Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why Reproduce Anyway?

At Salon "kryptogal" articulates a woman's mystification by the fact that the great majority of human beings choose to have children since it is questionable whether doing so reliably increases happiness (for the parents involved, that is). The title, "Does having children ruin your life?" suggests the point of view.

The psychology of parenting is intriguing for the same reason that the psychology of religion is: both phenomena must reflect something very basic about human nature, since most people who have ever lived have pursued them. Or should we say have been pursued by them? Are there many choices, except for things like survival or food, that are more determined by unconscious and instinctual factors than the "choice" to believe or to have babies? And then of course there is that galling minority who opt out of one or both (I'm in the minority on religion and in the majority on parenting).

Of course, throughout most of human history having babies may have reflected nothing more profound than sexual instinct plus the absence of good birth control. But the availability of the latter in the developed world for forty-odd years hasn't brought parenting to halt. Yet...reproductive rates have been trending downward for a while in this country, and particularly in Europe. Could it be that an inertial effect of eons-long tradition is beginning to wane? That would suggest that parenting will in fact be more of a conscious, and an idiosyncratic, decision in the future. Or is there something deeply psychological about the parenting path beyond sexual inertia and social tradition?

Biological infertility aside, have studies been done to compare psychological profiles of married folks who choose to have kids and those who choose not to? I mean baseline profiles, not the depressive troughs that parents are well-known to endure during the toddler and teenage years. I would be interested also in long-term studies comparing both the childless and the "childed" over decades in terms of their respective gratitude or regret over their decisions.

I think it may have been the Greek Solon who said "Call no man happy before he is dead." I take that to mean not that death is good, but that happiness is not a momentary feeling, but rather the overall contour of a life. The only answer to a question of whether any ongoing life is a happy one is, therefore, "Time will tell." Am I glad I had kids? I can't say yes or no, only "Ask me in thirty years." But maybe other major life decisions--marriages, careers--are like that too...

11 comments:

rvitelli said...

You also need to factor in societal pressures to have children. Most cultures (past and present) have tended to stigmatize men and women who choose to be childless. It's still the expectation today for married couples with various pressures from well-meaning types over why they are childless.

Gerard said...

2007 may signal a turnaround in birth rate with a U.S. fertility rate of 2.1 births per 1,000 women.

The bad news is that a very large percentage of these births are reportedly into bastardy. Not a good trend.

Retriever said...

G, don't even get me started on "unconventional" families (I used to work in youth w pregnant teens, unwed mothers). It's usually a DISASTER for the moms,the kids, and society. Although, of course, many amazing people raise good kids despite such circumstances, it's uphill.

I'm old fashioned. Always loved kids. Always wanted a family. At first I delayed marrying and having kids myself because of the emotional angst in the family, thought it would be irresponsible to bring more tormented New England WASP poets and academics into the world. But had em anyway and don't regret it. Two are poets, all are writers, and the family curse persists. Only one escaped unscathed.

Have taught Sunday School 28 years, and am still fond of my own puppies, despite all the angst of teenagers .

I don't think the point is to be happy anyway. But to love, to dedicate oneself to someone and something greater than oneself. One usually finds some happiness along the way, but raising kids is still worthwhile even when one is tearing hair out with teenagers or in agony over their difficulties.

Anonymous said...

The simple fact is that some children do ruin parents' lives. Most parents have their lives rearranged and distracted to a degree. All parents don't define 90% of child rearing as pleasurable (although pleasure is not necessarily an index of worth/value). I see parenting as a psycho-social experiment in trying to defy biology by willfully sculpting the best possible human out of a given finite flawed clay.

Every parent starts with the null hypothesis that their child will mature to become a fully functional adult cell in the organism of society, replete with the all the bonus accoutrements of success, success...and well, more success in all its pervasive, vicarious and narcissistic glory. Regrettably, the majority of childeren won't grow up to be superstars of human ingenuity, just ordinary little worker bees (not that there's anything wrong with that, some of my best friends are worker bees..). And others...well others happen too -- by-products/offcuts/shortcuts/meancuts (which make delicious processed goods of questionable content, but still delicious!- in an 'it's-best-not-to-know-chicken-nugget' sort of way...so to to speak). Mmm...offal....

