Discover more from Ginny Hogan
Are Children a Public Good?
Hey friends! I just wrapped Season 1 of Raising Questions—the last episode, a doubleheader with my fabulous guests Noel & Maude, is out now.
The general premise was that I’d ask my guests what their lives looked like in the five years before they decided whether or not to become parents. The five years was arbitrary and honestly just based on my own age (32) and my assumption that I wouldn’t want kids for at least five years. I didn’t intend for this podcast to be seasonal, but I realized I had more questions I wanted to raise—and I’m ready to move on.
But I also wanted to write up a little bit about what I learned. If you’re only interested in stand up tour dates, please skip the rest of the email. ALSO please please please come to my NYC show on July 11th. Also, tickets for my Edinburgh show are now on sale. Also, started a newsletter of jokes about dumb political news, mostly to make some meager attempt to empty my brain of useless information I’m woefully addicted to acquiring. Please subscribe. Also, I think “also” is my favorite word, because it lets you keep talking.
Okay, now the essay:
What I Learned in Season 1 of Raising Questions
I’ve now spoken to 20+ people about their decision to become or not become parents. The nice thing about raising questions is you get some answers back. And so, I wanted to share some takeaways.
First, my guests. People are extremely generous about sharing their time with me, a stranger from the internet best known for tweeting the word “tits,” no context, every few weeks. I found my guests via a social media query, and I was shocked at how willing people were to open up about the most personal parts of their lives. I was and am in awe of their intelligence, vulnerability, honesty, wit, humor, perspective, and knowledge. In most episodes, I spoke very little (which is for the best, according to my audio engineer, as my voice technically counts as “bright”). My guests had so much wonderful insight to share, and I felt so lucky to be able to brand other people’s thoughtfulness as my own project.
I had selfish reasons for starting this podcast. It was my own indecision that compelled me to the mic (or the non-mic, as my audio engineer later insisted upon). Without knowing whether or not I’ll have children, I almost feel like I’m living a dual life, where I need to plan for two futures simultaneously. How should I behave now, not knowing whether or not I’ll have children? Should I try to preserve as much optionality as I can? Am I stupid for letting my eggs sit unfrozen for even one more day? It’s 92 degrees in NYC right now; my eggs are roasting!
I wanted to know if my guests felt similarly. One takeaway after 20+ interviews is that they did not. I am, it turns out, more neurotic than most people. This stands to reason, as not that many people start podcasts to make major life decisions.
In almost every interview, my guest said something that made me feel like I was overthinking the decision. One guest told me having a child was the greatest experience of her life, but that she became even more pro-choice after doing so because she recognized all the downsides. One guest asked me why I was thinking so much about it, assuring me that it wasn’t that big of a decision (for context, he is a very loving father). One guest told me in an email that he had decided against having children, but by the time the interview rolled around, he was once again considering it. Several guests expressed feeling so confident in their decision not to have kids, only to say right at the end that if they’d gotten pregnant, they would have figured something out. Parenthood is a massive decision, but one of so many we will face in our lives. People are adaptable, and my wise guests knew that far better than I did.
None of that is to say people weren’t thinking about it quite a lot. No one had made a choice without seriously considering the alternative. In this consideration, they all came to one common conclusion: regardless of their gender, age, or parental status: our expectations of mothers are insane. Not parents, mothers. In fact, the only two guests who said the difficulty of parenthood somewhat aligned with their expectations were the two single mothers by choice. I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s because they knew from the start that they’d carry 100% of the responsibility.
Childfree people are affected by outsized expectations of mothers, too. Many expressed that parents seem to resent them for somehow evading a massive responsibility. But that’s not what they did. They made a choice for themselves—one with upsides and downsides. If we cut mothers a break, we could diffuse the tension between the two parties and see the choice to have kids as just that—a choice.
When I asked my childfree guests what can be done to improve the lives of people without children, all said something along the lines of “we need to cut mothers a break.” When I asked one of my guests how feminism could support childfree people, she said the effort would be better spent helping working mothers secure paid maternity leave. A handful of women said their male partners wanted kids more than they did, but they didn’t know how to create a truly equal division of labor. Even if you commit to splitting the work 50/50, there are still societal expectations to contend with. A man will get congratulated for every baseball game he attends; a woman will be criticized every time she’s five minutes late to a pick-up (as though it’s not a little bit rude to arrive perfectly on time!). Watch Kramer v. Kramer—my least favorite movie.
I have no doubts that mothers need more support and more reasonable expectations. One idea I still struggle to wrap my mind around, though, is to what extent are children “public goods.” I read a few academic articles on the subject, but they didn’t quite answer my question. They’re debating whether or not we should support parents because their children will go on to help society. This is true; society does continue onward because some people have children. We take this fact to its extreme, though, and we get ideas like JD Vance’s: that only parents should get to vote because only parents are taking responsibility for the future. It almost feels like a Nathan For You episode: “The Plan? Overturn Roe v Wade, so that there’s a massive discrepancy in abortion access between red and blue states, then take away the rights of everyone except parents to vote.”
