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A vindication of childlessness

August 19, 2016

Breeding is an “essential function” – for whom?


Women shouldn’t be punished for performing an essential function,” say the Women of Tumblr (not an official group, but they might as well be), referring to pregnancy.


It’s clear that becoming pregnant gets in the way, variously; discussions about the glass ceiling and maternity / paternity leave rage on.

Wherever society can reduce this burden, it should, in the interests of general social justice, but also in the interests of equality, since it is currently true that in order for human beings to be made, women have to be pregnant. Otherwise, “Where’s the foetus going to gestate? In a box?!”

That said, I have a problem with this “essential function” term of phrase. Essential for who? Not planet Earth, certainly, which trundles on regardless of our presence on it, and in many ways would be healthier without us. Of course, we mean essential for the continuance of humans.

Not currently existing humans, just hypothetical humans of the future. The reason we have children is so that those very children we’ve had can enjoy the privilege of existing; perhaps because if they never got to exit, they would regret it somehow – or we would, even though we’ll be dead and we won’t know either way.

Ah, but you see, it’s the potential of humanity that matters. That’s why we toil as we toil, for our great betterment as a species. So, the purpose of having children is in order to keep up a fantasy of future humanity, which will undoubtedly achieve things beyond our wildest dreams.

We will never see these endeavours, but the fact that endeavours we will never see will almost certainly happen as a result of us reproducing makes our shenanigans an “essential function.” It’s pretty clear when you break it down that reproducing isn’t logical or altruistic. It’s just a thing that we do, because we want to.

Which is fine, at least up to a point – there’s no inherent disaster in humans breeding, and breeding is a privilege that many people value so strongly, they call it a right. That’s a whole wing of debate in itself, but I’d say if you can live a healthy and happy life without something, it’s not a right. No one person needs to have their own children, though some are more attached to the idea than others.

Nonetheless, it would be totalitarian to restrict the process of procreation for no good reason. But I do want to see the end of this floating notion that having children is a noble and selfless thing to do, which enhances your understanding of worldly things, and makes you a complete person where once you were but a mere slice of a person.

Society and its imitator, fiction, is full of quick-fixes to make your life meaningful. Get a degree, then a career, get married and have children – this is the standard set of civilisation box-tops to collect. As a result, we greatly undervalue the people who choose not to do these, or cannot for some reason. See how in film, the single man inexperienced in love is derided as an absolute loser. The relationship-averse woman is sanctimonious and overly emotional; the career woman is a cold control freak.

Neither man nor woman is allowed to stay in their inferior state of single childlessness, if they are to become likeable characters. They must be softened by the correct member of the opposite sex, so each may become a whole person and perform their part in The Essential Function. Essential function, it seems, is synonymous with mandatory duty.

Perhaps people with children are so attached to parenthood that they can’t remember what their life was like before, and how little interest they had in childrearing. It’s tempting, in that situation, to assume that you used to be wrong, and now you’re right – we always think we’re right in the moment, and assume the differing opinions of the past were symbols of nativity, when we have no objective way of knowing any such thing.

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer as to what your life is worth whether you’re a parent or not. Parenthood should be a matter for free personal choice, but socially, it isn’t quite the case; a person who doesn’t want to play the game of life and pick up the final token of parenthood is deemed juvenile.

Childlessness is therefore always treated as a transitory state, when in fact, people with children should hope that it isn’t. Compared to having children, childlessness causes minimal harm. That bloodline will pass out of existence peacefully, and in the most environmentally friendly fashion – for there is nothing worse for the environment than an additional human being. If anything, those with kids should be glad a the lack of competition for resources.

Then there is the usefulness of a childless person to society. In olden times, kings often made eunuchs of their top servants and slaves, as they understood that the inability to have sex and reproduce would literally neuter otherwise threatening men and their potentially threatening offspring, leaving behind the closest thing people of that period could get to a robot (give or take the odd Machiavellian scheme).

These days, we have more refined ways of making use of the childless. They may save countless lives as one of the Doctors Without Borders, who don’t need to worry about where they are sent or based. They could significantly improve economies by running a business and working many more hours than a parent, or they could alter society for the permanent better as a policy-maker (also unsociable hours).

Not to imply that parents don’t work in these capacities, but those who do often have child minders, suggesting that without substantial extra help, it’s impossible for parents to get anything significant done.

Even the role of shaping the next generation is overstated. Between working for a living and changing nappies, parents don’t have time. It’s actually the teachers – at the beginning of their careers, young and therefore often childless – who shape young minds, or else people in media. In other words, societies are built in offices and institutions, not in homes. The parental role in education is basically to act as a gatekeeper for influences flying in from myriad other sources.

