Recently I’ve been thinking about the assertion that some people’s decisions to become a parent are selfish. Of course, being selfish is never a good thing, so asserting that someone’s choice is selfish is one way, and perhaps an effective way, of suggesting that their choice to become a parent is not a legitimate or worthy choice.
You see this argument deployed in many different contexts. Some assert that the decision of the fifty-ish couple to become a parents via surrogacy (the topic of a recent post) was selfish. In comments on posts about sperm donors I’ve seen the assertion that using gametes from an unknown provider/donor is selfish. I’ve seen similar assertions of selfishness leveled at single parents (perhaps most typically single mothers), lesbian and gay parents, and other not-quite-typical parents. Though I haven’t gone back to reread all my old posts, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I’d made that point myself in the case of Nadya , famed mother of octuplets.
Because it seems to figure in so many different contexts, I wanted to take a little time to examine this assertion of selfishness a bit more closely. It may take a bit of time to do this, so bear with me.
The first question, of course, is what does it mean to be selfish. One can always start with a dictionary definition, but I’ll just use my own words here: It means doing what you want without much regard for others.
If that’s a reasonable understanding of the word, then I think it might be fair to say that virtually everyone’s decision to become a parent is selfish. That is, you choose to become a parent because you want to.
Of course, people’s desires to become parents are spurred by many different things. Some might want to continue a family line and some might feel a sense of obligation to continue the human race. But in any event, when you choose to have a child, you are choosing to do what you want to do because you want to do it. A single woman’s decision to become a parent is just as selfish as is a heterosexual married couple’s, and vice versa.
What’s more, there is nothing per se bad about this “selfish” decision to become a parent. Some people have no particular desire to be parents but find themselves becoming parents anyway. They are not acting selfishly. But I’m hardly convinced that they are generally preferable parents to those who actually want to be parents.
I don’t mean to suggest that just anyone who wants to have a child should have one and that’s fine. What I want to suggest first is that calling the decision to have a child selfish really doesn’t add anything to the discussion as it applies equally well to too many people.
The real question, I think, is not whether a person is acting selfishly but whether a person is acting responsibly. I might want to have a child when I am twenty years old, but if I have no way to support myself and my child, lack a strong social network, and am not reasonably mature myself, then I think my decision to have a child and become a parent would be irresponsible. If, however, I wait a few years, find myself a good job with health care benefits, build myself a support network and so on, I might well be able to raise a child. At that point I might responsibly indulge my selfish desire to have a child.
To be clear, I’d like to think I’d say the same think about a married couple. The fact that the couple wants to have a child is one thing, but the critical question is would it be responsible for them to have a child.
I’m not suggesting that this shift in wording is some panacea that is going to make all debate vanish. I assume we’ll be having exactly the same debates that we were. I just think that to the extent there is truth to the notion that there is something selfish about wanting to have a child, that truth is much more broadly applicable than we generally realize.
I’ve a bit more to say on this, so will probably continue tomorrow. But let me close with this thought: While the decision to become a parent is probably selfish in some sense for most of us, the actual practice of parenting requires a higher degree of self-denial than anything else I’ve ever done. To the extent possible, it is the opposite of selfish, which I suppose makes it selfless. Maybe that’s one reason why it is particularly important that we actually do want to be parents–to have it thrust upon you when you didn’t want it would be very harsh.