shutterstock_161985149In the lead-up to the Climate Change Summit, a famous actor (I don’t remember who; I’m not good with celebrities) was asked why he was so committed to the cause. He said it was because he had children and he cared about their future.

I’ve heard those kinds of comments repeatedly, and not just around the topic of climate change. With regard to just about any issue that unfolds over time, parents step forward to say that they care about it because of their kids.

Because of THEIR kids. That’s the part that bothers me. They mean to be claiming the moral high ground as parents, but it strikes me as stunningly self-centered to care only about your own kids. Maybe that’s not what they mean. But it is what they say. They seem to have no self-consciousness about pinning their motives solely on their concern for their own progeny.

In Erik Erickson’s 8-stage model of personality development, generativity, “the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation,” was stage 7. The contemporary scholar Dan McAdams developed a scale to measure it. He found that among women, parents scored no higher than those who were not parents. (Fathers did score as more concerned with the next generation than men who were not fathers.)

Marital status is different from parental status, and it mattered even less. Single people cared just as much about the next generation as married people did and that was true for both the men and the women. (For more about the results, and to see some of the sample items, check out, “Who guides the next generation? It’s not [just] who you think.“)

What it means to care about the next generation, particularly for people who have no children, can be straightforward, or it can be complex, personal, and fraught. A particularly sensitive, open, and insightful account of the latter sort of experience was published in the September 24, 2014 issue of the New Yorker. In “Difference Maker: The childless, the parentless, and the Central Sadness,” Meghan Daum admits that she just does not want to have kids. But she does want to make a difference in the lives of children. She does so at first by mentoring Maricela and Kaylee in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“…I simply felt no calling to be a parent. As a role, as my role, it felt inauthentic. It felt like not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. My contribution to society was not about contributing more people to it but, rather, about doing something for the ones who were already here. Ones like Maricela and Kaylee. I liked the idea of taking the extra time I had because I wasn’t busy raising my own child and using it to help them. It also helped that if anyone, upon learning my feelings about having children, lobbed the predictable “selfish” grenade, I could casually let them know that I was doing my part to shape and enrich the next generation.”

Around the time she began mentoring Kaylee, Meghan Daum met the man she later married. She still did not want to be a mother, but he very much wanted to be a father; that unfortunate juxtaposition animated what Daum calls the “Central Sadness.”

“I didn’t want to be a mother; it was as simple as that. And as if to prove that my reasons weren’t shallow or rooted in some deep-seated antipathy toward kids, I decided to return to kid-related do-goodism. This time, though, I would not be going to the mall or buying useless art supplies. I would not stumble through the motions of being a role model. Instead, I would go where I was really needed, where the mall was beside the point. So I became a court-appointed advocate for children in the foster-care system. It was there that I met Matthew.”

If this were a Lifetime movie, it would end with Meghan falling in love with Matthew and all the other children in the system, and realizing that she really did want to become a mother after all. Then she and her husband would have a brood of kids, and the Central Sadness would magically be transformed into Happily Ever After. But Meghan doesn’t write fantasy or schmaltz, so what we get instead is wisdom.

[Notes: For more on this topic, see the collection of links under “Adults with no kids: Naming, shaming, and talking back to the shaming.” For more on the ways in which single people are connected to other people and provide care to them, check out “The myth of the isolated and self-centered single person.” And, for more from Meghan Daum, check out her new book, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, and her website.]

Family outdoors image available from Shutterstock.