Childfree: Why “Selfish” is the wrong issue to raise.

The newest spate of articles addressing the childfree have seemed oddly focused on the term “selfish”. This is coming from all sides, it seems. There are pieces written both as external decrees of judgment as well as internal reflections. As someone who is childfree I do hear the term being thrown around a lot, though I’m sure not nearly as much as I would were I a woman. Even PNB friends (parent, not breeder) have tossed it out as a casual observation, and seemed genuinely surprised when I pushed back against the term. So no, I don’t accept it even as an excuse or admission for how I am living my life.

The first problem with bringing up selfish as the newest thread to weave into an argument is that the discussion changes completely. It may seem like just bringing up another point but it’s really something much more. Previously, most discussions and arguments were based on practicality. These “bingos” (there are cards you can fill out for every terrible argument thrown at you) such as “who will take care of you when you’re older”, “it’s different when they’re your own”, “aren’t you afraid you’ll regret it when you’re older”, and so on, are all practical problems. They’re terrible points to try to evangelize parenthood with, but they all hinge on how someone’s life is affected by kids being or not being present. Those practical points are all very invasive but also, well, practical. They are mostly issues that will need to be addressed. For all of them there are many ways to deal, and when used as bingos it just means the questioner can’t imagine another way to do it without using kids in the process.

But if those practical jabs are based on a foundation, one housing all the arguments about how having kids will and won’t change your life, then selfishness is built on a foundation located across town, in the Abstract or Philosophical district. Selfishness has nothing to do with how you can deal with certain issues without having kids. Selfishness is about the person and their values. It’s like giving advice on what to major in at college. I’ve heard people say that a liberal arts degree will make it difficult to find a job. That’s a practical concern. I’ve also heard people say that acting and literature is stupid. That’s a value statement, and I’m sure you see how it’s also a terrible way to start a conversation. So why is this value twist so popular? It’s because even if all of the practical issues are addressed, it still is a way to invalidate the choice of the childfree person. What it tells people, mainly women if we’re being honest, is that while they can live you’re life a certain way, they shouldn’t. In a social climate where “lifestyles” (or, as some people call it, being able to be yourself) are being more and more often upheld legally, the choice to not have children is being fought on abstract moral arguments like selfishness. Childfreedom has never been illegal, but it has always been a taboo. The way relationships are looked at now, remaining unmarried and remaining childless are seen as negative side effects of how someone lives. Living without a spouse of children is seen more as a way that someone ends up, not as living their dream. So going back to the practical/value pairing, selfish becomes more than just one more point in a Seurat of accusations. It actually becomes a way to twist being childfree into a character flaw. And redefining it as a flaw means that those who choose not to have kids are admitting to being inadequate as people. Some people can justify it by way of protecting the next generation from genetic condition, working with children in their careers, or a number of other reasons why they have an excuse. That’s still a problem, because choosing to be childfree shouldn’t need an excuse anymore than choosing to have a child should. That need for justification means that on its own, being childfree is seen as a choice to be avoided. So moving the problem of not having children from a utilitarian argument to a philosophical is cheating everyone out of finishing the discussion.

But lets say that it should be a metaphysical debate. After all, the problem isn’t necessarily that we’re asking about the value of being childfree, it’s that the childfree are cheated out of finishing the conversation that someone started with them. So let’s take a look at this whole “selfish” thing. It first has to be defined. The basic idea is an adjective that describes something or someone chiefly concerned with themselves with little to no consideration for others. But there’s a strong pejorative aspect to it too. Self-empowered would fit the definition but not match how people feel comfortable using it. That empowerment drops away when selfishness is used to denote an aspect of exclusion of other people’s interests to the benefit of the subject. Do something for yourself and you’re treating yourself. Do something for yourself and leave someone else to pick up the slack at work and you’re being selfish. I think this now works as a functional definition.So is being childfree inherently selfish? Let’s look at someone who just wants to keep living their life as it is. That’s still just “treating yourself” because as far as we know, no one is being harmed or excluded. It’s a person making a choice affects no one else. Let’s go further and try to give them a selfish reasoning. They want to stay up late, drink a lot, and just have as little responsibility as possible. This sort of behavior feels a lot more selfish because it has such a low goal. They aren’t trying to do charity work with any of their “me time”, there’s no pursuit of an art, or even an attempt further their career. It’s simply a way of hanging onto immaturity and lack of responsibility as long as possible. And yet it’s not a terrible way to achieve such a low goal. No one is suffering due to this choice, except perhaps their future self. And still that’s the same person later on so it is a bit of a stretch to qualify for that “exclusion of the consideration of others”. It may be sad but it’s not detrimental to anyone else.

