Not Opting In, Rather Than Opting Out, Of Having Kids

This post is about my decision whether or not to have children. It is not about your decision whether or not to have children.

When I say that I probably won’t be having children, people tend to assume that I’m firmly against the idea of it, that I hate the thought of having children, or even that I hate children themselves.

None of those is true, especially not the last one.

I’m ambivalent about having children. There are some things that make me want to–I love children, I think I’d be a good parent, I like the idea of raising kids who will become the kind of people we need more of in the world. I think I would find many aspects of parenting enjoyable. I think it would change my opinions and worldview in interesting ways.

But I also have reasons for not wanting to have children, and there are more of those and they are more emotionally salient. I don’t think I could mentally handle such demands on my time and energy, on my very body itself. I don’t want to give up all that brainspace that was previously spent on friends, work, writing, and other stuff and instead spend it on feeding schedules, shopping lists, doctor visits, and all the many, many other forms of emotional labor mothers have to do. (And I know that if my coparent is male, there’s almost zero probability that this labor will end up fairly distributed.) I don’t want to slow or damage my career. I don’t want to stop having sex, or be forced to have it in secrecy and silence. I don’t want to lose the ability to, at a moment’s notice, just say, “Fuck it, I’m going out to drink/bike/watch burlesque/see a friend/see a movie,” without needing to inform anyone else of my plans or arrange a babysitter or whatever.

I don’t expect to have enough resources and social support to make parenting financially and emotionally sustainable, not even with one co-parent. (Raising children in a large polyamorous household would be a different story, but one unlikely to happen in this society.) I am wildly terrified of pregnancy and childbirth and literally any medical procedure, so the only options for me are adoption or co-parenting with a partner who already has children. The former is full of bureaucratic crap I honestly don’t want to navigate, and the latter is mostly a matter of chance.

Those are just a few of my personal issues with having children. And sure, I recognize that most of these are not inevitable, that in a different society with proper support for parents (especially mothers), none of this would have to be the case. But if I have children, I have to have children in the society we have now, or the society we have in ten years when I’ll be in a position to have children. I don’t get to have children inside my own hypothetical science fiction novel with widespread democratic socialism and polyamorous communes and super advanced reproductive technology that instantly teleports a fetus out of my womb and into an incubator where it will develop for the next nine months.

So, as I said, I’m ambivalent. Maybe over the next few years, I’ll change my mind due to any number of internal or external factors. Maybe I will have kids someday after all. I don’t know. But I do know this: given my current thoughts and feelings about it, I’m neither ready nor able to have children.

That’s because for me, having children is a “fuck yes or no” decision: either I say “fuck yes” to it, or I say “no.” “I guess so” isn’t good enough. “I’m really unsure, but we’ll see how it goes” isn’t good enough. “Well, I dunno, but everyone says I’ll regret it if I don’t” isn’t good enough.

Of course, other people with uteri are quick to remind me that they don’t have the luxury of infinite time to become certain about having children. Plenty of people have told me that they were unsure when they first became pregnant, or even when they gave birth, but that they quickly fell in love with their children and ended up with no regrets.

And that’s why this is an article about myself and not about other people. Other people should navigate this decision however they see fit, and the only thing I would ask of them is to try to treat it with the gravity it deserves. Otherwise, have at it.

But for me, having children and hoping I become certain later isn’t good enough. If I never become certain, then I won’t be having children. And if I regret that later in life, that will be painful, but I will tolerate it knowing that it’s preferable than the other way around. Because the other way around, that pain would be my children’s to bear as well. I would rather regret not having children than raise children who have to live with the knowledge that their parent regrets having them.

Having children is one of the few major decisions I will ever make that is truly irreversible. Houses and cars can be sold, jobs can be quit, marriages can be dissolved. Children cannot be unhad; they can only be neglected, ignored, or raised with insufficient love and attention. And that’s not acceptable to me. Neither is slowly destroying myself by raising a child I’m mentally, physically, or financially unprepared to raise.

(A brief aside: I discussed this on Tumblr once and got a bunch of responses telling me that I could just put a child up for adoption, or “take back” a child I had adopted. These people seem to be conflating being a child’s legal guardian with being a child’s parent. You cannot ever stop being a parent, and while giving up custody of a child is sometimes necessary, it is not like taking a TV you don’t like back to the fucking Best Buy.)

Once I started thinking of becoming a parent simultaneously as a decision like any other–in that deciding against it is a real option–and a decision unlike any other–in that it is entirely irreversible–it no longer made sense to do what most people seem to do, which is to treat becoming a parent as an opt-out decision rather than an opt-in decision.

What that means is that in our society, having children is considered the default, and any deviation from the default must be justified. Why don’t you want kids? What happened to you? Why do you hate children? Why wouldn’t you want to bring new life into this world? Don’t you regret not having kids?

Instead, for me personally, the default is to not have children. I will not have children unless I intentionally decide to have them. I will not have children unless otherwise specified. And I could ask similar questions of parents, although I wouldn’t do it out of snark or pity like they do, but out of genuine curiosity: What made you choose to have children? How did you make this choice, knowing how difficult it would be? Do you ever regret it?

That’s the reversal the show House of Cards captures so brilliantly in that episode with Claire Underwood and Republican nominee Will Conway’s wife, Hanna, who asks Claire if she regrets not having children. She responds, “Do you ever regret having them?” While she’s being intentionally rude, the point is that Hanna was being just as rude, if less intentionally.

Asking a parent if they regret having children, or what made them do it, seems ridiculous, but only because having children is the unspoken default that needs no justification. Of course a person (particularly a woman) would want to have children, and of course they could never regret it. (Although, in reality, they can and do.)

Children-as-default must’ve made sense in past societies, where reproduction was vital to the survival of entire communities, to the productivity of farms or business, or to the preservation of family ties or fortunes. Thankfully, most of us don’t live in such societies anymore. For those of us, it might make more sense to think of having children as something you have to decide to do more so than as something you have to decide not to do.

I’m not opting out of having children. I’m just not opting in to having them, at least not until/unless some pretty fundamental things about my personality and my social position change.


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Not Opting In, Rather Than Opting Out, Of Having Kids

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