On Being “the Childless Couple”

by F.

Around the holidays, my wife and I are particularly sensitive to not having any children. We feel like pariahs. Generally, people seem to assume there is something wrong with us—either my wife lost her uterus in the war or I have fewer testicles than Lance Armstrong or we’ve been trying desperately to get pregnant but couldn’t and finally, sadly, have thrown in the thermometer. Rest assured: my wife has her uterus and, like most men, I have the normal number of testicles (3 2/3, last time I checked).

Usually, the topic of our barrenness doesn’t come up, but a couple years ago it did at a party held by my manager at Microsoft. We were hanging out in the kitchen chatting with two other couples when one of them asked when we were having kids. (Not “if,” but “when.”) We said, uh, we’re not (previously, we’d just lied and said “later”). The wife looked at us with pity. Her brow furrowed visibly. The husband started telling us about fertility treatments, which “are pretty advanced these days.” Nor did it end there. The husband then called my wife at work and tried to convince her to have children, educating her that she “better get started” because she was approaching 40 and “her eggs were rotting.”

Later, this guy (with whom I worked—he was a lawyer too) brought the topic up with me, and asked me whether I ever felt selfish not having children. “Selfish?” “Yeah,” he said. I said I didn’t and pretended I didn’t understand the question. In truth, I think this idea is incoherent, because it means that I could have an obligation to my unborn—and unconceived—child. (Do I have an obligation to my sperm?) How can that be? I don’t think it can, but I didn’t press it with him. Interestingly, he went on during our conversation to coo over his latest child, a boy. “The thing is,” he said, “he’s just like a little me. It’s like looking at myself!” I was impressed by his selflessness.

Selfishness seems to come up a lot in this context, either at the individual or societal level, as if my wife and I should be adding to the labor pool because it provides some macroeconomic benefit. That argument doesn’t quite work, either:

economists are increasingly challenging the myth that population growth is essential for economic growth…. Sharmila Whelan, economist at investment bank CLSA, concludes in a recent report on demographics and Japan’s economy that since the rise of Venice in the 11th century there has been little connection between economic growth and population size or increase. Innovation and specialisation are more important.

Even in China, where population growth has clearly played its part in increasing the absolute size of the economy, Goldman Sachs reckons that accumulation of human capital – essentially education – has contributed more to GDP growth than the growth of the labour force since economic reform began in 1979.

Unfortunately, we have few couples to model, though we do have one, quite a bit older than us. She is a successful editor and author; he is a powerful attorney in New York and force in Democratic politics. They live an almost comically Manhattanite lifestyle—arts openings, opera, parties. They have traveled the world numerous times, have many good friends, and have absolutely no regrets about the life they’ve chosen. And they are both quite nice. (I don’t know how many testicles he has). But such examples are rare, in my experience. I have the easier time, of course, living without such models. It’s my wife who really feels the sting of being “barren,” as if there is something wrong with her.

The next conclusion folks sometimes come to upon learning we have chosen to remain childless is that we disdain people who have children. “Well, if they didn’t, they must think we’re stupid or something.” No. Wrong. Some of our friends have children I would truly want as my own—they are fun, talented, smart little people. Other friends have children that, were they mine, I would sell into slavery. (Just kidding). We don’t look down on folks with kids. But neither do we look up to them, pining over absent “copies of ourselves” that should be in the nursery watching Baby Einstein DVDs. As with many preferences, there is no right answer. Have kids. Don’t have kids. Drink Pepsi. Drink Red Bull. We didn’t have kids; next time around, we might have. People can make different choices and be equally happy. Even if their eggs are rotting.