The Eastern Orthodox Religion and Procreation

            We continue with our examination of various religions and their views on procreation, this time focusing on the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its separation from the Roman Catholic Church resulted in differences between Catholicism’s and Eastern Orthodoxy’s views of procreation. Eastern Orthodoxy is divided into national subdivisions, including the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Coptic (Egypt and Middle East) and other regional Orthodox churches. 

The famous Russian Orthodox church in Moscow

St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. Photo – wikipedia

    During the first eight centuries of Christianity there was one Church, which then divided into Eastern and Western divisions. The Church in the western Mediterranean became the Roman Catholic Church, and divided up again with the advent of Protestantism. The Church in the eastern region became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, which sees itself as separate from Western Christianity in that it views the Scriptures as they relate to the Holy Tradition of Apostolic times.

            Unlike the Roman Catholic religion, previously discussed in another essay, the Eastern Orthodox faith does not teach that procreation is the primary function of marriage. Spiritual oneness, the striving for eternal salvation, is.  However, and this is a big “however,” children are considered to be a natural part of being married. So, those who wait before having children, or those who decide never to have children, are in violation of the marriage union. 

            According to retired Orthodox priest Stanley Samuel Harakas, “Orthodox Christians are considered free in making moral choices.” In his essay, “Religious Beliefs and Healthcare Decisions,” Father Harakas states that “the Tradition guides and directs, but does not coerce, though ecclesial consequences can follow what the Church regards as improper decisions.” This is quite a paradox for the Orthodox community – freedom to think for oneself about what is moral, but such thought could occasion religious consequences.

           Birth control is allowed as long as it’s not “artificial,” such as birth control pills or condoms. (There are exceptions to this discussed in the next paragraph). Natural methods are acceptable if the circumstances are valid. A plus here for the pious is that these methods involve self-denial and self-control, and require a priest’s blessing.  The three acceptable ways to practice birth control in the Orthodox way of life are:

  • Limit sexual relations – this is a frequent choice when couples observe the traditions of fasting days and periods
  •  Total abstinence – when a couple has given birth to a number of children, and no longer feel that sexual relations must be part of their marriage
  •  Rhythm method (Natural Family Planning)

             The Orthodox Church does not subscribe to the dogmatism of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the birth control pill. In other words, there are circumstances where artificial birth control may be used, but this is largely a “pastoral issue where there may be multiple considerations.”

            Because the Orthodox Church considers the embryo to be human from conception, abortion is generally verboten. If a mother’s life is threatened or she has an ectopic pregnancy, the Church allows for some choice, and in these cases, preserving life is essential to the decision-making process.

            Orthodox religions disapprove of aborting pregnancy due to a physical abnormality in the child. These children are seen as “human beings in their own right, deserving of care and love.”

            Those who decide on a childfree lifestyle are considered sinners. Sterilization and birth control, other than for health reasons, is morally unacceptable. Couples of child-bearing age should “be prepared and expect to have as many children as God will send,” taking into consideration the health of the mother and the family as a whole.

            In our book, Enough of Us: why we should think twice before making children, we refer to a 1997 statement by Bartholomew I, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, who passionately maintained that the ruination of the earth is against God’s will. To bear as many children as possible does not take into account that there already are enough of us. Seven billion strong and counting causes the degradation of the earth. This is a conundrum that all anti-family-planning dogmas must deal with.           

           

 

How does having kids affect the quality of one’s happiness?

          The question has often been raised: How does having children affect how much happiness there is in a person’s life?

          Now a new twist on kids vs. joy has entered the arena. If kids reduce the quantity of happiness, how do they affect the quality of whatever happiness remains?

          In an opinion piece on CNN.com, Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, writes about that very question.

Amitai Etzioni, photo CNN.com

          He acknowledges that many fathers feel, “that it interferes with romance and tends to make them feel neglected by their wives.” He even cites a 2004 study among parents that found that among 16 various activities, taking care of kids ranked above only housework, their jobs and commuting in its “enjoyableness.” (Who knew there is such a word?)

          So far, so good. But here is where Etzioni embarks on the road less taken. “The question is not how much happiness children bring or take,” he asserts, “but how good is the happiness?”

          This brings to mind a scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, in which Diane Keaton asks Woody’s character if he’s ever had the wrong kind of orgasm. His response: “My worst one was right on the money.”

