This question probably arises in the mind of almost every person (married or in a stable partnership of some kind) who is in a position to have or adopt children and nurture them to adulthood. Among the many decisions we make in our lives, this is probably one of the most significant. Undertaking the
responsibilities of parenthood is not something that one backs out of whimsically, at least without various karmic implications. Likewise, a final decision to not have children–which in practical terms typically means sterilization–is not a trivial one either. There is a certain sense of finality to the choice that's much stronger than one's choice of home, job, and even partners.
With this sense of finality, those who commit themselves to either path are generally prone to doubt their choice, as Tim Kreider discusses in The Referendum (NY Times blogs), or adamantly defend their choice as much as the greatest dogmatists defend their faiths. To the question posed in the title of this article, people seem to either have no answer at all, or to have a definite answer on a definite side of the equation.
Now since I'm a parent myself, and shamelessly burden my friends and family members every other month with an online photo album of my kid, you might be wondering if I'm going to likewise burden you with some schmaltz about how children are "everything," "the only thing," and/or "what life is all about." Don't count on it, but then don't count on the opposite either. I believe both life paths can be valid–not are, mind you, but can be. And it's really this question of validity that I want to explore.
I can really speak for both sides of the issue because my wife and I have gone through all the phases of the question, from being undecided (that is, basically putting off the question entirely), to deciding to remain childless, to eventually bringing another soul into our lives.
Avoiding the Auto-Pilot Trap
We were fortunate that we had a long time to ponder the matter. My wife and I were married at age 19 when we were still in college, and though we and pretty much everyone we knew expected us to eventually have children (especially given that our stuffed animals called us "mommy" and "daddy" already), there was no pressure to reproduce right away. (When my brother married at age 25, on the other hand, he and his wife were expected to conceive their first-born by the end of their honeymoon!) For us, it made sense to wait until we finished school, established our careers, and acquired a suitable house to accessorize with furniture and babies.
For the next five years we dutifully executed the drill: getting our degrees, getting jobs, all and buying a 2,800-square-foot house into which we moved in September 1993. But as we began to engage more in the furniture part of the process, we started to wonder about the trajectory we were on. It was, again, the trajectory that was expected of us, and one that we'd been expecting of ourselves. It was also a trajectory that could be followed almost mindlessly (which is fortunate, by the way, when an infant wakes up several times a night), a trajectory that, had we followed it at that time, would have basically put our lives on auto-pilot for the next twenty years if not (out of habit) for the rest of our lives.
The thought of doing so, however, was somewhat terrifying to me. If there was one thing I feared at the time, and maybe still do today, it's conformity to societal norms and expectations, following the crowd, and getting caught up in a popular mindset not because there's any merit or validity to it, but just because it's what everyone else is doing. (For example, the only book of the Harry Potter series that I actually read when it came out was Book 7, and that in itself was an intriguing experience which I'll relate in a blog post; and I have yet to see any of the movies in the theater.)
Accordingly, I made a deliberate effort to explore the various thoughtforms around the question of children and, as the title of this article notes, which life path was more valid. Here's some of my thinking from that time, quoted almost verbatim from my personal notebooks:
December 1993: If you reach a stage in your life where you don’t believe that you yourself can accomplish anything important or lasting, then you generally have some children and attempt to instill in them the sense that they can accomplish something. But if you believe in what you can accomplish, then children become unnecessary except to fill out life experiences if you want that particular experience. This can be seen in the light of people wanting to overcome death via immortality. You live on either in children or brain-children. If you happen to have brain-children, then real children can be unnecessary.
April 1994: [Inspired by reading The Mind's I by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennet which mentioned the "selfish genes"concept of Richard Dawkins] The concept of selfish genes means that children are not immortality for you, only for your genes. Children are just an intermediary. If someone talks about perpetrating their genes, then they are fully under control of those genes! And since your genes, within a few generations, make a negligible contribution to future children, your so-called “immortality” is pretty limited. If, however, you contribute to the “meme pool” you’ve done something that can last. [A “meme,” a word also introduced by Richard Dawkins, is defined as the basic unit of cultural ideas that evolves according to natural selection much like genes.]
