Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Solipsistic Selfishness of Not Wanting Children

A confluence of things has recently had me thinking more about children than I normally do: one of my coworkers recently became a father, four TV shows I watch had episodes that touched on the theme of children and family, and my Chinese(-American) parents have badgered me, a single twentysomething yuppie, about "expanding the family". Combine this with some of the magazines that I read (left-of-center or hardcore progressive/liberal) and all the anti-children stuff they constantly churn out and you can forgive a guy for thinking about children more than usual.

I do want kids. And I want them for very selfish reasons. Everything we do is rooted in some form of selfishness. The person who wants kids is just as selfish as the person who doesn't want kids. But the difference between the two is that the person who doesn't want kids is adhering to a form of solipsism. But the person who wants kids is somebody whose selfishness extends to those around him. His family is an extension of himself, and thus the fruits his selfishness must also extend to them as well.

There is a very popular show on HBO called Game of Thrones, and it depicts the political machinations of the great aristocratic families of a fictional kingdom called Westeros. And one of the most important themes of the show is the importance of family and the legacy that you and your family leave behind after you die. Because, inevitably, all men, their children, and their grandchildren must die. But the family name lives on.

That desire to leave something behind when you are gone is the reason why organisms procreate. Every species on the planet is genetically driven to replicate themselves. And it's what makes people who don't want children so unique. For them, the only sense of existence is literally their own self being. They actively deny their instinctual desire to leave behind a legacy because they believe in only living for themselves. Once they are gone, the show's over for them. What good is leaving behind a legacy if you never get to see your legacy?

Another show on HBO, Veep, which is a comedic take on the inside-the-Beltway happenings revolving around a fictional Vice President and her staff, has a scene in which one of the main character reiterates her desire not to have children. It's just one minor scene, but when the entire show is about incredibly narcissistic politicians willing to go to silly lengths in order to further their own individual gain, it highlights something else.

Behind the excuses and justifications of why people don't want children, the real reason is ultimately rooted in solipsistic selfishness. And I know because I have those same impulses. There are so many things that I want to buy (a luxury condo, sports cars, tailored suits, expensive watches, pricey consumer electronics) and do (travel the world, eat at fancy restaurants, pursue beautiful women). If I were to settle down, get married, and have children, most of my time and money would be spent and invested in my family and not myself.

And there are real opportunity costs, even if you become rich later on. When the kids have flown the coop and the father has suffered his midlife crisis and buys a shiny red sports car, he finds that although he very much enjoys the car, something's missing. Because he wants to buy what the sports car represented to him when he was younger. And now he only has the car, not what it represented. That is why so many upper middle class yuppies want to "live life" in their 20s by traveling the world, partying and drinking most nights, and blowing money on outrageously extravagant things because they won't get the same thrill from doing so once they're in their 30s and 40s.

Some of them will eventually settle down. Although I predict a growing number will not. Many in the media have talked about an extended adolescence and what they're really referring to is the fact that you're not truly an adult until you take care of somebody other than yourself. Almost every day in Slate or The Atlantic, I read the self-pitying lamentations of twentysomethings who express anguish at the fact that their every need and want isn't being taken care of by other people. They are incapable of taking care of themselves, let alone another person.

Another show I watch, The Americans, is about two Soviet spies who are embedded into American society. They have a secret identity as KGB field agents but to the society they live in, they are ordinary Americans with normal American children. Their children have no idea who they really are, and the parents go to great lengths to make sure they never find out.

In one episode, there is a scene where the KGB officer who oversees the spies lectures the female lead, who is emotionally stunted, about love. He asks her why he loves his dog. He answers his own question with: "He (the dog) isn't particularly smart. He isn't pretty. But I love him. Do you know why? Because I take care of him. Every day. And he, in his way, is taking care of me. If you take care of something, Elizabeth, one day you will discover that you love this creature. And that your life would be empty without it."

Again, I'm being heavy handed and liberally referring to TV shows. But you can see where I'm going with this. There was this one article on Slate that went in the opposite direction of what they usually publish. And it was about the love that a mother had for her daughter with Down Syndrome. Not that she wanted to have a child with Down Syndrome. She admits that had she known her daughter's condition while she was still pregnant, she would have had an abortion.

