We Should Take Seriously the Question of What It Means to Have a Child

The question of having children, which is to bring a child into existence through reproduction, is one that we routinely ask each other. It is also a question that young people are increasingly asking themselves, as many wonder if, in an age of climate crisis and uncertainty about the future, it’s still acceptable to have kids. What does it mean to create another person, not knowing what their life will be like?

In response, occasionally an article or essay is published arguing that having children is an inherently hopeful act; that not to have them is to give in to despair; that this is how we express gratitude for existence; that “the meaning of life is to pass it on.”

This is interesting—not just for what it suggests about having children (that this is a question not open for consideration), but for what it suggests about hope and meaning; about our lives, and what it would mean for them to have purpose. We tend to speak in binaries such as light/dark, optimism/pessimism, hope/despair. Presenting the problem in this way—where having children is hopeful, while anything else is automatically the opposite—is to suggest a stark choice: either you are on the side of life, or you have already given up.

But is reality truly colored in such stark tones? Are our lives, our hearts, our motives?

Consider a person living through the atrocities of a global war, and yet expressing an undiminished gratitude “for everything.” Consider another, convinced that life is bad and non-existence preferable, who nevertheless comes to long for a child and does not prevent themselves from creating it. Consider a third who, deeply in love with life, nevertheless believes it would be wrong to bring another person into it—a person liable to suffering; a person who has not asked to be created.

These examples are all real and point towards a simple truth: that the dichotomy is a false one. There are ways to be grateful for life that are compatible with not having children; just as there are modes of grief and even despair from which having children is the consequence. So, too, there are ways of being that command obedience to a calling—and it is intrinsic to the nature of a calling that one does not know in advance what one is called to do. The call may lead to having children, but also, it may lead away from it.

But more important than all these things is the simple fact that, as the late writer Hilary Mantel once posited in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, “motives are seldom simple and never pure.” The person who found their belief in the immorality of procreation superseded by the longing to have children; the person who lived through dark times yet loved life; the person who loved life yet refused to have children—what does this prove, except that life is complicated and having children is also?

If anything, what these examples show is that there are these tangles and complications that we are not seeing—there are ways of grounding hope and meaning to which our minds and hearts are closed.

Perhaps one loves the world while seeing, with open eyes, the shadows clinging to even the most privileged corners of creation. Perhaps one shudders to bring a frail thing into the reaches of such shadows. Perhaps one fears the world but feels a calling that cannot be answered except by an act of creation. Perhaps the calling leads elsewhere.

What I want to resist is the automatic assumption that one path and not another is called “hopeful,” that one path and not another is an expression of commitment and moral fervor—even, of gratitude. What I want to ask is: what would it mean for hope and meaning not to be inflected with optimism or with the strain of “positive thinking” that has cast so powerful a spell on modern culture? What would it mean to envision different grounds for perseverance, for activism even, and for hope itself—for it to be rooted not in positive expectations about the future, but in a commitment to value and justice? What would it mean to recognize creation for what it is, a golden shadowed thing, and form our hopes accordingly?

When I speak of shadows, some may think this goes without saying; surely we all know, have always known, that all of existence is like this?

But in truth they are all too easily disregarded. In an age when entrepreneurs are preparing to make babies for the sake of proving that procreation is possible outside of earth’s atmosphere—there, in the cold and dark of distant space, with no knowledge whatsoever of the risks in zero gravity to either mother or child—because humanity must be propagated, this forgetfulness can take terrifying forms. Is that then hope? To create, because creating is always the better road? Is that then meaning?

There is more to say about this, and more to think about, for all of us. But we can begin by resisting the temptation of painting the decision to have children along the lines of hope vs despair, which fails to do justice to the richness and complexity of our moral lives. We can begin by recognizing that people asking the question of having children do so not out of shortsightedness but out of a deep sense that there is something worth asking here, something that is owed. The least we can do is take their question seriously. What does it mean to create a child?