Why do they call us selfish?

There’s a dirty word often thrown about in the ‘childless/childfree’ debate: selfishness.  Although you rarely ever hear people saying that men who haven’t had children are selfish…

It’s an opinion that people feel free to voice, often unkindly and without a second thought. I recall being at my ex-father in law’s funeral. It was a perversely beautiful hot summer’s day for a funeral and my arms were bare as I stood, numb, with my then husband. I was surprised to feel a sharp pinch near my elbow and looked down into the rheumy eyes of a tiny old lady I’d never met before.

“You should be ashamed of yourself!” she said, fiercely, pinching me harder, “too busy with your career to have a baby! Your generation is so selfish!” And then she marched off.

Blindsided, I went outside to find a cool place in the shadows and wept hot, sharp tears.  She wasn’t to know that my husband and I had been trying to have a baby for years.  It was a tough day but she’d managed to make it worse.

For such a private matter, it’s astonishing how everybody feels they have a right not only to have an opinion, but also to let you know what it is.  Much as complete strangers will stop to coo over someone’s baby, this old lady didn’t hesitate to let me feel the full force of her disgust at my ‘selfish decision’ not to have children.

Her opinion is fairly common, yet it conceals a much more complex argument.  Laura Carroll, a prominent US ‘childfree’ author and blogger quotes Jilata Horten on her blog as saying that:

“If you believe that every childfree married couple is selfish, then this means that you believe that every human being is cut out to be a parent. How could anyone agree that every human is cut out to be a parent? This would mean you think that everyone, alcoholics, rapists, even pedophiles should create offspring.”

And yet just as I found the old lady’s criticism of me hurtful and insensitive, this kind of logical pushback doesn’t help either – because the ‘argument’ isn’t a rational one, it’s an emotive, irrational, taboo-driven one –  and pointing this out only seems to perpetuate the idea that childfree women are, deep down, slightly unhinged. That they didn’t have kids because something is ‘wrong’ with them.  And that hurts too, and is insulting to all women without children.

In biological reality, the ‘selflessness’ (and self-sacrifice) of many mothers is an extraordinary thing; an unconditional love which sets a pattern for our adult longings and expectations of love. And, much as women without children (whether by choice or circumstance) can claim that we are ‘not selfish’ the evolutionary selflessness of motherhood is not something we’ll ever experience.  A mother’s love for her child has a fierceness that we will never know – giving birth physically changes the structure of the brain and makes the survival of the child more important that self-protection. That doesn’t make us non-mothers monsters, but neither does it totally invalidate the notion that we are indeed perhaps more selfish than parents. But this is to use the word ‘selfish’ in an incredibly narrow way.

I believe the more important question is this: can I still be a good person even though I’m not a mother? And the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’.

I spent 15 years of my life with a big part of me stuck on ‘pause’ because I thought I’d be a mother soon. I lost my ambition, my spunk. I made crap decisions about relationships, finances and my career.  Everything was just temporary, until… the day that never came.

To be whole again, I’ve had to grieve for the life unlived.  And on the other side of the grief I’ve found a life of meaning and purpose. It’s not always easy, having my mind free of children and childcare issues. I often have way too much time to think about myself which is rarely helpful.

A close friend told me that since she’d had children ‘she didn’t have to work out what her life was about anymore’.  On top of all the other losses, women without children don’t get that existential ‘get out of jail free’ card either.

What we get instead is the chance to define our freedom, to create our meaning.  To use our nurturing, wise, intelligent feminine energy to make the world a better place for other people’s children to inherit.  To love our nephews and nieces, our stepchildren, our god-children (if we have them), and all the other people in the world who need loving as it’s not just children who need love! To watch our friends pass through the life we longed for without being bitter or resentful.

And yes, we have to make our own plans for when we’re old. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that someone else is going to take care of us.

Selfish? Hardly.