          How, we wonder, do the criteria for happiness compare?  Is quantity more important than quality or do we settle for happiness that is merely “right on the money” but greater in quantity than waiting for the “right kind” of happiness? Is occasional, intense happiness “better” than frequent, pretty good happiness?

          Here is what we believe is the crux of Etzioni’s assertion: “We need to return to a precept that social philosophers and religious texts have long extolled: that a good life is not one centered around squeezing as much pleasure out of life as possible. Pleasure of the kind celebrated by those who would rather go out for dinner than stay home with their infants, watch TV than change diapers and gamble than attend a PTA meeting — is Sisyphean. No sooner does one gain this kind of pleasure than one is lacking it again. No wonder it has been called the hedonic treadmill.” What self-congratulatory babble this is.

          Does he really believe that we who are childfree are rushing out to dinner, heading for the nearest casino, or just vegetating in front of the tube? What about those who volunteer to help forlorn animals or the less fortunate, write books and blogs, or get involved in local political, environmental, or ethical causes?

          In fact, we often find that those who have kids are much less aware of the greater community around them.  They seem to be the ones with gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans, whose garbage bins are filled to the brim, and who are clueless about societal issues that don’t relate directly to their kids’ schools.

          He claims that children provide a unique “other” in their parents’ lives.

          The good professor also assumes that kids in and of themselves are a positive. In the years of research we have conducted in preparation for our book, Enough of Us, we have learned what a high-stakes gamble raising children can be. There are considerable risks that the joy parents expect from their kids may be displaced by sadness, disappointment, grief and even despair.

          Its sounds like Mr. Etzioni is merely defending his own fatherhood of five in the face of all the evidence that parents tend to be less happy than the childfree. To his credit he says that while he lost a son (he does not go into details) and has suffered a fair amount of other grief in relation to childrearing, his kids have blessed him with much joy.

          But here’s the kicker. He says he now has “a whole slew of grandchildren.”

          “What fun—and no diapers to be changed.” Evidently Etzioni’s child-based joy doesn’t give a crap (pun intended) about their environmental impact.

            Amitai Etzioni, enjoy your life but please don’t judge the quality, or lack, of happiness in mine.

Lots of students, costly education, and huge debt – California may be creating yet another model for the nation

          We recently learned that student debt in the United States has surpassed $1 trillion. What is a trillion anyway? Well, if you don’t know, it’s the same as a million people each owing a million dollars, or a billion people each owing a thousand bucks. In short, the people who owe this enormous sum are folks who attended an institution of “higher learning” (more on the quotes in a moment) and are now stuck with the bill.

          How did this happen? Regular readers of this blog know that we have discussed one major reason in our posts and in our book Enough of Us. If parents have kids and hope that their kids will one day go to college, they have to start planning for that eventuality. It makes our blood boil when parents of modest means don’t scrimp and save from the moment they become aware of the pregnancy. No smart phones, cable TV, or expensive gadgets. Forget the plans for upscale vacations or cars for the teens. That money belongs to the college-bound.

          We live in the Bay Area — San Jose, to be exact. While the state is in terrible financial condition, it’s still a great place to live (ah, the weather!). But many educators, experts, and other Golden State residents worry about the future of California’s two great state university systems.

          The education powers-that-be, including the governor and state legislature, are working desperately on higher education problems. The Cal Grant program helps low- and middle-income students pay for college. The state has formulated performance standards by which schools are eligible to receive funds that students borrow only if a quarter of the students they graduate are able to pay off their loans in a reasonable amount of time.  This standard is an indicator that the schools are graduating young adults with usable skills that lead to jobs.

          Unfortunately, not all so-called institutions of higher learning are what they purport to be. There is a spate of schools that promise advanced education and good jobs in fields where openings go begging. They advertise heavily on the Internet and TV. The problem is that they frequently draw their potential students from families that can’t afford to pay the tuition. Those students usually have to borrow from a variety of government-sponsored sources. According to California Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, about 90 percent of these schools’ funding comes from Stafford Loans, Pell Grants, G.I. Bill Grants, and the state’s Cal Grants.

University of Phoenix Spokane Campus

          The companies that run these schools netted $3.5 billion in 2009 and paid executive salaries of $41 million. Wall Street ain’t the only place where the governments get played for suckers. So while the execs rake in the bucks, most of the students gain few useful skills, have trouble – if any luck at all – finding relevant jobs, and are now burdened with heavy debt. As Wieckowski puts it, “We can’t continue to shovel taxpayer money into shareholder pockets, instead of adequately preparing students for their careers.”

