This week I read one of the most interesting pieces of literary journalism I have come across in a while. Lisa Miller published an article in New York Magazine about people who have children at advanced ages—meaning people in the fifth decade of life.
The article raises a number of concerns about the uses of medical technology employed to have a baby later in life. As I have written about here and elsewhere, medical technology can seduce us into believing that we do not have limits.
Although Miller’s piece raises a number of important controversies about having children later in life, I was reminded of an issue rarely discussed in the coverage of assisted reproductive technology and the media in general, that of women and men who decide they do not want children.
The hype about having babies often misses the fact that people are increasingly choosing not to have children.
The reasons why men and women are choosing not to have children are complex. Though not always the case, men who do not want children often get a pass from judgment. Societally, men are not supposed to want kids as much as women do; however, this is a difficult thing to generalize. I have met many men who long for babies as much as women do. There are excellent examples of gay men raising children, which serve as powerful reminders that men have maternal instincts too. I have known many men (gay and straight) who are loving, attentive and thoughtful toward children.
Women who are conflicted about having children or are clear that they do not want to raise kids seem subject to more intense criticism. Some people think that women who do not want children are not “maternal enough,” which is often a euphemism for selfish. A number of blogs echo this sentiment, which can be found with a simple Google search.
Why do women who do not want children make people feel uncomfortable? This is particularly curious, especially when there is a good amount of data that having children can lead to strife.
Wanting kids is supposed to be “natural.” But then again, some would say that marriage between a man and a woman is the only way people in love can be committed, as Miller also discusses. I don’t agree that marriage should be defined by anyone other than those who want to get married. I also don’t believe that hesitancy about having children is unnatural. Similarly, those who have kids and are conflicted or remorseful about their decision to procreate should be met with kindness and understanding. Having kids can be rewarding, but raising a child is also met with a number of challenges.
The idea of women as “maternal” has an important meaning for all of us psychologically. We all hoped our own mothers were maternal and up for the parenting task, but sometimes people have kids and then realize they are ill-equipped for the job. The children of these parents often find their way into therapy as adults.
Women and men currently of childbearing age are the first generation to consciously question if they want to have children. Such persons, in my mind, should be given credit; maybe people who do not want to have children want to focus on other ways to help the world. Or perhaps they just do not feel like they are equipped to be good parents.
A friend of mine who had a child last year commented on the bizarre way that she and her husband were treated like they knew how to handle their newborn. As a sensitive and thoughtful parent, she was scared about the vulnerable infant they were about to take home. She said, “Why do they care more about if we have an infant seat than if we know what we are doing with this kid!?” I thought, because people believe that parenting is supposed to be natural. And maybe in an evolutionary sense it is, but does that mean all parents get it right? Sometimes things go terribly wrong in parenting. Given this, why are we so critical of those who avoid having children and focus their energy on other creative pursuits?