Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Choosing childlessness

Published:Monday | May 11, 2015 | 5:06 AMDr Michael Abrahams

Many years ago, while in a line waiting to pay my cable bill, I encountered the husband of a patient of mine who was in his late 40s. I had delivered his son and daughter and enquired about his children, who were still quite young. 

He began his reply by saying, “If I knew then what I know now …” and I responded, “You would have had them earlier.” He replied, “No. I would not have had them at all.” He went on to explain that parenting is difficult and requires a great deal of responsibility, and that he is not a particularly responsible person.  

I was quite taken aback by his response. At that time, I was already a father, and could not imagine life without my daughter, who was my only child then. I had been socialised to believe that childlessness led to unhappiness and emptiness. Then, a few weeks later, while sitting in the waiting area of my ophthalmologist’s office, I read a front-page article in a leading American magazine about childless couples, and the research that showed that they were, on average, happier than couples with children.

Among other things, they are able to be more spontaneous, spend more uninterrupted quality time, and are more financially secure. A more recent study from England, published last year, yielded similar results.

There is a rather popular view that not wanting to have children is selfish. Even the Pope recently remarked, “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.”  But is it really selfish to choose not to enter the reproduction arena? Parenthood is often a beautiful experience. Raising and bonding with your children can be most rewarding, and the love that you feel for your child can be one of the most powerful and intense emotions imaginable. Many parents find it difficult to imagine life without their children, and if they had to live their lives all over again, they would do the same thing. 

But raising children can be a challenge. Disciplinary and behavioural issues, special needs and chronically ill children can push parents to the brink, and sometimes even over the edge. Successful parenting ideally requires patience, discipline, self-control, mental stability, tenacity, the ability to sacrifice and financial stability. Some persons may not possess the above-mentioned resources and are honest enough with themselves to opt out of parenthood, and should be commended rather than chastised for it.  

Of course, some people are, indeed, selfish. Some women are consumed with vanity and avoid getting pregnant out of fear of changes to their bodies that they would consider unattractive, such as stretch marks or ‘baby fat’ that may not go away after childbirth. Other persons may not wish to share their money and possessions and may be obsessed with accumulating wealth.

Women, especially, are socialised to be expected to grow up, get married or find a partner, and reproduce. As a matter of fact, many men behave as though women are mere walking vaginas and uteri, and are only on the planet to satisfy their sexual needs and bear their children. So any woman who chooses to avoid a committed relationship and childbearing is seen as an anomaly. But many have valid reasons for opting to be childless. Some simply have no maternal drive.

They have no desire to carry a baby for nine months and then nurture and raise the child. This does not make them selfish. It simply means that they do not have the aptitude to be mothers. It is common practice to administer psychometric tests to persons applying for certain jobs to determine their aptitudes for the positions that they apply for.

A particular score may indicate that one may not be the best person for the job. If psychometric testing were to be administered to all persons who are already parents, many would be deemed to be inappropriate for their parenting positions. Some women are unable to find a suitable partner, and would rather remain childless than raise a child with an absent father or one that would be a poor role model for their son or daughter. Some who are single appreciate the financial resources that it may require to raise a child and realise that they would be unable to provide adequately for a child by themselves.  And there are those who believe that bringing a child into such a violent and cruel world would be unfair to the unsuspecting offspring.

The irony is that many of those who accuse persons who choose to be childless of being selfish are selfish themselves. Many have children for selfish motives. Women sometimes choose to get pregnant to hold a man in a relationship or have children with different men in the hope that they will provide financial support. Some people have children to keep their company or to look after them in their old age, assuming that they will live that long.  And many women reproduce with men who they know will abandon them and their children or be unavailable or set bad examples for their kids. 

The products of these unions often have unhappy or dysfunctional childhoods and suffer as a result of their parents’ bad decisions,  then grow up to be dysfunctional adults, reproduce, and raise dysfunctional children, perpetuating the cycle of maladjustment. The truth is that not everyone is cut out for parenting, and some may be doing the world a favour by preventing sperms from meeting eggs. And if every single adult who had ever lived had reproduced, the planet would not have been able to manage the load.

To each his, or her own.  But if you do have children, place them as a priority and love them, guide them and protect them.

It is a cold world out there.

- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.