The Big Minimalist Question—Kids? Or No Kids?

Kids photo 2 259x300 The Big Minimalist Question—Kids?  Or No Kids?

I’ve been interested in sustainability, minimalism and simple living for a long time now. But one topic I’ve seen very little written about is the impact that having children has on both the practice of minimalism and the environment. Like a big elephant in the room, this enormous, but highly emotional issue is almost completely ignored on most simple living blogs. Yet when you think about it, until we are willing to talk about it and examine it from a state of awareness and conscious choice, bringing kids into the world becomes just another cultural norm that the majority unconsciously accepts out of habit and societal pressure. For that reason alone, the big question about whether or not to have children (or add to an existing family) should be on every serious young minimalist’s list of important issues to decide.

Before we get very far in the discussion I suppose it is important for me to say I’m not anti-child. Even though I chose not to have any myself, I do believe kids can be wonderful. However, when I met my husband Thom 36 years ago he was adamant that having children would not be part of his life, married or unmarried. Fortunately for me, procreation was not a priority. I also did not have undue parental or religious pressure to overcome unlike many other young women. I decided then that a deep relationship with Thom was more important to me than giving birth. Together we ended up making the decision that we would marry and co-create a rewarding and meaningful life together that was childfree. Thirty–seven years later there are no regrets whatsoever.

With all that said, my life-partner and I are still in the minority, at least in the U.S and U.K. Only 20% of American women remain childfree throughout their lifetimes according to U.S. Census Bureau reports. That figure has doubled from only 10% in the 70’s. With more and more studies being done on the subject, research shows that the obvious freedom that women now have with numerous birth control options comes mainly to those who are educated, have the financial resources to purchase contraception, and are free from a domineering family, religious or cultural community that demands procreation compliance.

But aren’t we (especially women) biologically programmed to want/need children? No. In spite of the fact that our society likes to keep women in a cookie-cutter box that suggests we all feel maternal and want babies, some absolutely don’t want them, and others like me are fairly ambivalent. According to a survey done by Match.com in 2011, only 46% of women who were dating at the time wanted to have children, while 51% of the men said they did. Additionally, Laura Carroll author of “The Baby Matrix” states, “For women, there is no real evidence to support the notion that there is a biological process that creates that deep longing for a child. And the same for men; there’s no real evidence linking biology to the creation of parental desire.”

So if there is no biological imperative that exists, why do so many feel that having children is necessary for a happy and meaningful life? Probably because it is a “fulfillment assumption” that is very important to most cultures. This assumption defined by Carroll, explains that most deep feelings to have a child develop as a learned desire with roots from strong, longstanding social and cultural influences. Carroll delves deeper into the idea by stating that instead of a biological yearning to raise a child, the emotional and psychological feeling that many women and men have is really a craving from within to find something to fill the very human need to create meaning and purpose. She suggests that people ask themselves whether their longing is to raise a child, or is it really just a yearning for something outside themselves that will make them happy? Another question is: What makes me believe (or what institution told me) that I’d never be happy without a child—or another one after that?

Further evidence that not all of us were cut out to be parents comes from the dramatic story surrounding the Nebraska “Safe Haven Law.” Designed in 2008 as a way to allow unwanted babies to be dropped off without prosecution of the neglectful parents, the law backfired. Instead of helpless babies being left, at least 36 children were abandoned in just a couple of months’ time. One father dropped off his entire family—nine children, aged one to 17. Other children came from parents who drove from surrounding states just to leave their unwanted children. Nebraska, realizing their mistake, quickly put an age limit on their new law.

That leads to the first big issue surrounding the question of whether or not to bring children into a life—especially a life focused on minimalism. If minimalism is about simplifying your life to the point where we focus on only those things that bring joy and fulfillment, then asking whether or not to have a child is surely more critical than asking what “100 Items” you should hang onto for the next year? It’s obvious that children complicate life, to suggest otherwise is to be naïve. On the other hand, if life—especially a simple life—is about identifying those things that bring the greatest joy, purpose and fulfillment, then the decision to have a “wanted” child is likely a good one.

