Children as a proxy for meaning

There’s many dimensions to consider when contemplating having children. Pragmatic concerns about wealth and stability: “Can I provide a suitable environment for a young soul?” Questions about age and amount: “Should I have children earlier or later, and how many?” There’s also moral and ethical issues to keep in mind: “What gives me the right to decide to create another human and put them on the rollercoaster of joy and suffering that is existence? And aren’t there already children in need, young ones who have been abandoned or abused and need a loving family?”

I can only list these questions because to-have-children-or-not is a decision that’s began to entrench itself in the periphery of my mind. In the years to come, I’m going to have to make a choice about whether to have a family or not. Or maybe I won’t. Perhaps some turn of fate will make the decision for me. Who knows?

Of course, like many things, the more questions we ask the more we discover we can ask. And when it comes to having children or not, one of the most interesting that reveals itself concerns meaning. Phrased succinctly: “If I don’t have kids, what’s the point?” Think about it. We all strive to build our careers, to have a home, to accumulate experiences and competencies and connections. But if we cannot share and leave these things to our descendants, what’s the point? Why bother amassing anything if it’s all going to slip through our hands like grains of sand when we die? Let me give you a concrete example.

I recently met a retired couple. They’re eighty-ish with no kids. Right now, they’re travelling all over the world, going places, doing things, seeing as much as they can. They summed up the rationale of their hectic schedule: “We might as well spend our money. We have no kids, and we don’t want to leave it all to the government.” If you’re anything like any other human being, you’ll detect a trace of emptiness in such an existence. But just a trace. 

See, one of the upsides to having children is they provide a reason to live and work and do your best—a deep motive. They act as something upon which we can concentrate and focus the meaning of our lives. As a parent, you give decades of great effort to a single entity. You try your hardest to raise your child to be a good, decent human being. But when you don’t have kids, the meaning of your life isn’t taken away, it’s just dispersed. There’s no carrier of your DNA to raise and protect so you seek other outlets of meaningfulness.

For example, when I consider my own possible futures, I consider a version without children. I tell myself that if I don’t have children, I’ll put all my effort into writing and contribute to the world via that medium. I tell myself that I’ll birth ideas and give them away, that I’ll volunteer, get involved in open-source projects, do my best to provide value in as many ways as possible. Simply put, I’ll aim to do numerous things that matter in a small way. That will be my gift to the world. Whereas if I had kids, I wouldn’t do that. Sure, I’d write. But the majority of my focus, for a good chunk of my future, would be on being the best father I could be and doing all I can to give my child a good foundation on which to build a life.

To me, the issue of meaning is, consciously or unconsciously, one of the central factors in the decision to have kids or not. Those who choose not to have a family must make peace with the lack of concentrated meaning, or settle into a sustainable nihilism. They must replace the meaningfulness of a child or three by discovering meaning in multiple other activities and outcomes. And those who do have children? In some ways, they’ve got it easy; there’s great satisfaction in having something so obvious to live for.