When it comes to major life decisions, who in his right mind wouldn’t choose what sounded like more fun and less work? This, according to one observer, is the rationale behind a new trend in Canada: childlessness. Says Joe O’Connor in a recent National Post op-ed:
Imagine a scenario where, on a Friday night, after running around like a beheaded chicken at work all week you get home, smooch the person you love, grab a glass of wine and enjoy the silence, the blissful quietude of being a committed and adoring couple — without kids.
Indeed. No great effort of imagination is required, and, while not agreeing with his overall these-folks-are-just-plain-selfish tone, I do think Mr O’Connor has put his finger on real problem. Between the pressures of work and the possibilities for self-indulgence today’s couples could very easily decide that there is no room in their lives for children.
It’s not exactly news that western nations are in demographic freefall, but the statistics are never pleasant to contemplate. Canada’s latest batch of 2011 census numbers shows that nearly half of Canadian couples (44.5 percent) are “without children”.
Of course the stats are skewed somewhat by the inclusion of Boomer empty-nesters: people who have children that are not living in their household. And we know that smaller families are a long-term trend. However, University of Calgary sociologist Kevin McQuillan confirms that there is a new element, “a turning away by couples from having children, period.”
Maybe more like an exclamation mark: the in-your-face “childless by choice” meme has been around for decades, though I was sheltered from it in my home town, where five kids was considered a small family. I recall being surprised and disconcerted by society’s anti-child mentality as a university student and then a naïve young mum in the 1980s; now, not so much. I just like to sit back and savour the irony.
O’Connor cites one childless woman who told the Post: “The benefits of not having children are in the driveway, in our closet and stamped on our passports. Kids are expensive.”
And spending lavishly on yourself isn’t? They don’t teach logic in school anymore, do they? And they don’t need to teach “me first’ or “the path of least resistance”, since it is simply imbibed from the environment these days. Do it if it feels good; do it if it’s convenient; avoid suffering at all costs.
It was not always thus. As O’Connor says, “Having children used to be the point of being a pair. It was the great aspiration — along with finding love everlasting — a biological impulse to go forth and multiply and, later, once your babies reached a certain age, to cajole them about the merits and benefits of doing their bit to join the ranks of parenthood while giving Mom and Dad some grandkids.”
His inclusion of biology scores a point for natural law: since human reproduction is natural, it is therefore natural to desire children. Yet clearly, some couples do not. What has occurred to thwart this desire? O’Connor’s curious choice of the biblical phrase “go forth and multiply” hints at the (not insignificant) spiritual motive that inspired earlier generations. Linked with this was a sense of a larger duty to society, which he evokes with his “doing their bit” remark.
It would be unwise to argue that all people have a duty to reproduce; in the past, society depended on some people remaining single to care for the elderly and orphans and to dedicate themselves completely to service professions and the arts. Furthermore, parenthood is a vocation that goes with marriage, and not all people who feel called, so to speak, are successful in finding a mate. Others seem eminently unsuited to raising children.
Today, many young people are infected with the mentality of doomsayers, environmental or otherwise, who argue the polar opposite of the reproductive imperative: that humans have an obligation to become extinct in order to save Mother Earth — for what, we’re not sure. These people might argue that it’s possible to have a child for quite selfish reasons.
Still, as O’Connor suggests, we have a society that provides many temptations to self indulgence and few incentives for the sacrifices demanded by raising children: “Gone are diaper changes and ballet classes, replaced by hot yoga and shopping trips to New York City.”
In other words, life without kids is a never-ending joyride. Now we enter the realm of myth, which is also where I would place the contention that life with children is overwhelmingly stressful, exhausting, expensive and heartbreaking. Or that (horror of horrors) having babies makes you old, frumpy and fat.
In fact, time makes you old, gluttony makes you fat, and apathy and neglect make you frumpy. I can only speak for moms, but lots of us have moved beyond Ma Kettle; maybe it’s time popular culture kept pace. Skating with your six kids at the local rink is not only every bit as physically invigorating as hot yoga, it’s also better for the economy.
But even if the childless ones don’t mind economic meltdown (and with it the social safety-net state), perhaps they might be invited to reconsider their opinions out of sheer self-interest. O’Connor concludes with a memento mori: “[W]hat will become of those … folks when decrepitude inevitably creeps in; when they age, as we all inevitably do, and the children they chose not to have aren’t around to look after them?”
He might have added the following, but since he didn’t, I will. Imagine a scenario where, on a Sunday afternoon, you sit idly for interminable hours slumped in your wheelchair in the tiny and stifling nursing home bedroom, which, due to overcrowding, you share with a cantankerous roommate. (Thank heaven she’s in the lounge for her weekly visit with her family!)
You think wistfully of your husband, now long departed. You begin to cry and your nose starts to run. You’d like a tissue, but you are tired and haven’t the strength to wheel yourself to the bedside table. Your diaper is wet, but you know the aide won’t be around for another 45 minutes. You know it is pointless to call for help; the home is chronically understaffed (you’re not sure why).
Enjoy the silence, the blissful quietude as you remember being part of a committed and adoring couple — without kids.
Mariette Ulrich writes from western Canada. She blogs on Family Edge.