All the Parents are Poor and Exhausted; All the Childfree are Skinny and Rich, and Other Annoying, Stubborn Misconceptions

Time magazine covers seem custom-designed to annoy me. The latest example is their “The Childfree Life” cover.

Stories of the childfree lifestyle are always illustrated this way. They feature a handsome, childfree couple on a beach vacation or at a cocktail party. Don’t procreate, and this too can be your life (provided, of course, that you’re rich enough, leisured enough, and lucky enough to have a handsome, lovely spouse or partner like this… Then you can have this life).

“Childfree” is the new coinage for childless, which the childfree feel signals deprivation, or barrenness. In Marriage Confidential I talked briefly about the childfree marriage as an emergent trend. I defended it gesturally, largely because it seemed to need a defender.

Parents have been known to say outrageously rude things to the childfree. Sometimes they’ll ask point blank why the person has no children, or they’ll comment that they can’t imagine being happy without children. Or, in some cases, they’ll imply that the childfree are selfish, juvenile, or emotionally stunted.

These are, of course, indefensible and outlandish things to say.

I think they get said because the sense that one can be happy (a lame adjective of a life) without children is unidirectional. Put another way, it’s not retroactive:  I bet you can definitely be happy without children before you have them. But once you have them, most all parents truly cannot imagine their lives entirely realized and fulfilled without the children that they did have.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a mediocre parent, or even a lazy parent. It doesn’t matter if your child’s a real pain in the ass or deemed charming and brilliant. It doesn’t matter if they cause suffering (and they will, either mild or profound).  It just doesn’t matter. Don’t ask me why it doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t. I am surer of this than of anything I’ve ever known. Once children are there, it seems impossible not to have had the experience of being with them. The emotion isn’t contingent on objective indicia of quality, worth, or merit.

And this brings me to that Time magazine cover.

I love the cover’s subtle opposition between the leisured, relaxed, unharried childfree and the harried, hassled, frazzled parents off-stage somewhere, likely at an infernal Chuck E Cheese.

First point: You can have the same damn vacation when you have a child. You can go to the same cool, sophisticated cocktail parties. You get a sitter, or your children stay with your relatives or their friends, or your children are away at camp, or you take a vacation with your family and enjoy it. You can be the couple on the beach, too!

I sometimes think from the alarmist ways that the childfree are prone to discuss parenthood that they imagine a child eternally in the state of a colicky newborn, or a spirited two-year old. The challenge of parenthood seems frozen in this moment, from which a portrait of the beleaguered, scary inner life of parenthood gets created.

Amazingly, however, children grow up. As if the force of a great river has suddenly gotten diverted, they reach a point when they are fairly independent, and their own people, and the river flows in the other direction. (For my taste, I’ve yet to read a memoir of motherhood that captures the whole palette of emotions as well as Anne Lamott’s brilliant, hilarious, compassionate, non-idealized, and profoundly human portrait in Operating Instructions.)

These lifestyle journalism pieces (I’m not writing here about the Time article itself, which I’ve not had a chance to absorb, but of other “childfree lifestyle” pieces that I read while researching my book) tend to overestimate the encumbrances of parenthood, as if you’ll be toting around a squalling infant for the duration. The effect is to naturalize a standard of hyper-parenting by the implication that parenthood is a drain on all other facets of self, or life. Which it’s not. Conversely, the effect is to denaturalize the figure of the parent, to render them only as a parent, as someone who can’t possibly have fun, a job, a creative life, friendships, or other adult activities. Which they’re not.

And, by the way, poor people can be and often are wonderful parents. That simple reality gets tragically lost in the lifestyle calculations about how much money it takes to raise children, as if you have to be rich to do a decent job.

It’s ironic, but the truly timeless function of procreation is turned almost into an exotic role, and an all-consuming lifestyle.

Meanwhile, what’s the implied logic of the childfree, with this cover, and others of its ilk? That they prefer their lifestyle because it allows them nicer vacations, better cars, and fancier restaurants? “When Having it All Means Not Having Children,” their sub-headline reads. What’s the “all” in that statement? More stuff, leisure, and money, judging from the cover.

Sure, if you do a spreadsheet, you’ll see that parenting is a losing proposition. So is love, devotion to a social cause, intimacy, friendship, creativity, fandom, and owning a goldfish.

Human relations don’t belong to the economy of handbags and vacations, so the implicit trade-off thinking is disturbing. Nor do I think it reflects the values of the childfree. The childfree couples that I know didn’t avoid having children because they wanted to go to Aruba or buy a BMW.  They made the decision for lots of reasons—including financial worries, true, but not out of a desire for luxuries. Some feared they wouldn’t do a good job; some didn’t care for children as a class of human being; some were intimidated. I didn’t sense it was because they wanted to have what they imagined as a plusher lifestyle.

Let’s follow that logic through. You can save even more money if you sever all ties to family, never get married, eschew romantic relationships, and avoid friendships (since friends occasionally require help).  Then you can be an entirely unattached, non-contingent human, with a fat bank account and drawer full of fancy socks.

The troubling logic in many “lifestyle journalism” pieces, which must attempt to generalize out of millions of personal decisions to create simple pro/con views, is the desiccated calculus that gets applied subtly to all forms of attachment—not just between parent and child, but between spouses, friends, lovers, colleagues, you name it.  In my book I describe some opinion polls and qualitative research among the childfree that cited literal concerns about that calculus, about not having enough money to raise a child, as the main reason why they didn’t.

Everything is about a bottom-line utility of what makes sense, and attachment of any kind, by that standard, will always lose out.  Attachments are never “worth” it, although they always are, in real life if not on paper. I hope that the distorted view—apparently now internalized--that parenthood is a herculean, all-consuming, nearly impossible, and profoundly irritating task that requires loads of money and whose success is measured by a corporate-derived bottom line of where a kid goes to college or how much money she makes doesn’t deter people who sincerely want to procreate from rolling the dice, and doing so, and having fun in their parenting lives.

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