So it would be wise to recognize, as economist Andres Oswald says, “The broad message is not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.” A problem only exists if those doing the choosing do it as casually and unconsciously as a couple deciding impulsively to buy an overly expensive house that will shackle them with a big and unmanageable mortgage for the next 18 years—and then want to default when it becomes too much!

The second big issue surrounding the choice is where kids fit regarding the minimalist question of overpopulation and how that affects the environment. Even Leo Babauta, a leading guru of the current minimalist trends and writer of “Zen Habits” has said, “Kids are almost antithetical to minimalism: having them brings new resource consumers into the world…”. He also acknowledges, “Having six children is inconsistent with my message of simplifying, frugality, downsizing, being green.” Yet, Babauta goes on to admit, “I don’t have a defense…I had my kids before (and during) my change in philosophy…I have decided it would be most unethical for me to throw out my children, just because I now believe in downsizing.” To his credit, he is raising his children to want and need far less than most Western culture children and to embrace his lifestyle. Only time will tell whether his children will become typical U.S. consumers or follow in their father’s footsteps.

Obviously raising children to value simple living is desirable if you do decide they are important to your life. But every person contemplating children should first consider what even one (American) kid does to the planetary load. For those who don’t know, Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. On average, every one American consumes the same amount of energy as: 2 Japanese; or 6 Mexicans; or 31 Indians; or 370 Ethiopians. Each child an American person has increases their Carbon Legacy by 5 to 7 times.

No matter how well you raise those kids to be environmentally sensitive, if they have children, who have children, who have children, etc., there is absolutely nothing each of us can do that compares to the choice of not procreating. Every single environmental problem facing our world today is related to our 7 billion, and growing, human population and their needs. Until we are willing to look at, discuss, and make conscious decisions that recognize that fact, there is very little we can do on an individual scale that affects the environment to the same degree.

Ultimately, if the current trend of minimalism is to last far into the future, I believe people must consider the question of procreation. If minimalist goals are anti-consumerism, getting rid of the unnecessary, simplification, and conscious consumption, then critical question young people of childbearing age should ask themselves is—how important are children to me, really? Do they fit my lifestyle and am I willing to make other trade-offs that balance out what they offer? Am I doing it because others say that I should? Do I have to have my “own” or can I adopt? What is the real thing I’m longing for when I think I want to have a child?

Our world is changing dramatically and one thing is our approach to having children. Most importantly is the acknowledgement that a wanted, well-cared for and educated child brings tremendous benefit to both the family and the world at large. But just as important, it is time we acknowledge that not every child is intended (about 40%!) and not every parent is capable of providing the type of care needed to raise healthy, happy and well-adjusted children.

When Thom and I made our decision so many years ago, some believed that was impossible for us to live happy and fulfilled lives without children. I know because a few people told me as much. Fortunately, I am proof-positive they were wrong. Times have changed and now most people are starting to wake up to the fact that unwanted children are a sad commentary on a culture dedicated to more, more and more at any and all cost. Choosing minimalism as a way of life offers a path to a more conscious lifestyle that promotes a “less is more” perspective.  Maybe it’s time we all started thinking about having, or not having, kids in the same light.

 

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21 Comments

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21 Responses to The Big Minimalist Question—Kids? Or No Kids?

  1. Kelly Roberts
    Twitter:

    Hi Kathy!

    Like you, I’ve popped on over here from The Women of Midlife’s FB page. Thanks again for reading/commenting on my blog.

    Your blog, as a whole, and this post especially hits my sweet spot. My husband and I traveled the road of Essentialism last year when he was downsized from his corporate job and we had to sell our house and move into an apartment. We had no choice but to figure out how to live with only that which is essential. But it ended up being so much more for us…I’ll tell you about it another day.

    But this post resonated with me on such a deep level. We have one daughter who is only here because a) I thought it was not possible for me to have children due to an issue that developed when I was younger and b) my husband and I chose not to use any birth control because we thought it wasn’t necessary.

    When we met, I told him about my issue and that I might not be able to get pregnant naturally and he was fine with it. So we set about living our life expecting it to be child-free. I never felt sad about the possibility of not having children because very early on in my life I decided I didn’t want or need to have them. I wrote a blog post about the many reasons why I probably shouldn’t have had children.