Thousands of examples could be made to try to find the exact line of which person is selfishly childfree, neutrally childfree, or selflessly so. This quick set of examples should be enough to show that selfishness may be an aspect of a childfree choice, but it’s not an inherent part of it. There’s no more reason to say that the childfree at large are selfish than there is to pick any random person off the street and say the same. But there are two sides to any debate and we’ve only looked at one. Since this is now about values and not just about specific situations, choosing to have a child has to measure up against the selfish standard.

So is choosing to have children selfish? The first response I’ve seen to this is no, because it requires sacrifice on the parent’s part. But we’re not talking about parenting, which is when the sacrifice comes in. We’re talking about choosing to have a child. It may seem like splitting hairs to make a distinction but having a child and raising a child are separate acts; you can raise a child without having one, and you can have a child without raising one. It’s also a cheap response because it just resets the conversation from the value of selfishness back to practical responses. So let’s look at choosing to have a child in relation to selfishness.

It’s a selfish act. OK, it can be a selfish act. Choosing to have a child is both the fulfillment of a personal desire and can come at the expense of others. When you think about it, only one person out of the two affected agree to it. Sure, the second person isn’t a person yet, they’re the unborn hypothetical child, but they are the affected party. I’m not going to go so far as argue that it’s lacking consent, but I will say that there’s only one person that it’s making happy. The hypothetical kid is at best a neutral party. This isn’t to say that the person going to be born will be upset by it1 but whenever someone has a child they can only be sure that they are going to find fulfillment in the act.

But that’s a little on the abstract side. Focusing on the unborn hypothetical person is even more abstract than focusing on the future version of the childfree woman from an earlier example. Since we let that one slide, we should also give this example a pass as well, and call it even. But there are more aspects to selfishness as we defined it earlier.

So the question becomes “are existing people suffering consequences from this choice?” The answer, surprisingly, is also yes. Children in foster care and adoption systems are losing out on potential parents. These are people who exist right now, suffering the consequences of the choice for people to procreate. The obvious justification is the amount of time, money, and judgement that comes with the adoption application. Honestly, the adoption system in the United States is a mess. People that go through it, and not private adoption, face long periods of intense scrutiny and judgement, as well as a lot of money invested and it could all come to nothing. But aren’t time, judgement, frustration, and risk all the same sacrifices that are touted when explaining why parenthood makes people less selfish. The one that guarantees you a child is a selfless one but the one that leaves it up to the state to judge on behalf of the child is selfish? It’s also, once again, a practical response that doesn’t address the value side of the conversation. Fertility treatments fall into this same category, perhaps more so than simple adoption, as it introduces a possible genetic consequence for the unborn to deal with in the future. And the path of fertility treatment doesn’t even get the practical pass of being the path of least resistance. This has much of the same sacrifices of adoption (time, money, emotional investment, all with the possible end result of nothing) with none of the benefits to those kids waiting to be adopted.

So in conclusion, all parents are selfish, especially mothers.

Not really. The point I’m trying to show in all of this is just how inappropriate the “selfish” argument really is. All of the above sounds very navel-gazing, I know, but that’s what happens when picking apart something most people assume to be true. Turning the choice of children or no children to a value based argument is a lot more complex than making a single point about free time or possibly losing one’s identity to parenthood. Each side can make the selfless argument and each side can make the selfish one too. But by calling the concept of a self determined (not self centered) life “selfish” it diminishes the concept of self and self-betterment. By assuming parenthood is the only valuable choice, with no regard for context, it creates a situation in which the only redeemable act is to thoughtlessly fulfill a predetermined action. There’s no use talking about it. Why bother when a person’s own situation and desires have no bearing on the right thing to do, because the only “good” choice has been defined as making a child? With a practical approach people can respond with arguments, circumstances, personal factors, and other rationale. By defining the very position of childfree as selfish is asserts a value judgement on both having and not having a child, and lowers the entire discourse down to fulfillment of dogma. That’s cheap. That’s not a discussion, it’s a decree. If you’re fit to raise a child then you’re fit to raise the level of discourse to something better than that.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Although there is a school of thought that says having a child is an inherently immoral act. The process is that an unborn child will never suffer but a child who is born will inevitably experience some suffering in their life. That means having no children is the surest way to create the least amount of suffering and therefore is the most moral act. I don’t subscribe to this but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access is wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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