The False Dichotomy of Parenthood

by Storiteller

Content note: Pregnancy, infertility, possible loss of adopted children, harmful gender roles

Some people say that choosing not to have children is inherently selfish. I believe that is bullshit. In fact, I think most of the reasons for choosing to have children biologically are rooted in selfishness. Although I say this as an intentionally pregnant woman may be surprising, I believe that this selfishness is not inherently bad and can even be good.

Suffering from nausea several months ago, I contemplated why I chose to put myself in this situation. I realized that for such a momentous decision, I didn’t think through the reasons as thoroughly as I should have. Because I’ve always known I wanted to have kids, I took it for granted. Because having children is the default in most Western societies (especially for women), this culture forces people who don’t want to them to defend their choices. However, it’s never the other way around.

Like most people, I have multiple reasons for wanting to have children. First, I genuinely enjoy spending time with children and teaching them new skills. One of the best times with my husband was when we volunteered for a month overseeing a summer day camp in rural Maine. Not long after, I taught for a year. While I realized teaching wasn’t the right career for me, I loved working with kids one-on-one. Second, I want to share the breadth of natural and human wonder with my children. I want to bring them to the United States’ National Parks, to the great cities of the world, and to our local nature center. Third, I want to share my values with my children. I want to teach them that every person is worthy of respect. I want to share the stories of my heroes, who worked to forward the causes of peace and justice – Martin Luther King, Sisters Marie and Lucy at H.O.M.E. in Maine, and my mother, who works with underserved children. Lastly, I want to share my faith with my children. I want to teach them that God loves them, how a community of faith can support each other, and how they can share that love with their neighbors. As I move through my pregnancy, I’ve also realized that I’m looking forward to the challenge of becoming a more patient, giving person.

Most of these reasons also apply to adopting a child or fostering a child, so why have a child biologically? Personally, I want to be able to know my child from birth, something that is extremely rare in adoptions. In some ways, I’m enjoying pregnancy and the time it’s giving me to bond with my future child. In addition, I want the legal protection and emotional security from knowing that my legal relationship with my child cannot change, the way it could in an adoption or foster situation. (I find the situation in Russia particularly chilling and sympathize with the potential parents who are now in legal limbo.)

But all of my reasons are selfish, in one form or another. They’re emotionally selfish, in that they fulfill my emotional needs and wants, regardless of what my future child may or may not feel. Children who are adopted, especially from an early age, bond just as well with their adopted parents as those who know them from birth. My reasons are culturally selfish, in that I want to pass on my values and perspectives. While my values may be radically different from fundamentalists of any stripe, my reasons for wanting to pass them on are mostly the same. From a natural resources point of view, having children as an American – which I am – is selfish. Even the poorest and/or lowest-impact Americans have a carbon footprint twice the size of the average person worldwide. If I wanted to work with children, there are innumerable opportunities to volunteer without needing to bring another person into the world.

Some liberals get around these facts by arguing that if they raise their children right, they’ll be increasing the number of people in the world working for justice, economic equality, and environmental sustainability. But while I hope my children will advocate for those issues, it’s unfair for me to expect them to follow in my footsteps. I can’t assume my children will adopt my values without violating their right to make their own choices.

This is not to say that all women or couples who have children biologically are selfish, as selfishness requires freedom. I acknowledge I am immensely privileged – economically and socially. I know that many women worldwide and even in the U.S. cannot choose against having children because of legal and societal pressures that limit their reproductive choices. But fortunately, I do have and can exercise those choices.

Taking all of that into account, why do I want to have children biologically if it’s selfish? I believe being a little selfish, enough to take care of our needs and some of our wants, can be a good thing. Being selfish means that we can take care of ourselves well enough to help others. Women in particular often experience pressure to be unselfish to the point that it that hurts themselves and their families. Understanding our own needs can motivate us to improve our relational and leadership skills, helping us be more loving and empathetic. Being selfish can even help us fulfill our values and reaching our goals for our communities. In fact, a book I’ve read on community organizing argues that recognizing our own self-interest is key to doing social justice activism. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the destructive trap of “white man/rich person’s burden.”

Of course, there’s a limit to this line of thought – I’m definitely not a fan of Ayn Rand or objectivism as a philosophy. But I’ve come to realize that there’s a point at which you need to balance your own needs with other people’s. This applies just as much to having children as anything else. Acknowledging that no matter how difficult giving birth and/or raising children may be, your own reasons for having them may be selfish is a good, honest thing.

So often, society puts parents and particularly mothers on a pedestal that frames them as being “selfless” and “giving” no matter what. That framing erases these women’s identities as anything other than mothers. Because of this box, society also demonizes those who choose not to have children. Likewise, it completely erases or marginalizes those who want to biologically have children but cannot. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation based on a false dichotomy.

