Childfree Adults Are Not “Selfish”

In choosing not to have children, we have not abdicated obligations to friends and family.

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Let’s start with the facts: I’m 41. I’ve been happily married for 16 years. My reproductive organs are in good working order. Yet, I don’t have children — nor do I want them. And my intention is to keep things that way.

This should not seem that radical. But 52 years after the advent of the birth control pill, and more than a century after the word “feminism” was first coined, a woman’s decision not to have children remains fraught. It is also very public, relentlessly scrutinized by psychologists, politicians, statisticians and the media, who gather to discuss what it may mean — for women, for the funding of Social Security, for Western civilization as we know it. This past winter, a pair of Newsweek writers — of the dude persuasion — went on a gloom-and-tirade about declining birth rates and the self-involved young adults that are causing them. The Daily Mirror in the U.K. recently ran a story titled, “Women are not freaks just because they don’t want children.

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My big beef in all of this has to do with the ways in which women in these cases have been characterized. Not having children is often described as “selfish.” (It’s right in the first paragraph of that Newsweek story.) And the word comes up repeatedly in articles of this nature — often from women themselves. Comb through the newspaper features and you’ll find the inevitable quote by some career-minded thirtysomething saying something like, Omigod no, I’m way too selfish. Even women who might know better perpetuate the idea, such novelist Lionel Shriver, who in 2005 penned an essay titled “No kids please, we’re selfish.” The piece is problematic in other ways, too. Shriver and her friends are concerned that not having babies may signify the extinction of their European lineages. (They shouldn’t fret. Europeans spent the Age of Enlightenment spreading their seed around the planet. Their legacy will live on.)

The idea that women don’t have babies because they are “selfish” is not only reductive, in so many cases, it is simply incorrect. My husband and I chose not to have children for myriad reasons. I’d say selfishness is not among them. First and foremost, neither of us was ever keen on the kid thing. I’ve never felt a desire to get pregnant or give birth. If I have a biological clock, it’s on mute. As for my husband: I once asked him to hold a six-month-old that had been left in our care. He held the infant in the same awkward way that one holds a clutch of deadly mold spores.

Just as significant is the issue of lifestyle. I am a writer. My husband is an artist. We live paycheck to paycheck and go long spells without health insurance and dental cleanings. Our schedules are beyond erratic. I often write on weekends. My husband has had jobs that require regular night shifts. And there’s the issue of travel. Last year, we trotted off to Peru for several weeks when my husband was asked to do a series of installations at an old Inca sun temple. The year before that, I spent five weeks in Costa Rica on assignment for a guidebook company. For me, there is no greater joy than slipping on a pair of rubber boots and going to meet an encampment of gold miners in the middle of a rainforest. For my husband, bliss is sitting at a drafting table, surrounded by paint, razor blades and paint sticks. These are the things we love to do. And while we could have found some way to squeeze children into this complicated equation, neither of us was very interested in doing so — just like neither of us is very interested in watching major league baseball or the Lifetime network.

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Yet, over the course of our marriage, we’ve been peppered with the kid question — from distant uncles, hair dressers, bartenders, bosses, the postman and even the neighbor lady: Don’t you have kids? When are you going to have kids? Early on, I learned that the worst thing I could do was to give an honest answer. Saying “I don’t want kids” simply set me up as a challenge to be surmounted. I’ve spent BBQs and cocktail parties fending off some inquisitor who made it their mission to convince me to reproduce. In my twenties, I got around this by telling people that I simply wasn’t ready to have a baby. But now that I’m in my 40s, I can’t use that excuse — and so the entreaties cascade in. It’s now or never. You’re not getting any younger. Aren’t you afraid you’ll regret the decision? That’s kind of selfish, don’t you think? Needless to say, the questions are generally directed at me — not at my husband.

In so much of what is reported, childless adults are often depicted as slavishly self-involved: people who sacrifice communal bonds in order to hole up with box wine and re-runs of the Walking Dead. In our case, it couldn’t be farther from the reality. In choosing not to have children, we have not abdicated obligations to friends and family. When my father developed brain cancer, I took him to treatment almost every day for eight weeks. When my mother-in-law had an aneurysm, my husband took off to help care her for her. In the coming years, I will watch nieces grow up and keep a close eye on friends who might feel depressed. I will spend a great deal of time with people I care for deeply.

My decision not to have children was never made out of some desire to keep my life out of the hands of others. If anything, I have simply chosen to share my life in a different way. Sure, I may one day regret this decision. I may also regret a heap of other things. Not spending more time with my father. Being a jerk to a good friend. Eating too much pizza. But perhaps a bigger regret would consist of being strong-armed into having a baby I simply never wanted.

To read the full TIME cover story “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children,” subscribe here. Already a subscriber? Click here.