You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Don't Assume You Know Why That Couple Doesn't Have Kids

Frank Micelotta / Getty Images

In an article published Wednesday in The Week titled, “The self-deception of the intentionally childless,” Damon Linker says American couples who choose not to have children are “hedonists”—in the philosophical sense, anyway. The piece is in response to a New York Times Style section article by Teddy Wayne, “No Kids for Me, Thanks,” which Damon says “has everything: snappy writing, upper-middle-class Brooklynite anxieties treated as a window onto ‘a nationwide demographic shift,’ literary celebrities, thoughtful thumb-sucking about How We Live Now.” Wayne’s piece is a bit more complicated than Linker makes it out to be but does indeed frame parenting choices in terms of celebrity (George Clooney and Oprah are both mentioned), and treats seriously the idea that people are avoiding having children because of “Park Slope-ish fads” in parenting culture.

But rather than questioning Wayne's premises—that not having children is an elite choice made by elite couples for elite reasons—Linker just goes with it: 

[W]hat good do today's childless couples aim at? I'd say something like pleasure—material rewards along with the self-satisfaction that follows from achieving high social status through career advancement. They want to work hard and play hard, enjoying the fruits of their labor without the constraints, sacrifices, and trade-offs that come from raising kids. Children might be a good, but they're a good that would take away from what they consider to be the highest good, which is the enjoyment of pleasure. So they forgo having them.

After consulting philosophy's greats (Aristotle, Kant, Plato, Epicurus), he comes to the not especially lofty or original conclusion that, while it's exhausting to have children, doing so enriches people's lives.  

In an era of tremendous candor, it can seem as if we all know everything there is to know about everybody. But we really don’t. In life as it's actually lived (that is, where not everyone's sharing their fertility journey with the Times), we don't know why some people don’t have children. It’s not that we never, ever, know. If it's a friend who’s been cringing at the sight of toddlers as long as you’ve known them, fair enough. But that’s not the typical situation.

More typically, you just don’t know. It could be infertility, miscarriages, or failed attempts at adoption. A failing marriage or a serious genetic disorder. Maybe their finances are a tremendous mess, but they’re keeping up appearances. It isn’t necessarily that your friend is holding back from having a kid so as to afford a yacht or go clubbing every night. Maybe they had a really traumatic childhood and fear bringing another kid into the world (or being a bad parent themselves). Maybe that woman on your block who stubbornly refuses to pop out a few kids is, in fact, biologically male. (Single people may be given less of a hard time about not having kids, but that’s only because they’re asked similarly invasive questions about why they have yet to pair off.) 

All the not-so-lighthearted reasons people may have for not having children—some more “choice” than others—are the very sort of things they’re unlikely to share openly. This means that the couples you think have chosen not to have kids—indeed, who may have told you they prefer to be childfree because that makes it easier to go on vacation—may not have chosen this at all, or not for the reasons they’d have you assume. 

And the more likely scenario, when you meet a childless person past a certain age, is probably that they didn’t choose that outcome. Going by the stats in Sabine Heinlein's Longreads essay about her own choice not to have children, 18 percent of women 40 to 44 don't have kids, of whom 6 percent don't “by choice.” And once you factor in that “choice” includes things far less glamorous than (as Linker put it) “material rewards along with the self-satisfaction that follows from achieving high social status through career advancement,” it starts to seem beyond ridiculous to focus the conversation on such situations.  

One might counter that Linker is only addressing the percentage of people, however small it might be, to whom true childlessness-by-choice applies. He’s of course not shaming people who’ve been trying for years to have a kid! He’s just offering a counterpoint to arguments along the lines of Hadley Freeman’s recent column in the Guardian defending “the growing number of people in the developing world who, having decided that parenthood looks less like the triumphant arrival of the Simba cub and more like bored weekends at Legoland with a toddler having a tantrum, are opting out.” But as Heinlein's essay so elegantly demonstrates, acquaintances do openly judge one another about such choices, or presumed choices. (Who cares what others think, one might say, if one is among the infallible immune to such concerns?) 

It’s still bad form to judge those who truly choose to be childfree—that is, married people who have opted out of childrearing for greater independence. As Meghan Daum, editor of a new anthology titled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, says in the Times piece, “Not to have a child is a very personal, visceral decision. Ultimately, it comes from within.” But sometimes it's personal in more ways than we realize and not much of a decision at all. Shaming people for personal choices is one (objectionable) thing; shaming them for things they were never really in a position to choose is another.

Linker concludes his piece on a particularly condescending note: 

So here's my message for the child-free among us: If you're certain that your pursuit of pleasure is all you want from life, then good luck and have fun!

But are you really certain? 

So here's my message for Linker: How can you be so certain that they don't want kids?