Politics & Policy

Conservative and Child-Free

Does being a conservative mean I must have children?

Daily Beast columnist Amanda Marcotte is getting rough treatment from conservatives over her Friday piece “Pope Francis Is Wrong About My Child-Free Life,” which makes a persuasive case that it’s okay to not have kids.

Full disclosure: I am in that child-free camp. (I call it “child-free” while some pro-parentage folks may prefer the term “child-less” — one’s choice of term likely gives away one’s view on the matter.) Like Marcotte, I’m a woman in my 30s (34 to be exact) with, at the present time and likely into the future, no interest in being a mother. Motherhood seems wonderful for others, and I respect and cherish the role, though I have sensibly decided it simply isn’t for me. I’ll pass on parenting.

But I am also a conservative. Can those two be reconciled? Does being a conservative mean I must have children or, at the very least, like Pontifex, encourage others to do so?

It’s a question that has been lingering for quite some time. After all, conservatism is family-friendly and socially traditional, stressing family as the core building block of society. But as more and more men and women nowadays rule out the idea of having children, are these individuals any less conservative than those who are parents?

Below are Pope Francis’s recent remarks cautioning against the child-free life:

You can go explore the world, go on holiday, you can have a villa in the countryside, you can be care-free … it might be better — more comfortable — to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog. Is this true or is this not? Have you seen it? Then, in the end this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.

With warnings of loneliness in the twilight years, and implications that the child-free life is a selfish one, the pope’s remarks seem more pressure than persuasion.

Is someone who disagrees with the pope’s view a “liberal,” and is a good conservative expected to vigorously agree? Or is this not a Left v. Right issue at all? If it’s apolitical, another question arises: Is Pope Francis even correct? With all due respect as a lifelong Catholic, in my opinion, the answer is . . . not exactly.

The “You’ll be lonely in old age if you don’t have kids” warning does not hold weight. As Marcotte notes:

A 2003 study that looked specifically at this question found that having children was no guarantee against loneliness in old age. After surveying nearly 4,000 people ages 50 to 84, researchers found no difference in the loneliness rates of people with children and people without children. Common sense should suggest the same. Relying on a phone call a week from your kids is hardly a panacea for loneliness.

Is a weekly, one-hour visit (extra on Easter and Christmas!) from a reluctant grandchild supposed to combat loneliness?

We should tread carefully in pressuring others into marriage and/or families. When promotion of child rearing becomes pressure to raise children (as it has been for centuries), how is this sound, or even conservative, public policy? Stable families, and in particular families independent of government assistance, emerge when individuals — without outside pressure — desire to build families. If history indicates anything, it’s that this desire is widespread, naturally occurring, and definitely not in need of any it-takes-a-village encouragement. It’s unconservative, recklessly so, to push the idea of having kids just for the sake of having kids. After all, the person who truly wishes to, and who is able to, will reach that conclusion on his or her own.

Far too many women have a child, then another, then another because, well, it’s something to do or even because their friends are all giving birth. Women often reproduce before they are ready — or even despite true interest in being mothers at all. When the marriage crumbles under the weight of unhappiness, or when the woman finds herself unfulfilled by motherhood, how is society better off? This is not a very conservative outcome, which is why conservatives often caution against welfare benefits incentivizing the (undesirable) outcome of single motherhood. So why would conservatives encourage motherhood among women who just don’t want to be mothers?

Marcotte makes a plain point that is often forgotten:

Children don’t benefit from being raised by parents who went into parenthood ambivalent about the whole endeavor and feeling like they had to do it for no other reason but to conform to social expectations (or the pope’s scolding).

Actress Kim Cattrall opted against motherhood (as did her iconic Sex & The City character, Samantha, and series author Candace Bushnell), explaining: “When I answered those questions regarding having children, I realized that so much of the pressure I was feeling was from outside sources, and I knew I wasn’t ready to take that step into motherhood.”

