Having children and selfishness

I wrote a piece replying to another South African writer regarding the tired assertion linking selfishness and child-free.

I’ve been trying to tease out a proper justification for why someone would claim you’re selfish for not wanting children, but it’s never really held firmly. At the very least, I can “understand” what my opponents in various discussions mean when they oppose me on, say, euthanasia or sex work; there’s something firm that they’re trying to beat me with.

But this is one of those discussions that feels like I’m grappling eels.

I thought I wasn’t harsh in my response here. After all, that would’ve been selfish (and also unhelpful to discussion).


  1. Alverant says

    Can you also have the writer explain why it’s selfish to have children when you know you don’t have the means to be a good parent?

  2. Vicki says

    My response is generally “so, if you think I’m such a selfish and irresponsible person, why on Earth do you think I should be raising children?”

  3. leni says

    I always took it to mean that we (childless by choice people) were selfish because we didn’t make the familial sacrifices expected of us. It’s expected that we do this parenting thing and if we don’t, then we’ve failed to honor the social contract we all apparently signed at birth.

    And I think it’s calculated to be more insulting to women. Being female has traditionally meant being subservient, patient, caring and eternally giving. Calling a woman selfish is basically calling her a failure as a woman. She has failed to meet the world’s needs and instead chose to meet her own. Selfish bitch!

    I also wonder how much of that isn’t undercut with resentment and maybe even a bit of jealousy. I heard a little bit of that during a debate with a acquaintance about abortion. She kept insisting that women who had abortions were selfish and irresponsible because they were getting out of the traditional punishment for sex (which she had endured twice after marrying a religious bully at 18). I believe she may even have used the words “they should suck it up and take their punishment”. It was not subtle. And it was more telling about how she views her own experiences, even though she loves her children dearly and is a good parent.

    It’s a bit like how I feel about people who cheat on their taxes. I have to pay and so should they, it’s only fair. (Except that children aren’t like taxes, but I’m comparing the feeling we all have when others “cheat” the system, not the things that get cheated.) So calling it selfish pretty clearly specifies fairness as the particular moral issue at hand.

    If you think it’s unfair that you made sacrifices for your children as expected while other people shirked that duty, well, let’s just say it doesn’t sound like the most convincing argument for the bliss of parenthood.

  4. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Oh, this BS again. Yeah, I don’t know either, except that the childless aren’t sharing their lives and committing them to their children.

    On the other hand, a lot of these people don’t make very good parents, so I don’t know what they are on about. I happen to think it is selfish to be part of the trend of increasing population, or to have kids you can’t really care for, or don’t really love but feel like you own. I don’t know where they get off with their “selfish” argument.

  5. kaboobie says

    For me, I think having children would be the more selfish choice. I can think of dozens of reasons not to procreate, and only two reasons in favor: to propagate my genes and to have support in my old age. Plus, as F pointed out, contributing to unsustainable population growth isn’t exactly a selfless act.

    I don’t judge my friends who are parents. They have their reasons for wanting kids, and even though I may not understand them, I respect their choice. I expect the same courtesy from them.

  6. Onamission5 says

    I’m incapable of understanding the premise that not wanting to be a parent makes one selfish. There are a myriad of reasons one may not want to be a parent. I don’t know any child free people who have actively made that decision who made it lightly. Some always knew they didn’t want kids and some came to that realization along the way, but regardless their reasons are personal to them, not for me to get all judgy-pants about.

    I’m also incapable of understanding the whole parenthood as punishment mentality. So, kids (who are apparently not people with feelings or a need to be valued who will eventually become adults but rather another life form entirely) are so awful, everyone should be forced to have them? Kids do best in situations where their parents are unwilling participants? Does not compute.

    Finally, what’s wrong with being selfish, exactly? I think selfishness gets a bad rep, especially when it’s applied to women. Accusations of selfishness basically boil down to “you have not martyred yourself like a good little wimmin! how dare you!” Like leni said @4, that’s not exactly a resounding endorsement.

  7. LicoriceAllsort says

    I’m a woman and willfully childless, so I’ve been accused of being selfish plenty of times. It’s an incredibly loaded word.

    When my mother calls me selfish, it’s because I’m withholding grandkids from her. She supported me for 18 years, so she should get some return on that investment in the form of grandkids, who are more fun and less work than I was. (To a lesser degree, this is what my aunt and grandma think, too.)

    When my child-having friends suggest that people like me are selfish, it’s because they have leave the party early so they can tuck in little humans who will grow up to contribute good things to society someday. I’ve shirked that responsibility to the human race in lieu of getting to stay out late and drink beer. At the core of this are leni’s points, above, about cheating the system, jealousy, etc.

    My ex thought we were obligated to have kids as attractive, smart, humanist members of society who were obviously prime breeding stock, to balance out all the undesirable people who are mindlessly pumping out progeny of obviously lower quality.

