Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2012, at 3:00 PM
Slate recently asked readers who are child-free and happy to let us know all about it—and did you ever! We’re posting some of our favorite responses on the blog this week.
Name: Shannon Chamberlain
Location: Alameda, Calif.
My husband and I take a lot of baths, because, let's face it, we can. Our worst domestic problem at the moment is a cat that pees in the sink. Anyway, during one of these baths, we were listening to a This American Life about a guy who sanitizes crime scenes and other biohazardous sudden deaths. It was a great interview, actually, full of sordid details, but the one thing that struck me particularly was the man's conclusion that he wanted to die slowly, with plenty of people around him to say goodbye and potentially discover his corpse before it got to the kind of state of advanced decomposition in which someone like him would be called in with a hazmat suit.
I wondered, briefly, if this was a good enough reason to have kids. My husband is nearly a decade older than me, and will probably die first. I'll be alone, and may outlive everyone who might have any reason to come check up on me if they haven't heard from me in a couple of days. An aunt from whom most of my family was estranged died this way, alone for nearly two weeks in her apartment at the end of July, and the mercifully abridged account of her discovery that I received from my mother kept me awake for weeks after it happened. But when you're someone's child, you incur a debt without even realizing it: A debt counted in late nights, midnight feedings, bed wettings, vomit clean-up, six to 12 years of teenage unpleasantness during which your parents still love you, even if they don't like you very much. You repay it later by making sure that Mom or Dad doesn't become a puddle of bodily fluids before being properly disposed of according to all of the protocols of Western death. Friends will never accumulate this weight of obligation, not even if you save their lives.
It wasn't the first time my anti-children resolve had wavered. Sometimes I feel such love for my husband that the thought of a little blended us makes me swoon in an inappropriate way. Sometimes he feels this way, too. Usually it's at the same time, a kind of collective madness that one associates with stock market frenzies and railroad speculative bubbles from the 19th century. Then we roll over on a Saturday morning and fall back to sleep. Because we realize that it is a Faustian bargain, this little Us: born out of extreme love, it might mean that we don't take another bath again together for 18 years. Or if we do, that it's a forced one, a "quick let's fit this in before Us gets back from grandma's" sort of bath, or a "we carefully planned this Us-free weekend, and regardless whether we feel like it or not, we're going to take a bath, give each other massages, and have sex, goddamn it": a sour, vitiated, soulless experience, something more akin to taking out the trash than actual passion. We know too many people our age who do this. Maybe it would be different if we lived in France. Or if modern America was more like early-20th-century Britain, and you barely saw your kid until he/she was in striking distance of a university fellowship. But it isn't, and we live in upper middle class 21st-century America, and there are certain expectations. Having kids is making a decision to live a life with strollers, diaper bags, breast pumps, sleep deprivation, and the withering looks from strangers like me, who wonder why you thought it was a good idea to bring your toddler to a Victorian painting exhibit.
There's also a certain sly fun in confounding expectations. When you tell people that you don't want kids, watch their eyes. They travel from shock to horror to disbelief, a kind of reversal of the Five Stages of Grief. Until the actual child-bearing part of the couple is 55, nobody believes you. They say, "Oh, I said the same thing when I was your age, and look at me now!" (Indeed. Vomit-stained shirt, unbrushed, unwashed hair, a child in the crook of one arm and another barnacled to the leg.) Or, "You'd make such great parents." A lot of childless people probably take offense at these remarks, the implication that you don't know your own mind. I used to, too, but then I realized how much fun it will be when they realize that no, I didn't change my mind, and no, I probably would not have made a great parent. When they say that I'd make a great parent, what they mean is that my husband and I outwardly conform to certain class expectations. We have careers and an acceptable house and our kids would likely go to private school and then Stanford, which we could (barely) afford. I would rather go to Turkey and Antarctica. With my husband.
As for the cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-in-exchange-for-making-sure-that-I-do-not-become-them-on-my-couch bargain that I mentioned earlier, it struck me later that this is maybe the worst reason of all to have a child. It would be replacing one kind of love—an unforced, unmitigated kind—with one that I saw purely in terms of obligation. Ultimately, that is exactly why I should not have children, and why I would not make a good parent. I’m not willing to let another human being incur a debt that involves keeping my dead body from decomposition. It seems so transactional, so quotidian, this love that I would share with a child. Maybe it wouldn't be. The women I know tell me that I would love it: the wiping, the smiling through the mental and physical exhaustion, the decorating of paper plates for preschool moving up ceremonies (?!). It seems to me like an unacceptable leap of faith, this trading of certain love for one that I can't understand and which I half suspect of being a plot on the part of women to ensnare playdates for their own offspring, and, thus, 10 minutes of alone time for themselves twice a week. Maybe it would be transcendent, like all of the mothers that I know say it would be. But the people who make that argument have their own interests, their own reasons for justifying an irreversible decision to me and to themselves, and in the end, I just don't believe them.