We are different people after we become parents. As so many wedding speeches love to remind us, love is patient; love is kind. And our capacity for love increases infinitely after we have children. I remember reading, a long time ago, an article where the author advocated cities to structure themselves around parents rather than yuppies. Among the arguments they made were that parents made their communities stronger. Because parents are much more likely to volunteer than the average twentysomething. And I suspect a strong reason for the increased proclivity in volunteering is because of the effect their children have had on them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying all parents are like that. My parents certainly weren't. But I've worked with plenty of people who fit that mold exactly. Almost all of my coworkers are married with kids. And it's very humbling to be around them, knowing that they're working for more than just themselves.

The last show, Mad Men, is about New York ad executives in the 1960s, had their latest episode featuring the main character bonding with his middle child. Later, he is seen with a glass of whiskey in hand slumped over a bed. He tells his second wife about how he never loved his children. And although he went through the motions of what he thought being a good parent was, he essentially says he did it because it was convenient, not out of love. And then he bonds with his son over a day at the movies, suddenly feeling a great love for his son that he never felt before. And it felt like his heart was going to explode.

I am nowhere near that. I'm still stuck in solipsistic selfishness. I don't donate to charity. I don't volunteer. I'm focused mainly on building up my financial assets and I keep a list of things that I want to buy. And if I had a wife who was pregnant with a child diagnosed with Down Syndrome, I would probably advocate an abortion (slightly in contra to my previous musings on the subject). But I don't want this to be my entire life. I want children because I do want to leave behind a legacy, even if I don't get to live to see it. And I'm not saying it's a noble thing. It's completely selfish. It's just a different form of selfishness.


  1. I love this topic, if for no other reason, that I can never come to a resolution one whether or not I actually want kids. There never seems to be a right or wrong answer when it comes to whether or not people want children. When you as someone why they want to have children, they usually can’t come up with an answer on the spot.
    My girlfriend and I have been together for over five years. By the time we get married in January it will have been six and some change. When we first started seeing each other, she wanted kids. Now she’s done a complete 180. Her man reason for not wanting to have kids is that she doesn’t want her body to get “wrecked”, her words, not mine. I don’t really have a good reason for wanting to have children. The best thing I can come up with is so that I can have someone to play baseball with.
    It seems like there are more cons than pros to having children. You’ve named all of them. I read an article a while back that said it costs something like $250k to raise a child to the age of 18. When I did the math a couple years ago, I figured I would need 3.5 million to retire by the age of 50, that’s assuming my money wouldn’t make money afterward. If not having children gets me that much closer to my retirement goal, then logically I shouldn’t have kids.
    As far charity goes, I don’t mind donating here and there. If you want a hundred bucks to grow a mustache for cancer, fine. Twenty bucks for some Girl Scout cookies or whatever, fine. Money I have, time I don’t. That’s why I don’t volunteer. I don’t volunteer for selfish reasons, the same way I donate money selfish reasons. If giving money will get me out of doing volunteer work, I’ll do it every time.
    A friend of mine worked for financial firms in Chicago writing code that analyze stock market trends to tell rich people where to invest their money. His big thing was buying time. He was paid well to do his job but was so busy doing it, that anywhere he could “buy time”, he would. If he could spend 10 minutes buying household items online rather than going out and buying them himself, he would do it. If he could drop his laundry off rather than spending time to do it himself, he would. He had money, just no time to enjoy his life.
    I also factor that into having kids. Children eat up a massive chunk of time out of your life. My father tells me that some of the best memories in his life are ones with his kids. Out of pure selfishness, I’m not sure if I want to give up my time.

    1. Right, but you're looking at it solely from a solipsistic point of view. If your life is only about living for yourself (not even for your fiancee, really), then of course having kids is a detriment to your own life.

      We're transformed once we are charged with the responsibility of taking care of someone else. You will be a different person once you have a kid, and you'll discover that your priorities and your desires will change accordingly.