relationships & love sisterhood

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Selfish

by Wendy — May 18, 2012

I didn’t see it coming. “People who decide not to have kids—that’s just selfish, isn’t it?” Wide-eyed, earnest, entreating. Oh no, here we go again. I brace myself. A rhetorical question from an acquaintance who knows that I don’t have children but has somehow failed to make the connection that, well, I don’t have children. I smile politely and hope that she doesn’t belatedly come to and follow with an awkward backpedal.

It’s been a while since I’d heard the S word from someone I barely know. Almost always it’s come from friends of friends, or strangers, whose casual use of such a weighty adjective tells me that my decision not to have a baby is somehow offensive, antisocial, an affront to humanity! I’ve also long ago stopped being offended back. I’ve learned to let someone down easy when, eyebrows raised, a genuinely puzzled albeit microagressive challenge is issued: Why don’t you want kids? (To date, the best one has come from a relative who pulled me aside and whispered, “Who has the problem…you or him?”)

I’ve heard it all before. Kids are wonderful. When you see our baby you’ll want one too. You’ll regret it later on. I feel sorry for your parents. Are you and your husband OK?
So that’s why you have a dog. You can still freeze your eggs
. Who’ll take care of you when you’re old? You’re going to die alone. When I’m feeling cheeky, I look them in the eye and tell them everyone dies alone. Most of the time I nod sympathetically, even apologetically (especially with older family members), and try to offer words of comfort. I don’t think I’ve ever fired back and questioned anyone’s desire or decision to procreate. Because it’s none of my business, and it wouldn’t be polite.

Child-free people are often defined as those who decide not to have children as a negative reaction born out of fear, or misgivings, or distrust of their own abilities to nurture, or mistrust of the world at large. Some cite economics or not wanting to burden the planet. My reasons are not that complex, and no, they’re most certainly not altruistic. In any case, do my reasons matter? Does it matter whether any of us decides to have one? Or eight? Or none?

Every so often I re-watch “The Hours,” not for Nicole Kidman’s infamous prosthetic but for Julianne Moore’s suburban housewife character trapped in a perfect life that wasn’t her own choosing. (OK, spoiler alert coming up.) She abandons her children, is branded a monster, and as an old woman in the end, she says, “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is, no one’s going to forgive me. It was death…I chose life.” I cry each time over the unbearable lightness of her singular, devastating, indefensible decision to cling to her life on her own terms.

An extreme example, but it does make me wonder about the choices we make when there is no do-over. Are we all not equally weighed down by the agonizing lightness of our existence?

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  • Nifferdesign

    Hey Wendy, you beat me to the punch. When I read a recent Huffington Post article (It’s not “Childless”, it’s a “Choice” by Carol Hartsell), I was determined it would be the basis of my next post. Clearly I’m not the only one who feels the backlash from simply not wanting to be a parent. I love my nieces, but I still don’t feel any burning need to have a child of my own. And I don’t think it’s immaturity or irresponsibility that drive that choice. I certainly don’t think it’s selfishness.

    Selfish is bringing a child into a home that didn’t really want a child in the first place, just to quiet the judgy, narrow minded busybodies.

    Congratulations on your absence of impending parenthood.

    • Amber

      Great piece… And might I add, isn’t it selfish to have kids just so you won’t die alone?

  • Hi Jennifer, I too was waiting for this burning need, but it never came. I do envy women (and men) who know with unwavering certainty.

    I’ve gotten ‘selfish’ at least a half a dozen times. But selfish towards whom? A child that doesn’t exist? Or humankind in general? To bring a child into this world is a selfless act, and, I don’t know, maybe there are some who think that the opposite is true of those who opt not to.

    • JoAnna

      Well Niffer, it seems Wendy beat us both to the punch as I was debating something along these lines for my next post as well. Great post Wendy. If I had a dollar for each time I was the victim of micro-aggression regarding the whole “not having kids” issue, I’d be able to cover a few week long holidays in the Azores. It ceases to amaze me how the issue of raising children can fall into the public domain and questioning one’s ‘selfish’ intents (or ‘lack of femininity’ or ‘sad state of wanting to be alone’ or whatever) is seen as perfectly acceptable as opposed to being rude, insulting and occasionally belligerent.

