There is little that makes me angrier, that I take as a bigger insult, than the stereotype that if someone doesn’t have children, they are selfish. I know that I don’t have (and have never had) someone 100% dependent on me 24 hours a day. But that doesn’t mean I am selfish. Circumstance means that I can choose how I want to spend my day, when a mother can’t. But circumstance doesn’t make me selfish. Circumstance doesn't mean that a mother is unselfish. This is such a complete logical miscalculation that it makes me want to scream. (Steam is coming out of my ears, and my laptop screen is misting up as I type this.)
Recently, this topic has arisen in two conversations. The first was when a friend noted that her mother used to assume people without children were selfish. “She knows different now, though,” said my friend. “She knows about my friends who are unable to have children.” But this statement still assumes that women and men who choose not to have children are selfish. And I dispute that.
The second conversation was when a friend spoke about a man who has been single all his life (although he is a father) and who has, she said, “lived a selfish life.” I stopped her. “He doesn’t sound selfish to me,” I said. “He sounds like a caring person, a good friend, a good father to his son, a decent human being, thoughtful of others. That’s not selfish.” She nodded, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced, despite the fact that we both knew another man who had been married with children for 20 years, who lives and has lived a most extraordinarily selfish life, to the detriment of a great many people. The stereotype though wins out for her, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. She wants to define herself as unselfish, because of all she does for her own children, and so by contrast seems to feel the need to define others who don't do this (including me, her friend, sitting across the table from her) as selfish.
This assumption - that having children means you are not selfish, and not having them means you are - infuriates me, simply because the sheer act of choosing to have children is a selfish one. In fact, I think I would be safe in saying that all of us who have decided to become parents (whether or not we managed it is irrelevant) did it because WE wanted to, because we saw a benefit to it. Yes, we thought we had something to give a child, but ultimately, the decision was for us. This was no more or less a selfish decision than those who decide they don't want to have children.
But many of the reasons parents give for having children are selfish. They often make the following arguments:
- I don’t want to be lonely in my old age
- I want to see my name/genes live on
- I want to experience unconditional love
- I want a mini-me
These arguments are all about them.
Parents decide to have children when they know they cannot afford them, bringing children into the world where they are going to struggle financially, where they may not be able to afford to feed the child, to get them medical care, give them good housing or an education, or even spend time with them. They have children when they know they’re in a bad, sometimes dangerous relationship – exposing children to physical or (probably more frequently) emotional danger. They have children simply because they don’t want to/forget to/are too stupid/drunk/high to use contraception.
But they’re parents. So they can’t be selfish, can they? By definition.
Parents want their children to fulfil their own unfulfilled dreams –stage/sports parents are a classic example. I’ve seen children being told what their career options are going to be before they’ve reached puberty; children who are berated for not living up to their parents' expectations, rather than encouraged and praised for trying hard. Parents seek to be proud of their children, whether or not these achievements are the best for their children or not. But surely such pride could not possibly be selfish? Or could it?
Parents use the phrase “as a parent” to imply that they have compassion for all children, compassion I (as a nonparent) couldn’t possible possess. But these parents don’t act on this compassion – they spend money on their children, and their children alone, or they focus on what they want their children to do, rather than what the child wants, or what is in the best interests of the child. I don't see a lot of compassion or unselfishness there.
Of course it goes without saying (though I feel I must say it) that I accept and encourage the protection of children, a stable family life that will nurture a child in the best possible way, on supportive, loving and attentive parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbours, etc. But I feel sometimes that this focus on the nuclear family has gone too far; it has become becoming a form of selfishness entirely accepted and promoted by our society. I don't think that is a positive thing.
But who am I to comment? I can’t judge parents, because I’m not one. I’m just a selfish childless person who can sleep in on Sunday mornings. (Saturdays too, let's face it, ha ha ha!)
I know that the life of parents with children isn’t easy, and requires sacrifices. I’m not discounting that. I know that women with children feel that they have to put themselves last, after children, then work, then husband/partner, and that often there's nothing left for them. In comparison, the life of people without children, those of us who don’t always have to consider others before we make a decision, must seem very free.
But I object to the assumption that this freedom (childlessness) equals selfishness. Perhaps this assumption helps those with children feel better, more noble, about their lifestyle. By labelling themselves as “unselfish” because they have to make sacrifices in terms of time, money and freedom, they feel better about these choices. That’s understandable. But then they seem to have to label people who don’t have to do these things as “selfish.” That is simply unfair, and untrue.
It of course ignores the fact that people without children make sacrifices too. We pay taxes for schools, healthcare, and welfare programmes (in New Zealand there is one called Working for Families that assists families with incomes up to $100,000) that we will never have need to access. This doesn’t bother me too much (apart from the Working for Families threshold), because a) I can afford to pay a little extra, and b) I like to live in a society that looks after its children and its poorest. But it's a burden for people without children who struggle financially. Those of us without children find it more difficult to get annual leave or time off work during school holidays, as parents’ needs take precedence. People without children know that when their friends have children, they slip way down the priority list, below even the "parents of their children's friends" who have so much more in common with the parents than their loyal, old friends without children. At work, people without children work longer hours because parents have to leave to collect children from school, or can't come in on the weekend. People without children are often the ones who end up looking after elderly neighbours or family members. My husband’s three brothers all have children, and all live overseas, pursuing higher salaries and greater career opportunities, whilst my husband and I are now faced with the decision to stay here to care for his aging parents.
So remind me again, why are we the selfish ones?
I could go on and on. I won’t. (I’ve ranted enough).
My point is that no-one deserves to be stereotyped. I am not selfish. I know that. I know people with children who are incredibly selfish and do nothing for anyone but themselves, and I know generous, loving people with children who reach out well beyond their nuclear family. I know people without children who focus on themselves, and I know people without children who give a huge amount to community and family and friends, who are the nicest and most unselfish people in the world. Let’s not define people by some false stereotype. Let’s let people show who they are – selfish or unselfish – by their words, thoughts and actions.