That is the question, and it’s a big one.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been curious about the concept of having children. As a philosopher at heart, I pride myself on taking a leaf out of Socrates’ book and questioning the status quo. Having children is a part of life; a rarely questioned given – and those who challenge this biologically motivated milestone are often dismissed as selfish and strange. But as the axis begins to tilt and we start to question our desire to reproduce, from both a personal and ethical perspective, we wonder if unleashing more humans onto the world is really in everyone’s best interest.
Philosophers have been pondering procreation for eons, and these days there’s a whole philosophy dedicated to the idea that having children is actually wildly unethical, known as anti-natalism. Anti-natalists argue that people should abstain from procreation because it is morally wrong. Why? Put simply, it causes unnecessary suffering – to our children and to ourselves. Suffering is, of course, an inevitable aspect of existence. But, if we don’t exist then we can’t suffer. Morbid, right? But that’s life!
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Men think that, by nature and some ancient constitution, it is a matter of necessity to get children. And so, it is plain, do other animals too; for they all acquire offspring by nature and not with any useful end in view – when they are born, the parents suffer and rear each as best they can, and they fear for them as long as they are small, and if they are hurt they grieve. Such is the nature of all living creatures; but for men it has been made a custom that some gain actually comes from offspring.” Having children is not something that we generally dedicate much thought to, because we assume it’s a necessary addition to a life of fulfilment. But is it, really?
These days, there are countless social media groups, articles and personal musings exploring the philosophy that, for a number of reasons, we’d be better off without extra beings. Among them are concerns about passing on mental health challenges to children, the concept of consent (yep – suing your parents for being born is now a thing) and considerations about overpopulation and the environment. Some thinkers even advocate for the extinction of the human race, claiming that, given the destruction that we are causing to the planet, the best outcome would be a peaceful phase-out of human existence.
Those who may once have been considered conspirators are now mindful millenials making genuine sacrifices for the planet – including going against their very real biological instincts in an attempt to mitigate some of the damage we have done.
On the flip side, parenting is hugely life-affirming, fulfilling and a necessary step on the journey of life for so many human beings. My friend and fellow writer, Caitlin Cady, is a working mum of three littlies (2, 4 and 6) and the author of the soon to be released book ‘Heavily Meditated’ – a down to earth guidebook for bringing the magic of meditation into your daily life. Not one to make any decision unconsciously, she says becoming a mother was a mindful and yet primal choice that she never questioned, and it has certainly been a rollercoaster ride. She says, “You can’t imagine the love and joy you will feel as a mother, but you also can’t imagine the intensity, the anxiety, the deep sense of duty and responsibility either. The extremes of motherhood – the exquisitely beautiful and outrageously difficult – are unimaginable and indescribable – in both the best and the hardest ways.” She describes the joy of watching them grow and discover the world, and muses over the gift of laugher that infiltrates the everyday mundane, as well as the opportunity to grow through parenting – “Kids have the most incredible ability to bring out the best in you but also to push your buttons and mirror some of your shadows. My kids are the three very high-stakes reasons that I want to be the very best version of myself.”
In many of us, there’s clearly a very deep and real biological desire to reproduce that is supported by the indescribable joy of parenting. Lucky for me, I can kind of perch myself on the fence here and enjoy the best of both worlds.
I’ve been in the very unique position of playing part-time mama to my almost four-year-old nephew – a role that has piqued my curiosity even more as it has allowed me to see parenthood from the simultaneous and rare perspective of both parent and non-parent. I lived with my sister and nephew when he was born and played ‘mama-Jess’ for over a year. Since then, I have continued to be an extremely hands-on Aunty who intimately understands the ins and outs of what parenting actually involves. Just yesterday I spent my daily walk with a small child in each arm, moderated multiple toddler tantrums and dedicated a mind-boggling amount of time to cleaning up spills of all sorts (I don’t need to spell that one out, right?).
If you don’t know already – let me tell you, parenting is both the most rewarding and thankless job you will ever do. It is, in equal parts, terrifying, exhausting, boring, enlightening, heart cracking (in good ways and bad) and utterly blissful. And while it’s certainly not the case that choosing to abstain from baby-making is selfish, having children absolutely teaches you about selflessness in ways that you otherwise may not quite comprehend. Suddenly, you just don’t care all that much about your own egotistical happiness – and that can take you to incredible places – ones that might even inspire you to be a better human being.
But, when I tell my parent friends that I’ve decided not to go down the motherhood road, they look at me a little seriously, nod and say, ‘yeah, I get that.’
10 questions to ask yourself before having children
Am I ready to let go of my current identity?
Am I prepared to give up time for myself?
How do I feel about criticism and judgement?
Do I have the patience to tolerate constant requests and demands?
How much do I need to be in control?
Is this world a safe, harmonious place to live?
What challenges might my child face in their lifetime?
Is my relationship with my partner strong enough to withstand the pressures of parenting?
Am I ready to be confronted by my own flaws on a daily basis?
Do I have the strength to let the person that I love more than anything else in the world feel pain, make mistakes and walk their own path? How easily can I manage the constant challenge of letting go?
Words by Jessica Humphries for Wellbeing Wild magazine