Is Not Having Children Selfish?

Ash 7.30.86

I didn’t want children. When the subject came up, as it almost always does among young adults, I had a ready retort: “I spend all day in a classroom with other people’s children. Why would I want to go home to them?”

So when Pope Francis commented in his catechesis this week that, “The choice to not have children is selfish,” I knew exactly what women who are childless by choice would say in response. The decision to have a child is a choice that we get to make, no matter what anyone thinks, least of all a religious leader who himself made the choice not to have children.

I wondered, though, about the context of Pope Francis’ remarks. Long experience with such judgments from others made me curious about his line of reasoning. Immediately before the remark that has drawn such media coverage, he said, “having more children cannot be automatically viewed as an irresponsible choice,” suggesting that he was responding to those who judge parents who have more children than they can afford. I must confess, though, that after reading the entire catechesis, I’m not really sure what he was trying to say. I couldn’t follow the coherent line of thought I expected from a man who is usually clear about what he means.

His lack of a continuing thread of thought in his remarks reinforced my long-held belief that there are no rational reasons to have or not to have children—only emotional ones.

The answers people gave when I asked why I should have children ranged from reasonable to ridiculous. The most reasonable were actually the least logical, coming from parents who tried to put into words the overwhelming love they felt for their children and who said they would never have wanted to miss out on that.

Many people told me that I needed children to take care of me when I was old. I responded—with as much attitude as I could muster—with a story about an elderly couple I knew who had tragically lost both their children, one to cancer and one to the Vietnam War.

My dentist weighed in with the most ludicrous logic of the lot: “If the educated people like you don’t have children and the uneducated keep having them, then there won’t be anyone to pay your Social Security.” I sat openmouthed—and not because he was examining my teeth.

Never in my discussions with others did I voice the true reasons I had opted not to have children. I had grown up with a father who loved his children but whose demons led him to abuse us. My mother, who adored us, was ill equipped to parent the five children she carried to full term before one of her friends introduced her to the birth control pill. When she made what Pope Francis calls a selfish choice, she was only 32 and had been pregnant eight times. Full of love and tenderness, she gave all of herself to her surviving children, leaving little room for her own personhood.

My reasons for not wanting children were both selfish and selfless. I wanted a career. I did not, above all, want a life like my mother’s. I’d also read many studies about the cycle of abusiveness, and I feared that I might be doomed to mistreat any children I might have. I wanted to save my theoretical progeny from the generations of brutality that might result from my choice to have children.

When I changed my mind in my late 20s, I did not do it out of selflessness. In a world where the population had exploded and where the nuclear bomb threatened an entirely different type of explosion, the last thing on my mind was Pope Francis’ concern about “a guarantee of the future…a guarantee of a very human story.”

If I’m honest, I have to say that the embryo planted itself in my brain before my uterus because I was lonely in my marriage. I had also begun to believe, after some counseling, that it was possible to break the generational cycle of abuse. And I had grown up enough to recognize that even though I’d chosen a different path from my mother, she had taught me much about unconditional love.

I certainly didn’t reason my way to the birth of a daughter who is now the age I was when I began to see her in my mind’s eye. I am glad every day of my life that I changed my mind. Not because she’ll pay into Social Security for me. Not because she’ll take care of me when I’m old. Not for any reason that is rational.

As any parent knows, the overwhelming love of a parent for a child is pure and raw emotion. It is built into our DNA in the way of all emotions, and it defies easy explanation.

I know many parents who are egocentric and self-absorbed. I also know many childless adults who are generous and altruistic.

The decision to have or not to have a child can be either selfish or selfless. It depends entirely on what we do with our lives on the other side of that decision.

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