt anyone. It would be much more selfish, I think, to bring a child into the world whose presence you don’t desire and who you aren’t actually prepared to adequately care for. And it’s definitely selfish to demand that other people have children because you don’t want to open your nation’s borders to immigrants but you do want someone around to pay for your social security.
Maybe the only people who are truly unselfish when it comes to reproduction are those who really do want children but decide not to have them for environmental or ethical reasons. I also suspect that there are approximately five people in the entire world who genuinely, deeply want children and deny themselves that very basic human experience solely out of concern for the environment. I suspect for most people who point to environmental factors as one reason for a child-free life, there are a whole lot of other, more self-interested reasons tipping the scale.
It’s also worth noting here that while parents invest a lot of time into their kids and into organizations that are kid-adjacent, people without kids give a whole lot of their time and money to good works that don’t directly benefit members of their own immediate families. Having a child does not transform someone from selfish to selfless; it just transforms them into a selfish person raising a kid.
To put a finer point on it: it doesn’t actually matter if the choice to have children, or the choice to forgo them, is a selfish one. “Why have kids?” is an interesting question to explore, and it’s unfortunately one that typically merits the most pat of answers. But maybe the reality is that people’s reproductive lives are complicated and the concept of “choice” doesn’t really capture the full picture; that parenting well requires huge amounts of personal sacrifice but perhaps women shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice quite so much; and that treating one’s parental status as somehow reflective of a person’s character or moral worthiness is extremely silly.
And maybe the Pope, who has a robust personal staff and seems to have enough spare time to concern himself with whether the world’s wombs are sufficiently occupied, should consider adopting a dog.