To Have or Not to Have Children – Free Ebook

Modern societies are pretty 
much in agreement on this score:  

having children is one of the most meaningful and 
delightful moves anyone can make. Couples who do  

not – for whatever reason – have children tend 
to be automatically almost universally pitied and  

are assumed to have been denied the chance to have 
offspring by biology. That one might freely choose  

not to have children, and yet be reasonably 
content with one’s choice, remains one of the  

most disturbing and unfathomed of all modern
positions.

The basic dynamics of whether or not to have 
children follow the very same pattern that we see  

across a range of other so-called great choices 
in emotional life: whether or not to get married,  

whether or not to stay faithful, whether to follow 
the path of reason or the calls of the heart…We  

observe a very strong desire to try to identify 
the ‘right’ choice accompanied by a frighteningly  

utopian belief that, once this choice has been 
located, we will be able to flourish and find  

peace.But the reality is very different, much more 
sombre and more interesting: the large dilemmas of  

emotional life generally have no ‘answer’ in the 
sense of a response that doesn’t – somewhere along  

the line – entail a great loss and an element of 
extraordinary sacrifice. Whatever we choose will,  

in this sense, be wrong, and leave us regretting 
some features of the choices we did not make.  

There is no such thing as a cost-free choice, 
a line of argument which continues (oddly) to  

create surprise in contemporary life. Making a good 
choice simply involves focusing on what variety of  

suffering we are best suited to – rather than 
aiming with utopian zeal to try to avoid grief  

and regret altogether. Consider, for example, 
the varieties of suffering that are on offer  

on both sides of the faithful/unfaithful ledger: 
both options will at moments be very miserable,  

so – when weighing up how to lead our lives – we 
should work on knowing as much as possible about  

our specific taste in misery.

Let’s look at a table; Monogamy: 
the Misery, a Sense of Confinement, a Correct  

impression that ‘life is elsewhere’, Irritability, 
Narrow horizons, Sexual abandonment, 

What about on the other side: Mulitple partners. What will be the misery there?

There will be chaos, angry ex’s, loneliness long term, Damaged children, Guilt. The very same  

kind of trade-offs exist over the question of 
children. No honest experience of parenting  

is complete without an intermittent very strong 
impression that in some ways children are both the  

meaning of one’s life and the cause of the ruin 
of one’s life. Children: the Misery Disappointment  

with oneself as a parent, Disappointment with how 
they turn out, Guilt, exhaustion, lost opportunity  

Sense of perpetuating human suffering,
House sticky everywhere. What about no Children:  

What’s the Misery there? Society’s constant message that one has ‘missed out’ Loneliness/boredom Lack of constant  

distraction/calls on one’s time… Sentimental 
longing for comfort of children by the time one reaches the nursing home.  

The insight that all choices are, in a sense, 
hellish, was best expressed by the early 19th  

century Danish Existential philosopher Soren 
Kierkegaard, who summed up our options in a  

playful, but bleakly realistic and exasperated 
outburst in his masterpiece, “Either/Or”:  

“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you 
will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you  

will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s 
foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it,  

you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s 
foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.  

Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe 
her not, you will also regret it… Hang yourself,  

you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you 
will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang  

yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether 
you hang yourself or do not hang yourself,  

you will regret both. This, gentlemen, 
is the essence of all philosophy.”  

We deserve pity – as does everyone 
else. We will make disastrous decisions,  

we will form mistaken relationships, we will 
embark on misguided careers, we will invest  

our savings foolishly, we will spend years 
on friendships with unreliable idiots – and  

we will get it mostly wrong around children. 
But we can we be consoled by a bitter truth:  

there are no painless options, for the 
conditions of existence are intrinsically  

rather than accidentally frustrating. We can’t 
get through the tunnel of life without a mauling.  

For those of us contemplating whether or not to 
have children, the message is dark but consoling  

in its bleakness: you will be at points very 
unhappy whatever you choose. With either option,  

you will feel that you have ruined your life – and 
you will be correct. We do not need to add to our  

misery by insisting that there would have been 
another, better way. There is, curiously, relief  

to be found in the knowledge of the inevitability 
of suffering. It is, in the end, never darkness  

that dooms us, but the wrong sort of hope in 
that most cruel of fantasies: ‘the right choice’.

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