The cover of the August 12 edition of Time magazine is meant to be provocative. A trim young man and a matching woman — possibly in their late 20s to early 30s — lie alone on a beach, arms linked, wearing bathing suits, shades, and no visible wedding rings. But the controversial part is the accompanying text: “The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children.”
Inside, we see that same couple sitting comfortably under a beach umbrella, clinking wine glasses. They are not just “childfree”; they are carefree. To their right, our eyes are drawn to another couple walking along — more like trudging — on the sand. Not fashionably dressed like our “childfree” couple, they have two little girls, and a truckload of decidedly un-chic plastic junk, in tow.
Which life would you choose?
For an increasing number of Americans, the answer is easy. “The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history,” reports Lauren Sandler of Time. “From 2007 to 2011, … the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s.”
Indeed, the magazine reports that many Americans prefer the new term “childfree” over the old term “childless.” The shift in nomenclature reflects a growing cultural conviction that children are more burden than blessing, a cost rather than an investment. The “childfree” interview subjects that Time chooses to highlight in this piece certainly seem to feel that way.
- Laura Scott, described as “a professional coach, writer, and documentary filmmaker,” says, “My main motive not to have kids was that I loved my life the way it was.”
- Jena Starkes, a Web designer, states defiantly, “If [motherhood’s] the hardest job in the world, I’m d--- happy I don’t have to do it. You’re not supposed to say that, but it’s true.”
- Jenna Johnson, a “happily partnered” New Yorker, says, “I get to do all sorts of things: buy an unnecessary beautiful object, plan trips with our aging parents, sleep in, spend a day without speaking to a single person, send care packages to nieces and nephews, enroll in language classes, go out for drinks with a friend on the spur of the moment.”
- Leah Clouse, a nanny and a children’s art teacher, says, “It takes all of you, and I don’t know that I want to give it all.”
Of course, there are other reasons for the massive plunge in American fertility, some of which Time notes: a sick economy (which always lowers birth and marriage rates); the ramping up of cultural expectations on parents; the rising costs of raising a family and sending children to college; the delaying effects of new opportunities for women in getting an education and landing a job; and the opportunity costs of going off the career track to raise kids.
As a husband and as a father of three, I have felt these pressures against parenthood, too. My chosen field is not a lucrative one — at least not yet! — and Christine and I have been forced to make some difficult financial choices. Despite our children’s requests and occasional protests, we own no smartphones, have resisted the urge to equip them with cellphones, don’t deck them out with all the latest fashions, only allow basic cable into our home, keep debt to an absolute minimum, and so on. Living now off of two modest incomes, we are fortunate, but far from wealthy. The kids’ financial needs definitely put stress on the family budget.
We face a regular diet of school fees (even though our children have gone to public school), clothing and food bills, summer camp and church retreat costs, and on and on. Like most people on a budget, we look out for sales and coupons, visit Goodwill and other resale shops when we can, and rely on hand-me-downs whenever possible. Raising kids is a cause for fervent prayer — especially with the cost of our daily bread going up all the time.
In fact, despite the challenges, Christine and I look on our decision to start a family at all as an act of faith, as an expression of confidence in the future. We had wanted to begin earlier than we did, but the finances never seemed to add up. At some point, however, we decided to trust God not only to provide us with children, but to provide what we need to raise them. And despite this lousy economy and a string of expensive (but not serious) health issues in our family, the Lord has amply provided. By his grace we are sending our oldest off to an excellent private college in a couple of weeks — a year early and sans loans. Who says miracles can’t happen?
Though it might seem fun for childfree aficionados to extend the freedom and flexibility of childhood well into old age, something precious is lost: It’s called adulthood. And what does it say about a culture when the most basic and natural desire that people have always had — to reproduce — is shunted aside as an exotic and impractical “choice”? And what does it say about a nation’s demographic future?
Yet I don’t want those who have decided against kids to have them out of a sense of duty or guilt. They have decided that life is, in the final analysis, about them; about what they can get, not what they can give; about today, not tomorrow. That’s fine; such people should not have children. In fact, please don’t!
Children, you see, are every bit as difficult to have and to raise as the most ardent childfree folks fear. Kids require everything you have — time, money, and emotional and physical energy. They probably won’t say “thank you” (at least ‘til later in life). They’ll cause you to take multiple trips to the emergency room. They’ll argue with you for hours on end (if you let them). They’ll spend your money like it’s going out of style. They’ll repay your best efforts with a shrug. They’ll prefer “friends” who don’t have their best interests at heart to you. They’ll steal your privacy. They’ll even tell you how bad a parent you are and confidently assert how they won’t make the same mistakes. If you don’t want to be inconvenienced, why would you ever have children?
I’ll tell you why — because life isn’t about convenience. It’s not about fun, or career, or money, either. Raising children, you see, isn’t about you, and it isn’t even about them. It’s about Him — our heavenly Father, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:15). We have children because we are made in His image, in the likeness of him who told us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). We create because we are like our Creator. Among other good things, it is what we normally are called to do in this world, barring a special calling from God.
Although children are a profound inconvenience — how could anything so precious not be? — they are also a profound glory, an incredible joy. The same children who have so stressed and frustrated me by their ingratitude and constant bickering have also, by God’s grace, begun growing into young adults who, day by day, are becoming beautiful reflections of our heavenly Father. They cause me to cry, but also to laugh; they drive me to my knees in prayer, but they also encourage me spiritually; they take time from my friends, but they also are becoming my friends; though they have at times broken my heart, they have also filled it with love, joy, and mirth. While exposing my sinfulness, they have caused me to draw closer to Christ.
No, there are no guarantees of success or happiness when raising children, and many people live good and fulfilling lives without them. But excluding kids as mere inconveniences betrays a poverty of imagination and faith, one we all can be glad that our own parents didn’t share.
The childfree folks are seeking to “have it all” because a culture increasingly hostile to children tells them that life is all about self. But they fail to see that real life is found in living for others. As Jesus said in another context, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). While raising kids can be exhausting, frustrating, and inconvenient, it teaches this lesson better than anything else I know.
“Having it all,” after all, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Stan Guthrie is author of the new book A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.
Publication date: August 15, 2013