If society could acknowledge that many people’s reasons for having children are selfish and that’s acceptable, I think we’d have healthier attitudes towards parents and non-parents alike.

10 thoughts on “The False Dichotomy of Parenthood

  1. roberta4949 February 13, 2013 at 11:18 am

    what is selfish is such a subjective defintion, depends on who you ask, what I think is selfish is for people to try and rule over others lives and decide whehter their actions are selfish or not. (outside basic laws that all are supposed to obey including the rulers who seldom ever do). it is selfish if what you do directly harms another, but how in the world does having kids or not harm others? notice I said directly, there are so many ifs and buts, of indirect affects, but who can decide if it is good bad or neutral. as long as people raise their own kids then I see no problem, it is when people have them when they clearly are not ready, financially, emotionally, health wise. to have kids because you love them is not selfish at all, and considering all the sacrifices you will have to make to have them (some say the pain is incredible)giving up excursions you used to do, having to get by on less sleep, having to sacrifice money you could of spend on yourself to buy them their food, clothing, medical care etc, I say having kids and raising them youself without imposing them on others is incredibly unselfish. who can deny the giving of the best life you can give them is incredibly loving. I am glad my parents had me, despite the problems I am suffering health wise which they had no way of knowing about. they will be happy to be alive as well.

  2. storiteller February 13, 2013 at 11:29 am

    To me, being selfish is defined as doing something in your specific self-interest, not someone else’s. It is not necessarily something that directly causes harm, although it can. I believe raising a child well is certainly not selfish, as you are doing something in the child’s self-interest, although it may serve your own as well. But choosing to bring the child into the world in the first place is a separate choice and action. After all, you cannot be serving someone’s self-interest who does not actually exist. That’s why I made the essay about the choice to have a child biologically rather than the choice to bring up children, such as through adoption, fostering, or a child-care related job.

    it is selfish if what you do directly harms another, but how in the world does having kids or not harm others?

    As someone who is deeply concerned with environmental issues, particularly climate change, I know that population growth in developed countries where consumption is high can have very specific, measurable negative impacts. Climate change harms those who are already the most vulnerable worldwide, so one could argue that any unnecessary addition to that burden is a bad thing. In addition, even the greenest and most just version of American middle-class lifestyles also contribute to worldwide economic disparity because of how our trade system functions. Arguably, adopting a poor child and bringing them up as a middle-class American would also increase that impact, but you would at least be improving their particular life. Choosing to bring another child into the world doesn’t have that obvious and inherent positive impact to outweigh the negative.

    Personally, this is an issue I’ve struggled with greatly, which is why I wrote the article. There’s a point at which we just have to accept that certain lifestyles will have a negative environmental and socioeconomic impact and we have to make peace with those choices. While I do sacrifice a lot for my social justice and environmental values, I’ve decided that having children biologically is important enough to my husband and I that I can accept that negative impact.

  3. anamardoll February 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    I think this is a very valuable post, Storiteller.

    [CN: Infertility]

    I struggled with a lot of this up to our IVF adventure. I care, very strongly, about global resources and overcrowding. I finally decided that I could have one child as sort of … population stasis — Husband and his ex-wife had two children, so that was one “new” person for each “old” person being replaced, so the addition of me to the equation allowed for the addition of one more “new” person to balance me out. But I still worried and struggled with it.

    Now, of course, it turns out that I can’t have children. And that hurts. (And we rejected adoption for some of the reasons you note, as well as some other genuine concerns about whether we would be judged suitable in light of various health issues.) But it is a very small comfort to me that, even if it’s for the “wrong” reasons, I haven’t added to overpopulation concerns.

    Good post. Very thought-provoking.

  4. roberta4949 February 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    these are indirect affects that cant be quantified, all we have is the word of so called experts that this ro that is the case, the reality is much different global climate changes are little affected by what we do or not, now polluiton is another matter, population is not the problem mismangament is, the weather has always been variable, just check long history, 1950 they were crying global warming, then global cooling now warming again, i wouldnt put to much faith in the united nations or governmenst idea of climate or how we are affected if you have ever seen the video of the earth and suns orbit around it’s sun which is around it’s sun, you will realize how tiny we are and our affects on this wonderful planet has little impact on weather, (except the technology like harrp and cloud seeding and the like which are localized) we are giving oursleves more credit with more power then we really do, one doesn’t not commit a sin by having kids or not having them, we are taking responsiblity on to our shoulders that is unwarranted, unjustified and cruel, all those statitics about how we are destroying thousands of species which have not been discovered for example is a lie, because htey have not discovered them so no way to know if they are going extinct or not. people in thrid world nations are straving because of politics and corp greed not climate change. climat change is a scape goat. those people are starving because they are being pushed off their lands by the wealthier nations like saudi arab who need food for thier own people (obviously can grow food in a desert) and thus the africans are out but to divert attention they claim global warming is the culprit, another lie. so let us hope that cutie pie your going to have is going to be healthy bouncy and happy little guy.