24 Comments on Why do they call us selfish?

  1. I am 60, married and child free by choice. Selfishness had nothing to do with my decision. I never experienced the desire nor need to procreate. It wasn’t a financial, social or moral choice. I do not have the reproductive instinct. I am considered a kind, generous and loving person by friends and family. I do not hate children and understand those that have them feel blessed. My child free status is based on how I was born. If God intended for me to have children, I would have been given the instinct or desire. I can’t feel something that isn’t there. It would be truly selfish for me to have children to satisfy dome social norm. It ws definitely the right d ed vision gor me.

    • What a nasty,old witch that woman was saying that,especially at a funeral.Maybe she had had kids that she wished she never had and resents the fact that more women nowadays don’t feel as much pressure to have kids.

      I am not selfish and would have liked to have had kids if I was a different person or we lived in a kinder world but there is no way I would want to bring a child up – I am now 45 and too old anyway,and going through “the change” – especially as I suffer from mental health problems and would not want to see a child suffer like that.

  2. I realise I’m commenting several years after the article, but it’s an issue that is always current.
    I’m grieving my childlessness heavily at the moment, and one of the symptoms seems to be personal analysis of how on earth it happened?! I was MEANT to have children. There’s surely been a mistake at the sorting office? I’m living the wrong life 🙁

    If anyone ever told me I was selfish to not have children I would be utterly beyond devastated. As the main reason I’ve ended up still childless at my age is because I wanted to get ‘sorted’ first, for the sake of my children. I had/have issues left over from my own upbringing, or aspects of it that I felt I needed to resolve in case I passed them on to my own progeny (Philip Larkin’s famous poem springs to mind!) Well, that took some time. Then I had depression to battle with, and that took some time. Then I was financially broke and in debt (due to aforementioned issues) and had to deal with that, and that took some time; and time waits for no woman, and sadly, neither do our reproductive systems. It reads like a shakespearean tragedy, and feels like one too to be honest! But selfishness has had absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever – it was the polar opposite! I was dealing with ‘stuff’ for the sake of my future children, rather than just finding the nearest bloke, and producing babies without forethought, I was being excessively thoughtful – too much I now acknowledge.

    Apart from all that, I simply haven’t met the right man.

    Fortunately, so far, nobody has ever accused me of being selfish for not having given birth. Woe to anyone who ever does! My deepest sympathy goes out to anyone (whether childless or childfree) who has experienced such an assault.

    Of course I’m childless-by-circumstance, but I don’t think childfree people are remotely selfish either. In fact, I can’t think of anything more selfless than opting out of parenthood, if you know it’s not your calling.

    In conclusion, I’ve learnt not to assume anything about anyone’s life, including those with children, as I know, first-hand, how things are often outside our control, and often don’t go to plan. C’est la vie…

    • Katie – I think you’d get a lot out of our private community as a way to explore these issues – we’re a very varied, creative, resourceful, compassionate bunch of women – all finding our own way through this grief and supporting each other as we do. Come and check it out at http://www.gateway-women.com/community Hugs, Jody x

      • Thank you Jody. Yes I keep meaning to. I’ve got a pathological procrastination problem, that’s part of the reason I’ve failed (to join) thus far. But also life’s been a bit chaotic lately. I’m a Facebook refusenik too, so the ID aspect seemed challenging, though I know I could just photocopy my passport to tick that box.

        You’re right, I should, and I will! Asap x

  3. Very late to this thread, but I assume people still read it.

    I am a man and I think that it’s definitely wrong that women would be judged more than men over this topic, but it occurs to me that this might happen because men have much less control over the issue. This still doesn’t make it right, mind you. Perhaps if there were a male contraceptive as easily obtainable and usable as the pill is for women, then control would be balanced and men would be just as commonly judged on this choice. This is just a theory.

    I don’t and will not have children, and here is the reason:

    Life in past generations allowed for a single income family to own a home, raise a family and enjoy life. Much less social problems, much better family outcomes, much lower divorce rates, much better (and free) education, much less crime in society, much less homelessness and poverty, much better government services. The list of better outcomes back then goes on and on.

    Fast forward and families now need multiple incomes at a time of historically low interest rates. All for a lower quality of life, greater workload and vastly degraded societal and family outcomes. Money must be made for the benefit of the elite at any cost.

