Why more and more people are choosing to be child-free
When I think that it won’t hurt too much, I imagine the children I will not have. Would they be more like me or my partner? Would they have inherited my thatch of hair, our terrible eyesight? Mostly, a child is so abstract to me, living with high rent, student debt, no property and no room, that the absence barely registers. But sometimes I suddenly want a daughter with the same staggering intensity my father felt when he first cradled my tiny body in his big hands. I want to feel that reassuring weight, a reminder of the persistence of life.
Then I remember the numbers. If my baby were to be born today, they would be 10 years old when a quarter of the world’s insects could be gone, when 100 million children are expected to be suffering extreme food scarcity. My child would be 23 when 99% of coral reefs are set to experience severe bleaching. They would be 30 – my age now – when 200 million climate refugees will be roaming the world, when half of all species on Earth are predicted to be extinct in the wild. They would be 80 in 2100, when parts of Australia, Africa and the United States could be uninhabitable.
We are in the middle of a mass extinction, the first caused by a single species. There are 7.8 billion of us, on a planet that scientists estimate can support 1.5 billion humans living as the average US citizen does today. And we know that the biggest contribution any individual living in affluent nations can make is to not have children. According to one study, having one fewer child prevents 58.6 tonnes of carbon emissions every year; compare that with living car-free (2.4 tonnes), avoiding a transatlantic return flight (1.6), or eating a plant-based diet (0.82). Another study said it was almost 20 times more important than any other choice an environmentally minded individual could make. Such claims have been questioned. After all, does a parent really bear the burden of their child’s emissions? Won’t our individual emissions fall as technologies and lifestyles change? Isn’t measuring our individual carbon footprint – a concept popularised by oil and gas multinational BP – giving a free pass to the handful of corporate powers responsible for almost all carbon emissions? The only thing that isn’t up for debate is that we all know that we are living in ways that can’t continue.
Some scientists call the plummeting birth rate ‘jaw-dropping’, but perhaps it is an understandable consequence of the existential malaise many of us feel
In the last days of March, with much of the world in lockdown, came the first predictions of “coronababies”. Nadine Dorries, the UK minister responsible for maternity services, tweeted: “How busy we are going to be, nine months from now.” At that same moment, thousands of people under 35 living in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – were being asked whether they planned to have children this year. An overwhelming majority (60%–80%) reported that they were either postponing or entirely abandoning the idea. But the virus, LSE academics wrote, was only part of it. The generations that are currently of childbearing age were on the brink of adulthood during the 2008 global financial crisis; a decade later, they find themselves facing another. In the US, the birth rate is at a historic 35-year low (having fallen by 20% after 2008) and is well below the “replacement level” that keeps the population steady. And these are just a few of the 183 countries, from a total of 195, that are set to see huge population crashes by 2100. Twenty-three, including Spain and Japan, may see their populations halve.
Scientists have called this “jaw-dropping”, but others see it as an understandable consequence of the deepening, existential malaise so many of us currently feel; a growing sense that accountability has been eroded, inequality is rampant, and that the profound structural changes we need to feel better about the future are out of our reach. So while governments focus on pronatalist policies, groups including Population Matters and Optimum Population Trust have reported a sharp uptick in interest in their advice, which is to only have one or two children, or none at all. More extreme groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (motto: “May we live long and die out”) have entered mainstream conversation. New terms have been minted: “birthstrikers” refuse to procreate in the face of the existential threat of climate change. Antinatalists argue that bringing sentient life into the world is inherently cruel, as it is doomed to suffer; some make headlines for suing their parents over their own existence. In the darker corners of the internet, ecofascists write screeds about issuing birth licences to those they deem worthy. But the most universally applicable term now is “child-free”: those who have voluntarily decided to not have kids (and so, are not child-“less”).
Coronavirus isn’t likely to give us coronababies – but a pandemic isn’t the reason that having children has shifted from an inevitability to a choice, and now, a moral question. A long time ago, “Do we have children?” became “Should we?”