    Most parents say, “I can’t imagine my life without my child.” But I can—we can. I love my daughter, more than I thought I possibly could, especially given the set of circumstances surrounding her conception and the weeks after she was born. She brings so much to my life. But I have no doubt my life would have been as good (if not better) if it had just been my husband and I.

    Many times throughout the nearly 13 years she’s been with us I’ve mourned the life we could have had if we hadn’t had her. Miraculously I don’t resent her or love her any less. I feel like I’ve lived parallel lives—the one where she’s with us and the one I look forward to when it’s just my husband and me again.

    Thank you for writing this thought-provoking post and for having the strength and courage to write it.

    • Hi Kelly! Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to this post. I think it is difficult for many of us to see across the divide that separates moms from non-moms because it is really difficult to imagine our lives so differently. But you have done an excellent job of reaching across the division and sharing your perspective. I think it is so wise to say that it is almost as though it were happening in a parallel universe. I get that! I’ve often thought back over the choices I’ve made and wondered about whether it was the right one and what would have been different if I’d made a different choice instead. And like you say, in most cases it wouldn’t have been any better, just different. I think so many of us get hung up on thinking if we did that or didn’t do that we’d have a happier life. But as I think you know too, research shows that we are about as happy as we make up our minds to be regardless of all the circumstances. Sure sometimes we might have made a slightly better choice that resulted in a slightly different outcome, but ultimately, we probably wouldn’t be able to close our eyes at night and say that our lives were any better or any worse than they might have been.

      But as I think you can tell from this post. I am deeply committed to the idea that people should only take on the responsibility of children if it is something they have the ability (mentally, physically, spiritually and financially) to do. Otherwise leave it to those who feel that call.

      Thank you for being so honest about your life and how it has played out so far. :-) I’ve only just found your blog too so I look forward to reading about your life and to seeing how your happiness continues to unfold.~Kathy

  2. Simi

    Thank you so much, Kathy! You are so full of wisdom. Love your posts:)

  3. Simi

    Hi Kathy,

    Loved reading this post. Well, i’m in same situation as you, except the age difference. We’ve been married for 8 years now but husband is not at all keen in procreating. Me too, not exactly keen on kids, but some friends and family members are unhappy about our decision. I don’t know if i’ll miss having a kid in the future, as i’ve been told by several people? However, it seems like a path less taken. But given today’s over population issues and ecological imbalances, it makes sense to restrict number of kids or have none.

    • Hi Simi! Thank you so much for stopping by and joining the conversation. I think one of the biggest pressures to have children comes from family and friends who can’t imagine life without them. That makes it hard. But I think the key is like I said, “They can’t imagine life without them!” By the same token, they have no idea the quality, depth and meaning a life can have without children.
      That’s okay. The choice should be available to us all. Just like with money or success or anything in life–children don’t necessarily make us happier or un-happy. Only WE can determine our happiness.

      I’ve actually had a number of parents tell me (privately) that they wish they never had children, but in our culture it is considered so WRONG to say that, that they would never say that to another parent for the risk of being thought of as a terrible parent AND person. And I do think that non-parents sometimes wonder what their life would have been like if they’d had kids–I have on occasion too. But I have never regretted the decision in the long run and have become so much more than I ever would have if I had taken on the obligation.

      I know it is a big decision. Follow your own heart (and that of your partner) and know and never forget you can be VERY happy either way. ~Kathy

