Where Logic Meets Love

Having Children Is a Matter of the Heart: A Response to "The Baby Question"

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pin It Now!
Having Children Is a Matter of the Heart: A Response to 'The Baby Question' | Faith Permeating Life

It started when I was in college. The constant question: "Why don't you drink?"

I was in a non-drinking group of friends in high school, so the topic never came up. But when I started college, my choice not to drink alcohol suddenly put me in the minority and thus demanded an explanation.

Another friend who also didn't drink at the beginning of college expressed frustration at getting this same question. He pointed out that drinking alcohol is a conscious action, not a default state, and thus people should have to have reasons to drink, not reasons to refrain from drinking.

When I turned 21, I tried alcohol (and tried and tried and tried, thanks to the persistence of family and friends who were sure I'd like this drink). I determined that I liked neither the taste nor the effects of alcohol, and I certainly didn't care about drinking to fit in. After working in alcohol abuse prevention education for over two years, I knew that these were the primary reasons people gave for why they drank. None of those reasons applied to me, so I didn't drink, and still don't.

But my choice not to engage in this intentional action still marks me as unusual in most social circles, and people assume I must have a reason. I guess they're expecting me to produce some explanation like "I'm allergic" or "alcoholism runs in my family." The fact that my reason for not drinking is simply a lack of a reason to drink tends to baffle them.

I thought of this when reading Danielle Vermeer's latest post called The Baby Question: Asking "Why" Instead of "When" to Have Kids. She points out that the expectation that married couples will have children is so ingrained in our culture that it's typical for couples to be asked when they plan to have kids from practically the moment they say "I do." And the question is not "whether" they plan to have kids but "when," as if this is the only decision regarding children these couples will have to make.

This expectation of having children as a default action of married couples is so strong, Danielle notes, that many couples seem confused by the question of why they decided to have kids. And not surprisingly, as it's fairly uncommon that such a question is posed to parents. Instead, those who choose not to have children, like us non-drinkers, are the ones who are constantly peppered with the question "Why not?" and the admonition "You'll change your mind."

Now, as many people in the comments of Danielle's post pointed out, having children (unlike drinking alcohol) is something that often happens unintentionally -- I've seen statistics that almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended. So plenty of people have children for no other reason than they had unprotected sex or their birth control failed.

Still, I would guess that many of those people had planned to have children eventually, if not right then. And another portion of unplanned pregnancies result in abortion or adoption. So while the question may not be phrased exactly as "Why did you decide to have children?" the point still stands that it makes sense for having (and keeping) children to be considered a conscious decision rather than the default.

Now here's where I think Danielle makes a very interesting jump that I want to explore more. She equates making a conscious decision to have children with having a logical reason for doing so. These might sound like the same thing, but they're not.

You may remember a while back that I answered a reader question about how I know that I want children. Or at least, I attempted to answer it, because it's a very difficult question.

I pointed out that there are certain situations where one's feelings and intuition are a much better guide to decision-making than lists of pros and cons. These situations can be loosely defined as "personal preferences" -- that is, decisions where there is no objectively right answer, and where your answer is likely to be different than someone else's. These kinds of situations range from picking a favorite TV show to choosing the person you want to marry. And in fact, trying to nail down good reasons for your preferences can cause you to change your mind for the worse, as in the study where people ended up changing their mind about which kind of jam was their favorite (and actually picking the one rated the worst) once they were forced to explain their reasoning.