In A Children’s Bible, a new novel by Lydia Millet, kids are contemptuous of adults for their lack of action before the collapse of society. “It was so sudden, they said. They’d all been told there was more time. Way more. It was someone else’s fault for sure.” One of the children, Jack, finds a decaying Bible, and in it, a way of making sense of his disintegrating world. When an apocalyptic storm hits the US, the book tells him what to do: build an ark.
Few novels have attempted to tell us what to do in the face of climate catastrophe. Amitav Ghosh has called this “a crisis of imagination”. As Richard Powers writes in his 2018 novel The Overstory, “The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.”
But even when the future seems like no place for a child, there is always room for them in fiction set at the end of the world: they are emotional ammunition, a reminder of bigger stakes to come. In Lauren Beukes’s upcoming Afterland, a global pandemic that kills only men has lead to a “global reprohibition”; Cole, a mother on the run with her mysteriously still-living teenage son, thinks: “When there aren’t going to be any more kids, you want to hold on to their childhood for as long as you can. There must be a German word for that. Nostalgenfreude. Kindersucht.”
Perhaps it is kindersucht we feel when we read novels like The Children of Men by PD James, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, or JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, in which children are conspicuous by their presence or absence. In Ballard’s 1962 novel, set in a submerged London, “the birth of a child had become a comparative rarity, and only one marriage in 10 yielded any offspring … the genealogical tree of mankind was systematically pruning itself.” In Margaret Atwood’s 1977 short story “When It Happens”, a middle-aged woman makes preparations to flee her family home due to an unnamed threat, and her gaze falls on a family photo: “The children when they were babies. She thinks of her girls now and hopes they will not have babies; it is no longer the right time for it.” In Jenny Offill’s Weather, the narrator watches her son play and recalls a past conversation with an environmentalist friend: “I asked her once what I could do, how I could get him ready. It would be good if he had some skills, she said. And of course, no children.”
Children become resigned to not having the future they should have had; in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, when the father says: “You are not the one who has to worry about everything”, his son counters, “I am the one.” And in Season Butler’s Cygnet, a teenager mopes around an island populated only by pensioners waiting out the end as their homes slowly crumble into the sea: “I think about the kids that people my age are having, or will start having soon. Life is going to be so boring for them. Not just because the world will have gone completely to shit by then and there won’t be much of anything left, but because their parents are going to talk constantly about how the world used to be.”
In the real world too, children play a leading role: think of all the kids we’ve seen skipping school to hold signs on the news, or addressing world leaders for us at UN climate summits. It is tragic and effective, and why every book about the environment right now is written by parents. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything starts with her realisation that her toddler may never see a moose. Notes from an Apocalypse opens as Mark O’Connell sees a video of a starving polar bear and mourns for his son, who is happily watching a cartoon bear nearby. Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather looks forward to the lives his children will inherit. In David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, he confesses to the “delusion” and “wilful blindness” involved in his decision to have his first child while writing it. And the title of James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren says it all.
All these books are well argued, emotive and interesting, but it is remarkable how many of these authors suggest that having a child is a hopeful gesture, a sign of one’s investment in the future. Wallace-Wells has said having children “is a reason to fight now”. O’Connell writes that his son’s birth is a dilemma because “the last thing the world needed, after all, was more people in it, and the last thing my hitherto nonexistent person needed was to be in the world”; by the end, he has a second child, and a “radically increased stake in the future”. Klein writes that, before having her son, she “couldn’t help feeling shut out” by activists talking about their children and grandchildren, and wonders: “Was it even possible to be a real environmentalist if you didn’t have kids?” (Yes.) If you don’t, it is seen as fatalism. “Are we then expected to hasten the end, to succumb at last to the logic of oblivion, by renouncing the biological imperative?” asks O’Connell. (No.)
When asked why I do not have children, I have given various explanations over the years. ‘I don’t want to’ is the only one that provokes a flinch
So, we continue to place our hopes in children, even the ones that don’t yet exist, to save us. Lee Edelman calls this “reproductive futurism” in his book No Future; it is that child, “the fantasmic beneficiary of every political intervention”, that people feel inspired to fight for, the one people mean when they say to women like me: “But what if your child was the one to solve climate change?”
