Recently, an article at Atlantic magazine, “Not wanting kids is entirely normal,” made the list of most popular stories of the day. I clicked the link and was riveted.
The first fascinating thing was that the article was originally published in 2012, and here it was, making the Most Popular list in 2017.
I’ve never wanted kids and never felt “abnormal” because of it. The decision was never an emotional one for me. I’ve loved many of the children of friends and family but just never wanted kids of my own.
Still, I was surprised by what I learned in the Atlantic article, which was an excerpt from Jessica Valenti’s book, Why Have Kids?. The article opens with a story about a “safe haven” law enacted in Nebraska in 2008 to decriminalize child abandonment:
“Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest or prosecution.”
The legislators never thought to put an age limit on the children who could be dropped off. I guess they assumed they would all be infants. Instead, none of them were. Within a few months, 22 kids older than 13 had been left at the designated locations. A father dropped off all nine of his kids, ranging in age from 1 to 17. A mother from California drove more than 1,200 miles with her 14-year-old son, then turned around and drove home without him.
At the Secret Confessions website, Valenti found a three-year thread started by a mother who said she hated being a mom. One after another, other moms dropped by to describe what they detested about motherhood, from the boredom to the loss of self to getting stuck doing just about everything themselves, even if they were married. They confessed that they would choose differently if they could have a do-over.
The evidence Valenti finds for just how commonplace it is not to want kids is more than anecdotal. After describing some of the relevant data, she then shares the details of some other important research findings: When parents have kids that they want, when they want them, they treat them much better than when the kids were unwanted or mistimed.
Jessica Valenti concludes that safe-haven laws will never be a sufficient answer to the problem of the number of parents who want to abandon their children. It is also imperative “to address the systemic issues: poverty, maternity leave, access to resources, and health care.”
Something else is important, too, Valenti argues: “some sort of acknowledgement that not everyone should parent.” Her point is similar to the argument I have been making for so long about marriage. It is not for everyone. Feeling that we all have to marry and have kids isn’t good for those of us who would lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives by living single or not parenting. It is obviously not good for us to try to fit into roles that make us miserable. But it is also not good for the other people drawn into our attempts to meet rigid expectations – people such as unwitting spouses or children.
I think an article titled “Not wanting kids is entirely normal” is still highly popular five years after it was first published because the message is still news to us – and to many, very welcome news. For women especially, parenting is still a cultural mandate. It is what is expected and celebrated. It also what is demanded, on penalty of being stigmatized as “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed,” as the title of a terrific anthology put it. It is time for that to change.
[Take a look at my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” if you are interested. Also, this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life is always available. Check out my website, too, if you’d like.]