Wednesday Controversy: Must We Have Offspring to be Fulfilled?

This is excerpted from How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. It is in no way an endorsement of the book or its ideas (many of which I disagree with), nor a recommendation that you go out and read it (it’s sort of PG-13). I didn’t know it was some kind of feminist manifesto when I picked it up; I thought it was the manual nobody gave me at high school graduation. It wasn’t (and I still haven’t got my copy), but it was still a good read.

I found this excerpt interesting, coming from a mother. It states aloud some things I’ve suspected for years, watching many of my friends become mothers. Since it’s been quite a while since someone overtly told me that I don’t know anything about anything, I think it’s time to stir up some mud:

[Having children] is the easy option for women.

Because if you have children, at least people won’t keep asking you when you’re going to have children.  For some reason, the world really wants to know when women are having children. It is oddly panicked by women who are being a bit relaxed about it: “But your body clock!” it is apt to shout.

And if a woman should say she doesn’t want to have children at all, the world is apt to go a bit peculiar:

“Oooh, don’t speak too soon,” it will say—as if knowing whether you’re the kind of person who desires to make a whole other human being in your guts and then base the rest of your life around its welfare is a breezy “Hey—whatever” decision.

…It’s not simply that a baby puts a whole personful of problems into the world. It takes a useful person out of the world as well. Minimum. Often two. Before I had my kids I was politically informed, signing petitions, recycling everything down to watch batteries. It was compost heap here, dinner from scratch there, public transport everywhere. I rang my mother regularly. I was smugly, bustingly, low-level good.

Six week into being poleaxed by a newborn colicky baby, and I would have happily shot the world’s last panda in the face if it made the baby cry for 60 seconds less. Nothing got recycled; the kitchen was a mess. My mother could have died and I would have neither known nor cared.

Every day I gave thanks that both my husband and I were just essentially useless art critics.

“Imagine if you and I had been hot-shot geneticists, working on a cure for cancer,” I used to say gloomily.

“And we were so exhausted that we had to simply give up the project. Lizzie’s colic would be responsible for the death of billions.”

…We think of non-mothers as rangy lone wolves—rattling around, as dangerous as teenage boys. We make women feel that their narrative has ground to a halt in their thirties if they don’t “finish things” properly and have children.

Men and women alike have convinced themselves of a dragging belief: that somehow, women are incomplete without children. As if a woman somehow remains a child herself until she has own children. That there are lessons motherhood can teach you that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere—and every other attempt at this wisdom and self-realization is a poor and shoddy second. Like mothers graduate from Harvard, but the best the childless [woman] can manage is a high school equivalency diploma…

…No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence and were the poorer and crippled by it…

…It’s worth remembering it’s not of vital use to you as woman. Yes you could learn thousands of interesting things about love, strength, faith, fear, human relationships, genetic loyalty, and the effects of apricots on an immature digestive system.

But I don’t think there’s a single lesson that motherhood has to offer that couldn’t be learned elsewhere.

While motherhood is an incredible vocation, [a mother] has no more inherent worth than a childless woman simply being who she is, to the utmost of her capabilities. To think otherwise betrays the belief that being a thinking, creative, productive, and fulfilled woman is, somehow, not enough. That no action will ever be the equal of giving birth.

Let me tell you, however momentous being a mother has been for me, I’ve walked around exhibitions of Coco Chanel’s life work, and it looked a lot more impressive, to be honest. I think it’s important to confess this. If you’re insanely talented and not at all broody, why not just go and have more fun?

Besides, she concludes, single aunts make great short-order babysitters.

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12 thoughts on “Wednesday Controversy: Must We Have Offspring to be Fulfilled?

  1. I’m a guy, so my opinion may fall on deaf ears, but I disagree with this. Strongly. And yes, a guy who goes childless IS missing out. I think eventually if on lives long enough, they would certainly regret not having children. Not to mention there are more important things in life that ‘having fun’. This whole thing just struck me as whiney and childish.

  2. People seem to shrink parenthood strictly in terms of a bratty, self-absorbed infant that will take up too much time and effort from “big things.”

    Yes, kids can be a royal pain in the heiny. But that is but one aspect.

    Children are about CONTINUITY. Those who desire to remain childless (their choice, gesinteheit) like to claim that those who desire offspring wish to assuage their insecurity with a helpless being dependent on another’s goodwill. At least, for me, it is not about that; after all, human beings are functional adults for longer than they are squalling babies.

    To have that opportunity to pass on, and gain a measure of immortality via the conduit of knowledge and faith . . .

    The woman above wants to save the world. Every person is a world in itself; and if not for children, there is no world. Save the world, please do. But for whom do you do so? Every human being, including oneself, was a screeching parasite at one point. Don’t make such a fuss of your ability to conquer all the world’s problems; every world leader immortalized in history was a baby once, too, because someone decided it was worth it to stretch out their guts and give of their time and strength to raise another.

    Plus, she’s being very narrow; maybe she won’t be the one to save the world. If she raises her kid right, he could be the One.

