Having kids isn’t just about the kids. It’s also about actively participating in parenting culture, which, to me, resembles a competitive sport mixed with a frantic charade.
With parenting, culture comes an uninvited onslaught of opinions, advice, and judgments, not to mention a complete overhaul of boundaries and priorities. Parenting is an exercise in acquiescence to a total loss of control and unavoidable chaos. Parenting summons into existence an unwelcome undertone of fear and anxiety that can saturate the headspace of even the most emotionally resilient of people. I do believe people can love their kids and also despise parenting, for the reasons I mentioned above, and many more. Ultimately, not everyone is cut out for parenting, even those who like kids.
Every generation faces a unique set of challenges that can deter people from procreating. Today, in the year 2021, we are at a tipping point. The COVID-19 pandemic brought us to our knees and exposed our most egregious vulnerabilities. It showed us what the best of humanity is willing to do for others and it showed us what the worst of humanity is capable of doing to others. We know we will never be the same, but we don’t know exactly what that means just yet. What I do know, is that parenting in 2021 is a risky prospect, for three critical reasons.
Reason #1: The COVID-19 pandemic
The pandemic has been a disaster for even the most privileged of parents, which means it has been exponentially worse for everyone else. I am not callous about covid parenting: it is an absolute fiasco. Yes, they chose to have kids; however, given the pandemic is unprecedented, which means “never done or known before,” it is impossible for the average person to prepare for or make reproductive decisions in consideration of an unprecedented event.
This collective global crisis has done nothing short of igniting every expectation, assumption, and norm that parents relied on when they signed up for the job. An unprecedented event has novel and unintended consequences, all of which are playing out in real-time, and the tools we need to manage their impact are still on the assembly line. This is nothing short of terrifying for a parent to accept as they envision their children’s future and attempt to feel hopeful and excited. A year ago, as the pandemic intensified, I said there has never been a greater time to be childfree, and I stand behind that statement more so than ever.
Reason #2: Social media
Technology has arguably been the biggest historical driver of disruption throughout history, and the internet is obviously the biggest technological innovation of our time. With the internet came social media, and social media has created a never-ending, unwinnable battle for parents, for three reasons:
• Social media is inherently addictive because it profits off the currency of our attention. According to the award-winning Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, “the technology that connects us also controls, manipulates, polarizes, distracts, monetizes and divides us” as well as “uses our psychology against us.” Kids are more anxious and depressed than ever, and a root cause is their social media use.
• Social media is deceptive. On it, we watch people performing, not living. We see people acting, not existing. We see things that are staged or pre-recorded, not happening in real-time. To kids, the idealized, stimulating version of reality on social media can seem normal, which can make real-life seem, well, boring.
• Social media trumps everything else. Because it’s designed to be addictive, and kids naturally gravitate towards whatever is most rewarding, parents are constantly competing against it, monitoring it, or desperately trying to offer something that is more interesting or valuable.
Reason #3: Climate change
I was talking to a mom the other day and she said, “I can’t think about climate change without getting upset. Nothing makes me more anxious. I love my kids, but had I known what their future would look like, I don’t think I would have had them.” Climate change and environmental concerns are absolutely a reason why some people are childfree, and while it wasn’t a deciding factor for me, I am increasingly grateful to be childfree for this particular reason.
With climate change comes resource shortages, political unrest, conflict, and violence, not to mention the continued unchecked degradation of our environment and the health and safety consequences that come with it. Oh yes, and pandemics: as land and water shortages force humans to infringe on wild territories and contact between humans and wild animals increases, pandemics can [and did] happen. Of all the conversations about green innovation and technology and the circular economy, I have yet to hear a prominent leader get behind population management. Given our skyrocketing global population is a root cause, key driver, and undeniable accelerant of climate change, this should be a mainstream conversation; however, it remains too hot of a potato for most to handle.
Now that we have ample data and awareness, we have no excuse not to factor climate change into not only our purchase decisions but our reproductive decisions. In an era in which climate change has evolved from a concern to an emergency situation, it is an especially stressful time to be a parent. After all, how can they be optimistic about their children’s future when that future is increasingly terrifying and uncertain?
While there will always be compelling reasons for and against parenthood, I would argue the current state of our volatile and vulnerable world renders parenting an especially miserable, anxiety-inducing, and risky undertaking. Not every generation has had to face multiple looming, existential global crises that are compounding upon one another in real-time. In addition, because societal strife is always exacerbated by white supremacy, BIPOC is not only especially vulnerable to its negative consequences, they are less likely to be given the resources they need to deal with them.
As childfree people, we are often asked to explain our choice or circumstance to others, usually, parents, who are both fascinated by and judgmental of us. Far too often, we internalize this attention and criticism, we defend ourselves, and sometimes we walk away feeling ashamed or insecure. But here’s the thing: it’s not just about us, who we are, what we think, what we feel, or what we do. It’s about the current state of our society and the viability of happy and successful parenting in that society. And if the benefits don’t outweigh the costs, so be it.