In other words, the reasons people normally advanced about "living on" in their children, "perpetuating the species," having "smart kids" instead of stupid ones (arrogantly assuming that your brains are superior), and so on, just weren't interesting to me. I simply didn't believe in them, and thus the motivations for having children of my own were beginning to wane.
The real kicker, though, came early in 1995 at a time when my wife and I were sitting in the completely empty dining room of our still mostly-empty house. If memory serves, we were engaged in the painful (for us) process of selecting some furniture for the living room which, up to this point, was home only to a grand piano. And on this 21st evening in February we were pondering the pain that inevitably awaited us in furnishing the rest of the house.
Why, we asked ourselves, were we really doing all this to begin with? With abrupt clarity, we realized how we'd been basically living out the typical life pattern for a married couple. OK, but was that something that we truly wanted? Because the next logical step would be children, and that meant locking ourselves into another common pattern for a very long time. As Kreider writes, "I can only imagine the paralytic terror that must seize my friends with families as they lie awake calculating mortgage payments and college funds and realize that they are locked into their present lives for farther into the future than the mind’s eye can see." My own terror in this case was fortunately prescient.
In the end, looking again at the emptiness around us, we really had to admit that neither of us really wanted children and couldn't think of any good reason to have some of our own. (The house, in fact, was really only there to accommodate my desire for a grand piano, as told in Chapter 15 of Mystic Microsoft.) Here's how that whole conversation progressed as I recorded it the next day (with some editing for clarification):
Having a child means empowering another soul to exercise its own free will. You cannot expect to control it, and after its first short period of dependency you must begin teaching it to be a free-minded adult as you are yourself. And with that in mind, what do you expect to thus accomplish with this new free-minded adult that you cannot already accomplish yourself? Since you are already in the position that you'd wish for your child, why not exercise that freedom right now? Why have a child in the hope that it will someday act freely in your place?
People may have biological/psychological needs to have children: the need for control [ha! as I say now as a parent of a three-year-old], or the need for intimacy (which must be relinquished in time anyway).
There is a ton of societal conditioning that says “when you’re an adult you’re supposed to have children.” But we have to question this tradition in terms of global population. I find it fascinating to think that we’re on the brink of an evolution in culture away from “everyone should have children” to cultural population control wherein we celebrate the few people who really want to have children and are dedicated to teaching them and raising them for the benefit of the rest of the community.
There is also the gamble in having children that they will be (a) someone you like, (b) normal, (c) responsive to the love and education you give them. You cannot control these things. Therefore in bringing a new life into the world you are doing nothing more than that: bringing in a new life that you have to let live as their own. Every thought of satisfying one's own unfulfilled desires through one's children is sheer delusion.
What about accomplishment and feeling proud and having key experiences? You can do this through children, surely, but children aren't the only means. The difference is that as a childless adult you must put effort into creative acts, learning, and new accomplishments. If you have children, the course of their life is rather predetermined: they will learn to talk, they will learn to walk, they will go off to school, they will usually graduate, they will usually get married themselves, etc. etc. There will be a long chain of “firsts” for a child as it grows. When they grow, and have their own children, then you’ll get to experience all of that over again as a grandparent, as well as experience all of the parenting over again.
In this sense, having children is a way to easily lock your life into a predictable and even somewhat guaranteed pattern of events, where you don’t have to do much for those “special events” to occur except take care of the interim details (like diapers). On the other hand, not having children requires that you make those special events happen yourself, and that takes a lot of creative work that many people are probably not willing to do or don't believe themselves capable of doing. And maybe it's just a matter of paying attention. When we thought about it, Kristi and I have had a number of “special moments” in our lives in the last few years: first professional job (Kristi), first promotion (Kristi), first product shipping (Kristi), first book (Kraig), first professional award (Kraig), first trips to Europe (both), first trip to South America (Kraig), first house (both), first piano (both), and so on. A child isn't necessary for these types of experiences; the experiences with a child and without are just different. Even the mystery of life, which is so much in your reality with a human child, can be explored through plants and animals; it just takes focused effort instead of the automatic sense of what comes as a parent.
