The ‘No kids’ debate continues

Writer Anne Kingston takes on the impassioned—and often cruel—reader letters about her controversial article

We knew “The Case Against Having Kids,” the August 3 cover story, would elicit response and debate. But we weren’t prepared for the deluge—well over a hundred letters and more than 1,000 comments on (at last count). Clearly, the subject struck a nerve—and as one email indicates, even a gastrointestinal tract or two: “Disgusted,” was its subject line. “It made me nauseous to read the article…in fact, I’m not even sure what was the point of the article aside from promoting yet another fad and the ultimate age of selfishness.”

So to recap the point of the article: to examine the small but growing strata of people who are choosing not to have children. The moment was ripe: Corinne Maier’s manifesto No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children, which sparked furor in France last year, was about to land in North America. Increasingly those who are voluntarily childless are taken seriously as a statistical cohort and as the subject of research. Additionally, a number of high-profile women, such Cameron Diaz, have recently said they have no plans to have children.

The topic is so new in mainstream discussion that many readers assumed it has to be anti-child—reading “The Case Against Kids,” rather than “The Case Against Having Kids.” One inflamed letter writer even suggested it’s not safe to send trick-or-treating children to my house on Halloween (It is! Honest!). A pregnant woman expressed her displeasure, concerned the article could affect her domestic harmony: “But I have got to say that I, being a mom-to-be for the first time, due in 5 weeks did NOT appreciate my husband being welcomed home after a hard day at work to this headline.” Some readers complained the story was one-sided: “I presume you’re going to give equal space to “The Case For Having Kids,” a reader fumed, as if civilization itself didn’t provide that.

Most of the mail came from parents, which isn’t surprising: despite declining fertility rates in Western society most people do have and continue to have children. Many wrote to testify that being a parent is the most wonderful and gratifying experience life has to offer—the corollary being that those who opt out are deficient somehow. Chris Boyd, who writes that he has one young child after years of thinking children weren’t for him, summed up the sentiment: “I now feel genuinely sorry for those who focus on their selfish existence too long and end up lonely and bored and childless,” he wrote, adding:  “Oh, and number two is due in December, I guess our lives are over based on 40 Good Reasons to Not Have Children. Really, I could give you 100 reasons you should.”

Ironically, such judgment is at the very core of the stigma felt by those who are childless by choice: The fact they don’t want what so many people desperately want, that they’re opting out of an experience frequently described as life’s most profound, makes them suspect; they’re viewed as  social outliers or “selfish.”

One email referred to people without kids as “living a ‘lifestyle’ of barren self-gratification.” Yet that wasn’t my observation researching the story. Many people who choose not to have children had given thoughtful, careful (sometimes anguished) consideration to the decision. They were acutely aware that parenting is an experiment, one they cannot control, and they weren’t willing to take the risk for varied reasons. Others just knew intuitively from a young age that they weren’t cut out for parenting. As one woman told me: “I don’t think I could be the kind of mother my children would deserve.”

There’s a reflexive assumption, it seems, that people don’t have kids because they want more stuff—bigger plasma TVs, holidays, a SubZero fridge. Reader Melanie Wallace echoed another viewpoint, one voiced by childless people I spoke with: that she believes she can make a greater social contribution if she didn’t have children. “I, too, do not feel the ‘calling’ to parenthood, and very much appreciated your efforts to help your readers understand that those of us who choose to remain child-free are not narcissistic ego-maniacs,” she wrote. “On the contrary, we are often giving back to the world as much as any traditional parent. Through choosing not to parent biological children, I have found that I have the time, energy and resources to “nurture” the world and the people already in it in new and creative ways.”

Some expressed gratitude that Maclean’s was addressing the topic and hoped that it would foster greater understanding—and result in less pressure being placed on those who don’t want children to have them. One woman wrote: “Many people seem to think that they are entitled to give me their two-cents worth on my decision not to bear children. I hope this article enlightens the public as to how rude, inconsiderate and ignorant their comments are.”

(The tone of some of the mail suggested they weren’t imagining the censure: “Bravo to those brave—k child-free couples,” one reader wrote.  “If they fail to see how their genetic seed could possibly enrich this world, I for one, do not want their progeny either. Perhaps they should go one step further and voluntarily sterilize themselves, lest they change their minds once that biological clock starts ticking.”)