California Assemblymember

California Member of the Assembly Bob Wieckowski

          When Assemblyman Wieckowski introduced legislation this year requiring the schools to meet more stringent criteria in order to receive state grants,  the schools stepped up their lobbying efforts and managed to kill the bill in committee. The legislature never even got to vote on it. However, a coalition of reformers was able to make changes in the budget process when they cut grants for high-priced schools, raised graduation-rate requirements, “and cracked down on schools with high loan default rates.”

          In the meantime, both California State University and University of California systems, as well as the state’s community colleges, need more bucks. Perhaps with the reforms, there will be more state and federal financial benefits available.

          This brings us back to the opening dilemma. Why aren’t parents providing for their kids’ higher education? If it’s because they can’t afford the costs, how can they afford the kids? This raises questions like:

  • Did they have more children than they could provide for?
  • Did they overspend on indulgences while the kids were growing up?
  • Would it be more realistic for their kids to attend junior colleges and after graduating look for higher education opportunities?
  • Should the kids work part time to help foot the bill while attending school?

          And finally, when people who can afford to pay their share of taxes get significant tax deductions and a free K-12 scholarship for each kid, are we encouraging a system that is forever going to have trouble funding higher education? We go into this in some detail in Enough of Us. We need to consider whether or not we can afford to lower taxes for those families that will be asking the most help funding their children’s higher education.

          Think about it and weigh in with your opinion.

Living Without Children Does not Equal Living Without Responsibility

Should those folks with children judge those who have opted out of parenthood? And if the answer is no, do they judge the childfree anyway? These are the salient questions author Katie Roiphe (pronounced ROI-fee) asked in an article on Slate.com last April 26.

Katie, a divorced mother of one, affirms that not everyone should have kids and that life without children can be a “pleasant possibility.”

Author Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe

She observes that while one in five women in their early 40s has not given birth, “to many, a woman without a child is still a tragic, or at least disappointed, figure.” Roiphe looks at both sides of perceptions of those with offspring and those without.

What interests us, however, is Katie’s apparent lack of awareness of how she perceives those with children as “we” and those without as “them,” as if the default state of adulthood is being a parent. She refers to the judgers with some form of the word “we” more than a dozen times in her short essay. As an example: “ We know of course that we are not supposed to judge other women for something like not having children, but we do it all the time (italics added).”

Roiphe, however,  admits to having encouraged a friend in her late 30s to have a kid and then catching herself in the act, because she couldn’t justify an argument for having kids. And she questions why her friend would want to. She wonders if she (and others) is having trouble imagining life being transfigured by things other than becoming a parent.

It’s at this point that we ponder how the heck any Americans with their eyes halfway open cannot see efforts of childfree individuals who have transformed society. For decades Oprah Winfrey reigned as the inspirational goal-oriented guru of adoring housewives and mothers. Would anyone argue that consumer advocate and political reformist Ralph Nader has not been a transformative figure for the last half-century?

Ellis remembers that in the late 1990s, Mavis Leno, wife of Tonight Show host Jay, spoke in TV interviews about a then-unknown group of woman-oppressing religious fanatics known as the Taliban controlling Afghanistan. Jay and Mavis made a conscious choice to remain childfree. That does not mean they missed out on transformative experiences.

Katie Roiphe also considers perceptions of men who opt to live without rug rats. While she opines that “we” do not judge them as “missing out” to the degree that women do, she admits that there are often judgments about men as being “immature, Peter-Pan-ish, and somehow clinging unnaturally to a freer state, an unseemly perpetual adolescence.” In the case of men, she feels, they are judged as people who won’t grow up.

Coming to the defense of men, Roiphe says, “After all, why should you have to grow up if you don’t want to? Why do we feel the need to impose or foist this very particular variety of grownup life on other people?” We’d call this a backhanded defense (did we just coin a new aphorism?). Does an 18-year-old demonstrate maturity by becoming a parent because he or she didn’t have the presence of mind to use protection? We’ve seen as many immature parents as mature folks who are childfree.

While Katie describes those without broods as partying until 3:00 a.m., sleeping late or suddenly taking off for three-week vacations (we’re all entitled to flights of fancy) she ponders whether those “with”  who judge those “without,” might just be parents taking the freedoms of the “withouts” personally.

