Is it true that the childless don’t give a damn for the planet or its future? That’s the criticism historian Niall Ferguson recently aimed at the late economist John Maynard Keynes, who was bisexual, married and childless: “Keynes was a homosexual and had no intention of having children,” the Harvard historian told a business conference in California. “… Our children are our progeny. It is the economic ideals of Keynes that have gotten us into the problems of today.”In the face of fiery international outrage, Prof. Ferguson backpedalled with the speed of a pre-scandal Lance Armstrong. He apologized for his “stupid” and “insensitive” remarks.
The outrage was adorable, quaint even. As any person who has chosen to remain childless will tell you, Prof. Ferguson’s sentiments are actually as common as dandelions.
Non-parents hear these slurs all the time: They are selfish, abnormal, immature, destined to die alone in a stairwell.
But lately there has been a sharp new whine to the criticism, which echoes Prof. Ferguson’s remarks: By not procreating, the childless are kicking the planet where it hurts. They are damaging the future for everyone.
“Having children is difficult but important work and … the main threat to fertility comes from a worldview that places the self at the centre.” That’s from Jonathan Last’s apocalyptic recent book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.
He writes: “Throughout recorded human history, declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse. And these grim tidings from history may be in our future, since population contraction is where most of the world is headed.”
Or, if you prefer something closer to home, how about this headline from the National Post: “Trend of not having children just plain selfish.”
Ah yes, the “S” word. American comedian Jen Kirkman got a wee bit tired of that word as she took her stand-up on the road, blithely poking fun at her lack of interest in motherhood. She thought the jokes were funny; the people who approached her after the shows didn’t. They asked after the empty contents of her soul, and her uterus.
“After the shows, people were coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re being selfish, you should really think about what you’re contributing to the planet,’ ” she says in an interview from Los Angeles. “It was happening more and more, and they were really getting in my face about it. On the flip side, I had all sorts of women saying, ‘Thanks for the jokes, I feel the same way and people think I’m a weirdo.’ ”
Ms. Kirkman, who also writes for the show Chelsea Lately, has known for a long while that she didn’t want children; for one thing, she loves stand-up, and babies are not compatible with life on the road. She was comfortable with her decision, but astonished by other people’s reaction to it. So she decided that she would produce a book instead of a baby.
I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids has just been published. As she says, “It’s just my funny way of saying to people, ‘Hey, you’re offending me.’ ”
Are childless people the last group that it’s acceptable to persecute? (Ms. Kirkman calls it “bullying by breeders.”) Not only do they have to contend with their child-bearing colleagues snagging the best vacation times and tax breaks, and leaving work early for trumpet recital, but now they’re being blamed for the Western world’s population shrinkage.
Fewer future taxpayers plus more future pensioners equals looming catastrophe, according to the doomsayers. And that nice young couple quietly enjoying dinner in the corner instead of procreating? It’s their fault.
An aside: I’m the mother of two children, and I adore them. I have never second-guessed my choice to have them, except for that afternoon I spent picking gum out of the cat’s fur. But I also understand that a journey down the baby highway – a road that has no exits, and is sometimes terrifying and sometimes so dull you fall asleep at the wheel – is not for everyone.
I found it strange to see the childless by choice – or the “child-free,” as they prefer – being subjected to public stoning. Private stoning too. To hear, for example, that a woman’s professional capabilities were judged based on whether or not a child had shot out of her birth canal. But this happens, continually, to those who have chosen not to be parents: They say there are viewed as less finished, less emotionally complete, less capable.