A few parents even shared what they feel unable to say publicly: that had they to do it again, they wouldn’t. One woman wrote: “Parenting is full of worry, upset and grief. A lot of doors close when you have a child. Yes, the good tends to outweigh the bad. I love my kids and would give my life to protect them, but if I could turn back the clock and go back? I’d have chosen to be child-free. I glad to know after reading your article I’m not the only one.”

An educator wrote in to voice her support. “As a society, we should applaud these people,” she wrote. “Too often, over my 20 years as a teacher, I have taught children who are ‘raised’ by parents who obviously regret having had kids. Those are the parents who have no patience or time to spend with their children. They are the ones who resent their kids, let the teachers do the raising, and then blame us when their children are a disappointment to them.”

Maier, the author of No Kids: 40 Reasons Not to Have Children and an outspoken social commentator in her native France, also came under attack. She wrote No Kids as an antidote to the romanticized view of parenting currently in France where generous state subsidies to those who procreate has resulted in a rise in the fertility rate. In it, she admits she  has had regrets about having had her two children, a statement that provoked some to judge her as a “bad mother” for being so candid.

No Kids is worth reading: it’s a scathing, witty social critique that offers an often farcically extreme overview of the huge sacrifices involved in raising children and the current culture of hyper-parenting. To quote it out of context is tricky and can be misleading, as I learned when I repeated one of Maier’s most intentionally incendiary lines: “If you really want to be host to a parasite get a gigolo.”  When I interviewed Maier she said she expected people would know she was being ironic and provocative: “I hope that people will understand the book and laugh about it and see themselves in it,” she said.

Thirteen-year-old Bryton Swan was offended by the quote, and for that I am sorry:  “I found your article very insensitive and thoughtless,” he wrote. “First of all I have no problem with people who don’t want to have children but when people start calling kids names like “parasites” and such, its rather pointless and irritating. It’s like if someone is having a birthday party and they go out of [sic] there way to not invite you.” Excellent point: name-calling is hurtful and invariably will weaken one’s position in any argument.

Many readers wanted to shift the conversation to the social consequences of the decision not to procreate: “Why worry about nuclear waste, global warming and extinction of species, if you and your offspring won’t be affected?” asked one reader. Marcia Redmond echoed the theme: “I am a 58 year old mother of three adult children—soon to be a grandparent. I am content, even grateful for all that experience has brought to my life—and it has not been all easy, what life is? I feel my choice has tied me to the future—something I do not see in friends my age who chose the ‘no kids’ option.”

Jan Nelson, on the other hand, cited the imperiled eco-system as a prime reason not to bring more children into the world: “Melting glaciers, growing landfills, pesticides killing fish, growth hormones in meat, factory farms making lives miserable for animals, monoculture destroying the taste of vegetables as well as the soil, increasing allergies, MRSA, AIDS, SARS, H1N1, acid rain, dioxins, formaldehyde in clothing, melamine in food, smog alerts, floods, fires, droughts, endangered and extinct species, milk that goes rotten instead of sour, jellyfish blooms, deforestation, obesity in North America, starvation in Africa, buying water, plastic containers for everything, bees unexplainably dying off, oceans acidifying, shellfish and coral reefs dying, carcinogens, mutagens, six billion plus people. These are the reasons not to have kids!  Do you really want to bring children into this mess?”

Of course, whether or not to procreation is not only a personal decision; it has political ramifications. When I interviewed the University of Toronto economist and demographer David Foote for the story, he mentioned that no single issue affects a population more than its fertility. Andre Villeneuve picked up this thread in an email, arguing that  “by refusing to have children Canadians are committing demographic and cultural suicide.” He writes: “Yes, raising kids is a tremendous investment that means hard work, sweat and tears.  But when was a great future ever built without sacrifice?”

We’ll leave it there for now, with last word given to an email that managed to be critical and encouraging: “ ‘No Kids, No Grief’ is a paper-thin exploration of this topic,” the reader wrote. “I hope to see more on it in future issues.”  If the breadth and passion of the responses is any indication, there’s an untapped gold mine here to explore.