In our experience, we have never been aware of anyone judging us negatively for not reproducing. Of course, what is said behind our backs is something of which we have no knowledge.

In referring to a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace about Natasha no longer being robust, slim or lively in motherhood, Roiphe says, “I am wondering if it’s the ‘ever-glowing animation’ of the childless, the desire, or pursuit of that desire, that gives at least some of them their provocative radiance.”

Could be.

 

 

Christian Views on Choosing to be Childfree

                In a recent posting we focused on traditional Judaism’s generally negative position on the choice not to have offspring. In our book, Enough of Us: why we should think twice before making children, we examine religious motives for bearing children. With the exception of Catholicism, Christianity has a variety of different slants on this subject. While some churches take the attitude that “be fruitful and multiply” is a commandment, others look at it as something other than a demand from the almighty.

            Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, writing in the November 12, 2001 online issue of Christianity Today, says that “Fertility is not a command but a blessing that God gives his creatures.” Therefore, says Van Leeuwen, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, “be fruitful and multiply” is a blessing, a “may you” declaration from God, not a mandate.  He also states that “some Christian traditions take a wrong turn” when they see “Be fruitful” as a command. “They argue on the basis of the created order (sometimes called natural law) and Scripture that God has actually commanded married people to have children.”  These Christians, he says, “argue against birth control.” Van Leeuwen concludes that “Within the limits of marriage, sex is one of the good gifts of God’s creation . . . whether or not it seeks in every instance to be fruitful in a procreative sense.” This debate about the concepts of blessing vs. command opens the way for Christians to exercise free choice by not bearing children “provided they are wise and serve God.”

            An anonymous childfree Christian blogger posts her views at childfreechristian.blogspot.com/2009/06/is-childfree-christian-oxymoron.html. She is in her early thirties who has never wanted children. She quotes from 1 Corinthians 7, which the blogger believes is “the most powerful support of being childfree.” The Apostle Paul is a single man and in giving his opinion about the unmarried state. He appeals to others to remain single in order to “free them from anxieties” so they can give “undivided devotion to the Lord.” The blogger says that Paul condones a married couple’s abstention from sex for spiritual reasons, and that “there is nothing to say that pregnancy prevention couldn’t be one of those reasons.” She also makes the point hat Jesus, “the center of our faith,” never had children.

            Of the many responses to this blog, two expressed by women in their thirties stand out:

            “I get questions too, and I want to scream at them IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. I am so happy I have been Googling, and seeing other married Christian couples out there with the same heavy heart about kids.”

            “. . . I felt relief wash over me. I am not alone! I am 34, happily married and have never had a desire for children. I am also a devout believer in Jesus Christ, and I have struggled over whether my lack of desire is sinful.”

            A blogger who identifies herself only as Debi (Twiga92.wordpress.com/on-being-christian-and-childfree) writes about Life as a Childfree Christian Missionary Kid. “There seem to be a lot of Christians out there that think it is wrong for a Christian couple to choose not to have children. . . . Yet the reason God created a wife for Adam was to be a helpmeet (sic), a companion, so that he would not be alone.  Obviously they had to have children in order for the human race to exist, but I think we’ve pretty much taken care of the “fruitful and multiply” aspect! . . . . Reproduction is a benefit of marriage, not a requirement.”

            There have been Christian sects that supported being childfree such as the Shakers and the Cathars. Nineteenth century Shakers were not marriage-oriented and therefore did not procreate. The Cathars of the 12th and 13 centuries, judged procreation as undesirable and had no objection to contraception.

            Clearly, some Christians struggle with being childfree, even with the more liberal interpretation of “Be fruitful and multiply.”             In a Yahoo! contributor network essay “Why I Choose to be Childfree in Church,” Hillari Hunter, expresses frustration about being judged in church and said that parishioners send “puzzled looks or out-and-out disdain” to the childfree churchgoer. (http://voices.yahoo.com/shared/print.shtml?content_type=article&content_type_id=826017).

            There is help for the guilt-ridden at www.christianforums.com, which is designed for couples who choose not to have children.  We applaud their courage in thinking twice before making more of us.

 

 

                       

           

           

Is Being Childfree Really Acceptable?

     The other morning, as Cheryl was about to enter our neighborhood Trader Joe’s, a woman with a clipboard asked if she would sign a petition to put an initiative on the November ballot that would, if passed, raise California sales taxes. The revenue would go to elementary schools and to colleges.    