  3. Doesn’t our law not allow a childless man to be a dayan precisely because some things can only be learned through parenthood? So her claim that no one ever said that a childless man is incomplete is simply false. And I agree with FrumGeek, there’s something childish about the tone of the article – I guess in one point she is right, motherhood doesn’t necessarily make one more mature.

  4. I think people are misunderstanding who the author is targeting. She’s not saying that women who want to have kids should reconsider. She’s saying that women who don’t want kids shouldn’t be regarded as having a screw loose.

    Raising children is an important job, and is incredibly fulfilling (most of the time). But let us acknowledge a key truth: not everyone is cut out for it. Some people opt out of parenthood for very good reasons, which frankly aren’t others’ business. Rather than being regarded with suspicion, curiosity, or pity, we could simply leave their choice as just that: it’s their choice. That doesn’t mean they are inherently bad or selfish people. They just recognize their own limitations and are realistic about their ability or motivation to move past those limitations. That doesn’t mean their lives are less valuable, or that they don’t have other things to contribute. There’s just something else out there for them, and that’s ok. We all have our own path.

  5. “…No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence and were the poorer and crippled by it…”

    …really?
    Because it certainly seems that way to me… (That childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence and are poorer and crippled by it)

    I think:
    1. There is a noticeable difference between a man before and after he is a father
    2. There is a noticeable difference between fathers and not-fathers
    3. That by the time they are old and alone there is something horrifically sad about not-fathers.

    She thinks that the accomplishments of /Chanel/ are more impressive than those of a mother.

    Being a mother is not about learning important things about genetic loyalty, it is about making the transition from taker to giver. It is about become deeply essential to someone who isn’t yourself.

    Yeah, clearly many people don’t make that transition, even with motherhood, but it is a huge catalyzer for the reaction. Without it, the activation energy is near insurmountable (clearly many childless women managed to pull it off anyway), with it, it becomes a feasible human enterprise to be less of a 98-100% self-absorbed selfish piece of ego.

  6. I’m not an absolutist, but I do think that parenting (for both men AND women) changes you in a way that nothing else can (adopting counts as parenting). It’s one of those things I wish I knew how to describe; there may not be precise words out there in our language. But mothering has made me more selfless, more appreciative, more joyous, more fulfilled, more connected with my husband, more loving, more caring, more sensitive, and more compassionate. Yes, it’s also made me more busy, occasionally more stressed, and sometimes more bored, but I definitely feel that parenting is an experience that mentally healthy people should undergo. And primarily because of the reasons above-selflessness. I am happy that I have learned to put the needs of others above my own. There is something so broadening, noble, and THRILLING in that. (Call it selfish, then.)

  7. And how exactly is Coco Chanel more impressive than child-rearing? I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but I am consumed with the incredibly difficult craft of making my children happy, confident (yet humble), capable, passionate, driven, intellectual, caring, respectful, objective, motivated, idealistic, caring, healthy, organized, inquisitive, and God-full people. She thinks THAT is less-impressive than COCO CHANEL???

  8. The way I look at it parenthood is not always a choice. One might get married but not be able to have a child. Then what? I think that some of this speaks to those of us who do not have children and may never have children even if we may very much like to be parents. If a man is not a parent it is not looked down as much by society. If a man is a parent he can still be the head of a big corporation whereas a woman who is a mother cannot have it all. This is not a bad thing but parenthood is has a different effect on women than it does on men. Just saying. A woman cannot have it all. A man can because for a man “ALL ” has a different definition. Just saying

  9. I believe she is talking about levels of personal development. Having a child may make you more selfless, but it stunts other areas of growth. Not having a child gives you more opportunity to develop yourself in other ways, and contribute to the world at large, instead of just your immediate family.
    You may not like what Chanel has contributed to the world, but there is no doubt that she’s made a huge impact.
    What the author is complaining about is that people are more likely to say “Nebach, she cured cancer, but she has no family” rather than “Nebach, she gave 30 years of her life to raising children and now she doesn’t know what to do with herself.”
    Both people spend their time developing themselves, and one way is not better than another.

  10. I think that most of us can still “accomplish” even while raising children. Working at the job you love (or don’t), following hobbies, and even reading can be accomplished (when timed correctly). And most of us are just not on the breakthrough of curing cancer when the children start coming, (and if you are, I’m guessing you are “hotshot” enough to have some money for childcare help). I don’t know how many of us are really contributing to the “world at large,” besides for one’s job. This is not to put anyone down, just observing reality. Coco Chanels are rare to find in any community.
    There are just so many great mother and father doctors, lawyers, therapists, teachers, e.t.c. who hold fulfilling jobs and also raise wonderful children. It is not all or nothing.

  11. It’s not the same. I was looking at all the extracurricular stuff I do now, and I realized: I don’t even have time to take care of a dog. If I threw in a husband, I’d have to cut back, let alone a kid.

    Coco Chanels are rare, but so are stellar parents. That’s why we have therapists. One could argue that at least someone focusing solely on developing their personal capabilities is not making anyone else miserable.

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