The Most Selfish Choice


First Person

Justine Siegmund, Diagram of a Fetus, Lying on Its Side, in an Opened Womb, 1723.


I am not by nature a decisive person. Anxiety freights each choice with the potential for disaster, and where possible, I defer. It ought to come as no surprise, then, that I struggled with the decision to have a child—except that even to acknowledge the existence of such a decision is routinely considered a sign of failure. We talk about clocks. We talk about cycles. We talk about diminishing fertility, the prioritization of career over family, the horror of having left it “too late,” as though it were possible that half the population might be suffering a kind of culpable ignorance with regards to their own biology. I was embarrassed at the thought of discussing my uncertainty, as though anyone I confided in would snap back, Who are you, then, to have a child? I was humiliated by how hard it felt. That my future as a mother didn’t seem to me to be a given seemed related to those other ways in which I was not as I should be: my dislike of heels and holidays; my discomfort in dresses; the way my body failed to conform, growing larger than it ought to grow. It was my excess and my lack. The link between childbearing and femininity is such that feeling myself to be deficient in the latter, I felt disqualified from the former—or vice versa.

What is a woman who might choose not to have a child? I wanted a child because I wanted a family. Because I wanted to feel secure, a part of a structure. Because I wanted, in some slight way, to be necessary. Because I wanted to be loved. None of this seemed good enough. All of it was about me. I wanted a child because I wanted one. 

My daughter was born three and a half years ago, and as I write this, I’m waiting with growing impatience for the birth of her sister; if I found the decision easier the second time, it was only because I remember what it’s like to be the only child in an unhappy family. I cannot guarantee that we will be happy, and so here we are. Still, the choice was rooted firmly in my own self-interest, my own desire (how could I bear never to see another pair of eyes six inches from my own and know they didn’t doubt me—to never have another person think I was infallible?). What other reason could there be?

I can’t imagine any decision more selfish than this: to bring another person into being without their say-so, simply because you desire it—because you want someone to love, or to love you back, or because you want the particular version of your future that you hope they might provide. Not only that but once made, this single choice locks you into a continual prioritization of the needs of one over the needs of others. Suddenly, as I watched my child start to navigate the world, the whole despicable edifice of privilege began to make a kind sense to me: the private educations and the inherited wealth, the drawing of veils across the uncongenial, the smoothing out of stony ground—anything to keep her as she is, so full of trust and wonder. What enterprise is more selfish? And yet it’s generally taken for granted, at least as far as women are concerned, that the reverse holds true: those who have chosen (or are perceived to have chosen) to remain childless are the selfish ones.

The function of women is to care. This is what we are taught from the moment that we’re able to learn. We care for siblings, for parents, for neighbors and friends. We care for pets and dolls. And whatever else we might do, whatever other roles we might take on, let us never fail in this one; let it all be practice for our greatest undertaking, the careful raising of our children. For us to choose to prioritize some other aspect of our lives over this one—our jobs, perhaps, or (whisper it) our own health or happiness—is to fail on some fundamental level to be what we ought to be: kind, considerate, subsumed. Female.

Of course, there are plenty of women who are childless, electively or otherwise, and who continue to perform caring roles. The whole structure would collapse otherwise. These are women who are daughters and aunts and friends. These are women who volunteer, who foster, who take meals next door, who make phone calls or house calls, who fill in the myriad gaps between how things are and how they ought to be. But why should any of us feel the need to offer such a justification? Why should we have to excuse the exercise of choice? Why must we demonstrate through our actions that to make, or even to consider the possibility of making, this single decision shouldn’t leave us operating at a moral deficit—that we are not heartless, that we haven’t failed?

Men are their own reasons. They carry their justifications about with them in their bodies: inherent, not relational. A man without children is only a man without children, though we might wonder—a tiny ingrained reflex of thought—which woman it was who so failed him. We women, on the other hand, exist insofar as we play a role in the lives of others, and must always justify, with reference to such roles, any additional space we take up. That it might be enough for us to be ourselves—to live our own quiet lives as we see fit (having had, after all, no say in the getting of them), to pursue those endeavors we feel ourselves most fitted to, causing minimal harm, finding moderate success, being generally contented—is heresy.

If I sound angry, it’s because I can think of few choices owed more thought than that to have, or not to have, a child, and yet we’re barely allowed to admit to its being a choice at all. Or if we do admit it, then our very capacity to feel is called into question. Our hearts. Our loves. And yet we all must make the decision, in one form or another, and live with its consequences. Why can’t we say so? Surely—surely—it is the making of this choice, this weighing of possibilities, the careful, clear-eyed considering of who we are and who we want to be, that is our first, our fundamental, act of care.


Jessie Greengrass is the author of Sight, out this week from Hogarth.