Typical California ballot measure petition. Photo – KCET

Cheryl explains: I told her that I was unfamiliar with the particulars of this petition, so I didn’t want to sign at this time. She persisted in giving me more information than I could ever want, so I told her that I had chosen a childfree lifestyle, and I didn’t want to pay extra taxes to educate other people’s kids, especially when those parents could take on that responsibility by paying their fair share of taxes.  She smiled beatifically, told me she had six children, and thanked me sarcastically “for all you are doing for the world.” I started to explain that many people who choose not to have offspring do so for socially conscious reasons, not because they hate children.

     Forget about it. She turned to me and with that same beatific smile informed me that Jesus Christ was God and that he loves me no matter what I do. I made several stabs at asking her to allow me to finish, and she simply wouldn’t. She said it was a shame that no one had ever told me about Jesus, and wondered why I didn’t want to be saved.

     At that point Cheryl walked away, mentally throwing up her hands.

     This incident, plus a couple of others, has made us aware again of the difficulty facing those of us who choose not to have children: it isn’t really fully acceptable in our culture (and many others) to openly disclose our non-traditional decision.

     Case in point: some of our dearest friends have refused to visit this web site because the subjects we tackle “do not interest” them, or so they say.  How would they know how compelling our website is – or isn’t – without having visited? Most of these friends do have children, or at least have tried. We’ve known most of these children since their births, enjoyed time with them, and in some cases befriended them over the years. Their parents, for the most part, have done successful jobs of raising them. Yet it seems that our web site poses problems for our friends. They often act like our positions – that there are enough of us on this planet and that having kids is a crapshoot – insults them. But wait a minute, shouldn’t we be the ones who are insulted? Why can’t we be open about our decision to be childfree and our reasons to be respectfully heard, which could lead to meaningful discussions without anyone having to have the “right” argument?  For the sake of accuracy, we have occasionally participated in open dialogue on the subject, but it’s all too rare.

     Is the tradition of having children so embedded in our culture that choosing not to have children simply isn’t acceptable? Is the negative judgment about those who choose to be childfree a rumbling undercurrent in our country, much like racism is?

     In an online medical resource for international patients that explains American values, the nuclear family is described as consisting of parents and children. Its purpose is to “bring about the happiness of each family member.” There isn’t anything in this assertion that addresses households without children. It’s as if America has no such families.  (www.americanhospitals.com/questions/american/amervalues.htm)

     In an article about the definition of culture, the term “cultural universals” popped out at me. “These are learned behavior patterns that are shared by all of humanity collectively. No matter where people live in the world, they share these universal traits.”  Raising children in some sort of family setting was number 4 on the list. (http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_1.htm)

     Many American organizations have shared a childfree perspective. To name a few: The National Organization for Non-Parents; No Kidding; The Childfree Network and The National Alliance for Optional Parenthood. Outside the United States, an Australian childfree party tried for political cohesion under the name Australian Childfree Party, as did a British organization, Kidding Aside. In spite of the work these organizations have put into their causes, “the childfree movement has not had significant political impact.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childfree)

     Clearly, having children is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture, so much so that one’s credibility as a good person is threatened if one dares to voluntarily travel the path away from parenthood. Even so, we will continue to tell our truth, and to support would-be parents who have the moxie to think twice before making children.

Know folks who have to share their opinions on your childfree choice?

As we discussed in our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, having a child can affect your relationship with a good friend who chooses not to procreate.  Because having children is such a must-do-as-a-matter-of-course part of our culture, those who decide not to go with the program are prime targets for subtly hurtful statements that are not meant to insult. Some hurtful words come from those with children out of their naïveté about the soul searching it sometimes takes to choose not to have offspring.  As one of Cheryl’s wise amigas once said, “It takes just as much thought to decide not to have kids as to decide to have them – sometimes even more.” 

So, here are seven handy hints about what not to say to your friends who have simply taken the path less traveled. And if you are childfree, you might want to pass this article on to your friends and family who would benefit from some sensitivity training. Some of these ideas were inspired by the web site Nest.com’s  November 2, 2011 article, “Ten Things Not To Say to Your Childfree Friends.”

