Being a newly minted “senior,” I have to admit that while I definitely enjoy talking to my peers, people to whom I don’t have to explain the British Invasion, the Vietnam War, and my favorite old movies and TV programs, I take equal pleasure in talking to young women to find out how their lives are going and what in their lives has changed since I was their age and at their stage of life.
This week, a group of young women librarians mounted a discussion, not of books or story times, but of whether or not to reproduce. With the gift of relative anonymity and a commitment to openness, these women told me and others in the group a great deal about their personal lives and how they have come about the decision to remain childfree.
If you missed the memo, it is no longer shameful to make an educated decision not to have children. These young women had a variety of very valid reasons for not bringing offspring into the world. For some, the issue is ecological. Seeing the mess that the world is in, they have decided not to burden themselves and our rapidly deteriorating ecosystem with more tiny carbon footprints. By the way, this is not an entirely new argument. If you go back to early episodes of Norman Lear’s All in the Family, son-in-law Mike Stivic made a similar argument about bringing a child into this troubled world. However, this was the 1970s and not having a (biological) child, if at all possible, was pretty much unheard of, so he and his wife, Gloria, reproduced one child, they later divorced. Other of these women site financial concerns. In 2015, the average cost to raise a child to adulthood is $245,000. Still burdened with their own college loans and other expenses, taking on a lifelong commitment of a quarter of a million dollars, even though the outgo is in dribs and drabs, is a formidable barrier. Other women express lifestyle choices such a desire for travel and professional development that will not be derailed by “mommy tracking,” as so many of us were. Each of the young women who expressed these opinions did so unapologetically, merely as a statement of a personal decision with or without a spouse. Of course, these women’s minority opinion is at odds with the numerous single women and single sex couples who move heaven and earth to become parents, often at steep financial and personal costs.
My husband and I were talking about it, last night. Among our friends, when we were young, we can think of only two couples who elected not to have children. We believe in both cases, this was a lifestyle choice rather than a health issue. Both of these couples were career oriented and led extremely busy professional and social lives. Children didn’t fit into their equations. They, however, were anomalies of the time. In the interest of full disclosure, we have only one child and our decision was made as a result of a genetic problem revealed after her birth. We sought genetic counseling prior to becoming pregnant, but the field was in its infancy and we did not get good advice. In retrospect, and while I could not love or value my daughter more, it is likely that with better information we would have also made the decision to be child-free.
For many reasons, it was unusual, when we were young, to eschew building a family, if for no other reason that there was always a lot of pressure from potential grandparents to carry on the family name or just to have bragging rights about exceptional offspring, once renewed. Perhaps more importantly, the means to control reproduction was more primitive and less available than it is now. Preventing reproduction usually depended on a very old condom preserved in some boy’s wallet, or a more permanent solution like tubal ligation or vasectomy. The latter procedure made most men wince and cross their legs, tightly.
I have just finished reading a book called, Sisters in Law, by Linda Hirshman which is a riveting account of the ascent to the Supreme Court of the two first women justices, Sandra Day O’Connor and “the Notorious” Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Among the many female-centric cases these two judicial sisters have heard have there been a number of which have to do with reproductive rights for women which, according to their conservative colleagues on the bench, should be firmly controlled by powers other than the women whose bodies and lives are most involved. It is the opinion of many of the Conservative thinking throwbacks on the bench that motherhood trumps any other accomplishment of women even in the 21st century, and even confronted with the many accomplishments of the three sitting female jurists now on the highest court. As Ginsburg herself said, a good number of women on the Supreme Court would be nine.
In the long conversation that my young friends were having, there was some push-back. The question, as posed by the initiator of the discussion was can you be a successful Children’s librarian (or teacher, or child psychologist or any child-centered professional) without experiencing parenthood, first hand. There was a certain amount of defensiveness among the parents, thought never accusatory or nasty, saying that they could not understand working with children without having the hands-on experience of raising their own. To this I say that the instinct to parent is not restricted to a biological or even an adopted child. Many child-free women of our generation, by design or by biological accident, develop strong relationships with nieces, nephews, or unrelated young people who become as close as children. Other women (and men) reach out, through volunteer experiences, to young people in need of a strong parental figure when the parent they are born to cannot fulfill their roles.
There is, however, another level to this discussion which I bring up to this audience. If your son or daughter decides that raising children is not likely to happen to them, is not in fact their choice, how does this affect you as a grandchild-free individual? After all, because of social media, we are no longer restricted to pictures of grandchildren handed around at family functions or annual Christmas letters updating us on the sterling accomplishments of the next generation. We are daily deluged with a virtual family album of grandchildren playing with grandma, celebrating birthdays, getting school awards and, while our knee jerk reaction is to post “Wow, that’s great” in the comments section, there is a certain amount of wistfulness at seeing these little ones who are making their grandparents proud without the burden of caring for the child’s runny noses, dealing with the coming teen angst, or paying for the exorbitant college tuition (although some well-placed grandparents may be doing that anyway).
So, here is my question to you, gentle readers: if you, yourself, chose a child-free lifestyle, was it as rewarding as you expected and would you do things differently if you had the chance? I ask this because I clearly remember my mother sitting at a concert, once, pointing out an elegant couple in seats several rows ahead of us, and telling me that they had elected not to have children and had a life of culture that she coveted. Probably not something to share with your seventeen year old daughter, but it was enlightening considering my mother’s own flawed parenting skills.
If your child has decided to live a childfree lifestyle, how do you plan to enrich your own life without the shared experiences of another generation to pass on family stories and heirlooms? Have you or will you build a network of pseudo-grandchildren who will become close enough to fill the space that grandchildren normally occupy? Or do you, like your child, feel that it is neither selfish nor self-centered to focus on adult enterprises such as travel, volunteerism, cultural experiences, or self-improvement that might be hindered by the need to jump in as a substitute parent when your own child is needed at their budding career? Will not having grandchildren change your decisions about whether to age in place, relocate to an exotic location far from your children, or make no difference at all?
The landscape of what makes a family has changed so radically over the past few decades that we and our children are completely redefining what family actually means. Single women raise biological or adopted children with the aide of extended families and “urban networks” of male role models for their child’s benefit. Gay couples move heaven and earth, and spend a great deal of money, to prove that it doesn’t matter if a child has heterosexual parents and long as they are surrounded by love from two committed and engaged people. Family may be blood, but from a different blood line than your own. Family may be beloved younger friends who, on loan from their own biological families, enrich your life with love and caring for you as a pseudo relative. Family may be children you choose to mentor in a volunteer situation where relationships may be short-lived, but nonetheless influential to another generation.
The thing about this generation that we raised is that they have biological ability to decide their fate. Unless things change radically (and they very well might turning on the construct of future Supreme Courts), medical means exist to control reproduction and the societal pressures of an agrarian society to produce extra hands to make work lighter no longer exists. It’s a strange new world that these young women I have been speaking to were born into, and they and their peers are making much different and more educated decisions that we were able to make. I am privileged that they let me be part of their conversation about this life imperative decision that they have made. They are brave, intelligent and thoughtful in their choices and I am awestruck by their ability to find paths, so different than ours, and bravely pursue them.