People with kids often feel they have license to intrusively question childfree people about their lifestyle choices. Some of us bristle and have concocted a wealth of smart comebacks to these annoying questions. But, lately, I've been thinking about what is actually behind these questions; stereotypes and common cultural assumptions that entitle parents to question our choices.
Following are five questions I'm frequently asked and the cultural factors I think are driving these inquiries. I'm interested to hear from readers about their own top-five picks.
1) What do you do with your time?
I frequently get this question from a particular family member, one who devotes most of her day to transporting her children to endless events and activities. Parents tend to forget how they filled their days before they had children. My routine hasn't changed as dramatically over the years as it would if I'd had kids. That doesn't mean I'm not busy, but parents don't seem to perceive activities as valuable if they aren't directly child-related.
Also, in recent years, I've noticed a cultural aversion to inactivity. Being a busy-bee is equated with success. To the busyness obsessed, taking time out to watch television, read a book, walk a dog, or just sit idly in the sun and enjoy being alive is a sign of failure and imminent disintegration.
When did living a contemplative life become shameful? My husband and I don't spend every day sitting in the park, but we do spend some days that way. We are grateful for the time we've had to take extended wilderness vacations - spending pleasant days reading, sitting by the campfire, taking photos and painting.
Parents often view our leisure-time activities as selfish. Yet, so many of the activities parents participate in with kids are taxing to the environment, are consumption oriented - contrived for the goal of keeping the family endlessly busy - a never ending cycle of frenetic activity with dubious educational value or social returns.
Wouldn't children benefit from taking time out for quiet contemplation of the world, their lives, and their relationships? Definitely, but that's not likely to occur in a society in which supreme busyness is bragged about and perpetually on-the-go people receive the highest societal accolades.
2) What will you do with your time when you get old?
This is related to the busyness issue. Parents forget the activities they cared about before they became parents and fear the loss of kid-related busyness, especially as children get ready to leave the nest. At this point, many parents begin to focus on the arrival of grand kids as surrogates for their own kids and an opportunity to re-experience the euphoria of early childhood kid-related busyness.
Parents can't imagine a life without kid-activities. Some seem to grasp onto their own long-lost childhoods this way. While my friends-with-kids have tailored their routines and activities to the up and down rhythms of the needs of children, I have developed and maintained a pretty consistent routine throughout my life. I've made time for quiet, peaceful contemplation and enjoyment of nature. I don't plan to change this routine until I die, so why would I worry about what I will do with my time when I get old?
3) Who will remember you after you die?
This question comes up a lot and I think it reflects the deep need we have to grasp onto our lives while experiencing a constant paralyzing fear of death. It's important to remember that children don't remember parents exactly as they were or are, even on a daily basis. I don't know every aspect of my parent's lives and psyches.
I do treasure a patchwork of moments spent with them, but I don't know them at their essence. In that sense, none of us - whether parents or childfree - will be remembered when we die. And, after one or two generations pass we only have a symbolic memory of our ancestors. Also, why is it important for us to be remembered at all? We live, we enjoy, and we won't care if we are remembered once we are dead, so why is this such a constant source of worry?
4) Don’t you feel you missed out on life's most important experience?
This was one of my mom's favorite questions. Yet, much of the time she felt frustrated, stifled and anxious as a wife and parent. I think that life's important experiences are being born and dying. Everything that happens in between is a choice, and, when choosing one thing we must give up something else. It's also important to remember that we are no longer under extreme social pressure to populate the colonies - kids are an option, and one that takes a toll on the environment of an overpopulated world.
As a childfree person, I've had more time to develop my artwork and writing, camp, care for rescued dogs, return to school as an adult, and live in the city and the wilderness - all things I don't think I would have done if I had kids. And, I've had more time for quiet contemplation, and time to spend with my elderly parents. These experiences are important to me, as important as parenthood is to some, because these experiences are of my choosing - my life.
5) Don't you get bored without someone (kids, grand kids, great grand kids) to worry about?
The constant worry that is inherent in parenthood is one of the primary reasons I chose not to have kids. Worry is tedious and boring. The lack of it opens up a world of enticing possibilities.
And, I know my mother felt overwhelmed by the need to watch over us constantly as small kids. She often let down her guard. She had a deep need for those quiet and contemplative moments. She chose to take time out for herself in spite of having small kids.
We wandered away, fell into holes, were bitten by dogs, got poison ivy, were stung by bees and so forth, but, we survived and had a lot of fun doing it. Today, my mother would probably be reviled for her lack of parenting skills, but I observed her carefully and learned early on that I did not want the responsibility and constant exhausting worry that overwhelmed my mother and is unavoidable with parenthood.