1. When will you have kids?

Not a good question to ask your childfree friend in a public gathering like a dinner with several people at the table.  What if she’s struggling with infertility or grappling with a boyfriend who might not want children?  What if she’s contemplating whether to adopt a child as a single parent? What if she’s leaning toward remaining childfree? Save this question for a private conversation. Better yet, if you’re going to stick your nose in, how about phrasing it something like, “Have you decided whether you would like to have kids?” Otherwise you might get a retort like,”When are you going to further your education?”

2. We love having a family.

This implies that having a family always means having  children, which it doesn’t. A husband and wife are a family. A single man with a cat and a dog has formed a family. A childless woman with a niece and nephew enjoys a family life. A gay couple with their hamster and parakeet have a family. Thank goodness that the face of the American family has changed so much over the years. So get hip people! Family is now diverse.

3. You would be such a great parent! 

 In a way, it sounds like you’re telling your friend that he has failed in some way, because he hasn’t used his skills to parent his own child. But maybe he can give more to the world by inspiring graffiti taggers to paint murals. Maybe she can specialize in helping dysfunctional kids become involved in community projects like delivering food to poor families. It’s not imperative that people who like and understand children must become parents.

4. Having children is the most important creative act.

Although people with children may feel this way, this statement, which came out of the mouth of a women’s conference workshop leader, certainly makes mincemeat of the creative spark in the souls of those who give birth to things other than children.  If procreating is the most important creative act, there is a very important momma cat living in our neighborhood – 10 at a time! Some in the childfree world write great novels, or weave fabulous fabrics, or teach hospital-bound kids to paint. Creativity comes in many forms. Can one really say that one form is more “important” than another?

5. You’re so lucky!

“You can live your life without heavy obligations, so you can travel, and mostly do what you want to do.” This is a loaded statement. The meta message is that your childfree friends have many fewer responsibilities than you do, and that they are too afraid or selfish to take on the responsibilities of childrearing. This bears a reality check. Some people without kids have spent years caring for a dysfunctional family member or ill parent. Countless people who have no progeny work long hours to support themselves, without the luxury of travel or the freedom to do what they want to do. Many people without kids volunteer in organizations that give back to the community and they carry lots of responsibility in their leadership roles. This statement usually comes when a parent has had a bad day. Better yet, meet your kid-free friend for coffee and commiserate about your mutual obligations and responsibilities. In any case, luck probably had very litle to do with it.

6. Well, let me tell you (all) about my daughter (or son).

Making your child the only subject of conversation can be a subtle message to your childfree friends that they don’t have the important title of “parent,” and furthermore that they haven’t raised an exceptional being (like my child). Living through your child is similar in flavor to individuals who live through their “important” careers when they are lunching with a friend with a less-prestigious job. That’s when the conversation becomes one-sided, and b-o-o-ring.

7. It’s impossible to recover when a child dies before the parents do.

That seems to be universal common knowledge and of course it’s true. It’s usually true of losing a sibling, or even a parent, as well. But if you lose a loved one, do you really want to hear about how hopeless the experience is? It’s also important not to discount the relationship that many childfree people form with their pets. When that pet dies, it sure feels impossible to recover from the loss. In fact, losing a beloved, in general, leaves such a hole in one’s heart that it really can’t be measured. The depth of grief and process of recovery depend on the connection between humans and their loved ones, be they animal or human.

So make a resolution. If you are a parent, be sensitive to the life choices of others. If you are childfree or childless, let others know what you feel are acceptable boundaries.

Happy new year!

When it Comes to Parenting, What’s the Difference Between Joy and Fun? (Part 2)

