Is Being Childfree Selfish? Debating Time Magazine's Touchy New Issue

The new issue's cover. Photo: TimeWhat does “having it all” mean? Not having kids, according to the latest sure-to-be-controversial issue of Time magazine. It includes stories like “Do Children Bring Happiness—Or Misery?” and “I Just Don’t Want a Child,” noting that the American birth rate is lower than it’s ever been in recorded history.

The magazine’s cover sports a photo of a blissed-out couple sprawled on a white-sand beach, no tots in sight, under the words “The Childfree Life,” which is sure to touch some nerves.

At least that’s what it did right in the Yahoo! Shine office, where just the image alone brought out some strong and varied reactions—including between writer Sarah B. Weir and myself. So we decided to have an on-the-record conversation about it (in instant messenger, natch) for all to read and join.

Sarah B. Weir, Shine Senior Writer: Alright, they look like lazy yuppies to me.

Beth Greenfield, Shine Writer: Ha ha! They look like happy free spirits to me. I'm a bit envious.

SBW: The matching swimsuits reek of self-satisfied, in-your-face DINKS [double income no kids].

BG: I didn't even notice that! I was too busy looking at the amazingly empty sand all around them, and thinking about how they don't even have to look anywhere to make sure their kid isn't drowning. I mean, being on the beach with my 4-year-old daughter is one of my favorite things, but sometimes I just want to lay there in peace, you know? I admire people who admit it's what they want all the time.

SBW: As a working mom myself, I completely know what you mean. And I wonder why I, feminist that I purport to be, have a knee-jerk reaction when I hear that women (and also men, but less so) don't want to have kids. The other day, my husband said that one of his colleagues, in her early 30s, definitely doesn't want to have kids. I immediately went to "selfish, narcissistic." What is that about?

BG: Do you think it could be partially that you are envious of her gall?

SBW: I wouldn't ever give up the experience of being a mom. I think it’s that, somewhere back in my primitive brain, I see it as "natural" to have kids, and weird not to have that desire. Of course there are many reasons—economic, environmental—that might make it extremely reasonable not to have kids.

BG: I totally hear you. I have always wanted to be a mom, and admit to being perplexed when I’ve met women, throughout my life, who say they don't want to. But even though it might at first surprise me, I believe it's not for everyone—some of my closest friends don't have kids and don't want them, and live happy, adventurous, amazingly fulfilled lives. When I got pregnant I actually felt a bit guiltily selfish. What were my motives in becoming a mom? Was it a good decision for the world, which is overpopulated? Or was it just a good and selfish decision for me?

SBW: That's interesting. I have two stepkids and one daughter, but sometimes I feel somewhat selfish—and lazy—for only having one biological kid. Like, you aren't a “real mom” unless you have four! At the same time that birthrates are dropping, I'm seeing a trend in rich parents and celebs (like Heidi Klum or Reese Witherspoon) popping out three or four. In a way, in our culture, being a "real mom" is equated with being a "real woman."

BG: Agreed on the "real woman" point, which is totally unfair. But I tend to believe that having four children is more selfish than having none. Of course, that's unfair, too. What if we could view the idea of being "selfish" in more of a positive way—kind of the "keep the focus on yourself" way that a therapist might encourage selfishness? I think it would make it easier for women (or men) to be more honest about whether they really do want kids or not, and to be okay with either decision.

SBW: That's a good point. We sometimes project our decisions onto others as the right or only way to go. There’s so much underlying pressure to have kids though. I'm sure it’s hard to be childless in a society that still promotes the nuclear family as the absolute norm. And European countries are actively promoting higher birthrates. Did you see that British fertility campaign photo of the old-looking pregnant TV presenter saying she wished she'd have kids earlier? Scare tactics.

BG: It's funny, women having kids later is both good and bad—good because it lets you live your life freely longer, and maybe enjoy a relationship with a partner for a while before changing the dynamics by adding a kid. But it’s potentially bad because it does leave you in this position of being pressured right as your eggs start dying off. Friends of mind have been in that place, too, and hastily decided at 39 or 40 to have a kid—which turned out to be the right decision for them, luckily.

SBW: I do wonder if some women who are adamant about not having kids will have a late change of heart, which can be so traumatic. Another thought about this whole topic is that the dialogue for women in our age bracket has been so motherhood-focused—the mommy wars, working moms, stay at home moms, etc. Maybe now the dialogue is going to shift from that to “Why have kids at all?”

BG: Yes—I think Jessica Valenti helped fuel that with her book "Why Have Kids?" last year. It was great food for thought. Some celebs have spoken out about not having children, too. Basically, having kids because you think you "should" is not a great reason. Anyway, I’d welcome that new dialogue (though I do enjoy the mommy ones, too).

SBW: Me too. I'd like to hear more from those who chose not to have kids.

BG: Yes!

So please, readers: Tell us your stories?