Having children can be good for you – and society

In No Kids, a work of populist misanthropy, Corinne Maier taps into Western culture’s guilty secret: rhetorically it celebrates kids; actually it fears and dislikes them.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

As we near the end of the wettest-ever summer school holidays, I’m sure that any parent could list 40 reasons not to have children. But we probably wouldn’t put it in print. So when a French controversialist does just that, no wonder she is greeted with a certain horrified awe. In our apparently child-centred society, there are certain things that you are not really supposed to say, ‘I hate children’ being a fairly obvious one.

But while Corinne Maier’s uncompromising work of populist misanthropy, No Kids: 40 Reasons Not To Have Children, has caused a few raised eyebrows, it has not exactly caused outrage; and given that the book is published in French, it has achieved no small amount of publicity on this side of the Channel. Okay, it’s the news silly season; okay, it’s a headline-grabbing title from a publicity-savvy author whose last book was titled Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness), an attack on the French working culture.

Yet if we lived in a culture that genuinely welcomed and appreciated children, the mainstream press would not be falling over itself to air an argument about why kids are a problem – for individuals, society, and The Planet – and more people would be arguing back. Maier seems to have cottoned on to Western culture’s guilty secret: that the more rhetoric is given to the wonder, joy and ultimate moral significance of children, the more our society fears and dislikes them.

What are Maier’s ‘40 reasons not to have children’? Some are the predictable individual lifestyle complaints, about how much kids cramp the style we used to have when younger, free and childless. ‘You will struggle to continue having fun yourself,’ Maier tells us. ‘You will lose touch with your friends. Your children will kill your desire. Children sound the death knell of the couple.’ As I have written previously on spiked, this let-it-all-out whingeing about how children disrupt your lifestyle has come into vogue in recent years, as Women With Lives (read: middle-class women with successful careers, usually in the creative industries) have borne numerous books and articles about the shock of finding housework boring and playing with kids hard work (see Why I won’t be joining the ‘Bad Mothers Club’, by Jennie Bristow).

Much of this is just self-indulgence, although to an extent it reflects the paradox of women’s equality: now we finally have the capacity to have Lives in our own right, we miss them much more when we morph into simply being somebody’s mummy. More importantly, though, the publicised whingeing about motherhood is the flipside of the obsessive, intensive motherhood that today’s child-centred culture demands. The identity crisis brought about by motherhood today is not so much about the practical impact of children – after all, we can have them when we want them; we can access childcare; we can pay people to clean the house – but the notion that we should put all of our selves into parenting, that we should love and cherish the experience for its own sake, rather than treating it as simply part of life.

Previous generations of mothers had their lives whittled away through having to darn socks and wash things by hand; for today’s mothers, it’s a more subtle and existentially corrosive process, whereby you don’t dare leave the children alone for a second in case some vital aspect of their little being fails to be protected or nurtured, and life dribbles away with the endless quality time we are expected to expend. The upshot of this individualised über-parenting, this bastardised child-centredness, is not happier families or better kids, but a rolling resentment that leads to endless confessionals by self-appointed ‘bad mothers’ about how bad it really all is.

To give her credit, Maier’s No Kids thesis goes beyond the standard moans about her life as a mother to issue more abstract cautions. ‘You will inevitably be disappointed by your own child’, she states. ‘You can’t stop yourself wanting complete happiness for your progeny. Children are dangerous. They will take you to court without a second thought.’ (2) Ouch. But are these really arguments against having children – or are they further aspects of today’s warped culture of ‘child-centredness’? The widespread notion that parents and parenting determines everything about a child’s behaviour and wellbeing, from their weight to their literacy levels to their general happiness and the number of GCSEs/ASBOs they may receive, has led to a situation where parents are more likely to live their own lives through their children, and children to blame their parents for everything that goes wrong.

