I've often wondered why so many people decide to have children. That's not to say I don't want one myself -- I do. It's just that if you asked me why, I'd find it hard to articulate.
It seems like the logical choice for most people would be not to have children. For one thing, raising a child is extremely expensive - about $235,000 from birth to high school graduation, according to the most recent estimate. Children are also a lot of work. The time parents spend caring for a child is time not spent engaging in hobbies, self-care, or other enjoyable activities. Having a child shifts a couple's attention away from their relationship with each other, often causing them to neglect it altogether.
Child rearing is a thankless job. It is a rare child indeed who appreciates all the things her parents do for her. Sure, she might come to appreciate it once she becomes an adult, but this is not guaranteed. Nothing, in fact, is guaranteed when raising a child. It is one of the riskiest investments a person can make; it requires a huge commitment of time, energy, and resources up front with few short term returns and only the possibility of long term returns.
Some may argue that children bring immesuarable happiness into the lives of their parents. While this may be true, evidence suggests that people with children are no happier overall than people without them. Some studies even show that parents report lower levels of happiness than non-parents. Given all the costs associated with raising a child - and if children don't bring joy to our lives - then why are so many of us eager to become parents?
This is not a question we often ask ourselves. Having children is almost a given, part of a list of things we are "supposed" to do in life. Any newlywed couple will tell you that the questions about having children start almost as soon as the cake is cut (and sometimes before). A couple's desire to have children is assumed.
To Chrstine Overall, author of Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, this seems counterintuitive. Why, she wonders, are people expected to give reasons for not wanting to have children but are not asked to explain why they want to have children? No one, she points out, says to a proud new parent, "Why did you decide to have this child?" The decision to procreate is the "default" option; if you want to "opt out," you have to explain why.
The decision to have a child, Overall argues, is an ethical one. There are both good and bad reasons for choosing to procreate. We have an ethical obligation to consider these issues, both as individuals and as a society. "...The burden of justification," she argues, "should...rest primarily on those who choose to have children, not on those who choose to be childless." (For more, check out Christine Overall's New York Times post, "Think Before You Breed" at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/think-before-you-breed/).
Overall's stance is, in my opinion, a moderate one. She asks us to examine our reasons for wanting a child before deciding to procreate. In his article, "Is There a Moral Obligation to Have Children," Saul Smilansky makes the more extreme argument that, at least in "first world" countries, most people have an ethical obligation to procreate. While I disagree with his central premise, he does provide some compelling reasons in favor of deciding to have children. Smilansky believes that children bring value to the world and to the lives of their parents. He reasons that if people are inherently valuable then creating a new person amounts to creating value. He also points to interpersonal relationships as "one of the major sources of value in the world." There is an emotional attachment between a parent and child that does not exist in any other relationship.
Smilansky also see parenting a an unparalleled avenue for personal growth. Through being a parent, a person becomes less self-centered and more focused on the needs of another. Parenting sometimes requires a person to sacrifice his own personal wants and needs for those of his children. A good parents learns to do this without becoming bitter or resentful. Parenting teaches a person to give without expecting anything in return.
Smilansky goes on to talk about parenting as a moral obligation to society as a whole. He points out that not having children places a greater burden on the children who are brought into the world, as they will ultimately be the ones supporting the economy and providing for society's care and services. He also sees having children as a familial obligation in the form of passing on our genes (and the traits associated with them). I find these arguments less compelling, perhaps because I am less interested in the implications of procreating on society and am more interested in the decision to procreate (or not) on a personal level.
I do believe that people should think seriously about why they do or do not want to have children before making a decision one way or another.
For those of your who have or want to have a child or children, what were/are your most compelling reasons? For those who have decided not to have children (or who are leaning in that direction), what reasons led you to your decision?