When I was thinking about not having children, in my early thirties, Laura Carroll’s book Families of Two was one I found helpful — and believe me when I tell you there weren’t a lot of resources out there. Her book interviewed more than thirty couples who could be described as living fulfilling, happily married lives without children. She wasn’t trying to be objective; rather, she sought to provide a point of view you won’t see reflected in our media anywhere.
So when Dr. Carroll asked me to review her latest book, I jumped at the chance. Where books like Families of Two, or Two is Enough by Laura Scott, are aimed at people deciding not to have children, The Baby Matrix is aimed at everyone else.
The Baby Matrix is about pronatalism, or our society’s need to insist that having children is the right thing for everyone, and that people should have all the babies they want (and they should want lots of them). Carroll is talking specifically about U.S. culture, in which we obsess about having children, throw new parents a million baby showers, and put families on TV who have 8 children or more. Octomom anyone? And that’s just a few examples.
“Having children remains the norm. If having no children by choice was part of the norm, it would mean that those who make this choice would be members of a widely-accepted group and that we as a society have accepted their choice. This is not the case. Why does our society find this choice so hard to accept?”
This is kind of a personal subject for me. I’m not saying I feel like a victim because I’m childfree – I’m happy with my choice and grateful I can live my life the way I want to. But I do get a little bitter sometimes, because I can tell you this decision wasn’t easy. And it’s made a lot harder by the million movies and TV shows that tell me parenting is the only way to live a fulfilling life. Not to mention the friends and family who question whether I’m selfish and whether I’ll turn into some bitter, lonely woman down the road.
So I appreciate finding someone, anyone, who shares my perspective.
Carroll defines pronatalism as “the idea that parenthood and raising children should be the central focus of every person’s adult life. Pronatalism is a strong social force and includes a collection of beliefs so embedded that they have come to be seen as ‘true’.”
“The problem with pronatalism is that it leads everyone to believe they should have children – even people who shouldn’t have children. And pronatalism leads people to believe they have the right to have as many children as they want. This creates problems that extend beyond families and children who may be suffering from the effects of poor parenting. At a time when we humans are consuming resources over 50 percent faster than the planet is producing them, every choice to bear a child has implications for the larger community. That’s why this conversation about pronatalism is one that involves all of us, parents or not.”
Carroll begins by giving an overview of the key principles of pronatalism, and then explains why they are wrong and even harmful. I won’t describe all of them, but here are a few:
- We have a biological instinct to have children.
- There’s something wrong with you if you don’t want children.
- The ultimate path to fulfillment in life is parenthood.
- We need children to be there for us when we get old.
Carroll goes through each of these and describes why the assumptions are wrong, citing research and studies to back up her convictions. This part of Carroll’s book isn’t groundbreaking. But it does raise some very simple questions and raises some very complex issues. Why do we think everyone should have children? These days people are lucky to have any access to birth control or family planning, and we’re not even willing to have honest conversations about how many children are too many.
Carroll points out that there are bigger implications of pronatalism. It isn’t just that our pro-childbearing culture makes my life difficult. When you think about the number of children who are raised by people who probably shouldn’t be parents, and the impact that has for all of us, it becomes a pretty serious issue. Carroll isn’t saying we should pick and choose who gets to have children (although she gets uncomfortably close a few times). But she does ask why NOT having children can’t at least be presented as a valid choice?
Think about it. If someone’s really hesitant about having children, shouldn’t the default be choosing not to have them?
And then there’s overpopulation. Seven billion people in the world and this country is doing everything it can to prevent people (both here and abroad) from accessing birth control and family planning. All the while, we’re sucking up most of the world’s resources.
So why can’t we at least acknowledge that people who aren’t having children might be doing something positive for the world? I’m not going to pretend that’s why I don’t have children. But I do feel good about not adding to the numbers, and I also feel good that my husband and I can share one small car between us. I’m no saint, but it would be nice if our culture didn’t make me feel like a freak of nature.
A lot of what Carroll writes about are things I’ve thought about. And there were parts I wish she’d addressed more thoroughly. For example, I’ve heard that the European countries with declining birthrates are struggling financially – they are, but are declining birthrates the cause? Carroll addresses global overpopulation but I would have loved more analysis of what it means for a country to have declining birthrates.
Carroll touches briefly on a few other ideas that I’d love to think more about. The first is how our concept of parenting has changed. She mentions that parenting today is more stressful, that people feel more pressure to have perfect children. I see that with my friends but don’t know if that’s a fair generalization, and if so what does that mean? She also says our culture is getting more parent-centric, which means that in restaurants, grocery stores, and movies, children come before the rest of us. My own pet peeve? Those huge carts in grocery stores that are shaped like sports cars, fire engines, etc. They take up most of the aisle. Recently I was in the grocery store and three kids were in a cart that had a steering wheel just for them. When did we let five year olds drive the shopping cart? And don’t even get me started on parent-only parking spaces.
Carroll’s point is simple – adults and children should respect the other adults and children around them. But children shouldn’t get some kind of free pass to act in a way that’s rude to the people around them.
I love my nieces and nephew and I do think raising children “takes a village”. I’m the first to say my taxes should be spent on good schools and health care for children in need, and that well-raised, well-educated children benefit all of us. But I’m also for handing out birth control in high schools and providing free access to family planning for everyone.
Most of all, I’m for changing the assumption that everyone should have children, and that my life is pointless because I don’t have them. Carroll’s book asks a few simple questions: why can’t both choices be treated as equally valid? Why can’t we start asking people “if” they want children rather than “when” they’re going to start having them? Why can’t we start valuing population control at least as much as we value reproduction?
There are a handful of books out there written for those of us who don’t want children. This is the really rare book about not having children that is written for everyone else. Now I just wish everyone else would actually read it.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. The author had no input in the content of this review.