On Being Childfree

In a few days my husband and I will pick up a seventeen year-old boy from Germany—someone we’ve never met before—and take him to our home where he will live for the next eleven months. There has been plenty to do to get ready for this new family addition: a chest of drawers and a dresser have been purged, a closet has been emptied requiring numerous trips to the local Goodwill, curtains were purchased and hung, and the bath-tub received new caulk while a worn-out shower rod was replaced. Technological tools necessary for an adolescent teen have not been overlooked, either: an unused lap-top and cell phone were resurrected. Too, several hours of mandatory training both online and in person were successfully completed. All of this in the span of four months.

The decision to be a host family for an exchange student has required not only anticipation for an exciting school year ahead but also fore-thought and steady preparation, a hint of the additional time and energy required for this new parental role. And, did I mention my underlying concern over being able to cook enough (and well enough) for a growing boy?

This is not the first time my husband and I have hosted an exchange student. We did so several years ago and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives. Our student—all grown up now—remains in touch with us and we have followed his additional educational pursuits along with his professional development (he is now a neurosurgeon at a university hospital in Germany).

Despite these forays into parenthood my husband and I are not considered parents.

Instead we live on the fringe of society, or, if you have read the latest Time magazine lead article by Lauren Sandler, we represent—“The Childfree Life”—where “having it all means not having children.” Reinforced by the cover photo where the couple lingers on a beach probably on one of their many yearly vacations, the article perpetuates the shallow notion that life somehow offers “It All” either with children or without.

Even though the cover photo and article perpetuate a stereotype that childless people are carefree and focused only on their own happiness, I’m grateful that some of the Internet exchanges in response to Sandler’s article identify the myriad ways people—especially women—without children are harangued for their decisions. As a young married woman I distinctly remember a long-time friend of my parents taking me aside to ask me if the rumors she had heard were true: did I really plan to avoid having children? When I told her that, in fact, this was correct, she responded by telling me point blank I was selfish.

It turns out this is a fairly common experience among married women without children. But, sharing the experience with a lot of other people does not make the judgmental attitude of so many hurt less.

Despite being part of a growing population resisting parenthood or perhaps because there is a greater number of people choosing this lifestyle, we need to develop better ways of talking with each other about this alternative. And while consciousness-raising is always an important part of learning about something often overlooked, I don’t think making us feel ever more separated as in the title of an upcoming book called “Otherhood,” by Melanie Notkin is helpful. As a feminist, I’ve already been down this road where men were thought of as the primary expression of humanity resulting in women being categorized as “other.”

Nor do I think it is responsible—or biblical, for that matter—to argue as Candice Watters does in her Boundless blog post Why Have Babies? that common sense, financial planning, and consideration to all of life’s choices be jettisoned in favor of a belief that God would much rather you have children.

On the other hand, it would be helpful if we could change the conversation and listen to the vast array of experiences in order to move beyond the well-worn stereotypes.

To start I want to suggest that deciding not to have children does not mean my husband and I have “It All” whatever that is. Life is about making choices and choices have consequences. Deciding to forego children means my sleep deprivation has never been about colic or strep throat that keeps making its rounds through the neighborhood daycare but it also means there are no prospective colleges to visits or weddings to plan. Without children there may be some beach excursions to enjoy but the idea that childless living is one long vacation does little to enable us as a society undergoing considerable change to address it in any meaningful way.

In the workplace there is constant debate over the “mommy” track with pundits on both sides who argue over equal pay each with their focus on women who have children. Without taking away the necessity to extend that conversation as long as women still work for less remuneration on average than men, there also needs to be attention given to people who work extended hours for no other reason than they are the ones without children. Seldom is there acknowledgment that people without children cover for their colleagues who have parental commitments. Time spent in meetings, teaching the early or late classes, going on a business in trip in place of someone else: these are routine experiences in the life of a childless person.

Further, the many thousands of dollars childless people contribute to local schools through property taxes that fund education for numerous children without drawing on those same resources is a benefit to all people with children. Childless people have invested generously in the education of the next generation all while often being labeled selfish.

In this time of over-population and global climate change, reducing one’s carbon footprint by not reproducing is an act of generosity on behalf of our global community. Even though many conservative Christians are encouraging their followers to increase their families hoping, in many cases, to expand the reach of Christianity through reproduction, the reality is that the earth’s resources are being depleted at a rapid rate and our ability to heal the human-induced scar upon the earth is diminishing. When someone decides to take seriously the divine injunction to care for the earth, we should to be thankful for their sacrifice.

Contrary to Watters’ insistence that listening to American culture with its misguided attentiveness to our ability to control reproductive decisions is out of tune with God’s desires, I want to suggest there are good reasons for having children AND there are good reasons not to have children. I also want to invite Watters and others who might think similarly to celebrate the way they have chosen to create a family while refusing to denigrate someone else’s choice. God, simply, is not that small.

When my husband and I become host parents for our exchange student later this week I will, for the second time, walk in the shoes of parent, learning about the challenges of rearing a teenager. The experience will enable me to understand a world I normally do not inhabit even as it will enrich my life in wonderful and surprising ways.

I am thankful my theology is expansive enough to tell me families are an avenue of God’s grace as is welcoming the stranger and anything else we do when we truly act selflessly.