Our creative impulses are so much more than they seem in a pronatalist society.
I’m celebrating World Population Day with a toast to the waning days of my fertility, and the fact that I’ve made it through my childbearing years without being overpowered by the so-called “biological clock.” With the recent turn toward the benighted and punitive in our nation’s abortion and reproductive health landscape, menopause will come not a moment too soon.
The thought of bringing a child into an already full life, and onto an already full planet, has always seemed preposterous. It wasn’t just my anxiety about our planet’s carrying capacity, or the fact that that for most of my 20s and 30s I had little time to contemplate having a child, though I certainly didn’t—I was too busy playing in marimba bands, volunteering at Guatemalan wildlife rehabilitation centers, rescuing dogs, immersing myself in a Master’s program in conservation, and liaising with a series of activists, drum circle devotees, and professional music festival-goers who were decidedly not Dad material.
More than anything it was that the notion of having a child—a small, strange-looking, utterly dependent and infinitely demanding incipient human—held absolutely no appeal.
And it was a good thing, too, as my career with conservation nonprofits exposed me to the fact that each new human born to an average American will contribute roughly 9441 metric tons of carbon to our total footprint. That means that a lifetime of the most dedicated efforts to bike to work and eat low on the food chain would be negated many times over by the act of making another human—a human over whose consumption habits I would, after all, ultimately have no control.
Each new human born to an average American will contribute roughly 9441 metric tons of carbon to our total footprint.
Fine then, a pronatalist cheerleader might urge: Teach your child to consume less. Teach your child to live like an African villager, or even an average European—whose consumption of land, water and fuel are appreciably smaller than those of Americans. But the problem is this: Even babies born in Africa or Europe have an environmental impact that can no longer be absorbed by the ecosystems into which they are born.
So it is fortunate that, given a day job that deals in these realities, no pesky internal mechanism surfaced to drive me to thoughts—or, god forbid, actions—that had no place within my world view.
Until it did. Sometime in the months leading up to my 42nd birthday—perhaps it was around the time the last male white rhino was in the news, or maybe it was during the hottest July on record—I suddenly came into full understanding of what was meant by those heretofore baffling words: “I want to have a baby.” With no warning, my reaction upon seeing a small, pink bundle of unfledged humanity shifted from a low gurgle of distaste to a mildly insistent rumble of procreative hunger. The sight of happy families, of parents who had kids and loved them and didn’t have the misfortune of watching them become serial killers or slackers or oil executives, could suddenly move me to an unfamiliar rush of maternal sentiment.
Suddenly, I understood that the drive for that gurgling creature was not just about that creature. It was about everything that creature represented. It was about family, about belonging, about generating a dense swirling microclimate of love that new parents hope will provide some sort of bulwark against the calamity and hopelessness and isolation that surround us. It is about creating a small pocket of safety, family and home in the eye of the storm that is of our own creation.
Because even for those who do not share a sense of ecological doom, the world is a frightening place, and life a series of unsolvable conundrums. Having kids furnishes a ready-made succession of answers. Don’t know what career path to follow? Do what’s best for the kids. Stay with the guy, or leave him? Do what’s right for the kids. Don’t know who you are, or what makes your life worth living? Well, you are the parent of your kids, and they are the reason to continue.
Having kids furnishes a ready-made succession of answers. Don’t know what career path to follow? Do what’s best for the kids. Stay with the guy, or leave him? Do what’s right for the kids.
Suddenly, the reasons to have kids were no longer inscrutable, but obvious—and insistent.
The question was, what to do about it? Do you jettison a lifetime of strongly held belief and a satisfying existence filled with intellectual, adventurous, civic, romantic and career-oriented pursuits in favor of obeisance to a biological pull, however powerful?
To answer that question, even as I indulged thoughts of floating away on a rosy cloud of maternal love, my life suddenly infused with culturally-sanctioned relevance and meaning, has required countering those chemically-induced urges with a few rational thoughts:
That a biological pull, no matter how powerful, is not an imperative.
That although the strength of that procreative pull tends to cloud the ability to weigh pros and cons, the decision to have a child carries with it an enormous opportunity cost. That, notwithstanding the attractions of parenthood, I also derive deep, soul-quenching satisfaction from fostering dogs, from travel, from solitude in nature. And although having a child is surely an experience like no other, there are many experiences that are like no other, and many of them are much harder to have when you are also experiencing being a parent.
That the so-called “biological clock” could well be other than what we assume it to be. What if, in fact, the biological clock goes off when women are in our 30s and 40s because that is a time when careers feel stagnant, the charm of partners we met in our 20s has faded, and caring for our elders makes us long for what may be simpler, and are almost certainly less heartbreaking, caregiver roles? What if the longing for biological offspring is in fact a longing for community and interconnection that might support us through middle and old age, the sort of community that feels far removed from the isolated, work-dominated lives many of us live?
Although having a child is surely an experience like no other, there are many experiences that are like no other, and many of them are much harder to have when you are also experiencing being a parent.
In fact, regardless of the biological or culturally-conditioned genesis of the procreative impulse, we do ourselves and our species a disservice when we throw up our hands in its face, and declare our powerlessness to exercise discernment over one of life’s most consequential choices. And in fact, while there is surely the possibility that I will one day regret not having had a child, there is an equal possibility that I would regret having had one—a possibility so terrifying that our failure to warn young people of its existence (just Google “I regret having children,” and be prepared for a ride) seems grossly negligent.
This is why I feel no regret and a building sense of relief as I appear certain to carry my ambivalence about childbirth beyond the menopausal point of no return. And why we would do well to recognize that perhaps the “biological imperative” is simply a powerful creative impulse, and we are glossing over this more complex reality when we attribute that impulse, with little examination, to wanting a child. That, by obeying the cultural expectation that we procreate, we may be denying ourselves the broad array of fulfilling creative outlets that would also satisfy our inchoate longings, while also saving the planet from the many burdens that accompany each human who joins our ranks.
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.