      • Thanks, JoAnna! I had someone literally do a double take after finding out, and I watched as I got completely reevaluated as a woman and as a human being. I’ll join you in the Azores.

  • Sara

    Choosing NOT to have kids is a powerful choice. I would never think of it as selfish. And some things are better – air travel is the first thing that comes to mind – without kids. Not to say I would wish time away from my kids but like you said, it seems rather monstrous to try and undo parenthood.

    For myself, my existence in the world has actually lightened with the appearance of progeny. Whether or not it’s just something that’s come with my 30s or the girls themselves, I can’t really say because everything is so intertwined now.

    To be child-free, I get it. And more power to you.

    • The joy children bring makes the inconveniences fade away, I witness it over and over. In the end, I think it’s about that, what brings our existence light and joy.

  • Bridget

    Hmmm time for me to stir the pot… Wow, I’m so sorry people behave so thoughtlessly around you and your beliefs. I personally think having kids is one of the most selfish acts that a person can partake in. First there’s the sex part (that’s all about being selfish), then there’s the idea of having a mini you running around. How arrogant is it to think that your own genes are important enough to pass down to the next generation?

    We live in an over-populated world and we hardly have enough time for ourselves, let alone other needy creatures, so how can people possibly call YOU selfish because you choose not to have kids. I say – you go girl! And I thank you. I thank you because we need more people like you to offset the people who insist on overpopulating the world. I think it’s completely insensitive to have more than three kids, regardless of whether you can afford to support them or not – the environment can’t sustain it.

    Personally, I love kids. I’d love to have one of my own and certainly no more than two. I love other people’s kids too. If I’m unable to conceive my own (because yes, I do get off on the thought that a mini-me/my hubby might be running around the planet causing trouble) I won’t spend time crying about it, instead I’ll look into adopting.

    And then, once I’ve gone about the completely selfish acquisition of my very own child, I will be a parent. Parenting, if done correctly, is a completely selfless thing to do so I hope, in some way, my selfishness of wanting a kid will be cancelled out by my will to be the best parent I can imagine.

    So good luck to people without kids, people trying to have kid and people who have kids. Let’s respect each other because without that we’re just a bunch of vermin procreating – or not.

    • Nifferdesign

      just wanted to point out that sex isn’t just for having kids (despite what the Catholic church says)… personally I like to have sex as often and as generously as I can. And I’m also very selflessly keeping the prophylactic companies in business. 😉

    • Yeah, let’s redefine “selfishness.” If we took it to mean living the best possible life for ourselves without doing harm to others, then we’d be in good shape. Now this could be construed as not being selfish enough, but, hey, if it pays back and benefits all of us in the end, right?

  • Amélie

    This is an excellent, beautiful piece. I really enjoy and appreciate childfree articles such as this one.

    I can’t help but notice that the word “selfish” is often curiously redefined to mean something other than its original intention when used by people who take an affront to your decision not to have children. Because you’re not choosing to do what they think you ought to do, or what they did, you’re “selfish.” Doesn’t that make them the selfish one, for expecting you to be exactly as they are?

    Wikipedia has selfishness as “placing concern with oneself or one’s own interests above the interests of others.” I suppose in that sense I am selfish, and if need be, I’ll volunteer as an ambassador of the childfree to claim that label and wear it proudly. The interests of others seems to be for me to have children, but this is a topic which is nobody’s business but my own. Of course I am going to place my own interests above someone else’s when it comes to as pivotal and critical of a choice as this. Why on earth would I let someone else decide this for me? This isn’t going halfsies on a cup of froyo and needing to pick a flavor everyone is happy with eating.

  • Ask anyone why they had a kid(s), and unless it was unplanned, chances are they’ll start their reply with “I wanted…”