To have or not to have children
Recently, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about her misgivings in starting a family. It got me thinking and here follows what I have come up with.
My friend Cristina worries that having children in this overpopulated era is a selfish act because it may lead to the suffering of her own children in the future. I think I would like to start with this term “selfish”- it is a difficult one because in the English language it is such a negative term: self-indulgent and self-interested. It is dangerous to be selfless at all times. Dangerous and impossible. Self care is important. Doing things that are important to me as an individual, that make me happy and a better person, are also important. Being “selfish” on some counts may even make me a more selfless and caring individual overall, because I know myself and I respect and care for myself, meaning I can respect and care for others too.
If you think about the biblical indictment “go forth and multiply”, we love to think it was directed at us humans, but all living things have this wired into them. Otherwise how would species reproduce, if it wasn’t hard-wired into the program? Plants, birds, fish, insects, mammals - all species need to multiply. And I wonder whether going against our biology, going against the impetus of our cells, couldn’t lead to severe psychological difficulties. I, for one, would be in trouble if I didn’t have my children, I know this with an unwavering certainty.
I have always known that I wanted a family. Children are incredibly important to me and having my own seemed like a given, right from the start. This certainty became even stronger when my baby sister, who is fifteen years younger than I, was born. Back then, my sister rescued me from depression - just by being, by existing (for more on that, read this blog post). Now, I know that if I didn’t have my two incredible children in my life, I would be a sad, unfulfilled version of myself. They give meaning to my life which cannot be described and they give me the energy and the drive to do things about the state of the world which I probably would not have if I didn’t have children. My “activism” isn’t for me, it is for my children and the world they will experience. I want the world to be a better place for them, not necessarily for me.
So, as you can see, it was selfish of me to have my children, because I wanted them for me and my own well-being, but it is also the drive that makes me a more selfless, caring and driven person who works to make the world a better place.
When people today call for a “birthstrike” to “save” the planet, a whole series of thoughts come to mind. I have tried to sort them into some semblance of order from least important to most important.
Firstly, it reminds me of my older cousins many years ago saying that they “couldn’t afford” to have children, as though children are a commodity like your next car, or a house. That was the fad of the early 2000’s on the topic of having children. Now, the discourse has shifted the “can’t afford” from “we” the parents to “the planet”. So that’s guilt-tripping people who’ve already made the choice to have children, and hemming those who are thinking about it. I don’t see how this is useful. Children are humans and I personally believe we should be treating them with dignity and respect, not as commodities (à la 2000s) nor as a threat to the planet. We have free choice and should be allowed to choose this particular topic in relation to ourselves. If you want children, fine. If you don’t, great. Let’s not make the “abstainers” morally superior to everyone else, please.
Secondly, the birthstrike adds another layer to the dilemma. It is a drastic call for action now, that could have quite terrible repercussions in the future. Let us say, that every single woman living on this planet today agrees to go along with this birthstrike to “save the planet” and refuses to have children during her lifetime. Every single woman. That includes my 7 month old daughter. Our species would be extinct before the century is out. That hardly seems like a solution to our problems. Nihilism has never really resonated with me. And I don’t see how committing genocide on our species is going to help the Great Barrier Reef, or the Amazon because we still have 80 years to carry on being nihilistic egotists who run on single-use plastics. Look at where the past 80 years of unbridled consumerism and “convenience” have gotten us.
Furthermore, the birthstrike, as I understand it, requires that women have full control over their bodies and reproduction. Now, I don’t know what rock some people may be living under - it is clearly a comfortable, shady spot - but clearly they don’t understand that although we’re in the 21st century, there are very many women alive today who still do not have power over their own bodies. This strike, then, seems a senseless effort at reducing the number of children born in wealthy countries where they have the highest chance of achieving their potential and thus being able to contribute meaningfully 20 years from now. I hate to say it, but that seems stupid. And it doesn’t help those women I mentioned earlier improve their situation - not at all. They will still be having many children because family planning, birth control etc. are not available to them. They will continue to suffer the loss of their children to preventable diseases because the way things are structured right now they do not have access to the services we in the West take for granted.
This birthstrike is likely to spiral into a situation where the only children born into the world will experience incredible suffering, will not have the opportunity to reach their potential simply because they cannot maximise their brain development during the early years - which is a key factor in future success - and thus, twenty to thirty years down the line we are going to sit with an incredibly skewed global population. I do not see how this helps in any way. I’d rather spend my energy trying to uplift the children born into those families by ensuring they have opportunities their mothers never had, than wasting time proselytising that it is bad and selfish to have children of one's own.
Now a birthstrike also means that we tamper with the workforce down the road. Are you really willing to postpone your retirement because there is no one to take your place when you’re 65? I certainly am not. I’d like to spend my old age together with people I love and not slaving away for the system. I’ll be doing enough of that for the coming decades. And what am I to retire to if I don't have a family to spend time with?
So, on that note, I would like to offer my thoughts on how I planned my family.
As I mentioned before, I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a mother and to have a family. When I met my husband, he was also very much in agreement. I had some experiences from being an Au Pair that had me clear on one child is too few and more than three is too many. The logic here is: an only child has no siblings and it is a very lonely existence (I know, I was an only child until the age of 5 - I remember being alone - for more on this subject do read here); More than three children is just not manageable for the way I envision my family. There isn’t enough time to dedicate to each child when there are too many, and they cannot reach their potential when they don’t have a strong bond with their mother (the diad is very important). My husband was also very keen on having a balanced family - one boy and one girl. Since one cannot be certain in advance, we agreed that should we have two boys or two girls, we would then adopt a third child of the other sex to help balance things out again. Thankfully, the universe has been generous and we have a boy and a girl. And that is where we are stopping with biological children. We have no intention of having more.
The reason we stop at two is quite simple. We are replacing ourselves for the future. Not population growth... replacement. We are keeping the population stable by only having two children. And this is not just us. The UN stats say that the average number of children for a woman is 2.5. We are already averaging 2 children per woman. That is great. It means the population is stabilising. As the doctor and fantastic statistician Hans Rosling puts it, we have reached peak child (I can highly recommend his book "Factfulness"). The population growth projected for the coming years is due to improved chances of survival, meaning that the adult population is growing. We also live longer, so the number of people over 65 is increasing, which means the global population is bigger, but it is not because of the children born, it has to do with survival rates and life expectancy.
So, what do I plan to do about the environment? What about human impact and the growing populations destruction of ecosystems?
Well, I'll tell you one thing. I don't plan to do anything. I am doing. Every day I see if I cannot find an improvement to how I live my life so it has the least impact possible. For one thing, my husband (who is the coffee drinker) has filter coffee - none of those atrocious capsules for us. We don't eat out often, and when we do, we make sure its a proper restaurant and not some fast-food place that uses loads of single-use plastics. For our son's birthday party we used paper plates and cups, and no straws. We try to buy local produce and I am working on reducing plastics even more - although I am irritated by the fact that ecological fruit and vegetables are always sold in a layer of plastic (more of that some other time).
I make an effort to teach my children now already that the environment is something we should be taking care of - something we are custodians of. My four-year-old takes great joy in picking up other people's garbage, out in the park and in the forest when we take a walk. So perhaps, next time you're out, throw your wrappers in the bin instead of on the ground. Set an example for the children out there. Do your part to make the world a better place and to save the environment by doing what is right, not making other people feel guilty about their choices.
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