    I believe that the better lives of past generations will never again be attainable, and that things will continue to get worse into the future, so bringing a new life into this world is something that I choose not to do. My outlook on society’s future may end up being wrong, but I doubt it.

    • Thanks for your comment Daniel – I agree that structural and economic issues have a huge impact and are not discussed often enough. Thank you for raising this point.

  4. You’re still apologizing for not having children, and accepting the judgment of you as selfish.

    The population of the planet is now over 7 billion. At its current rate of growth it will double by 2065. Each person in the United States consumes 10x of the resources of a person in a place like India. There are not enough resources for this many people. The rainforests are being burned down for people like you. The earth is being torn apart for materials to make your iPad, and for oil and gas. Where are all these children going to live? What are they going to eat?

    If we don’t control our population, wars and famines will do it for us. But people who don’t care about the world, and choose to follow their blind instinct to reproduce instead, have the nerve to call US selfish.

  5. I agree with the others that you are not childfree, you are childless. They are two different things.

    I think it’s absolutely unbelievable that some old crone would think she has the right to talk to you that way. As if it is any of her business whether you have kids or not. If anyone had the nerve to say that to me, I would verbally bitch-slap her by talking about our exponentially increasing population and how in the big picture, HAVING children is the selfish choice, not being childfree. There are way too many of us here, and we are draining the earth’s resources. People need to STOP having babies so the babies who are already here have a world to grow up in.

    People typically have children for selfish reasons (wanting personal fulfillment, someone to love them, etc.), not because they’re “so selfless.” Being a mother is something that makes you selfless once it happens, but that doesn’t mean the people who choose to be mothers are more innately selfless than the ones who choose not to have children. There is nothing selfish about putting yourself above someone who does not even exist. And having children does not in any way make a woman better or more selfless than one who is childfree.

    Having children is such a personal choice. No outside person has a right to comment on my choice or anyone else’s. It’s my body and my life, so it’s my business. Period. And anyone who has the nerve to criticize my choice is going to walk away miserable from an emotional and intellectual BEATDOWN, wishing they had never met me.

  6. There seem to be those with children who never regret the life they never had without them. There seem to be those without children who never regret the life they never had with them. Good for them.

    But, ‘never’ and ‘always’ are strong words aren’t they. There is a view that there’s a loss involved in every gain. Isn’t it allowable that a women, with or without children, might have passing or lasting mood of regret or sadness for whatever it is that she doesn’t have? Doesn’t recognising sadness about loss have validity in the journey to be whole again (to paraphrase Jody)? Is complexity really too confronting for us to accept in each other?

    What would we have to do to become a more supportive culture of women?

  7. I find the behaviour described in this article shocking and crazy. I’m married and accidentally pregnant and felt strongly when considering what to do about it that the most selfless and responsible thing to do was to terminate the pregnancy. Our world is desperately over populated, what’s so selfless about contributing to the problem and launching a new defenceless being into so troubled a world? I completely agree that people seem to fetishize motherhood (and run scared of people with other life choices) because they feel it validates their own choices and saves them from having to question them. It is every human being’s responsibility to find meaning in their own lives and not to put that burden on anyone else, partner or child. To be quite honest, the reason I’m having a baby is because, extremely unlucky with contraception failure, I couldn’t face a (second) abortion. And that isn’t a selfless choice. I think people who choose not to have children may well on the whole be the more selfless group.
    I find this site really engaging even though I’m not one of the women it speaks for (though I had intended to be), I think it’s heartening for all women to be reminded how important it has to be not to define ourselves only by reference to reproductive function.

  8. It is important, before writing about a topic, that one understands the terminology. ChildFREE indicates a conscious decision, based on rational consideration and judgment of one’s wants and circumstances, and/or simply the absence of desire, to not have children. ChildLESS applies to those who, for whatever reason, cannot/do not yet have children, but do want them.

    This difference is critical, and for someone who is childFREE, using the terms interchangeably can be offensive and often invites unwelcome and undeserved pity. FREE speaks of joy and satisfaction. LESS speaks of a lack. The childfree do not see children as an integral and necessary part of their happiness.

    The childfree are a growing group of people who, often very early on in their lives, understood that their life journey was not to include biological children. However, statistics show that an overwhelming amount of these people contribute more time and money to charitable causes than parents. Many are proud and fulfilled aunts and uncles, and many work with children as teachers and social workers. Furthermore, most would sooner resort to adoption than to producing copies of themselves in an already over-populated world.

    This article’s ONLY argument regarding the so-called selfishness of childfree women is this:

    “And, much as we childfree women can claim that we are ‘not selfish’ the evolutionary selflessness of motherhood is not something we’ll ever experience. A mother’s love for her child has a fierceness that we will never know. That doesn’t make us monsters, but neither does it totally invalidate the notion that we are indeed perhaps more selfish than parents.”

    These statements are contradictory. This “evolutionary selflessness”, in other words, “putting oneself through a great deal of pain and suffering for the continuation of humankind” is antiquated. At 7 billion and counting, there is nothing dutiful about a woman producing offspring. On a logical basis, this argument also falls short: if the childfree willingly deprive themselves of this (supposedly) amazing experience, how does that make them selfish? What of the ones who indulge in procreation, bringing children into am uncertain world, subjecting them to a life full of anxiety, difficulties and uncertainties, consuming more and more of the world’s resources, finding less and less employment and quality schooling, facing more violence, depression and fear with each decade? For ignoring the many children already in need of loving homes, for IMPOSING a life sentence upon a person so that they may be tended to in their later years, are they not the selfish ones?

    According to what you say, no. The ones who decide to lessen their carbon footprints, give more to their friends, families and communities, work hard in their professions to earn their way to a comfortable retirement (and pick up the slack for parents), devote time to their spouses, and take care of themselves physically and financially (without relying on social services)–they, apparently, are the selfish ones.

    So please, Jody, on behalf of all the childfree–stop calling yourself that. You are childless. The childfree don’t try to have children. They don’t cry when an old lady calls them selfish. We stand strong and happy with our choice. To us, life has meaning beyond producing genetic descendents.

    • I would say it is a bit of both for me.In an ideal world and if I had better genes I would have liked to have had kids.Sometimes I feel sad,but you have to deal best with the circumstance you are in.

      Women may get criticised more but men do get it too. One of my friends Gerry had a guy at work ask him if he had any kids and he said he didn’t. The guy said “Why not?” and he was like “Oh,it is just one of those things”. This guy proceeded to say how when his girlfriend was pregnant he was scared but now they had their son there was a lot of love in the house. What was his point? There wasn’t much love before and you should have a kid for that reason.

  9. The author of this piece is NOT childfree, she is childless. In other words, if she could have a kid she would. I have chosen to be childfree because I don’t like kids, and I am very happy with my childfree choice. You will never hear me complain about not having kids, ever. How many parents out there have complained regularly about their kids?

    And for the record I am no more “selfish” because I chose not to preocreate than the women who cannot have children.

  10. I have never wished to be a mother. I have never wished for anyone not to have their wishes granted either, but my god do people think its ok to attack you for not wanting children. I am not weird, troubled, deficient in anything. I have a fab husband. I have a lovely teaching job but I shouldn’t have to tell everyone how brilliant my life is in order to balance the lack of children. Other women say I cant understand what I am missing because I am ‘child-less’. Do they know what they are missing by being ‘Child-full’?

    I also get very angry when I read about the selflessness and self sacrificing and unconditional love given to children, cos boy there are an awful lot of unloved, neglected and abused kids out there in the world. Obviously this ‘magical’ state of all things to all babies and children doesn’t just appear to the mother and father along with the after birth.

  11. I love the phrasing of creating our own meaning, but I still take issue regarding the selfless mother. I agree that mothers sacrifice a lot for their children, but they did so willingly. They chose/wanted that roll. How is that “wanting” any different or less selfish than my “wanting” to not have that roll.

    Forgive my lack of eloquence. I don’t have your gift. My point is that we are all equally selfish in that we behave in ways that meet our needs whether those needs are to have children or not.

    I feel I can make the world a better place regardless of whether or not I have children. And I’ll even go one step further…that alternate route need not directly involve children to be valuable as if to somehow “make amends” for my decision to be childfree.

    Not trying to offend anyone, just exhausted from defending myself.

  12. Hi Jody:

    Great article! You tell it like it is….no sugar coating the truth. We’ve all experienced this type of behavior from others who simply choose not to be opened minded. Fact is, women can live interesting, productive, and fulfilling lives without the need to procreate. It’s a bold path to take, for reasons you describe.

    The Authors
    Being Fruitful Without Multiplying

  13. Hi Jody
    Great post – thanks for writing and sharing. As a childfree (and hope to be that way forever!) 37 year old, I think the ‘you’re selfish argument comes from mothers and parents who cannot bear to see that there is another choice in life, one that doesn’t involve having children.

    I think your comment “We get the choice to define our freedom, to create our meaning” hits it right on the head. Rather than parenthood being the ultimate unselfish act, I tend to see it as very selfish as if having your own children is the only way to really love and have meaning in your life – and it’s easy when you have a biological tie.

    I intend to spend my life not raising a mini-me but helping others, supporting kids that no-one else wants, and hopefully changing the world in a small way.

    Sinead x

  14. Jody,

    I’ve just read this post and it’s really moving and powerful. It’s such a complex and emotive issue. Here I am at 40 wondering if I’ll have my own babies and what life will be like if I don’t and I have plenty of friends who are wondering the same thing. I love the concept of this site.

    Katherine x

  15. Jody, what a powerful piece.
    It really resonated with me, and made me feel quite emotional. You have really got to the core of the issue and one that I can identify with strongly.
    You write, “To be whole again, I’ve had to grieve for the life unlived”. This is a process I have been going through for the past four years or so (since turning 40) and it has nearly sent me over the edge; so powerful a realisation it is that the life you thought you would have (husband, babies, everything mapped out) is actually not on offer.
    You have nailed it perfectly and for child-free women in general to be accused of being ‘selfish’ is heaping insult upon injury. Women with children can have little comprehension of the pain of emptiness we have to endure and rawness of carving out a life that isn’t neatly mapped out for us by the default of bringing up children.
    Having just been looking on Facebook at photos of a friend on holiday with her husband & two lovely girls, my feeling of sadness can only be understood by those who are in a similar place.
    Well done Jody, and thank you.

    Well done Jody.

    • Nice piece Jody.
      The thing that offends me about your experience with the old and bitter lady is that she offends all women with her comments. Such comments express our society sexism by stating that women’s greatest task and goal in life should be maternity and childbirth. This conceipt has defined women for the longest time, they were only valuable for their ability to procreate there was no other worth in them. I might be cinical but I believe that most people have kids because their mothers did and grandparents did and everybody seems to love and want children, and that is hypocritical if we think that there’s a lot of child abuse and neglect. We forget that many subhumans procreate only because they have genital organs and the most worthless human female is regarded as almost sacred and capable of immense love when they are pregnant and have a child. Is that true? No , it’s a mith that pregnancy redefines and makes a woman worthy, but nonetheless it is a very common belief in our society. Some people can’t have children and that is sad if they want it as it would be sad if they want it, as sad as any disease can be, but half of that pain comes from our society silently demanding that women prove their worth through pregnancy. The wickedness directed at the women uncapable of having kids, and false pity stems from projection and envy on the side of women with children they resent childless/childfree women, and all the free time these enjoy. Attacking ladies who can’t have children would be plain mena if the person who berated you knew or suspected you could not have kids, but the fact that she was accusatory and thought it was a choice speaks volume about her envy or independent women that instead of conforming to society and strive to prove their worth by crapping out children, choose to wait for a better time, when they will have more time to dedicate to a child, or wait for a better mood. I am in my early thirty, don’t know if I will ever have children or not, ,don’t feel the need to, but feel society pressuring me towards that direction. if I will make the choice to be a mother I will otherwise it is just reproduction a funcion of my ovaries and uterus, not something so important to discuss with old ugly women who were probably forced into maternity.

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