If you want to touch babies, then there are many places to do that without having your own. If you want to do something with other children, there are many opportunities to have those experiences when and where you want them, not because you have to have them for your own.
I thought about how much I enjoyed certain experiences I was given as a child. If I had my own children you’re damn right I’d give them special experiences! However, that is no reason to have a child in the first place, because as an adult I can continue to give myself more experiences, and potentially give experiences to many other people and not just my own children. I can do this—I have the power to do so and I understand that I can do so. So there's little validity to the idea of “teaching things” to a child or “giving them experiences” as being a necessary part of your own fulfillment to the point of having to create your own child. If, for some other reason you do have a child, then you damn well should give them special experiences. But that’s not the reason to have children in the first place.
Even so, much of this depends on the idea that a parent is home most of the time with children, especially in the first five years. That means generally that someone has to be making consistent money in order to pay the bills and offer a reasonable guarantee on the child's health care. So at least one parent will be locked into a job, and maybe both. How much time do they then have left over for (a) self-improvement and (b) raising the child? How much time does even a stay-at-home parent have in the same capacity? When do they foster their own relationships with others and even themselves?
Indeed, having a child would seem to be at least in some way an exercise in sacrifice and self-neglect. If that can be kept in check, and the parents strive to maintain some freedoms to explore and grow, then they would be setting a good example for a future free-minded adult. But if parents enslave themselves in the process of providing for their children, I have my doubts about the value of that example. If parents make no other contributions to the world other than having raised children that are essentially like themselves, then nothing much has changed, has it?
With such thoughts dancing around the question of our own futures, we firmly decided at the time that children were not going to be part of our futures for at least as long as we could see.
The Choice of Conscious Living
But now here's the critical difference: in choosing to remain childless, we also made the clear choice to do more with our lives than what Kreidler describes in his article as his "typical Saturday in New York City — doing the Times crossword, stopping off at a local flea market, maybe biking across the Brooklyn Bridge". As romantic as this may sound, let's be honest: a life that is spent working out contrived puzzles, browsing other people's junk, and moving one's body over miles of pavement is not a life that really contributes all that much to the world, nor is it a path of deep self-improvement or personal growth.
This may seem a harsh judgment, but its certainly worth thinking about. What, indeed, is more rewarding? Spending one's days watching TV, watching movies, playing video games, and following the endlessly trivial tweets of some famous personage, or watching a child grow? Having experienced both, I can say without hesitation that the rewards of watching a child develop is orders of magnitude above passive entertainment, contrived amusements, and any form of gossip. Of course, there are many other activities that I would consider equally rewarding that don't involve diapers and endless wipe-downs of all surfaces in the dining area, but those demand conscious intent.
Where my wife and I ended our February 1995 discussion above, in fact, was with this very thinking:
If you decide to not have children, what do you do with all your comparatively free time and extra money? To squander them heedlessly on merely entertaining oneself through life makes no contribution either. No, the person who foregoes the responsibilities of a growing child is essentially obligated to grow in themselves, not stagnate. They must read, write, explore, create, share ideas, strive to improve the world around them and support others who are doing the same. [Which are all good things for parents to do anyway!] Those with financial resources not committed to raising children must support such processes as well, to purchase artwork, to give an example, that you find inspiring to your own creative energies even if it costs thousands of dollars. Wealth of time and money is not to hoard or squander, but to help yourself grow and to help others too.
Or, as Paramhansa Yogananda relates in his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, quoting his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, "he who discards his worldly duties can justify himself only by assuming some kind of responsibility toward a much larger family.”