As Sheila Heti writes in Motherhood: “I resent the spectacle of all this breeding, which I see as a turning away from the living – an insufficient love for the rest of us, we billions of orphans already living.” And as Greta Thunberg told us all last year: “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you.”
When asked why I do not have children, I have given various explanations over the years. “It is a complex situation” is vague enough to make most interrogators look ashamed for having asked. If I say, “I am worried about the environment”, parents often tell me in hushed tones that they have wondered whether their children will be able to have children too. (In my meanest moments, I think: “Really? How hard did you think about that?” And then I feel a deep, sour sense of shame, because I have a choice in the matter and rightfully, so do they.) But “I don’t want to” is the only answer that provokes a flinch.
Choosing to have children is neither inherently good nor selfish, and the same goes for being child-free
Countless studies have found that people consider child-free adults unnatural and cold. Women bear this burden particularly hard; Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon have been forced to share miscarriages and infertility; the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was once criticised for being “deliberately barren”. Last year, I wrote a news story about Paul Dolan’s book Happy Ever After, which contained some research about child-free people being just as happy as parents. Subsequently, complete strangers called me a “stupid bitch”, a “feminist cancer”. One Instagram account uploaded a picture of me where thousands of men discussed how unfuckable I was; more than one messaged to tell me that my mother wished I had never been born. When I read this, I thought of my mother, who had me as a teenager and could give them a brisk, pitiless history of all the people like them who treated her terribly for having had a child. (If you still don’t think this is a gendered debate, I ran into Dolan a day later, and asked him how he was coping. “What abuse?” he asked.)
Still, my generation continues desperately to hunt for things to do in the face of the greatest catastrophe some of us (or our children) may live to see. We give up meat and take holidays closer to home, even when we know that if the super-rich cut their emissions to that of the average EU citizen, global emissions would drop by a third. But we can’t make anyone else do anything, so we do what we can, and we justify our choices as being meaningful, bigger than us.
Ever since my partner and I concluded that we wanted to be child-free, I have looked to books for positive examples of fulfilling and rewarding lives lived without children. The closest I have found have been eccentric spinsters and ambivalent parents, in a long line from Doris Lessing and DH Lawrence, Barbara Pym and Rachel Cusk. There are countless mothers who find their intellectual pursuits strangled by their children and absent husbands (most recently, Fleishmann Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet).
But recently, as millennials are coming of age as both prospective parents and as authors, characters are questioning the status quo. “Fuck all those childbearers and their ‘fulfilling’ lives, never getting to have adventures like mine,” thinks the 38-year-old narrator of Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, for whom the prospect of children is “like something mildly distasteful: a piece of onion I would prefer not to put on my plate”. “Why bother having a kid when the world’s going to hell anyway?” wonders one character in Ottessa Moshfegh’s A Year of Rest and Relaxation. “Why do you want children?” the narrator of Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar asks her boyfriend. “He shrugs. ‘So we can be like everybody else.’” In Amina Cain’s Indelicacy, a woman objects to her husband’s expectation that they will someday have children. “Why is it necessary for everyone to think of it, as if there were no other choice?” she rages at a friend.
The climate crisis has presented an opportunity to rebrand being child-free, once the greatest taboo, into the ultimate altruistic act. At the same time, parenthood is framed as the ultimate investment in a better future. But choosing to have children is neither inherently good nor selfish, and the same goes for being child-free. We must challenge the orthodoxy that says choosing to live one way is a criticism of another. Just this week comes a new novel by Emma Gannon, Olive, which centres on a woman in her 30s who has chosen to be child-free; Gannon herself has spoken about being made to feel guilty for her choice. What we need instead is a quiet revolution, a complete reappraisal of what we deem to be a meaningful life. I, for one, will continue to turn to books, where I find reassurance in the strangest of places. In one tiny strand of The Overstory, Ray and Dorothy, a couple who have spent thousands on fertility treatments, finally decided to move on. “In place of children, then, books,” Powers writes. “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilisation ascending to its still-obscure destiny. He wants only to read on, late into the night, about the rising quality of life, the steady freeing of humanity by invention, the breakout of know-how that will finally save the race.”