Julian Baggini: Child free and happy thank you very much

This piece originally appeared in Humanitie magazine, Winter 2013.

One of the oddest things ever said to me was a follow up to a question about whether I had any children, which I answered negatively. “You will,” my new friend said, smiling.

What the hell? Did he think he was psychic? No. I think he simply meant: you’re a nice guy, it’s only a matter of time before you meet the right person and when you do, you’ll want to have kids.

He thought he was being nice. I, however, thought he was being patronising: one day you too will know what it means to be a proud father like me. Look forward to it: until that day, you are only half a man.

We childless are always being patronised by parents, if not quite so much. When that happens, I’m tempted to respond to the well- intentioned slight with a somewhat fiercer bite.

Why is it not enough to be happy as you are?

Why must you also talk as though yours was the better life to live?

Could it be that a secret part of you feels the need to justify the decision to give up much of your freedom to dedicate the best years of your life to wiping bottoms, feeding mouths and washing clothes?

It is not me who needs convincing parenthood is best, it’s you. You try to make us envy you because you envy us. To you parents with younger children, why on earth do you talk as though your kids are going to be a source of comfort and company in later years?

Many children hardly see their parents at all once they leave home, and very few spend much time with them once they’ve retired, let alone care for them. You think we will be lonely in our old age and regret not having kids, but it is better to be sat alone in a home with no children to visit than with children who could visit, but don’t.

I can see that you might experience peaks of joy beyond me, but you also face the potential of depths of sorrow I can’t imagine. To be disowned by your children or to see one die before you, must be heartbreaking.

Even to see them grow into troubled adults, perhaps suffering with depression or a long-term illness, must be hard. Would-be parents just seem dangerously unaware that these things might happen to them. I even find it strange that people announce “We’re going to have a baby” rather than “She’s pregnant”.

The NHS says that among women who know they are pregnant, one in eight end in miscarriage, yet people assume theirs will not. I’m not trying to reverse roles and claim it is better to be child free. It depends. No one can know what the other life is like because no one can do both. I know which I think I prefer, but I would not dream of suggesting that others should follow suit, and nor should they suggest that I follow them.

Image courtesy: J.K. Califf, Creative Commons.

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