Given that my blog's tagline is "Where logic meet love," it might sound odd for me to say that there are situations where "love" (or preferences) outweighs logic to such an extent that logic is actually detrimental. And usually I'm not a big fan of trusting one's intuition -- a number of books I've read recently, including The Hidden Brain and Thinking, Fast and Slow, focus on how bad our intuitions typically are. But a review of another such book, The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us, points out that even a book on the problems with intuition recognizes the limits of logic in aiding decision-making:
Interestingly, the jam study carried out by Wilson and Schooler (1991) represents one of the few attempts in the book to actually determine the type of situations in which "intuition" might actually be superior to deliberate analysis. While rational analysis may be absolutely necessary in some situations -- hiring an employee based on his previous experience, rather than on a deceptive show of self "confidence" -- when deciding between the taste of two jams or two lovers we might question how far rational analysis can be applied. Until determined otherwise by the "fully functioning person", these may well be considered to be "matters of the heart" (to the extent that no single right answer can be determined using logic or the facts of science). [Emphasis mine]
So here's what I think: Having children should be considered a choice -- that is, no one should be expected to have children, regardless of their marital status. Those who don't have children, or who have more or less than people consider "normal," should not be shamed for their decision. And no one should have to give a rational, deeply logical explanation for any of these decisions either. They are "matters of the heart," where intuition and love matter most, and we need to trust people to make these decisions for themselves in whatever way makes sense to them.

(Note: I've given this a lot of thought because I know that, given that Mike and I plan to adopt, we will be asked why we want children. I'm still not sure I have a "good" answer to this question, but I have a feeling those doing the screening will be mostly looking out for "bad" answers than wanting thoroughly logical answers when we're asked this question.)

If you have, or want, children, have you been asked why? If you don't want children, have you been asked why? Either way, do you have a specific reason, or feel like you need one?


  1. Thanks for this response, Jessica. You've given be a lot to think about, but I think one thing I didn't make clearer in my post is what exactly I mean by "logic" or "logical." As an INTJ, I am certainly prone more to analysis and logic over intuition or feeling, but in the baby question, it's more that I simply want people to clearly be able to describe their decision-making processes for having children. The answer, "because that's just what you do" to me not only is inherently illogical -- like you shared in the alcohol scenario -- but it also seems irresponsible and unconscious to me, even at an emotional level. But for those who responded, "because we wanted to multiply our love" or its variants, I think that's a completely valid reason since it just makes sense, even if it's not "logical" in the traditional way of ordered, reasoned thinking.

    1. Ha, I was going to come in and comment something about "Oh, well, Danielle's and INTJ: differences explained!"

    2. That's interesting. I still think we have slightly different perspectives on this; it sounds like you are saying you want people to have a reason that makes sense to you (and thus fits your definition of logical), whereas I trust people to have a reason that makes sense to them. I see "it's just what you do" not as an illogical reason, but as no reason at all -- an after-the-fact explanation for something that is done without having made a conscious decision to do so. Maybe we are on the same page, just with different terminology :)

    3. I think objectively there are some reasons that make more "sense" than other reasons. Again, I think the "because that's just what you do when you're married" isn't really a reason in the first place, but it is often the first response from folks when asked WHY they had kids. That answer WILL make sense to some people, even though objectively it's not really an answer. Does that distinction make sense?

      For others with less "logical" reasons -- again, I am not pitting emotion vs. logic here -- such as "we wanted to multiply the love we had" or "we wanted to co-create with God" or "we felt called to parenthood" are all reasons that make "sense" to me. So even if they are based in love or feeling or theology or callings, they are more describable reasons that make sense.

    4. I guess I just have a problem casting judgment on anyone else's reasons by saying whether or not they make sense. I agree that societally we should not see having children as the default of married couples, only because of the shaming/questioning that causes for those who don't have children. But I'm uncomfortable with the idea that anyone needs to justify their decision to have children in a way that makes sense to someone other than them. (Except in cases like adoption home studies.)

  2. I don't want kids, but I've never been asked why I don't. 90% of the time the response I get is "Oh, you'll change your mind". Which drives me insane - it's like my opinion is completely irrelevant and that my biological clock will force me into changing my mind. It used to be just my parents' friends, but it's increasingly extending to my friends, people I've known since primary school, who've known my feelings on the subject for years.


    1. You might like the Offbeat Families site's child-free tag, as they've had several discussions about dealing with the "you'll change your mind" comments.

    2. Ditto. This is often combined with that sort of condescending tone older people take towards younger people whom they consider naive. I have rather often caught the feel of "Silly little girl thinking she doesn't want kids! Of course she's not old enough to know something like that."