Where were we? Oh yes, continuing from last week’s discussion of why, on average, parents seem less happy than the childfree in modern America, part of the answer seems to be choice. The abundance of choices as to whether or not to have kids, how many, when – and if one (or two) wants to adopt – seem to writer Jennifer Senior, reasons for unhappiness among the child-burdened.
“While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while (‘All joy and no fun,’ as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.)” Senior refers to a collection of essays in which the writers debate whether to procreate. Those who chose childfree existence mentioned that it enabled them to travel, to take physical risks, and for one novelist, it enabled her to inhabit her characters without the hazard of being pulled out of her mindset by the demands of her real life.
Allow us to interject personal observations here concerning the child-associated deepening of emotional life. We are both animal lovers. Correction; animal L-O-V-E-R-S.  Between the two of us, we have had a wide assortment of domesticated creatures in our pre- and post-marital abodes. And we L-O-V-E-D them all deeply. In May we had to have our beloved greyhound Ginsberg euthanized. This, just five months after his right front leg was amputated. The latter brought us much grief. But he rebounded and after a couple of months he was back to his old running-just-for-the-joy-of-it behaviors. Except for the days he was recuperating, he brought us joy and fun every single day he was in our lives. When he left our lives (by “our” we mean the two of us and our 15-year-old mutt), we grieved. We are still grieving. No previous pet affected us the way he did. He was such a pure soul; a naïve personality who depended on us. But after his passing, we realized how dependent we had been on him – how he expanded our lives and how he deepened them. Our point is that there are other ways to deepen each of our lives and make them richer without taking on the responsibilities, burdens and risks of creating children. While you may not like dogs, cats, gerbils, hamsters, parakeets or any other animals, surely there are alternatives to kids. Otherwise, wouldn’t those who want kids but are unable to have them — and who don’t care for pets —  be the shallowest people of all? Somehow, however, members this group are as likely as any others to find meaningful ways to deepen and expand meaningful lives.
While mothers often feel that kids take up too much of their time, dads often feel they don’t spend enough time with them. According to studies by the Families and Work Institute, “It’s the men, by a long shot, who have more work-life conflict than women,” according to its president Ellen Gallinsky.
The hazards don’t end there. Children adversely affect the relationship between parents. Thomas Bradbury is a UCLA psychology professor with two kids. “Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent,” he says. One study that examined disagreements among 100 married couples found that 40 percent of them were about their respective children. That percentage did not include conflicts that were precipitated because the parents were already at wit’s end.
According to Senior, one man in the study put it this way: “I already felt neglected . . . And once we had the kid, it became so pronounced; it went from zero to negative 50. And I was like, I can deal with zero. But not negative 50.”
Senior’s article touches upon the fact that dissatisfaction grew with the greater wealth of the parents, that it dipped when the kids were between ages six and 12, and that its ugly head reared again during the kids’ teen years. “But one of the most sobering declines documented in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life is the amount of time married parents spend alone together each week: Nine hours today versus twelve in 1975.” What’s more, one UCLA study of 32 families found that spouses spent less than 10 percent of their time at home alone together (we assume this number does not include time sleeping).
There is frequently a disconnect between loving your kids and loving the act of parenting. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “When you pause to think about what the children mean to you, of course they make you feel good,” he says. “The problem is, 95 percent of the time you’re not thinking about what they mean to you.” And we would even dispute the notion that when parents think about their kids they “of course” feel good about them.
Personally, we have lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances who have told us that when they think about their kids they are overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, anger and fear . . . and sleeplessness. “Thinking” is the operative word here. All of the above are reasons enough to think twice before making children.

When it Comes to Parenting, What’s the Difference Between Joy and Fun? (Part 1)

In our August 10th essay we quoted from an article in New York magazine written by Jennifer Senior. In referring to the transmutation of children’s role from worker/helper to emotional centerpiece over the last century, she wrote, “Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.” We decided to revisit that article, which appeared in the New York July 4, 2010 edition.

Photo: cute-babypictures.com

The article started with a description of Jennifer coming home from work into the enthusiastic outstretched arms of her 2 ½-year-old son. It was bliss. But once she settled in, so did the kid’s “terrible twos.” She describes the boy’s persistent tantrums in agonizing prose that ends with his time-out in his crib. “As I shuffled back to the living room, I thought of something a friend once said about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan—’a nice place, but what it really needs is a bar’ —and rued how, at that moment, the same thing could be said of my apartment. Two hundred and 40 seconds earlier, I’d been in a state of pair-bonded bliss; now I was guided by nerves, trawling the cabinets for alcohol.”
A wide variety of research indicates that parents are not happier than nonparents. The New York article cites a 2004 study in Texas that surveyed over 900 working women. Of 19 categories of pleasurability, child care ranked 16th behind such mundane activities as food preparation, housework and even napping. Mothers, according to some researchers are generally less happy than fathers and single parents are even unhappier; not a good indicator for America, where almost half of all births among under-30 parents are to unmarried women.
A compilation of family data by a group of sociologists, “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” indicates that contemporary married moms have less leisure time than did their 1975 counterparts, by 5.4 hours per week. Seventy-one percent say they would like more time for themselves, as do 57 percent of married dads. Even so, the report shows that 85 percent of parents still think they don’t spend enough time with their kids.
A huge source of pain for many parents, especially mothers, is that there are so many chores – years and years of never-ending chores.
There was a time when having kids was an automatic. If you got married, you immediately assumed the horizontal position until you struck gold, and thereby legitimized your existence. And oh, the embarrassment of not being able to bring forth issue. But now we have choices. The sexual revolution, with the catalyst of passive contraception in the form of the pill and intrauterine devices, suddenly gave lovers a spectrum of choices. And this, speculate two psychologists, may be why many parents are less happy. By becoming parents, they have precluded exercising many of the choices available to the childfree. By having kids, they have become have-nots when it comes to alternative options. In 2003, W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge conducted a study going back to the 1970s. They found that parents’ dissatisfaction increased from generation to generation and, surprisingly, that dissatisfaction increased with the respective generations’ wealth.
As fellow psychologist Daniel Gilbert, of Harvard, put it after he had a child, “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” For those who choose the childfree option, such liabilities are moot.
Chapter 8 of our upcoming book, Enough of Us, deals with such potential impacts on parents. We will continue this discussion next week. This is a good place to pause because it gives the reader some time to consider the issue of whether the joy of parenting might be paid for by a paucity of fun.

