The Selfish Parent

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.      



8 responses to “The Selfish Parent

  1. I know you haven’t finished your item here, Julie, but just briefly…

    Even when accidentally pregnant, hormones within get the mom-to-be into nesting mode and beyond nesting there is a rush of hope that the child will have everything from life that eluded mom/dad, material advantages, a great career and so on. If you mean only planned pregnancy via IVF, I think planning any old stranger’s child is not a selfless or loving act, rather, it’s planned consumerism.

    • I don’t mean to say that people who decide to have children don’t love them and care for them. And of course, people who become pregnant without meaning to and then raise the children likely love and care for those children as well. I just mean that in any case where people are planning to become parents, they are doing something they want to be doing and so they are equally selfish. They might be motivated by consumerism or they might be motivated by the desire to leave a genetic legacy or they might be motivated by a desire to have the experience of raising a child. I don’t think motivation matters so much in this narrow question I am asking. They are indulging their own desire (from whatever source) to be a parent.

      I don’t even really mean to comment on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I just mean to say that it is equally true for all people who have children as the result of a conscious decision to do so, whether you’re thinking about a single parent (of any sort) or a married heterosexual couple or people using ART (and I realize these categories are not mutually exclusive.)

  2. Wow, some great food for thought! When I was single and pregnant at age 21 and chose to place my child for adoption, many people told me how “selfless” I was being. My two other children were born when I was in my early 30s and married, with a stable income, etc. I have never been told that I’m selfish to have them.
    However, some people still comment on how “selfless” it was for me to give up my first. So perhaps whether or not parenting is selfish can be debated on a kid-by-kid basis….?

    • Maybe it can. But in general, I’m not sure the question of whether one’s initial decision is particularly selfish is really that helpful. I’d rather talk about whether the decision was responsible.

  3. Julie, I checked carefully and not a single person commenting on the surrogacy had even mentioned the word ‘selfish’. Of course it is because of selfish reasons that people choose to have a baby just as it is ‘selfish’ to eat. sleep or have a shower. Everything we do to look after ourselves is selfish. But it is not irresponsible to eat, sleep or shower despite it being selfish. In the same way procreating responsibly by ensuring that we are not creating a child alienated from its genetic parents is still selfish but not a bad selfish – a good selfish. Giving away a child for adoption that you cannot look after might in my view be selfish because it is for the benefit of the mother’s lifestyle, education and career, but at the same time responsible. However, using another person’s gametes to procreate with is both selfish and irresponsible because you are deliberately creating a child alienated from its real parent. In my view it is not the notion of selfishness that should be the arbiter of whether a fertility activity is good, in my view selfishness is often a very good motivator. However, it should be responsibility which should be the key judgmental factor. In my view using IVF to conceive is also as irresponsible as gamete donation because of the high rate of birth defects and long term health problems that ensue.

  4. I object to the use of the term selfish as I find the accusation disproportionately directed at women, because it is women, of course, who are expected to be selfless.

  5. testicularmonkey

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