Cattrall’​s brave and reasoned choice should be applauded — yes, even by family-friendly conservatives. Pushing or pressuring individuals who may not wish to be parents into the role does nothing for society, stability, or the betterment of anyone’s life.

What of the morality argument? Is it, as Pope Francis indicates, selfish to be child-free? No. The truth can be quite the opposite, actually, as some women have children as an act of self-validation, without sufficient thought to the life or home that will be provided to the child. (Watch any teen pregnancy show and you’ll see this theme repeatedly.) It is an automatic identity, an automatic title, and an automatic sense of worth in the world. Or, consider how a lawyer friend recently explained to me that he and his wife would like to wait to have children but that having a child actually helps his career prospects.

“The partners take you more seriously if you have a family,” he says. “It shows you’re ‘stable’ and committed to your job and earning potential. If it means starting a family sooner than we’d like, then I guess that’s what we’ll do.” In other words, kids for a quicker promotion.

And speaking of selfish behavior, what of the woman who finds her life empty and decides to have a child in order to have “something to love”? Is that not the definition of selfish behavior?

To be clear, the vast majority of parents do not fall into these camps. But, some do. Assuming the decision to have children isn’t selfish is just as foolish as assuming that the opposing decision is. In fact, opting not to have children is a difficult act, fraught with a lifetime of pestering questions (“But why didn’t someone like you have kids??? That is such a shammmmmme. . . . ”) and social stigma (friends and colleagues with children will ostracize you from their circles nearly immediately).

Someone’s children might turn out to be awful. When encouraging reproduction, we often do so as if the result is always a net gain for the world. But what of the many who have a child who then makes their lives, or the lives of others, terrible? What percentage of individuals in this world actually benefits society? Why is it conservative to encourage more and more breeding?

Having children isn’t an achievement. The entire animal kingdom does it. The “welfare queen” down the block has done it six times with another on the way. Having a child is not an achievement; raising a child well is. We should encourage and applaud the latter, not the former.

Child-free marriages are actually happier on average. And should we not want happy marriages? Is that not the conservative position, as marriage is the key (we are told) to economic stability? Marcotte notes:

In fact, the question of whether or not having kids makes marriages happier or not is one that has been looked at again and again, to the point where you start to wonder if they’re trying to get a different result this time. The answer keeps coming back the same: Childless couples have happier marriages, on average.

Not having children is a sign of rugged individualism, something conservatives (usually) champion. It requires a healthy sense of self in order to break rank with the expectation. There is a slew of female celebrities who have opted against it and set a bit of an example: Eva Mendes, Cameron Diaz, Tyra Banks, Winona Ryder, Oprah, Bo Derek, Helen Mirren, Renee Zellweger, Ashley Judd, Rachael Ray, Stevie Nicks, Chelsea Handler, Pam Grier, Stockard Channing, Debbie Harry, Star Jones, Anjelica Houston, Candace Bushnell, the late Katherine Hepburn, and even conservative icons such as Ann Coulter and Condoleezza Rice. A handful of celebrity couples — Jon Hamm and his wife, Jennifer; Ricky Gervais and his partner, Jane; Jay Leno and his wife, Mavis — have also broken the child-free barrier. But there is still a great stigma against those who decide being a parent is not their calling in life.

In the painfully hilarious Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Bridget’s mother laments to her own daughter: “To be honest, darling, having children isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Given my chance again, I’m not sure I’d have any.”

“Given my chance again . . . ” Conservatism is about the freedom to make choices and a respect for one’s individualism. That’s why we are deeply skeptical of policies that try to manipulate human activity, even when the policies aim to produce seemingly conservative societal outcomes, because interference in private life ends up producing negative results (such as rushed and broken families).

Thus, while I stop short of claiming the child-free life is conservative (the matter is apolitical), those of us who make that choice are certainly no less conservative.

Now, what’s that the Pope was saying about a villa in Italy . . . ?

A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.


The Latest