Replacement II: the Uses of Childlessness

In “Replacement I,” we pointed out that overpopulation leads to crowding, regimentation, and spoliation of the environment, while the most obvious countermeasure (China’s one-child family mandate) leads to a generation of badly spoiled “only” children.  Those of us who value communities of ponderable size (big enough for variety, but small enough for individuality) need to start thinking about paths between rocks and hard places.  Which means, among other things, that we need to rethink our presumption that everybody should become biological parents.  If fewer people have children, they can have more children per family.  And many people believe that large families (within reasonable limits) tend to produce better communities.


We might start by looking at various animal species.  Those that live in packs or communities often limit reproduction to the alpha female, or the alpha male, or the alpha pair.  Many pack members do not reproduce, but are nonetheless useful and sometimes essential to the life of the pack as a whole.  This is true of wolves and meerkats, for instance.  Whereas solitary mammals (like bears) all reproduce, absent rare pathologies.  I don’t know that anybody has researched the general issue of “childlessness” among mammals (or other critters, for that matter,) but it sounds like something that needs a close look.


In human history, many cultures have mandated celibacy and/or childlessness among certain members.  Certainly the Catholic culture of medieval Europe did so, as did Eastern Orthodox Christians to a somewhat lesser degree.  Buddhist monasticism mandated celibacy, but was often viewed as a temporary life stage for most monks, so probably had less demographic impact.  In other cultures, the military life was deemed to require celibacy/childlessness, as among the Ottoman Janissaries, and the Zulu troops of Chaka’s army. 


Victorian middle-class culture in England and the US created a stratum of “maiden aunts” and other “old maids.”  One strand of those cultures had a custom that the youngest daughter would be expected not to marry, but to stay home and care for her parents during their old age, in return for which she would ultimately inherit their house. (I mention this because one of my great-uncles married a woman who had done this.  She was his second wife; he already had children by his first wife, but Aunt May was of course past child-bearing when he married her.)  During the period between the beginnings of female emancipation (including access to higher education and the professions) and the widespread use of contraception, most women who went into the professions were also expected to remain unmarried and childless.


And in some cultures, for purely economic reasons, it was common to delay marriage until just a few years short of the end of child-bearing age for women—post-famine Ireland, for instance.  This obviously reduced the number of children born to such couples, and increased the likelihood of childlessness.


Essentially, in all of these arrangements, there is a recognition that, whether or not the species, or the pack, or the group, or the environment, can sustain universal reproduction, there are individuals who do not have a vocation for parenthood, or who have a vocation for something else difficult to combine with parenthood.


The upside of these various arrangements is twofold.  First, as we already pointed out, if fewer adults become parents, those who do can have more children per family.  But, in addition, as we have seen from the examples cited above, childless adults can perform valuable services to their families and their communities which people with children would have a lot more trouble doing, and can, in return, experience the benefits of extended family life. 


Obviously, this doesn’t always work out.  For instance, studies of birth order and family size seem to show that, beyond two or three children, large families are not necessarily good for the kids.  The more parental attention a child gets, the more academic and life success the child is likely to have.  And extended families sometimes extend the potential for child abuse and other pathologies. 


Our economic arrangements today militate against extended families, at least among people who expect their children to go to college, or into military service.  Sending a kid away from home in his/her late teens or early twenties pretty much guarantees that s/he will not marry the kid next door.  The result will likely be a family with one end in (for instance) Boston and the other in (for instance) Miami, mainly connected by the internet, the telephone, and cheap airfares.  When cheap airfares disappear, or when the older generation of such a family gets to retirement age, things will get even more difficult. Worse still, most of us don’t really grasp what geographical separation means, since we are so accustomed to thinking of it as insignificant.  In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye tells his daughter, as she is about to get on a train to follow her husband into exile in Siberia, “God knows whether we shall ever see each other again.”  As travel gets more expensive, we may have to start seeing family separations that way too.  It can be an unpleasant surprise at an age when we are experiencing lots of other unpleasant surprises (like raising teenagers, losing our youthful good looks, and discovering that we will not end our professional career as head of the firm.)


But extended families can come into existence in more ways than one.  Most cultures have created various kinds of quasi-familial arrangements to fill in the gaps in biology. Cultural anthropologists call them “fictive kinship.”  Godparents, for instance, who may fill in for absent or deceased biological parents; “play brothers” and “play sisters” in some urban American subcultures.  And of course, the infinite variety of “step-“ and “half-“ relatives created by divorces and unmarried parenthood.  Most of these arrangements are purely voluntary, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage.  But they can and do provide love and even stability for people who might otherwise live alone, or worse still, grow up alone. 


One of the cultural by-products of the 1960s was increased exploration of various quasi-familial arrangements beyond and sometimes counter to the nuclear family.  Some of them worked, some of them failed dismally, and most of them worked for a while and then failed rather quietly.  Many of them failed for precisely the same reasons that marriages fail, except that the likelihood of failure is increased exponentially by the number of people involved in the relationship.  Today’s New Monastic movement seems to be trying out some of the same arrangements, under much more difficult economic circumstances (which may turn out to be an up side or a down side.)


But with less fanfare and more serendipity, many people beginning to form their families are trying to build in “reinforcements” in the form of friends, godparents, and kids who just happen to hang around.  We need to encourage this trend. We need, especially, to encourage skepticism about the nearly universal belief that everybody has a right to have their “own” biological children.  What makes us think our own DNA is any better than that of the world’s orphans and foundlings who need our care? 


None of this is “revolutionary” or “anti-family.”  On the contrary, it is a return to the way human beings lived before the nuclear family exploded into overpopulation.  Unless we prefer to limit our numbers through famine, plague, and war, we should be exploring other solutions that worked for those who came before us. 




Tags: ,

One Response to “Replacement II: the Uses of Childlessness”

  1. Kristan Says:

    Why is there no discussion here? This was very interesting. Thank you.

    “Fictive kinship.” Excellent, I love this. It DOES take a village full of faux uncles and aunts, who are very good in supportive roles outside of direct parenting. As you pointed out, we aren’t all geared up for the same life experiences.

    I have one child. My half-sister has five. I work half as much, am more financially stable, and suffer less stress. My daughter has a definite advantage over her cousins in that she has more time to develop cognitive skills at home after spending much of her days in public school fine-tuning her social skills. If a parent is incapable of devoting adequate time to, in this case, all five children, each child will develop tools necessary for public interaction, but that doesn’t mean they’ll learn how to make right choices. I think we’ve all been subjected to The Lord of the Flies, yeah?

    My father is retired clergy. He is unconventional, but has a doctorate in religious studies, nonetheless. We’ve discussed overpopulation many times, and he’s pointed out two major problems: irresponsibility and religious objection toward the use of birth control. (He asked me to consider on a religious level which the greater sin might be between practicing birth control and child neglect/abuse as a result of unplanned pregnancy, which I think is a great argument.) Additionally, as medical technology continues to advance in the fields of pediatrics and prenatal care, the survival rates will also rise, thus, impacting the aforementioned dilemmas.

    I can’t control these people who want to have eight children without absorbing any of the responsibilities of good parenting. Therefore, all I can do is focus on my one kid, teach her what I know about overpopulation, and hope I’ve put her on the right path.

    Really enjoyed reading your commentary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: