4 Fears That Compel Us to Breed
I am a 39-year-old woman who has been happily married for seven years. Neither my husband nor I want to have children. In recent years, I’ve met quite a few couples like us, who though able to biologically and financially, have made the decision not to breed. As the childless-by-choice population increases, hopefully not having children will eventually become a non-issue for those in both the pro-children and the “no-thanks” camps.
I’ve heard that having children is a wonderful, rewarding, and at times heartbreaking experience, and I tip my hat to all parents who have risen to the challenge and raised some amazing human beings.
There were times when I wondered if my lack of motivation to breed was an indication of extreme selfishness. I have thought hard about what it would mean to have a child in my life, and what it would mean to not.
I have never felt a strong maternal pull towards other people’s children, and when I do a mental pros and cons list with regards to whether or not to reproduce, the only things that carry any weight are fear-based.
Biological clocks and “I have always wanted a big family” assertions aside, I believe there are four very powerful fears that can compel even the most pragmatic of folks to succumb to the breeding instinct.
1. Fear of Loneliness In Your Old Age
When I told a friend that I wasn’t interested in having children, she said, “Then who will look after you when you’re old?”
Of course, we know, based on the number of elderly parents who live alone in nursing homes, that having a child is no guarantee you will have a caregiver when you are aged, weak and diminished, but still the idea of having someone more able-bodied (whom you don’t have to pay) around when you are old can be appeasing.
There’s a high chance that your parents and even your spouse will die before you, so you’ll spend the last years or decades of your life without them. Friends? They have their own lives, and many come and go, there’s nothing quite like family when you need someone who’ll have your back.
There is something reassuring about the thought that you will have offspring around after the other players have left the stage. The expectation is that your child will be available to keep you company in your latter days, after all you did give him life and much more. I imagine that if I did have a child, my final days might be less lonely and frightening, as I would have someone I love by my side when the moment comes.
This isn’t the truth however. When debilitating illnesses like Alzheimer’s take hold, many adult children do not have the means or time to look after ageing parents and most are sent to nursing homes. Over one-third of all elderly deaths are cause by heart disease, which often results in sudden heart attacks. In cases of prolonged cancer, one might have the “luxury” of having family members send you off, but there is a much higher chance that you will die alone.
Fear of loneliness is so great that some parents even project this fear onto their first child. “We need to have another baby soon, so little Jimmy will have someone to play with.” “Only-childs are weird and socially awkward.” “A child needs siblings, they shouldn’t spend too much time alone.” These are some of the things I’ve heard.
2. Fear Of The Loss of Youth
I live in a different city from my parents. Whenever I return home to spend time with them, I notice that they are shrinking, they look frailer than they did on my last visit, they have less hair and more wrinkles. I feel sad when I think of the loss of their youth, which points to the inescapable fact that I will probably live to witness their deaths. Seeing my old home makes me nostalgic for my childhood. Looking back, childhood — when loss, disappointment, illness and death felt like another world away — seemed like a simpler, less worrisome time, because from a child’s perspective, the idea of forever was still possible.
As the saying goes, “youth is wasted on the young”. Indeed youth becomes more precious and desirable the older we get. Youth signifies mystery, strength, novelty, energy, sex, romance, adventure and beginnings, and babies serve as the perfect symbol for the renewal of youth in our lives.
When an infant arrives, we can all look at the soft, unblemished new creation and distract ourselves from our aching hips, liver spots, or our spouses or parents who are getting older and dying. Like looking at freshly picked fruit that hasn’t yet began to rot, we look at the child and momentarily recapture the magic of youth. We can watch the child grow like a sapling and avoid the depressing inevitability in front of us — the period of grief that will follow after a loved one dies, and our own physical and mental demise.
3. Fear Of Not Following the Script
In my late teens, I did poorly at high school, so I worked as an artist’s assistant while the rest of my schoolmates went to college then university. This had a negative effect on my self-esteem then, because I felt that I was not where I ought to be in life. I restarted my education later. In retrospect, this was perfect for me, as by then, I had more self-awareness, so I knew exactly what course of study I wanted to pursue and did not change courses as many of my schoolmates did.
When I was single in my late twenties, I was acutely aware of the couples around me. I felt insecure, not because I was unhappy being on my own, but because I felt different, that I was “not quite right” because I wasn’t following the social script of my culture, where most women are engaged or married at that age.
If we lived in a world where not going to college, not getting married, or not having children were seen as normal or even approved of, then perhaps all the high school dropouts, single and childless people in the world would feel less stigmatised and never have to grapple with their minority status.
But the scripts are everywhere, and the one that says, “go forth and multiply” (though Biblical) is pervasive in many different cultures. In ancient times, women who bore children were given social and material privileges, whereas those who did not were punished or deemed “cursed”. Fairytales such as Thumbelina, Snow White and Rapunzel all begin with infertile women desperate for a child, and when the child comes, it turns out to be some sort of wonderful, gifted darling, who in the Disney versions all sing in annoying shrill voices.
In Singapore, where I was born, the Government distributed leaflets in the local universities using “modern fairytales” to warn 21- to 30-year-old women about the dangers of declining fertility.
The tales included a story about Alice from Alice in Wonderland who wears a T-shirt with the letters YOLO (“You Only Live Once”). “This cartoon Alice is curious about the world — ‘she gives up her cash to fly around rash’ — but the moral here is that this twentysomething Singaporean is so busy being ‘wild and reckless’ that she stands to lose her chance of starting a family,” writes Kate Hodal in an article about these fairytales in The Guardian. “The lesson with ‘careless’ Alice, for example, is that ‘the extended adolescence of twentysomethings today has a biological cost for women’ and the story ends with a stark warning: After 40, [fertility] drops 95%,” states the article. Such is the moral stance and fear-mongering that the world seems to take with regards to childlessness.
It seems the powers that may be — society, history, religion, the media and even governments — have programmed us to believe that those without children will have no access to some unseen realm where altruism, self-sacrificial love and a superior morality exists.
Coded or uncoded, these are the types of messages that childless-by-choice people often hear:
· Did you have a bad childhood?
· You don’t want one now, but once you have one, I’m sure you’ll be a wonderful mother/father.
· Don’t wait till it’s too late.
· If you’re emotionally immature, then maybe it’s better not to.
· If you want to stay selfish, then don’t.
· You might regret it.
· Once you’re a mom/dad, then you’ll understand.
· I think you’d be a great parent.
· There’s no love comparable to the type of love you feel for your child.
· Having a child made me a better person.
· Now that I have kids, life is much more meaningful, because I’m not just living for myself.
· That means your parents will never get the chance to be grandparents. That’s so sad for them.
· You think you’re tired, you don’t know what it feels like to be tired (as if they — poor martyrs — are somehow capable of doing more in a day, and pushing themselves to their limits, than you)
· You’re missing out on one of life’s best experiences.
· You think you don’t want children, but once you have them, you’ll change your mind.
· It’s a mom/dad thing.
· You’ll understand if you have kids.
· You’re not really a family until you have kids.
· All the animals do it. (Exactly!)
To not want children means you’ll have to battle these messages over and over. Wouldn’t it be easier to just pop one out so you don’t have to answer to the government, your family and anyone else who thinks they know what you should do with your body and the remainder of your life?
The fear of not fitting in may not seem like a strong enough reason to have a child, but the tenacity of the world’s reasoning can wear down even the most stalwart resistors over time.
4. Fear Of Disappearing Without A Trace
My father in-law says, “Everyone dies twice, once when you stop breathing and the second time when no one mentions your name anymore”. If we don’t have children, who will remember us when we die? What will happen to all our accomplishments, or failures, the sum of our lives, if not a single person in the world knows about it? Without children, we have no one to leave our legacy with.
What will happen to the business you spent years building? What will happen to that novel you wrote that never got published? To that house you spent years saving for and building? Who will you share all your life experiences with? Your old photographs with? Who will you give your lilac gown, your gold watch, or your vintage Aston Martin to?
For some, children may even be a way of buying more time to carry out the tasks that they did not complete in their lifetime. The act of child rearing allows us to impart our values, our dreams, our morals, the lessons we’ve learnt, to another. In some ways, it is like transferring liquid from a crumbling old vase into a new one. When people see their children grow, they see parts of themselves in the child, and can take comfort that these parts will continue to exist long after they are gone. So in a way, they imagine they have preserved a part of their consciousness, thus extending their lives. Through the memory of their children and grandchildren, they can hope to obtain the closest possibly thing to immortality.
Whether we are conscious of them or not, these four fears drive us to make babies as a form of psychological and emotional protection. So perhaps the tasks of breeding and child-rearing aren’t as noble or self-sacrificial as we’d like to think they are. Taking these very primal fears — of loneliness, of the decay and death of self and loved ones, of being socially ostracised, and of disappearing without leaving anything behind — into consideration, I believe that to not to have children is the more difficult decision, and therefore, not selfish at all, but perhaps in some ways, the more courageous of the two choices.