Obviously, the day-to-day care of kids is vital, and without it they can’t develop in other ways and contribute to the development of society. This caregiving role requires a great deal of patience and maturity which comes in handy elsewhere. But, that still doesn’t make the act of parenting altruistic.

The huge amount of effort a parents puts into their child is just as motivated by self-interest as the behaviour of the child itself – our survival is determined by the selfish gene, not the selfish man. Everything one does for one’s offspring one does for oneself, because each act further increases the chance that one’s own bloodline continues.

The drive to do this is such that, not only is everyone at it, but everyone’s at it multiple times. With lowering infant mortality rates, that means an increasing world population. Adoption is not the preferred option for couples capable of breeding together – it is not even the preferred option for couples who aren’t.

Infertile people and gay couples will try all sorts of other routes before looking at adoption; and adoption is uniformly notoriously difficult. If biological parents had to jump through the kinds of hoops that adoptive parents have to jump through in order to have kids, the world human population would be stuck at about the level it was in the Ice Age.

Everyone is so preoccupied with their own bloodline, the few people who prefer to adopt despite the practical difficulties are frankly heroic. Tons of kids languish in care institutions, and we’re still going on about breeding being an “essential function”.

However you look at it, there is no necessity for the extent of our breeding; there doesn’t need to be seven billion people in the world, and counting. No one likes it when you say: “Breeding is essential for propagating the species… But it isn’t essential that you, personally, breed.”

No one thinks about whether they should have children, it’s all a question of whether they want to or not. The most responsible part of that process is trying to calculate when the right time will be, in terms of financial security. That is a personal concern, equivalent to gathering nesting materials. The fact that, in our numbers, it has a worldwide impact only makes the question of whether one should be breeding at all that much more important. Certainly, the least important question is the extent to which one desires to have children.

Yet, people who have gone through the trying experience of raising children look down on what they see as the self-serving nature of the average childless person. Childless people may seem more self-serving, allowing for the fact that they’re likely to be younger and are therefore still developing their sense of the world, not to mention their method of approach. I nonetheless doubt it’s true that childless people actually are more self-serving.

They have more time to act on their moral concerns, plus more energy and passion to spare. My mum could have remained a vegetarian, and could have easily composted everything biodegradable right down to the finest speck of dust, instead of having to fight tooth and nail to get us all to use the appropriate bin.

I wonder how many other parents would have bothered – it seems that many people are content to slip into bad habits and use their kids as an excuse to not bother changing them. It’s too much effort, you see. It’s more important that you take your child to their extra-curricular activities than it is to avoid creating titanic foetid mounds of landfill waste spurting noxious gases.

More, childless people are not subject to the specific brand of paranoid bias that traps parents if they have not previously trained themselves to be critical. Parents worry about “stranger danger” when it is statistically insignificant compared to uncle-and-stepfather danger.

The comedian Ed Byrne, at the time childless, noted in a stand-up routine that parents he spoke to about social issues tended to think that childless people were unable to contribute properly to the debate, simply for the fact of being childless. With my best effort, I couldn’t better his response: “Well, I’ll just take my well-researched and reasonable argument and shove it up my own hole.”

I don’t want to live in a country, or a world, that feels the need to introduce rules to restrict the number of children its society births, simply because the situation is getting out of hand. Yet, even in today’s environment where the risk of that eventuality is high, people continue to think about the future of humanity in terms of creating more, not creating less.

Social pressure to procreate comes from the top level. Gloomy stories about the perils of Japan’s ageing population are such good pieces of pro-reproduction propaganda, they could have been used in Ancient times by warlike rulers who wanted citizens to breed, so they had a steady supply of dispensable soldiers for their various conquests.

Just the other day, there was a public information piece featuring an aged-up mother to-be; a scare tactic to shock women out of “leaving it too late” to have children. Because having a child after you’ve finished doing everything else you want to do with your life and career would obviously be a disaster.

Apart from hearing alarm bells that a picture of an old woman should be considered a strong enough scare tactic to pass for a PSA, my immediate thought was wouldn’t it be good if it was possible for a sixty year old woman to safely and easily have a healthy child and raise it into adulthood?

It would actually solve a substantial portion of personal an financial problems. You would start your time as a parent: with a lot of world experience; having lived long enough that most regrets are far behind you; with all the things you wanted to do out of the way; with a substantially higher level of emotional maturity; owning considerable life savings and most likely a fixed residence; and without the need to hire a series of strangers to take the place of the parent you wanted to be.

Where are those foetus-gestating boxes when we need them? If you want to do something altruistic that relates to children in some way, invent one of those.

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