A more relevant question, in my opinion, is whether or not we should support parents because they’re struggling. It’s not that other people’s children are our responsibility; it’s that we are all each other’s responsibility. That’s the definition of a society. It’s increasingly impossible to have a child, but it’s also increasingly impossible to do anything. I just got hit with a 4-digit vet fee because my cat jumped out a window. I’m so grateful I was able to pay it (and my cat is now fine), but I’m sad to live in a world in which only the wealthy can get medical treatment for their pets. Why is everything so hard? Maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not children are a “public good”; maybe we don’t need to crunch the numbers to figure out how much a baby born today will pay into Social Security. Maybe what matters is whether or not parents are keeping their heads above water. And as my guests told me, parents—mothers in particular—are not.
The sacrifices expected of mothers are unfair and intense, but having kids isn’t the only way to be selfless. I knew there was a stereotype that people without children were selfish, but I never quite believed it—it seemed too illogical. As I just said, the point of a society is to accommodate one another. At the same time, it’s kids who need accommodation.
And yet, nearly all the childfree people I spoke to had stories about someone calling them selfish. Ironically, most of their reasons for not having kids were selfless. Many of them found the idea of having children somewhat appealing but couldn’t reconcile it with existing responsibilities—to other people in their life, to their careers, to the environment.
Choosing not to have children is as much as a social choice as choosing to. When you decide to give your time to your children, you’re deciding not to give it to any number of people or causes. I don’t think selfishness/selflessness is a binary—people can be selfish in one area of their lives and selfless in another. One of my fears about having children is I’ll ignore everything else. And in a way, this is selfless towards my children, as I’m sure there will be times when I’d rather go out with my friends than go to their music recital (kids are famously not very skilled at anything). But in a way, this is also selfish, as there will be times I won’t be able to support a friend who needs me.
I can’t say I made a lot of progress on deciding if I want children. Imagine if I had, though—every undecided woman the world over would start a podcast, and it would increase the world’s total number of podcasts by about .03%! An early guest told me that having kids is the default, so the very process of considering alternatives meant I was in some ways rejecting it. We’re told we will want kids. We’re told it’s difficult, expensive, and constraining, but that it will make us happy beyond our wildest dreams. So happy we change our definition of happiness. So happy we didn’t know our hearts could fit that much—we hadn’t realized we were the Grinch! So happy we no longer care about any of the “vacuous” things we used to once value, like friends or books or seeing the world or not having poop on our floors. Therefore, to go against decades of conditioning—decades of being told I was one unprotected pump away from imploding my heart—meant I already had doubts. And it’s true; I do have doubts. But doubts aren’t answers. They are, as it happens, the opposite.
I continue to struggle with the idea that having kids is the default. I don’t currently have kids. I’ve never had kids, I don’t think. Why isn’t the default a continuation of the life I already live? (beginning my day with two hours of rage-tweeting about every article on the front page of the New York Times). It’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that the default is a major life change. Then again, death is the default, and it’s the exact opposite of life.
One of my guests articulated something that many others hinted at: “The right question is not whether or not you want kids. It’s whether or not you want to become a parent.” Do you want to take on the identity of “parent,” or would you be happier without it? People have many identities, but we all only have 24 hours in a day.
And our identities continue to evolve and grow regardless of whether or not we become parents. This idea that we’re supposed to reach some kind of “end point” before having kids is one I’ve abandoned. I spoke to sober people who discussed how sobriety impacted both parenting and their decision to become parents. I talked to people who divorced before having kids, people with childhood trauma, people with extreme careers (he was an American Ninja Warrior), people with all kinds of health conditions. They didn’t become parents and suddenly heal from everything that had ever happened to them.
For many of my guests, having children was a harbinger of great growth. For others, the process of deciding not to have kids was equally momentous. And for both, the growth continued after that decision was made. It continues your whole life, in fact. I always say we only need to figure out one thing per decade, and it’s okay if it’s small. In my 20s, I learned how to make coffee at home.
So, that’s my main takeaway. Having kids is neither the end nor the be-all-end-all. It doesn’t mean you’re a finished product, and it doesn’t mean you must toss aside the rest of your goals. Not having kids doesn’t mean you’ve missed out on life’s singular greatest joy; it means you missed one major experience, but that time will be filled with other experiences. Lives contain multitudes. I didn’t learn this from experience, I learned it from asking my guests. And so, I’m happy they let me raise some questions at them.
Thanks for reading, and as always, please reach out with any thoughts or questions.