    Other variants:
    • (Related to above) Even if I don’t want to raise kids, I’m letting my good uterus go to waste when there are childless families out there who’d love to adopt a smart, attractive, healthy, white baby.

    • What if my current partner secretly wants to have children and is too scared to tell me because obviously I’m such a freak about it? I’m putting my desires above his imaginary biological needs.

    • Look at what happened to European countries when they stopped having so many kids. They’re no longer rulers of the world. Do I want that to happen to America?

    (To be clear, I emphatically disagree with all of the above. This is just how my selfishness has been explained to me.)

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      Thanks, this is both horrible and excellent summaries. Also, assumes that parenthood must be biological as opposed to ethical – wanting to help raise those more vulnerable than us (which doesn’t mean we have to be closely related, cf. adopted children).

  8. MaryL says

    I was also told that I was selfish for not providing my parents with grandchildren. And, I was depriving some poor man (somewhere) and his parents, too. The conclusion was that my parents had wasted time, energy, money, you-name-it, on me because I had shown what a waste I was. Mom and Dad would have never moved to another state in their retirement if they had had grandchildren. This diatribe came from my “loving” aunts and uncles on Mom’s side of the family. (I never held that against her.) They went nutso when I insisted that my uterus belonged to me and I was the only person with the right to decide if it was used or not. That “attitude”, they said, is why no one had ever married me. My answer was that I didn’t want any man who would think marriage gave him control over my body.

  9. leni says


    Kids do best in situations where their parents are unwilling participants? Does not compute.

    Not quite. It’s more like responsible, moral, unselfish people become good parents despite their own reservations, fears or perhaps even total unwillingness. (Note: In this framework the rape victim who has the baby is a better person than the one that doesn’t, even if they sympathize with the one who aborts.)

    These upstanding adults just suck it up and do what us lazy, childless by choice people refuse to do: grow up.

  10. mary says

    Sometimes couples do not have children because they are unable to conceive. Knowing how very much I wanted a second child (which we eventually did have), I found it very unkind of people to pry and/or make judgments. I did not owe them any explanations, but somehow, some felt it was their business.

    This summer, I met a lovely woman who has no children by choice. I told her I thought it was great that her and her husband made their decision on what they knew was best for them. That seems the responsible thing to do. I was quite surprised when she explained the extent of negativeness and disdain to which she has been subjected. She has been called selfish as well as a lot of other things. Some of it has been quite nasty.

    I fail to understand why some people feel they have not only the right, but even the obligation to express their view that
    –every married couple should have children and those who don’t are extremely selfish
    –they had no business/right to get married if they knew they didn’t want children
    –they have nothing to contribute to society because of their choice
    –how dare they make such a choice
    –childless couples are some kind of lower class

  11. leni says

    …they have nothing to contribute to society because of their choice

    In a way I can sympathize with that. Parenting is pretty thankless task. Your own kids probably won’t understand what you did for them or who you are as a person for decades, if ever. People in general act like parenting is an instinct that takes little work or trouble to master. (By which I mean any uneducated woman can do it with great success, therefore how valuable of a skill can it be?)

    I kind of sympathize with the impulse to be all scorched earth about it even if I think it’s douchy.

  12. MaryL says

    Some of us grow up and realize that we will not be good parents, something every child is entitled to. I know I’d be a rotten parent – I don’t like babies, toddlers, or older children. I’m not lazy, immature or uncaring. I took care of both my parents through their final illnesses.

    Rape victims already have to suck up an unasked for violent attack. It is heartless and cruel to force a rape victim to carry and give birth to the child of the vicious criminal who attacked her. If she choses to do so, fine. Neither is better than the other.

  13. smrnda says

    I think an issue is resentment – some people feel morally obligated to have children, and having children is often very hard work. At the same time, it’s not considered appropriate to even think “my life might have been easier without kids” the same way that it might be acceptable to think “my life might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to own a home” or “my life might be easier if I hadn’t signed up to do some guest lectures at the local community college.” They see people who don’t have kids and feel resentment, and have to turn it into a moral failing. It’s probably a produce of having your beliefs impressed on you by others rather than freely chosen – people who choose not to have kids aren’t dealing with the pressure of feeling they need to, and don’t have to handle the day to day struggle of being positive while having kids.

    On ‘contribute to society’ my taxes pay for schools for *other people’s kids* and I’m fine with that, and I know my taxes pay for other forms of aid available to parents, and I know that (in the States) people with kids get some tax breaks. I’d say the rational thing is to see that both groups contribute in different ways, but I think a problem is family/sex/child related things are always seen as having moral imperatives by some rather than preferences. It’s why you get people who think homosexuals should force themselves to pretend to be straight – they don’t look at marriage as something you do for your own reasons, but as a thing you’re supposed to do in the right way to score some points with society or some gods.