In a recent article published in The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert, who is the Senior Editor for the magazine’s Culture section, reviewed a recently published collection of essays titled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, which relates the personal choices of sixteen individuals to not have children. As Gilbert relates, the collection’s project is to “dismantle the assumption of selfishness” surrounding the decision not to have children and “shed light on a stigma that’s remained stubbornly pervasive well into the 21st century.”
Gilbert’s article highlights a few of the collection’s essays, returning repeatedly to the reverse correlation between increased education and the number of children to which a woman gives birth. Quoting cultural critic Laura Kipnis, Gilbert notes, “[W]hen women acquire critical skills and start weighing their options, they soon wise up to the fact that they’re not getting enough recompense for their labors.” Gilbert’s concludes that the essay collection is,
“[H]ugely significant. . . . . [because it] refuse[s] to accept the perpetuation of the myths that have surrounded childbirth for the last 200 years—that women have a biological need to procreate, and that having children is the single most significant thing a person can do with his or her life, and that not having children leaves people sad and empty. . . . . The arguments that lingers after having read the book is that the sooner having children is approached from a rational standpoint rather than an emotional one, the better for humanity, even if the result is that there are slightly fewer people left to enjoy it.”
Although there might be a negative correlation between education and child bearing, I’m skeptical that excising emotion from the child bearing decision-making process is going to be better for humanity. For most of us, deciding whether or not to bring a child into the world is going to largely be an emotional decision regardless of our educational background. And that’s part of what’s so wonderful about being a member of a family; we chose to love one another even when it’s not convenient or even rational. I, for one, know that if my parents had run a pure cost-benefit analysis on me thirty years ago, I likely would have been deemed an unjustifiable expense, but they didn’t, and I’m fairly confident they would tell you it was the right decision for them. Similarly, others might have ample resources to raise a child, but decide they simply don’t want to do so. Neither is more correct than the other, but so long as humans are involved, emotion is going to be a central part of that decision-making process.
Even though I disagree with Gilbert’s conclusion that we need to displace emotion with reason when deciding whether to raise a child, I firmly believe that common sense should play a central role in our public and private policies relevant to families. For example, government-mandated paid parental leave is a policy whose time is long overdue. Other voluntary policies, such as flexible work schedules, telework options and employer-sponsored childcare, are quickly gaining ground in our society and rightfully so. These make all the sense in the world for both our companies’ profit margins as well as the broader health of our society, and supporting these programs will increase the likelihood that each of us will be able to make a decision regarding children that is based on whatever we deem best.