December 21, 2014

Is Having Kids Selfish?

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his monumental book Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggests that we are basically envelopes to carry our genes around and make sure that these get copied and passed on into the future. It’s perhaps a little extreme a view, and he tempers his arguments, but ultimately the whole goal of existence is, well, to keep existing, and the best way to do that is by making fresh copies of the genetic material — which would otherwise suffer wear and tear — and for most of us multicellular organisms that means by having kids.

This is probably not the reason any of us would state first for reproducing, but is having kids selfish? Based on an unofficial summary of what I’ve been hearing over the years, here are the top 5 reasons people give for having kids:

  1. Because they’re so wonderful and fun!
  2. Because that maternal urge is just too strong to ignore
  3. To pass on my values and beliefs
  4. To keep me young and active
  5. To have someone who’ll love me even when I’m grey and saggy

Notice something all these reasons have in common? They’re pretty selfish. They’re all based on the parent, not the kid. So I’d be wary of labeling people who choose not to have kids as selfish. Surely deciding we’re so important that it’s worth procreating to pass our genes on into the future is the most selfish thing there is?

OK, so there will be a number of years characterized by almost total self-abnegation, as you feed, wash, cuddle, play with, protect and nurture  your offspring, but it’s like altruism. Under that selfless devotion, there’s a hidden agenda: you’re actually batting for your own team.

And then there’s the issue of overpopulation. Surely we don’t need more humans on our small planet? So to all those of you who have taken the decision not to have children — which cannot have been an easy one, and which will probably continue to be the source of much debate — I say, “Bravo!” You have overridden that seflish gene impulse and are working for the good of the planet by preventing overpopulation, at the cost of sacrificing your own genes. Luckily thanks to writing we can pass on values perhaps more effectively than via offspring!

So when my friends ask about having kids, my response is always the same : maybe. It’s an ENORMOUS responsibility, and it’s entirely ours: the children never asked to be born. Yes, kids are great, but aren’t our lives great already? Women today don’t need kids to fulfill our lives now that we have great jobs and careers and no longer live in the shadow of our menfolk.

Many were the conversations my husband and I had before taking this big step. We had such a great life, why change it? We made a list of pros and cons, and finally figured we were a happy, stable and financially settled couple and we could raise happy, stable children to become positive contributors to society. One of our arguments was that so many unhappy and unstable people have many kids, so shouldn’t there be a few stable, happy ones to balance that out? It was almost our civic duty to bear children. But if perchance we couldn’t have children, that was no big deal. It was a very logical, calculated decision. I never understood this irrational maternal urge that some women get, which pushes them to bear children regardless of the circumstances.

Until I actually HAD children myself. Now I fantasize about having more children all the time, and my motivations are purely selfish. To my surprise I loved pregnancy (and getting pregnant was fun), and thanks to epidurals I simply LOVED giving birth, and little babies are so cute, and toddlers are a scream, and my sons are heart-stoppingly wonderful. I want more of all that joy! This passion for children is completely unexpected and it mostly encompasses my own progeny. The only non-selfish reason I can bring up to justify having another child is that it would be nice for my first two to have another sibling to comfort them when we parents die.

My worry as I write this is that some day my sons will read it and think I didn’t want them, or regret having them. They were both babies conceived in love and anticipation, and I love them more than I can express without going all maudlin. They have enriched my life and changed my perspectives, and if I could relive my life I’d do exactly the same. But if they had never existed, well, things would be pretty good too, and almost certainly a lot less noisy.