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.