Belfast Telegraph

Are couples really selfish for not wanting to have any children?

By Mary Kenny

People choose not to have children for a variety of reasons. A friend of mine said she would never become a mother because she had "bad genes". Two of her brothers had served a jail sentence for violent crimes, and one eventually died after a prison brawl.

Annie herself was clever and a gifted musician - a little eccentric sometimes, but where's the harm in that? Anyway, she was adamant about the "bad genes" and her husband accepted the situation.

Was she being selfish? It was truly the way she felt.

Pope Francis has been airing his theory that couples, who deliberately don't have children, are selfish. Speaking in the context of the calamitously low fertility rate in Italy - there are now more deaths than births annually - his point had a certain resonance. The health minister seemed to agree. The demographics were alarming: who is going to staff the hospitals, earn the pensions, look after the old in years to come if the Italians won't procreate?

But individuals, or couples, don't think about demography when they're deciding whether to try for a baby. They usually think about immediate things like jobs and housing and childcare costs. Sometimes they get an epiphany in the middle of the night and wake up thinking, "I MUST have a baby", as the agony aunt Irma Kurtz did at the age of 37.

Sometimes they're out on a day's sailing when a storm arises at sea and there's a problem managing the boat, and one says to the other: "If we were swept away and drowned, would anyone really care?" And if the answer is, "No, not really", they may go back home and have a baby: this actually happened to someone I know.

Some people decide not to have children for reasons they believe are unselfish. They think the planet is already too full and human beings are causing global warming. They ask if it is worth bringing children into what Shakespeare called "this stage of fools".

Some of us have babies for quite selfish reasons. We want to replicate ourselves. We want to replicate the person we're in love with. We want to feel fulfilled. We feel competitive with our peers.

After darling little Harper Beckham appeared on her daddy's knee at Victoria's latest catwalk show in New York, the fashionistas shrieked: "The latest must-have accessory! A child!" Globally, families have often had kids for economic reasons. You have to have someone to look after you in old age. The Chinese have been, frankly, quite brutal about this, traditionally - they infanticided girls for centuries because females were considered a liability.

During the First World War, Irish missionary nuns were writing letters home about the numbers of abandoned little girls they found wandering the byways. (They often baptised them Bridget).

By contrast, some couples will go to the brink of bankruptcy to become parents, enduring three, four, five cycles of IVF to achieve a pregnancy.

However, there's one perspective that usually only comes with the passage of time. If a couple decide not to have children, for whatever reasons of their own, it may be a source of sharp disappointment to their own parents, who are thus deprived of grandchildren.

Older people, these days, are trained not to meddle in the lives of their grown offspring, and I know of cases where there's a great yearning for a grandchild, but out of respect for feelings, nothing is said.

If a daughter wants to dedicate her life to animal welfare, rather than human babies, that's her choice. If a son marries someone who doesn't want children, or is past the age to conceive, you can't interfere. And if that daughter or son is an only child, there can be a deep sense of loss.

I'm impressed by the fortitude and brave attitudes often shown: if an offspring is happy and fulfilled, isn't that better than being reluctant parents, or even bad parents?

All the same, in later life, that's the perspective you see - the longer view, down the generations, rather than the immediate economic view. I wondered if Pope Francis had spoken as a would-be grandfather - being of that vintage.

Sometimes the reasons given for either having children or not having them are not the true ones, which may be buried deeper. "The things one says," said Bertrand Russell, "are often unsuccessful attempts to say something else."

After Annie died, I met her niece at a memorial service, who seemed an entirely together person, with no evidence of the "bad genes" that Annie feared.

But then, we all have a myriad of genes to draw on, and it's just as likely that the good ones will appear on the top deck of cards.

We have to believe that anyway, or life would be a matter of despair.

Belfast Telegraph


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