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There is an odd argument that keeps popping up in my Facebook feed these days: to have children or not, and the evidence or experience of “fulfillment” that follows.

There are two extreme ends of the argument. The first is that you can’t actually have a fulfilled life unless you have children, and that your life is a selfish mess without them even if you don’t realize it. The second is that children destroy your marriage, your freedom, and your will to live a full life.

I don’t get it.

I mean, you can’t experience both a life with children of your own and a life without it. You can have different seasons in your life, but that isn’t the same as having fully experienced one at the exclusion of the other. So at best, each side is building an argument predicated on assumptions or second-hand information and opinion. They can talk about the emotional fulfillment they have experienced personally, but I guess I can’t follow their logic as it is supposed to apply to everyone else.

Part of the reason why I call it a false dichotomy is that I think you need at least four solid categories to talk about people and their children (or the lack thereof). And even this is a serious oversimplification when you consider the length and breadth of just one human life, with all its twists and turns.

kids chart1

Want Kids, Have Kids

I’m in this category, so it’s really the only one I can talk about from direct experience. The extremely abbreviated version is this: my wife and I decided that we wanted kids, tried for a while, went to a fertility clinic, experienced some wonders of modern medicine and science, and had our Abby almost five years ago. Nora followed two-and-a-half years later.

Our lives revolve around our girls. Cliché as it sounds, I genuinely do not remember what it was like to not have them around. And yes, I would say that we needed the two of them, that we needed kids, to feel like our life was meaningful and fulfilled.

Does that mean that I think that everyone who doesn’t have kids is living a life without meaning? Nope. I have to create things to keep from going insane (case in point). That isn’t true for everyone else, so if they choose not to blog I can assume that they do so because they don’t need it to be mentally healthy, not because they live in an empty, lifeless ball of sadness and don’t know that blogging fixes everything.

Don’t Want Kids, Don’t Have Kids

I know a few people in this category. I remember one person, years ago, telling me that she never felt like she needed kids because she had taught for the last twenty years. “I fill that need for kids through my students,” she told me. “I watch them grow up and I am part of their lives. I don’t need my own.”

To be honest, I have a lot of respect for people who recognize that they don’t want to be a parent and then who don’t give in to the unreasonable societal pressure to have kids. Being a parent is hard. It’s life-altering, no matter what you think it will be or how hard you try to keep your old life. Everything revolves around your children. You have to be a lot less selfish with your time, your energy, your money, your resources. But that doesn’t mean that people who choose not to have kids are selfish at all.

Again, I’m in no way suggesting that it is a selfish choice not to have children, just that there is a different set of demands on you as a parent than as a non-parent. And if you know you don’t want to do something, or that you won’t be good at something, why would you force yourself into it, especially when the stake are so high for the other people involved?

Is having and raising kids an important and fulfilling task? Of course it can be. Is it the only important and fulfilling task a person can undertake? Seems pretty narrow-minded of anyone to try to say yes.

Don’t Want Kids, Have Kids

I wish—dear God do I wish—that I didn’t know so many examples of this category. Not any of my friends or family, thankfully, but just through having been a teacher for almost a decade. And in this case I’m not talking about people who had “surprises” and then realized that they loved being a parent. This is the ongoing refusal to accept the role of being a parent, an act that kids pick up on much earlier than any of us realize.

This breaks my heart. Almost, but not quite, as much as the last category.

Want Kids, Don’t Have Kids

What can I say about this one? I’ve already blogged quite a bit about my wife going through fertility treatment, about friends who have spent years trying and failing to conceive or having miscarriage after miscarriage. I know so many people who have said to me that they want to be a mother or a father, but they haven’t found the right person to share their lives with, left it too long, discovered a medical issue, or whatever it happens to be.

As with people who don’t want to have kids, there are lots of ways to lead fulfilling lives, so again I am not suggesting that if a person in this category never has children they are doomed to a bleak, meaningless existence. But I do empathize when they want to build their lives around a child and that child isn’t there.

What does it all mean?

The best answer I can come up with is this: nothing. It is silly to say that a single category of existence is the only one with any real meaning and value. The argument is so flawed to start that there shouldn’t be silly pro and con articles about it, any more than there should be Kardashians. It’s just further proof that people want to extrapolate their personal experiences to everyone else. Probably so they can find some meaning and fulfillment in their little lives.