  4. sajmom

    Those with children are likely very busy working and caring for the children, hence less time to ponder questions about the future. Particularly during the more labor intensive seasons of childrearing; one can be very weary and have enough concerns dealing with their current problems. I think there are plenty of parents who do considered this topic, but the ones discussing it the most are those who are done(or nearly done) raising them or those who have not yet had children. I respect your opinion and I think the choice of family size is an extremely personal one. I don’t think it is right to harass a couple to have children or to have more children. I don’t think it’s right to harass people because they have what you consider to be too many children either. I think the issue you are discussing-women having children because they feel culturally obligated to do so-is largely disappearing. In the 1950s or 60s women did feel they must have children, yes. Today it’s accepted that most women will work, and will continue to work after having children. At this point in time I think many women do decide to try to fulfill themselves through a career first. A lot just end up having children later, and some decide they are fulfilled through the career alone. I am glad to see this wasn’t an anti-children rant, and that you acknowledge that parents have a challenging job of raising the next generation. People who have children are WELL AWARE that they are giving things up by having them. It would be silly to think one would have the same existence with or without children. Calling parents as a whole selfish completely negates the incredible amounts of sacrifice and lack of self-centeredness it takes to raise a human, let alone the amounts required to do a good job of it. I cannot speak for everyone, but I know I personally feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment by raising my children. People are made wonderfully different-your way of finding fulfillment is different than mine and that’s ok. I think the Green Movement would find more success by focusing on changes people can make in their lifestyles regardless of family size. I honestly get the impression that a lot of pieces like this one are written more as a way of justifying their choice not to have children. I’m not expressing that the way I want. Not so much to justify it, because I think most don’t feel it needs justification, but I think they would have come to the decision not to have kids regardless of it’s impact on the environment. I don’t mean to be rude, please don’t misunderstand. I think that focusing on our-society’s-wasteful ways of life(this is huge!) and also helping countries where overpopulation itself is a big problem-by setting up education and ways for women to control their fertility without judgement-they would have a much larger impact on the environment than trying to get people to deny something that is such a basic and richly rewarding part of the human experience.

    • Hi sajmom! Thank you for stopping by and adding your thoughtful reply to this post. Your perspective is a valuable one from a woman who is truly dedicated to their children and are already doing your very best to raise happy and healthy children. And because you are that way it is likely that you only see other mothers with the same perspective–and that’s great for you and your children. But perhaps because I don’t have kids I see far too many other parents struggling with the responsibility. I also volunteer for a lot of organizations for young and single parents just trying to get by. I also hear and read daily about couples that are not able to support–and don’t have the ability emotionally to raise a family. I just believe that there are far too many women who automatically become parents without being properly educated or made aware of the challenges…sure once you have them then the reality becomes fairly obvious, but then it is a bit too late to make a choice…and those children suffer and so does the community.

      I do completely agree there are areas of the world facing huge overpopulation problems and education would definitely help–not to mention increased women’s rights, but there are large number of women in our country –especially the poor and of particular religious persuasion that do not feel that NOT having children is even an option for them. I routinely hear from some of those women who are unhappy with the lack of choice and they would never even dream of bringing up the discussion with a mother like you who is happy with your family. I just believe it is important for all of us to remember that thwew are women of both categories who in this day and age should be given the choice–but trust me as one on this side of the fence, that is simply not true.

      Even from a blogging perspective there is still push-back for not being a mother. Another child-free blogger I know that another mommy-blogger sent her message asking, “What do you even have to blog about if you aren’t a mother?” Inconsiderate comments like that demonstrate that the we are not so evolved as I would like. However, my ultimate goal would be that every child that is born is deeply loved and cared for–and that every person who chooses a different path would find a different life of fulfillment. In such a big and amazing world, hopefully there is room for both kinds.

      I applaud you for your willingness to engage in this conversation. It is certainly not an easy one and I won’t pretend to have the answers. I just think it continues to be a BIG question we need to continue to engage in. Thank you again for coming by and leaving your ideas. ~Kathy

  5. It’s an interesting topic.
    It’s not hard to see resources becoming scarcer as time goes on. We both take a good look at the state of the world and economy and a big part of the problem is the drain on everything. Food is becoming more and more artificial to keep up with demand, social security is looking shaky, fuel is getting more and more expensive, quality and availability of jobs is down, competition to get decent jobs is stiff., healthcare is out of control and there are no fixes that those in power and with money are going to allow. I sometimes wonder if our culture and society has reached its peak and we’re in the downward slide to falling apart. Much too scary a place to bring in another being tthat might very well suffer through life because of previous generations greed. I’ve got one person running around that I love beyond comprehension (my sweet sweet wife) and that’s fulfilling enough for me :)
    Derek recently posted…259My Profile

    • Yes…I have great respect for people who are good parents but I wonder how they reconcile some of the directions in our world with their hopes for the future. We who have found partners that we love and share our lives with have much to be grateful for and a reasonably good and fulfilling future to expect. :-) ~Kathy

  6. My wife and I have also decided that kids aren’t for us. The environmental issue was not one of the (many) reasons we discussed, but this was a very interesting read!
    Derek recently posted…259My Profile

    • Hi Derek….Thom and I’s decision wasn’t based on the environment either…at the time anyway. But I do think that it should for any couple contemplating the decision. I think that our entire race is diverted away from the topic as though continuing to biologically procreate is not only our human right–but somehow spiritually required. But that is likely just the human ego and control issues asserting itself without consideration for the totality of life on this planet. Of course most of us when we are young (and I’m talking about myself here) only consider our immediate needs and circumstances. But as we age it becomes more and more obvious that we are all just a tiny part of a much bigger picture–and that choices like this really do matter. Thanks for letting me ramble on about this a bit more :-) ~Kathy

  7. Great post! Really well thought out and presented. I particularly like the fact that only 20% of American women remain childfree throughout their lifetimes according to U.S. Census Bureau reports, which has doubled from only 10% in the 70’s.)

    Nowadays not so many people are taking the child option. I don’t really want children either; I just don’t see the need of bringing more people into this dark, overpopulated world :)

    Eric
    greenminimalism recently posted…Living Green is RV VandwellingMy Profile

    • Hi Eric…thanks for stopping by SMART Living 365….I am glad that the younger generation are aware of their options and making choices that fit not only the life they want to create–but also are aware of what it means to planet world. If people, especially women, really want to have children, hopefully they have a strong desire to accept the responsibility to do it–and plenty of support from other loved ones…. Thanks for your comments and drop by again… ~Kathy

  8. Perhaps it’s a poor reflection on me, but my ‘reason’ for kids that’s loudest right now is ‘what would I do with my life without them?’ I really wonder how I’d fill my days, and how fulfilling that would be? Please don’t for a minute think I’m asking you to ‘justify’ your life, but I know I would feel like I didn’t have a purpose. I fully intend to continue working with children, but I don’t feel like my work is my purpose. I suppose I’m looking for meaning and depth in life, and I think the relationships with families are part of that spectrum, like friends which you posted about.
    SarahN recently posted…Pantry inventoryMy Profile

    • Hi Sarah….it’s not at all a poor reflection! I think children can be a great purpose in life–at least while they are under your care and direction. But I also happen to believe that there are a number of other equally as wonderful and powerful purposes available to women and men. Unfortunately some of us don’t take the time or energy to discover a purpose that we might be better suited to–and just do what our culture, society or religion teach us without thinking it through. I certainly don’t believe I have answers for everyone or that I’m an expert on anything except maybe my own life–but I do think that we all need to be as conscious and aware as possible about our choices and decisions–and whether or not to have children is pretty high on the list because it is such a huge commitment. One of my intentions with this website is to ask questions and then answer them as honestly as I know how–and thereby help others to do the same. I like to believe as the poet Rumi says, “Out beyond right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” I like to think of SMART Living as that field where we sit and talk about things that matter…~Kathy

  9. Amy

    I feel so thankful to have come across your blog today and especially enjoyed this post while poking around your lovely e-home. I’m the mother of an only child and often feel odd as it seems I have one foot in each world thanks to the balance my family size brings me as far as time for adult personal fulfillment and parenting time go. There are far too many people out there who desire to pressure couples like my husband and myself, telling us we must have more, daughter needs a sibling, onlies are *insert evil stereotype here* Lately, as my family has downsized our car and continues working on the process of “de-owning” and teaching my now six year old child about such ideals, I’ve found myself silently quipping in my head about how having “just one” is my desire for minimalism reflected in parenting choices. I can be a great mother to one child or a so-so mother to more and together with my husband have made the choice that is correct for us.

