Why is it 'selfish' to have kids late — or not at all?

Delaying motherhood or opting to be childfree can be criticized as
Delaying motherhood or opting to be childfree can be criticized as "selfish" — but why? (Photo: Getty Creative)

The ongoing pandemic — in which COVID-19 vaccinations remain out of reach for children under age 5 — has shone a spotlight on the strain parents, particularly working mothers, are under right now as they juggle careers, child care and vigilance in the face of the coronavirus. Climate change anxiety and an overall sense of insecurity about the future, meanwhile, have led to a steady stream of articles like "To Breed or Not to Breed?" and "Why Young People Are Delaying Parenthood." But despite the challenges of child-rearing being amplified, and the average age of first-time parents in the U.S. steadily rising, society is still sending the message that to wait to have kids — or forgo it completely — is "selfish."

In an interview published on Jan. 2, Diane Kruger told the Sunday Telegraph about becoming a mother at age 42, admitting, "I am so glad I did not have a kid at 30."

The actress, who shares a 3-year-old daughter with fiancé Norman Reedus, added, "I think I would have absolutely resented it for all the things that you have to give up, because today I am happy to do so. I have been to every party, I have been to every country that I wanted to visit. So I'm 100 percent ready and willing to give my kid that attention. But at 30, I know I would not have been ready to do this properly."

Her comments echoed those she shared with Porter magazine in 2019, in which she described herself as not wanting children for a long time because she was "too selfish." And that's just what online critics are calling her in the wake of her latest interview, accusing the star of wasting her youth by prioritizing herself, "playing Russian roulette" by putting off pregnancy and potentially compromising her child's health due to her age.

But to not have children at all would also be selfish, according to controversial remarks made by Pope Francis on Jan. 5, just days after Kruger's interview was published. Speaking at the Vatican, the pontiff decried the "form of selfishness" of those who “do not want to have children, or just one and no more." In remarks translated in multiple outlets, he also singled out childfree pet owners, saying, "dogs and cats take the place of children."

“This denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us," the pope continued. "It takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood."

Zoë Noble, founder of the storytelling platform We are Childfree, says the pope's remarks are "uninformed, insensitive and irresponsible nonsense which nonetheless have the potential to do real harm, especially to people with birthing bodies."

Noble tells Yahoo Life that she was "dismayed" that Pope Francis would use his influence to "perpetuate the pressure and shame that childfree people feel" — pressure that she and those in her community are constantly subjected to because they have chosen to not reproduce. (The Berlin-based Brit started photographing other childfree women after a taxi driver "nearly drove us off the road" when she mentioned that she was married but didn't want children.)

As a childfree woman, Noble says she's received "shaming assumptions" that she'll be "unfulfilled" without a child, or that she's somehow not a "real woman" because she doesn't have a maternal urge. The claim that she's putting her own interests above those of a theoretical offspring is another oft-heard complaint.

"The word 'selfish' has been thrown at childfree people for so long that this argument has lost all meaning," she says. "Even if it’s your interpretation of the Bible that God wants everyone to have as many children as they can, you have to reckon with the current situation that this pro-natalist doctrine has brought us to: a world on the verge of overpopulation, climate crisis, mass extinction, dwindling resources … In this modern context, people choosing to have fewer children can only be seen as an un-selfish act, a net positive for the world and its inhabitants.

"But while parents may choose to have smaller families because of these kinds of concerns, most childfree people simply don’t want kids of our own," she adds. "We make this choice out of self-interest, just as parents choose to have children do — because that’s their desire. And people deciding to live a life that aligns with their values can only be a good thing, especially when those personal choices help secure a future for humanity on this planet."

By contrast, Angela, a first-time mom and Peanut app community member who asked to not disclose her last name, has chosen to have kids — but resists the idea that taking the time to set up an environment in which she could comfortably support a child was somehow selfish. Like Kruger, she waited, and at 39 is now mother to a 4-month-old infant.

"I waited because I wanted to establish a career and address unresolved issues in my life," Angela tells Yahoo Life. "I did not feel ready, prepared or interested in motherhood in my 20s, so I made the decision to wait."

Like Noble, her decision came with unsolicited feedback: "I would not be able to find a man that would want an 'old woman'; I would not be able to physically have children; if I did have children, waiting until I was 'so old' would put my child at risk for developmental disorders. I felt that I was willing to take my chances and wait despite the fear-based advice I was receiving, because I truly believed that a happy mother that wanted her child is more advantageous than one that gave birth due to societal expectations," she says.

It's not that trying to conceive later in life is without risk; along with reduced fertility, women over 40 have a greater chance of experiencing hypertension, gestational diabetes, preterm labor and C-sections during pregnancy, as well as genetic and chromosomal abnormalities, women's health expert Dr. Sherry Ross tells Yahoo Life. But the She-ology author adds that, "with high-tech genetic testing, women over 40 can carry a healthy and genetically normal baby without any concerns." Ross also acknowledges that many women are putting off pregnancy until they have more economic and career stability and have found a person with whom to co-parent; indeed, the Pew Research Group shows that 31 percent of U.S. adults overall, and 41 percent of adults aged 18 to 29, are single, as in not married, living with a partner or in a serious romantic relationship.

That was the case for Angela, who says that "waiting was the right decision for me. I completed my education and established a career I love, performed deep soul work for myself to be the best me and found a partner that has similar values to myself." She and her husband have no regrets about waiting until they felt "emotionally, financially and psychologically ready" to conceive, and she credits her life experience with helping her to be a "present and eager" mom to their baby girl.

"Who I am today and the accomplishments I have achieved professionally and personally were not possible in my 20s, and waiting was the most selfless act of love," Angela says. "I waited until I loved myself so I could in turn love her."

Looking ahead, Noble anticipates that the pandemic and growing climate change concerns will shift how people view their role in reproducing — whether that means, as Pope Francis referenced, having one child and no more, or seeing a childfree life as a selfless act that serves the greater good.

"The more that people think about this, the more the act of having children — or not — becomes an active, conscious choice, one in which individuals weigh up the consequences of their actions, and consider all the alternatives," Noble says. "As folks reflect on which life choices are best for themselves, and for the planet, living childfree will become a more viable, more popular option for many."

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