Putting the Childless on a Pedestal

On the set of Smith Family, 1922. (Hulton Archive/Getty)
There’s nothing wrong with not having kids, but does it really put one on the “existential vanguard” of humanity?

Parents don’t care why other people don’t have kids. People without kids stop reading articles that start with “parents.” Having kids doesn’t make you virtuous or evil; not having kids doesn’t make you selfish or incomplete. There. Are we done?

No, of course not. When the New York Times runs a piece by someone explaining why she didn’t have children, runs a feature on authors who have banded together in a book to celebrate child-free lives (Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids), and runs a review of the book a while later, you know it’s a matter that consumes the thoughts of the nation. Well, part of the nation. Okay, a few thousand people on the Upper East side. So it’s a big deal.

Without reading any of the pieces, you can probably guess why people don’t have kids.

‐You put it off to pursue a career, and refrigerated your eggs for so long the doctor warned you the baby would look like that Olaf snowman from Frozen.

‐You had fertility problems that were your own, or your mate’s li’l swimmers behave like guys who quit halfway into a 10K charity run and find a sports bar to watch the game.

‐You are a man who warns every prospective mate, “Baby baby don’t get hooked on me, because you’ll just love them and then you’ll set them free,” in case she didn’t get the message from your customized van with the water-bed and the orange shag.

‐You are part of a couple who realized that children simply do not fit into your busy world of travel, concerts, literary salons, and pretending he’s not gay.

‐You don’t want ’em. They make messes. Cats’ll do. Okay?

Sure, okay. Not everyone should reproduce, and we should celebrate those who know themselves well and decided to be childless. It’s their choice. We should be sympathetic to those who find themselves childless against their wishes, and pay heed to their observations about how society regards them. We should be a bit suspicious of those whose proclamations on the child-free life have the tiresome characteristics of the Braying Atheist, or those who say they don’t want kids because they’ve seen what it does to other women in Park Slope in Brooklyn. I mean the money they spend on strollers.

But one suspects the book goes a bit too far in exalting the barren-loin option. According to the NYT review, it “concludes with Tim Kreider’s rousing defense of the child-free as ‘an experiment unprecedented in human history . . . A kind of existential vanguard, forced by our own choices to face the naked question of existence with fewer illusions, or at least fewer consolations, than the rest of humanity, forced to prove ourselves anew every day that extinction does not negate meaning.’”

How true. I had coffee with an old friend who never married, and the subject came up. He asked after my son, possibly out of politeness, and was a bit abashed when I reminded him I had a daughter.

“Oh. Right. I just assumed that the inbred ache to mirror oneself as a rebuke to the void would manifest itself as a boy, you know? An attempt to re-experience childhood from a distance both impossibly vast and tantalizingly close.”

“Well, when I was my daughter’s age I was a fat kid who read too much sci-fi and got beat up by the class bully while he was on crutches, so it’s not a period I’m keen to do over. Anyway, daughter’s fine.”

He nodded. Pursed his lips. “But — no, no I shouldn’t.”

“Go on.”

“Don’t you sit there watching a school band concert, listening to everyone beat poor Sousa to death with their artless bleating, and wish you were engaged in a great historical experiment that put you at the vanguard of existential truths?”

“Depends how long the concert is.”

“I suppose, yes. But look at me. I made a choice, and it’s forced me to face a naked question.”

“You face a lot of those when you’re a parent, too, and it’s usually whether you have enough wipes.”

“Yes of course, but my naked questions have to do with existence. When you’re on the existential vanguard your naked questions have fewer illusions. I’d wager, oh, up to 40 percent fewer illusions.”

“Hah! I could’ve done with fewer illusions. I used to have this persistent belief that we as parents could negotiate the shoals of adolescence without suffering the usual tiresome teen scripts, and even though it’s going well I can hear in my daughter’s voice things I once said, and realize how they must have stung my folks. Parenthood ends up connecting you to your mother and father in these moments of revelatory empathy — decades are erased in a second and you know what your mom must have thought and felt.”

“Uh huh. Well, if I ever have any doubts about what my mom felt I just wait and she calls and tells me. But I was talking about how being child-free gave me fewer illusions and fewer consolations.”

“Parenthood does a wonderful job of illusion removal,” I said.

“But this is different! It’s an experiment! Unlike the rest of humanity, I must prove to myself every day that my ultimate demise does not mean my life has no merit!”

“That sounds exhausting.”

“Oh, it can be. The other day at the park I was walking my dog and got chatting with a guy who was there with two toddlers, and I don’t know how but we got talking about music, and Patti Smith came up somehow, and we had that thing where you don’t know if you’re talking about the late 70s punk poet, or the Patty Smyth in that band Scandal. But it was downtown Patti all right, and turns out he used to blog about music, and he wanted to do a post about how that album cover Patti did with armpit hair showing was a smart career move, you know, made her real. But since he’d had the kids he hadn’t time to write anything. So I went home and wrote that post myself and then made a salad that was mostly beets. Kids hate beets. So there’s two things I did to poke the existential void right in the eye.”

“I don’t even try to feed my daughter beets anymore. I did for a while, but she stuck them under her high-chair.”

“Yes, but that’s not the same. It’s not a blow against society’s perception of your own auto-negation.”

“You’re right about that. How do you get notifications of society’s perception, by the way? Do they send you a card?”

He slumped. “No. It’s like having a child who forgets your birthday.”

Mm-hmm. Oh, it’s exactly the same.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.


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