  5. anamardoll February 13, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    @ roberta4949, okay, you’ve registered your opinion that you do not think that overcrowding is a problem. Noted.

    The thing is, I think that storiteller wrote this post in order to explore her feelings — and to provide a place for others here to do the same — about having children if one believes that overcrowding to be a problem. And this post also provides a starting place for people to talk about how they make decisions when balancing personal needs against the potential for harm.

    I do not think this is the best place to argue that storiteller’s feelings about overcrowding are invalid, because I do not think the accuracy of those feelings is the point of the post. She has these feelings, right or wrong, and this is how she grapples with them. Just as the rest of us grapple with our own moral choices regarding things that we believe may potentially cause harm.

    Please stay on that topic; I do not believe it to be respectful of Storiteller to turn this thread into a debate on the accuracy of her personal beliefs. Thank you.

  6. storiteller February 13, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    @Ana Thank you for the kind words about the article. I was quite concerned about handling infertility issues with sensitivity and respect, so I’m very glad that you thought that I managed to do so well.

    @roberta4949, Just for some context, I am a professional science communicator with a specialization in energy and climate change. So when you make statements that opinions of “so called experts” do not accurately reflect reality, I find that personally insulting to myself, my colleagues and my livelihood. Nonetheless, this is neither the time or place for discussing the accuracy of predictions around climate change. (Although I can refer you to some excellent resources for non-scientists if you wish.)

    As Ana said, I wrote this article to explore my own feelings about the subject and come to terms with them. I published it because I hope to help others struggling with similar issues, especially people who feel social pressure to be “unselfish.” Personally, I found people saying “You must be so excited!” at the beginning of my pregnancy when I was struggling with severe nervousness to be frustrating rather than helpful. That type of comments made me feel inadequate and as if my feelings were “wrong.” Similarly, I find comments of “You must be so unselfish” to have a similar tone and impact if you’re already struggling with the impact of your decisions.

    So regardless of your thoughts on the scientific basis for my feelings, I would appreciate it if you do not audit my feelings and tell me that they are inherently wrong. It’s just not respectful.

  7. Firedrake February 14, 2013 at 6:49 am

    My experience of people who say “you are being selfish” is that what they usually mean is “I wish I could be where you are”.

    I am unlikely to have biological offspring, but I consider the good parts of me to be more mental than genetic, so I do my best to pass those on.

  8. christhecynic February 14, 2013 at 8:42 am

    For the record, we have at least one thread that can be used as a completely open thread to take any off topic comments to each week, that being the board business thread. So if a thread inspires you to talk about things not on topic you can talk about it there. If you are worried about your comments not being seen you can post something like:

    This article has brought up some things that I wanted to say, but they’re not on topic so I’ve put them here:
    [link to the open thread]

    Which doesn’t derail and does make sure people know you’re making comments elsewhere inspired by the article here.

  9. Timothy (TRiG) February 14, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I think it’s very difficult, often, to work out what our own motivations are, nevermind anyone else’s. So facile judgements of who is, and who is not, “selfish” are unlikely to be in any way insightful. I do think there are reasons around population pressure and suchlike which suggest that reproduction might in some way be “A Bad Thing”, but I’m not going to encourage people to disregard an urge I don’t feel myself, because that’s just silly.

    I like kids. If I ever got into a steady relationship, I might … I dunno. It would require a lot of input from whomever I got into a relationship with, wouldn’t it?


  10. storiteller February 14, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    @Firedrake “My experience of people who say “you are being selfish” is that what they usually mean is “I wish I could be where you are”.”

    I totally understand why parents might feel like non-parents are selfish. After all, bringing up kids is demanding and hard, no matter how rewarding it might be. When you’re on your sixth month of sleepless nights, it’s easy to think “Well, you didn’t choose this because you’re too occupied with your own life” about the childless person going out for drinks after work. Unfortunately, that perspective is unfair to everyone, even if it “feels” right.

    @TRiG “So facile judgements of who is, and who is not, “selfish” are unlikely to be in any way insightful. I do think there are reasons around population pressure and suchlike which suggest that reproduction might in some way be “A Bad Thing”, but I’m not going to encourage people to disregard an urge I don’t feel myself, because that’s just silly.

    I wouldn’t try to judge any individual person’s motivations except my own. But I do have a problem when large portions of society decide that this group is “selfish” and this group is “unselfish” with the accompanying automatic and unspoken judgements of good and bad. That’s really what this essay is reacting against, especially when those judgments tend to be heavily gender-focused. Beyond just having kids, this comes up constantly in discussions over if and how much women should work outside of the home. It’s a lose-lose situation there too.

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