The decision to be childless raises passions. It also bestows unique responsibility.
Celebration of fatherhood has ancient, international roots but didn’t become a recognized US holiday until 1972. Supporters had been advocating a holiday to honor fatherhood as early as 1908, but ran into difficulties due to the success of Mother’s Day (established as a US holiday in 1914). Mother’s Day has become known as the forerunner of the so-called Hallmark Holidays focused on profits over sentiments. Early Father’s Day sponsors made a tactical mistake by tying their proposed holiday closely to Mother’s Day. Congress already had one over commercialized juggernaut on its hands and resisted creating another.
Of course, the Dark Side won. So now the third Sunday in June is set aside to let the male gentry of the land burn meat in their backyards and have their offspring shower them with expensive gifts ranking high on the testosterone scale.
What will I get for Father’s Day? Nothing. I like burnt food as much as the next guy and am well endowed with the male gene that triggers drool over tools and well-crafted machinery. What I am missing is offspring. My wife and I chose not to have children, which makes us pariahs in the eyes of many.
When people learn of our childless state, their reactions proceed through three well-defined stages. The first I call the “Wink-wink, nudge-nudge” stage. When we were first married, people would insist on adding the word “yet” when I said we didn’t have children. “Don’t worry, you will,” they said with a wink and a smirk. These are the same goons who paw at pregnant women’s bellies without permission. In their world, having children was nothing more than lacking the intelligence to exercise birth control. At my current age “yet” is much less likely, so I don’t have to deal with this stage much. (Not to mention that my wife’s medical history puts parenting on the Immaculate Conception side of things.)
The next stage is the “You poor things” stage. Assuming we were doing everything right, God must be punishing us. That we were clueless of our transgressions was unimportant. The delirious joy of parenthood was being withheld. Have we considered adopting? At this point, I explain that we deliberately chose not have children and that decision applies to adoption, as well. That’s when the shit hit’s the fan.
“You are the spawn of the Devil!” Welcome to stage three. We obviously have all the children we need — pickled in glass jars in the pantry. We are dangerous dysfunctional elements that society should watch, placed on the same lists as other sexual deviants. The Pope agrees. He said choosing not to have children is a selfish act. He also went off on some tangent conflating children and pets but, being a selfish SOB, I didn’t take the time to work out the details.
What hell’s going on? I’m minding my own business, trying to schlump through my life, and total strangers (including the Pope) are attacking me.
I know why. People are confusing my decisions with theirs. If my decision not to have children is right, then their decision to conceive must be wrong. In their eyes I am attacking their families and the momma bear comes out on her hind legs.
Perfectly understandable. And completely wrong. Decisions like these are not binary, only right or wrong. What is right for some is not right for others. The decision of one does not reflect on the decisions of others. Some people are parenting material and should have large broods. And others… are not. That’s a decision we all have to consider on our own.
Once you get beyond the torch and pitchfork crowd, you can find an extensive and rich discussion of the motivations and consequences of the decision not to parent. The titles reveal the tensions that hover around the choice.
There are also websites devoted to the decision. (If you value your life, don’t even think of joining the debate about the proper label: “childless” vs “childfree.”)
Most of the public debate on childbearing choices has focused on women’s decisions, rightly so. Such decisions, though, should be made jointly as my wife and I did. We certainly didn’t set out to make a grand societal statement when we got married. We were simply too poor to start a family then. I was in graduate school, living below the poverty level. I had seen classmates drop out of school to care for their family and knew I would do the same. So we waited. And the longer we waited, the more comfortable we felt with our decision. Nothing more evil or dastardly than that. We chose to live the lives we wanted.
The Pope, though, may have a point. Life is a gift and gifts should not be squandered. You should live your life as if you were going to be called to account for your days, a philosophy that works well for atheists and believers alike. If you are not willing to contribute to overpopulation, at least make your life rich enough to withstand inspection. Show what a life of careful and deliberate choice can be. Taking a road less traveled puts you in the spotlight, so use your notoriety as a platform to show the value of your choice.
After all, everyone is watching. And looking for those jars in your pantry.