      I am, as a matter of fact, at the age where many of my same-age friends are having babies. I notice no one has questioned whether they're old enough or mature enough to make that decision, absent specific immature behavior. But in my mid-20's I am not treated as old enough to know that I don't want children.

    3. Interesting, isn't it, that someone can be seen as old enough to make a (more or less) permanent decision about children if they decide to have children, but not old enough to make such a decision if they decide not to have children?

  3. So very true. I think every kid deserves parents who really want to be parents, and it drives me crazy when people say other people are "selfish" for not wanting kids. What's selfish is deciding to be a parent when you don't really want a kid, which just makes life miserable for everyone involved!

    I remember getting those why-aren't-you-drinkinq questions a lot, too, because I didn't drink for most of college. In retrospect I don't actually think my reasons for not drinking were good ones, but regardless, it's the kind of thing people need to leave alone.

    1. Yeah, I don't think anyone needs reasons not to drink, but when "everyone's doing it" that can be hard for people to understand. I mean, no one asks me, "Why don't you dye your hair?" but if that suddenly became the most popular thing to do, then I think people would expect me to have a reason for not doing it too. Social norms are weird things.

  4. From a biological perspective, reproduction is the primary mandate of every species. Sexuality exists in the service of reproduction. Therefore, it is not illogical for reproduction to be considered a default outcome for mated couples. That birth control is readily available does not change our basic biological setup. It operates on a species level rather than an individual level, but not reproducing as a species is the same thing as not eating as an individual--a slow but inevitable form of suicide. (Therefore, I don't think it's at all analogous to not drinking alcohol, which, of course, could be avoided forever by everyone and no harm done.)

    However, as far as individual choices go, I would first of all not dream of asking this of anyone. It's just not a matter that should be appropriate for public prying. I was asked just this past weekend for some "what's it like having kids" advice from an acquaintance whose fiancee is getting baby hungry and under those circumstances I pointed out that it's something of a long-term investment--yes, babies eat up all your time and energy in the short term, but when you are old and frail you'll be glad of having descendants who can come visit you.

    I really agree, though, that this is not an area of life that can or should be reduced entirely to logic. Nobody would want a spouse who had picked them out for purely logical reasons (not even DOB!). Nor would a child want to be raised by parents who did it on a raw cost-benefit analysis. If there's not a core of irrationality--if there's not a point at which you can say, I chose you just because, for no good reason--then I don't think it's really love.

    1. I do see what you're saying on a species level, but I think that reproduction as a default expectation of marriage became illogical once marriage changed on a broad level from a way of organizing society to a way of expressing a commitment to someone out of love. When marriage was more about alliances, inheritance, and the organization of children, then naturally it would be expected that someone who married would have children. But as marriage has changed, so should our expectations about what that means for childbearing. And the expectation of children does have to do with the meaning of marriage or life partnership, because the same expectations are not generally put on couples who haven't made such a commitment; that is, people are not regularly asked, "When are you going to have kids?" when they begin dating or even after dating for some time, but rather when they get married. So I use the example of drinking because I think that this default expectation of children has more to do with social norms associated with marriage than with a mindfulness of propagation of the species or the expectation that all mating is done for the purpose of childbearing.

      If there's not a core of irrationality--if there's not a point at which you can say, I chose you just because, for no good reason--then I don't think it's really love.
      My favorite Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, Sonnet 14, touches on this exact same sentiment.

    2. But why does people's private, love commitment matter to society? There's no social institution for legally declaring your best friendship for ever. How people feel about other people is not something we all need to see set down in stone--unless the staggeringly difficult task of raising small humans is implicated. Then it *does* matter to society at large that the people responsible are taking responsibility. (And the corollary is that we rather expect people who have made that formal step to have such a reason for doing so.)

      Just because social norms are not carefully thought through does not mean they don't reflect the realities of who we are. Sometimes it's the things that are thought about the least that reflect it most powerfully.


Your thoughts matter, so join in the conversation! Disagreements are welcome, but please stay respectful and open-minded with your comments.

I reply to almost all comments, so check back here soon!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...