Yes, we are all experiments. And some parents shouldn't be allowed to use chemistry sets.

Can you tell I'm childless?...narcissistic and self-centred?...Well so are parents who wnat a miniature self to look after them in old age...

....I think it's best I keep my miniature selves as hypothetical abstractions for now...forever(!)..I know, what a waste of derangement...

OMG! - making a human is so insanely permenant! How do people get beyond contemplating all the variables and worst case scenarios and still go ahead with the unknowable?....beats the f!*k out of me...

A great superstar poet once sang 'children are our future...'

What a scary thought..

Please be nice to your children - we have to live with them.

the psycho therapist said...

Okay, a lone swimmer against the flow yet again. No wonder I love salmon.

that galling minority who opt out of one or both (I'm in the minority on religion and in the majority on parenting).

By your words I am the monority squared.

This post reminds me of an element of a grad school class from days of olde: "Marriage and the Family". Quite interesting historical overviews on how the decision whether or not to bear fruit has shifted due to various influences over centuries. (Though I've long held such things do not, in actuality, really change when viewed from a larger perspective of time. And that is a whole other riff entirely so I will move along.)

Think of me what you will, I recall being seven years old and thinking and saying to others with total conviction, matter-of-factly, "I do not want to have children in this time around. Not in this lifetime."

For me, it has been this simple.

the psycho therapist said...

And good lord I should edit before sending words. Here a typo, there a typo, everywhere a typo typo.(smile)

Novalis said...

Thanks for comments, insightful all...I'm a Romantic, and I'm sure the social scientists wouldn't approve, but it seems to me that most people really want to be able to love someone or something intensely, unconditionally, and over the long term, and children, whatever their myriad flaws, offer many the best chance to do that, although it isn't worth the trouble for everyone...But children guarantee attachment for life, for now and into the future...

Gerard said...

Ever notice that people who are disturbed by what they are saying invariably go by "Anonymous."

Gerard said...

"Please be nice to your children - we have to live with them."

Well, anonymous, that's not strictly true. If you don't want to live with them, you don't have to.

A noni mouse said...

"But children guarantee attachment for life, for now and into the future."

Not always, as my 4 grandparents, brother, two cousins and I can attest. All of us have cut ties to our parents. My grandparents never regretted it, and when I was old enough to learn why (as you can imagine, there was a lot of history behind it), I understood. Likewise, I've gone 10 years now without contacting my parents and am much healthier for it (as confirmed by psychoanalysts I've consulted).

Of course, these exceptions "prove" the rule: my great-grandparents, the aunt and uncle in question, and my own parents, did not want children, but had them because they wanted to look good in society's eyes. Throughout my childhood -- loved by friends, friends' parents, teachers, mentors -- my parents constantly moaned about what I burden I was, how they wished they'd never had me, how much happier they'd have been, and why didn't I just die whenever I got sick? (Yes. They said this to me. In so many words.) They also assumed (aloud, and often) that I would of course love them unconditionally and support them in their old age. Nope. Ain't gonna happen.

Anonymous said...

Gerard,

"Well, anonymous, that's not strictly true. If you don't want to live with them, you don't have to."

Well yes, you DO have to live with them - unless of course you're one of those self-flagellating ascetics that live in the middle of peopleless deserts....

I'm talking about the indirect cohabitation with members of the greater society, not your immediate family. And yes, you do have to suffer for other people's f#$k-ups in the form of tax contributions to causes/govt policies you/may not be intimately connected to. Well-adjusted humans are not immune to the sins of those that aren't.

I don't know what we'd do without that prison fairy (pun unintended) that magically pays for crim-upkeep and rehabilitates all those baddies so that when theyre ejected back into society, theyre completely functional (& definitely not wont to reoffend)...and that cures mental illnesses etc...

...and houses break into themselves too.

Definitely not your problem Gerard. You don't have to actually 'live' with these fringe elements, do you?

And I'm not disturbed by what I'M saying - just disturbed by how other people think and act.