Whether it is the obsession with Finding the Right School – satirised in John O’Farrell’s May Contain Nuts (3), where the child’s mother is so desperate for her daughter’s life to turn out right that she sits the entrance exam on her behalf – or that popular parody of the therapist’s couch (‘I can’t hold down relationships because my mother smacked me once when I was two’), there is a recognition that there is something more than a little fucked up about this culture of infant determinism, which simultaneously elevates parents into gods who hold their child’s chance of happiness and success in their grasp, and reduces them to the level of scapegoats to be beaten when anything in their child’s life goes wrong. Certainly, there is nothing genuinely child-friendly about turning the parent/child relationship into one of fear and blame. But that’s the perverse price of a culture of intensive parenting: the more you put in, the more is likely to come back and hit you in the face.

Where Corinne Maier will probably get the most nods, though, is with her assertion that having children ‘is also a vehicle for pollution and environmental destruction. Cars, washing machines, gadgets – what could be more polluting?’ (3) Maybe she’s serious; maybe this is merely a cheap point designed to make her argument more palatable. For one of the nastiest examples of the way in which arguments ‘for the sake of the children’ cover up a fierce dislike and mistrust of little people is that old green chestnut: The Planet. We are continually told that the purpose of environmental conformism is to preserve the planet for ‘future generations’; our children are shamelessly used as spies inside the home and messengers from outside it to keep a check on our consumption habits and eco-opinions.

Yet all this stuff being done in the name of the children speaks of society’s deep-seated antipathy towards all members of the human race – especially those who have a lifetime of consumption to come. For a start, the everyday practicalities of raising children impose a disproportionate amount of green guilt on families: the exhortations to wash clothes in cold water, use less rubbish, wash our own nappies (despite a lack of evidence that these are any better than disposables), the ongoing griping about the need to charge sky-high road taxes to people with big cars (generally families – who else would drive a people-carrier?) – the list goes on and on.

Beyond all that, think of the moral message. Day after day, children are told that they, as human beings, are the problem with the world, and that only by denying themselves consumer goods, flights abroad and grand ambitions can they become less of a problem when they grow up. A society that rears its children on this kind of miserabilist rubbish really has to hate the future generation, however much it pretends that we recycle because we care.

All in all, it seems that Corinne Maier’s arguments about why children should be best left un-had are not so controversial after all. They merely present, in a starker, more honest fashion, what our purportedly child-centred society really thinks: that children are a burden and a danger, who need to be intensively nurtured from the moment of conception to prevent them from turning out toxic. In this context, it is little surprise that more people are delaying having children, and more people are choosing not to have them at all. So does that mean that Maier is right: that choosing to remain ‘child-free’, as the popular buzzword puts it, is the sensible, rational response to a culture that views parenthood as a great big social problem?

No. There may well be 40 – or 50, or 100 – reasons not to have children, but none of them trumps the single reason why people should have children, which is simply this: children are a social good. Whatever decisions individuals make about their own lives, society as a whole needs new generations of people, to add dynamism and pressure to the broad project of human progress, and to carry on that project when the older generations are gone. When children are perceived as an option, a bizarre kind of hobby by adults who have been duped into procreation by biology or sentiment, this speaks of a profound cultural pessimism about life now and in the future.

Nobody has to have children these days, but in a positively oriented society, everybody would feel honour bound to support those who do. Instead, what we get are books with titles like The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats The Childless, and an endless litany of complaints about how having kids destroys your life.

Of course, having children is not a selfless endeavour. Like anything worth doing, the cost to individuals in terms of time, money, sleep and anxiety is weighed against emotional benefits that are far less tangible yet extraordinarily powerful and real. But to pose the kid/no kid debate in purely individualistic terms entirely misses the point. Children are neither a blessing nor a burden, but an essential part of who we are. C’est la vie.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”jennie@bristow.com”}.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

(1) Enfants terribles, The Times (London), 20 August 2007; Just say non: mother nurtures French revolt over baby mania, The Times (London), 8 July 2007; Angels or savages – who would have children?, Daily Mail, 22 August 2007

(2) I kid you not, Comment is Free, 22 August 2007

(3) May Contain Nuts, by John O’Farrell

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics