Parenthood in a time of scarcity

Friday, 20th January 2012 at 14:25 UTC 3 comments

Being in my mid-twenties, its unsurprising that some of my peers are having kids. But quite a large number aren’t, and a sizeable chunk of my female friends are very fervently “not having kids”. Its a huge change in one’s life, and so perhaps its not surprising how quickly it becomes a divisive issue.

Living through a period of scarcity, particularly of jobs but also rising fuel and food prices, its not surprising that people are getting stressed out about one of the most life-changing events some will undergo. Old assumptions of when and how often children will arrive in people’s lives bump into people’s own sense of financial stability, and people who expected to have made a start on a mortgage are likely to be left renting, and quite possibly out of work. Rising prices and falling benefits are compounding the sense that now might not be the time to have kids.

The effects of having a child are quite dramatic even outside times of scarcity: children need time and energy investing in them, such that parent’s have to balance priorities. Its probably not surprising that parents tend to flock together, and that the social lives of those with and without children don’t tend to line up. Add in the financial strain factor, and its not exactly surprising when tempers flair between the haves and have nots.

Being someone without children is something that has changed in society: gone are the days when being childless was a pitied state automatically blamed on biological reasons. Instead its assumed that those without children are taking deliberate action to “delay” the matter. I say delay, because society still expects people to produce kids, though quite how given the pre-mortgage debts of the average graduate, let alone school leaver, is not entirely clear. In fact, I’m getting the distinct vibe from those having kids right now that monetary fears are trumping medical fears in all but the most risky of pregnancies.

Not having children has, for some time, been seen as a lifestyle choice, as if people choose in a vacuum of influencing circumstances. Oddly, having children is largely not seen as a lifestyle choice. I’ve yet to figure out quite why this occurs, but it just does. In Sweden the backlash against people choosing to remain childless has created a “Childfree” movement. Accusations of "selfishness” abound – both on those who don’t have children (and are perceived therefore to have more spare cash and time) and on those who have children if they then must rely on state support to give them a start in life. Those who don’t feel they have enough time and energy to commit to having children find themselves marked out as selfish despite having made quite a reasonable calculation, perhaps one they regret having to make, and may themselves resent those who have children. There just seems to be quite a lot of resentment going around.

There might be several arguments being made about the macro-scale pros and cons of people having children (Labour surplus, carbon consumption, etc) which could counter the generic mandate to “Go forth and multiply”. But the reality is, its a personal “thing” whether you have kids or not. Perhaps choice is the wrong word – many pregnancies aren’t planned even in this day and age, and many who don’t have children would argue that they’ve been left with no choice. In society as a whole there are those who are too busy looking after relatives or concerned a child will end their career.

I’m not going to argue that people should or shouldn’t have children. I would suggest those of a similar age to myself think very carefully about the implications of starting a family and consider both options without prejudice – though I suspect the advice is unnecessary in the vast majority of cases. But what I am going to say is this: I’m sick to the back teeth of hearing people throwing accusations across the “have kids/have no kids” fence as if somehow either having or not having children makes you a worse person.

I’m sick of people asking each other when they’re going to have kids rather than if they’re going to have kids, and thus reinforcing the societal expectation. I’m especially worked up given the current economic climate, under which many feel forced, not by choice, to wonder if kids is something they’ll ever have.

On a Christianity/Church note, I’m sick and fed up with Christians seeing children as an automatic part of marriage. I was pondering possible follow-up discussions to the Hineni retreats I’ve been part of, and thinking that, alongside “The Vocation of Single Adulthood” and “The Vocation of Marriage” we should add “The Vocation of Parenting” and “The Vocation of Childlessness” (better title needed?). I’m sure its a debate to be had elsewhere.

But for those of us in the “current generation”, perhaps the challenge is to calmly explain why there won’t be as many kids in Sunday school from church families as others might expect, and to look at ways that those without children can continue to serve and be catered for by the church. The universal nature of the “Crèche, Sunday School, Youth Group, Student Group, take kids to Crèche” routine may be interrupted for years to come – indeed it has to enough of an extent that 20something ministries are becoming more and more necessary and common. And guys, lets not just leave the explaining to the women – experience tells me that we always need to affirm those who are fulfilling a different role to their traditional one with extra gusto.

Someone I follow on twitter recently announced that someone in their housing coop is expecting with words to the extent of “I’m glad there’ll be a child around the house, but I’m also glad I won’t be solely responsible”. Perhaps, with more people living in shared houses to save on the rent, this will become more commonplace, with people fulfilling their desire for kids through sharing the load with parents around them more.

I hope none of this has seemed too harsh, and that it hasn’t seemed too out of place coming from a male. I realise I probably haven’t said everything in the best way possible, but I think as a society we need to deal with this before we end up hurting each other immensely over this issue, largely from false assumptions. For myself, this is in part a reflection on my current position: whatever other people think, I don’t feel it would be responsible for myself to be starting a family with anyone right now.

So I’m really glad to have gotten all that off my chest, and hope that it serves as some kind of useful point in a debate. Oh, and if you have or are having children, please let us childless folks know how we can be a help. Some of us would be delighted to lend a hand and spread the load in whatever way we best can.


Entry filed under: Children, Church, Community, Culture, Family, Poverty.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Friday, 20th January 2012 at 16:00 UTC

    “Not having children has, for some time, been seen as a lifestyle choice, as if people choose in a vacuum of influencing circumstances. Oddly, having children is largely not seen as a lifestyle choice.”

    That’s because having children is seen as the default option, so remaining childless is seen as something different and notable because it’s variation from the norm. Given that we’d die out as a species if we didn’t have kids, I don’t how this asymmetry is either surprising or wrong.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 20th January 2012 at 16:20 UTC

      Its not so terribly uncommon – rates of reproduction are falling fast in the West, although single child families are a big part of that.

  • 3. Helen  |  Friday, 20th January 2012 at 20:32 UTC

    I keep meaning to write a blogpost about how normativity sucks. I think it’s the root of all ignorance-bound prejudice – people just assuming that one thing is the norm and other things are strange. In this case, that having children is something that everyone does, and indeed, should do. People should do what they want, try not to hurt anybody, and let others do the same. Also people assuming that you will have or want kids is excluding people who are infertile or who feel they shouldn’t be pregnant for health reasons (for instance, some conditions increase risk of miscarriage… there is also medication that can’t be taken during pregnancy), and numerous others. I feel in general we should be more aware of things that aren’t the norm 🙂

    I thought your post was fine, maybe a little preachy 🙂 I think it’s fair enough writing it ‘as a male’ though, you have reproductive choices to make too, although I’m guessing that the chances of your ever being pregnant are quite low 🙂 It’s also, I think, good to think about whether you (in general, not you specifically 🙂 ) want children, and how you would cope if you did have kids. That’s not to say that any little doubt means you shouldn’t have children even if you would like to. Just that assessing the circumstances is quite a good plan to make sure you’ve an idea what you’ve got in store for you 🙂


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