It's Not Selfish to Not Want Kids
Apparently, some women don’t want to have kids, and some men are upset about that. Joel Kotkin and Harry Siegel wrote at The Daily Beast that young people who choose not have children are selfishly causing "disaster for the country as a whole." The piece does acknowledge that some men choose not to have children ... rather, the focus is on women. This makes sense, given that women are responsible for childbearing and may lose wages, promotion potential, and months of independent decision making by raising a child. Once a child is actually born, multiple all that by 18 years at least, because women remain responsible for actually raising the children and doing household chores.
The truth is that "the choice to be childless" is really only something new for women. Being childless was always a choice for men. We glamorize celebrity bachelors regardless of age (just think of George Clooney), but malign childless women like Jennifer Aniston, who we think must be desperate for children. (Seriously, type "Jennifer Aniston" into Google and see what its Instant Search feature thinks you might be looking for). The advent of birth control may have changed reality — women can be single and enjoy sexual relationships and not have children, just like men — but our expectations haven’t moved an inch. All women should have children!
Even in a relationship that includes children, though, men are generally able to decide how involved they want to be in their children’s lives, while women have no such freedom. Men who work 100 hours a week are supporting their families; women who do the same are bad mothers. The expectations of motherhood are genuinely damaging to women who have other dreams and desires.
It’s really not shocking that the women like those interviewed by Kotkin and Siegel have decided to completely opt out of the whole concept of motherhood. Why let their lives be controlled by the whims of others? What is shocking is that that the authors are referring to this desire to work, to be independent as selfish, when in reality, it’s been the M.O. of men for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.
Some of the consequences Kotkin and Siegel discuss are real. It is not traditionalists who are stepping away from childbearing, and children tend to resemble their parents politically; recently, however, younger voters tend to be more progressive on the social issues du jour (gay marriage provides an interesting measure). One major dilemma remains unresolved: an aging population does mean that smaller numbers of younger people are paying higher healthcare and other entitlement costs. This is not a minor inconvenience; we are already seeing the ill effects of this in our budget battles.
Kotkin and Siegel pay lip service to accomplishing their goals (increasing growth rates) "without aspiring to return to some imagined ‘golden age’ of traditional marriage and family." Their vague suggestion that "men, in particular, will also have to embrace a greater role in sharing child-related chores with women who, increasingly, have careers and interests of their own" is appreciated. But the authors’ assertion that "success will accrue to those cultures that preserve the family’s place" has no real support. By defining the "family" — traditionally two parents (presumably male and female) and x number of children — the authors have already reinforced the familial unit that allows men to be "selfish" and forces women to make their own goals take a backseat.
We need to be more innovative. The authors simply call women "selfish" for wanting to do what men have done for years and suggest that what is needed is to bolster the flawed institution we currently have so women are a little less unhappy. Instead, we should either come up with ways to make raising children easier even outside the context of the traditional family — through accessible preschool, daycare, and other forms of supervision — or we need to find a better way to support our parents and grandparents as they age. The family unit has been essential for thousands of years; it is incredibly valuable for a variety of reasons, and I’m glad to have grown up in one. But in many ways, the traditional family unit has also been instrumental in holding women back.
I don’t fault Kotkin and Siegel for not having a solid solution, because they’re not alone in being lost. But calling women "selfish" for not wanting to default to a traditional two-parent household that has historically not served our professional goals is certainly not the place to start.