Should This be the Last Generation?

Peter Singer,- photo -Wikipedia.org

Last year, bioethicist Peter Singer wrote an essay for the New York Times web site that asked the title question. Who is Singer? He has written many books on issues of human treatment of animals, both domesticated and wild. Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He published his seminal book, Animal Liberation, in 1975. This and other of Singer’s works has led to him being referred to as one of the leaders of the animal liberation movement.

In his Times essay, Singer makes the point that “we think it is wrong to bring into the world a child whose prospects for a happy, healthy life are poor, but we don’t usually think the fact that a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life is a reason for bringing a child into existence (italics added). This has come to be known to philosophers as ‘the asymmetry’ and it is not easy to justify.” To put this another way, if there is a likelihood that most children brought into the world will be happy, does that justify procreation in light of the fact that many of the children who would be created would be profoundly unhappy?

At this point Singer raises the question of how good an anticipated life must be in order to justify bringing a child into existence. To put it another way, is the life that most people in developed countries lead good enough to justify creating it?

Singer refers to the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s belief that the best life we can ever hope for is one in which we reach a goal that brings us satisfaction. However, that satisfaction is fleeting. We then set our sites on new ends, bringing us a cycle of futile struggles. It’s hard for us to believe that Schopenhauer’s pessimistic point of view holds up across the board. You might have a hard time convincing Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Cosby, Mohandas Gandhi, Jimmy Carter or Oprah Winfrey of that argument. We use famous folks here only because they are the ones we all know in common. But these examples are the exception – by a long shot.

Professor Singer refers to South African philosopher David Benatar. Benatar’s argument is that to bring a person who will suffer into the world is to harm that person. And most people will suffer. He also makes the case that a child brought into the world who will have a good life is not done for the benefit of that child. In all, reproduction will harm some children severely and benefit none.

Benatar’s argument, Peter Singer explains, is that most of our lives are filled with unmet desires. The occasional satisfactions are not enough to outweigh the prolonged negative states of mind. “This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nevertheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we could see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone,” declares Singer.

The solution? Singer makes the case that the most conscientious of us do things like reducing driving, not flying, or not eating meat, in order to reduce our carbon footprint. The ever-expanding carbon footprint will damage future generations. But why are we creating future generations? In our own book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, we discuss that even American slaves kept reproducing themselves without any hope that their offspring would have happy lives.

Singer presents us with this question: Why don’t we all agree to get sterilized? That way we won’t create any new unhappy generations. The current generation would not have to worry about what we’re doing to the planet. We could thereby rid ourselves of all guilt about our impact on the earth.

In practicality, Professor Singer acknowledges that agreement on universal sterilization is just an idea with no chance of actualization. Here is the remaining question: Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence? He believes that eventually mankind will get “it” right simply by learning from its mistakes, and thereby reduce suffering (he is more optimistic than we are). But, he asks, is that enough to determine that life is worth living?

Are the interests of a future child enough of a reason for bringing that child into existence, knowing that the survival of our species will almost certainly bring suffering to future innocents?

There is a lot to ponder here. The toughest part of considering these questions involves admitting that for most people, on balance, life is not the relatively happy existence we perceive from observing the outward demeanors of others. We must, to boil it down, decide whether gambling on bringing new lives into the world is worth the risk.