    It’s a wonderful treat to hear an alternative voice expressing the reality of making the choice to parent or not: that we must look at our lifestyles and circumstances and decide what is really, truly, authentically right for our lives and our beliefs. Thank you for sharing your voice. Your words have been so refreshing to me today.

    • Hi Amy! Thanks for your comments and dropping by SMART Living 365. I really appreciate your perspective on having one child. I’m sure there is pressure there that I can’t even imagine. Good for you for taking the time to think it all through and find something that works for you and your family. I like what you say about being a “great mother to one child” vs. a so-so mother to more. I can still remember the time Thom and I thought we needed to get a “companion” for our first dog–after all, one more wouldn’t be any more work right? WRONG! That second dog made it seem like we had 5 dogs! And instead of our one good dog teaching the new dog to be better–the new dog made our first dog a mess! And by the way, I have met many children that come from single child families and they are bright, creative, interesting, self-reliant people who reflect the very best of their parent’s lessons. How could your daughter not benefit from your careful and conscious choice?

  10. I applaud your courage and candor in bringing this question up. This was one of my big questions about minimalism – because as a parent I know how much chaos and “stuff” kids can add to the equation.

    I consider children a blessing, but I also affirm the choice of those who don’t want to bring kids into the world, for whatever reason. If you don’t want them, by all means do not have them.

    And a lot of it has to do with how they are raised. What values do we instill in them? Do we raise kids to be a blessing to the world, or another burden on it? I hope that in spite of my mistakes that my daughter will bring greater benefit into the world as she lives…as will my grandchildren.

    • Thanks for your comment Stephanie. I was a little nervous bringing up this topic because I know that a good parent deserves all the praise and commendation available and I never want to dimmish that. But I think you got my major point which is that if you feel called to have them–don’t do it lightly–take it for the responsibility it requires along with the happiness you believe it will bring you. And if you don’t want them–or aren’t sure you are ready–then it’s probably better to wait or not do it at all. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every single child that was born was deeply loved and wanted?

  11. livingsimplyfree

    Wow Kathy, that was a very interesting post. I had never wanted children, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t be a good enough parent. Both my boys were surprises to me and I don’t regret having them, but it was a decision once I learned I was pregnant. (some people just don’t do well with birth control and I happen to be one of them). After the birth of my second son I immediately took the permanent solution to ensure I wouldn’t be in that situation again.

    I hear it all the time, still now, that you can’t be happy without children, and have come to believe that it’s less about believing everyone needs children and more about wanting others to be in the same boat they are.

    Today I worry about the next generation. My eldest son has two children and won’t be having any more. My youngest and his wife have one, but go back and forth over whether or not they want more, one day they are done, the next they want 2 more. I worry because I don’t know what kind of environment they will inherit from us. Will they have clean water, many of us even in the US don’t have clean, safe water. Will they have clean air? Just from my youth to my sons youth things changed dramatically. My hometown went from being a safe small city to being one that you are not even safe when inside your home. The cost of entertainment skyrocketed so that my children didn’t have access to many of the same cultural experiences without spending a lot more money. Parents are working so much more now to afford the increase cost of living. I think you can see where my worries are for the next generation.

    If I were to do things all over again, now that I see where things are, I’m not sure I would have made the same decisions. Yes, I love them but….

    • Dear Lois,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and honest reply to this post. I am always humbled by those of you who have taken on the task of being a parent, and would never diminish the amount of time, energy and commitment you’ve obviously made. That’s why I believe so strongly that there needs to be a stronger voice among women today to encourage those that have a choice to consider their options wisely. And yes, even when you are a good parent like I’m sure you are–a lot of potential parents seem to be blind to the questions you raise about air, water, and the environment. I have to admit, I’m always a little amazed that I seem to care more about the future than many of my friends with children–aren’t they asking themselves the questions that you do? Of course, as an eternal optimist, I also believe that if a person “consciously” chooses to have children in this day and age and accepts the entire, huge responsibility, then the children that would come from that love and commitment would be the kind that will truly help this planet (and us all) survive long into the future.

      It just seems to me that those of us into simple living and minimalism are the perfect ones to talk about it and maybe lead the way…

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