In these thoughts we came upon the real answer to the conundrum with which Kreidler ends The Referendum. The article, if you haven't read it yet, is really about people's tendency to doubt the life path they've chosen, whether with children or without, and how they then avoid facing that decision by instead analyzing other people's choices. "One of the hardest things to look at in this life," he concludes, is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. […] Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield.
Well, as unsatisfying as this statement is, there's little more that can be said because what Kreidler's really talking about is how people compare their particular auto-pilot lives to other auto-pilot lives…a comparison that has no clear winner because both life paths share the fundamental problem of being on auto-pilot! In other words, the reason people wonder about the relative validity of these two auto-pilot life paths is because neither is truly valid: neither, in the end, leads to the joy that comes from inner growth, which is to say the transformation and expansion of one's consciousness to embrace realities larger than one's own.
Thus with the title of this present article, asking whether the path of having children is more or less valid than the path of remaining childless is really asking the wrong question. The real question is whether the path of living on auto-pilot is more or less valid than the path of living consciously. And to that question there is a clear answer: conscious living is what gives validity to one's life path, whatever that path happens to be.
And choosing to live more and more consciously is exactly what my wife and I embraced when we chose to remain childless. Over the next 18 months, we unwound ourselves from the forms and expectations in which we'd allowed ourselves to become entangled. We sold the house (and the piano and extra furniture) and relocated ourselves to a small apartment in an intentional spiritual community, an environment specifically created to support conscious living. We retired from the jobs we'd taken on the assumptions of worldly gain and directed our energies instead toward service and attunement to realities larger than ourselves. In this way, and in the serviceful roles we embraced as a result, we wholly accepted that greater responsibility of which Sri Yukteswar spoke. In fact, we quickly became far busier than ever! But in that self-offering we discovered an inner joy that inspired far more energy that we ever knew working for money or career advancement.
The Conscious Choice of Children
Now an important aspect of self-offering is that once you're really acclimated to this particular approach to life, you really stop arguing with what life brings to your table and trust that good will come from it no matter how strange it might seem.
After eight years of focused and deliberate immersion in a new way of being, we had in many ways become new beings, living from a higher point of reference than ego-satisfaction. (As it's been said, every cell in your body is replaced over the course of seven years, so even the physical traces of our old 'selves' had by now been replaced.) As such, it was again time for a change of trajectory lest the new patterns we'd established became themselves merely habitual. The choice to live consciously, after all, demands constant vigilance lest the outer forms of such a life become just another expression of pressing the auto-pilot switch.
The particular change that seemed to present itself was, after all this time, to invite another soul into our midst and to consciously embrace all the responsibilities that came with that invitation, for many years to come. Just to be sure, however, we first moved from our community near Seattle, Washington to its sister community in Portland, Oregon and immersed ourselves in new service projects as a final way of testing the potential of that particular (childless) path. By early 2006, however, the doors to that future that had once seemed so open to us had strangely, but not surprisingly, closed. The Universe, clearly, was placing family life before us. All we had to do was accept, which we did not grudgingly or out of any last-resort desperation, but wholeheartedly in the continued spirit of complete self-offering.
I must add that because this choice was made with deliberate intent–specifically the intent to live in attunement with our Higher Selves, if you will–we really experienced none of the anxiety and trepidation that expecting parents normally do. Instead, there was a deep calmness throughout the entire pregnancy that has really continued on to the present. Oh, sure, there have been difficult and challenging moments, but what childless life is free from those, especially an ego-motivated life on auto-pilot? Indeed, those who cut themselves off from any reality greater than themselves are the ones who truly suffer in their utter loneliness; those who choose to live in some kind of conscious harmony with such realities, on the other hand, increasingly realize that peace and joy lie just beneath the surface of any difficulty.
And strangely enough–but there is no "strange" in my view any more–this conscious choice to bring another soul into our lives led me back to the career at Microsoft I once left behind–but consciously. That is, my decision to leave back in 1996 and my decision to return in 2008 share the common thread of conscious living, of making choices based not on what it looks like on the outside but on the those subtle and simple things that make all life paths valid: the expansion of self-identity and inner joy.