Contemplating Life

It is a bright, sunny day when I meet my friends for a cup of coffee on a terrace in the middle of the city. It is not without excitement that I notify them of my recent research into statistics on the correlation between happiness and children, and that it appears people without children are generally happier. With joy I quote Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and best-selling author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, who concludes that “Once people have kids, there’s a downturn in happiness”, and reference the recent study conducted at the Open University in the UK, which shows that those without children will have happier relationships.

My audience, five young, ambitious females look up from their coffee with a mixture of surprise and bewilderment, and I feel a sense of disappointment when friend M. asks, “And why, exactly, is that good?!”.

It is not new to me that most people have a strong wish to – one day – bear children. I am familiar with the faint look of longing that fills their eyes when faced with pregnant individuals and cute looking babies, or the excitement when realizing what they all will be doing with their future offspring  (“One day, I will take my son here, yes, that will be good”, a male friend once said upon seeing the former battlefields of Ypres, and I could not help but wonder if his reaction was entirely absurd or somehow appropriate, and instead just asked “What if you get a daughter?”). Although I do not share these desires, I do not despise those who do feel them.

However, as my adolescence is slowly changing into adult life, I am becoming increasingly aware of the implications of not wanting a child. Although, if I do decide to stay child-free, I will not have to face the 9 month-long burden of carrying around another individual that is not entirely me, yet very much entirely in me (a thought I first entertained when I was twelve, and which has haunted me ever since), I am starting to feel as if I instead will have to face the lifelong burden of social stigma. So, I wonder, why are we so expected to want children?

One argument often heard is that the desire to reproduce is a natural one, for humans are inherently driven to secure the survival of our species by personally putting life on this earth. However logical this might sound, the use of this argument to ‘prove’ that everyone is actually heterosexual has always made me feel very uncomfortable, and I regard it as possibly harmful ammunition in hetero-normative rhetoric.

Hetero-normative or not, bearing a child is the most egoistic type of creation. Through this creation, one can secure him- or herself with the idea that a piece of their genes will walk this earth even after he or she is gone. In a way, reproducing is the ultimate survival of the self and can thus be seen as an act of hedonism pur sang: The real reason we want children is because we like ourselves and we would like ourselves to be here even after we are gone. Bearing a child is the boldest form of I was here graffiti.

If we are really just hedonistic individuals trying to prove our worth, though, why would we choose to reduce our happiness, and care for this other human being? Maybe, if all these statistics indicating that people without children are happier are, indeed, true, it is myself who is the true hedonist: I care so little about others that if the world will not be blessed with my presence in the future so that I can be a bit happier, this seems fine to me. In fact, I should probably be grateful for all those who feel the need to selflessly shield our species from extinction as they create a collection of mini-mes.

It is these types of thoughts that keep me busy when I get shunned for my disinterest in reproduction. Even though large parts of my close surroundings are aware of my desire to live child-free, I feel surrounded by the expectation to have a child. It seems so normal to have a child that it is almost an unquestionable route on the path of a human’s life. To want a child has switched from being a statistical norm to being a societal norm, and with that the question “Why not?” has taken over the question “Why?”. With something as important as the creation of an individual, I would like to think I am making a conscious decision.

My disappointment at my friends’ disregard of my excitement had died down as I pondered this issue. I understand their reaction of shock as I implied their maternal desire to be likely to reduce their happiness. I feel glad I am not going through that. However, when my friend F. asks, “When you get children, will they speak Dutch or English?” I quickly swallow a remark about the difference between when and if, and ask myself: That little bit more child-free happiness – what will be its social price?

This article was written by Cato van Schaik. Send an email to to get in touch.
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