Laura at Apartment 11D has a nice post on the non-voluntariness of having children. Of course, in some non-trivial sense having children is a choice. but it is not a choice like the choice of what career to have, or what breakfast cereal to have. She says:
I don’t think it is a choice to have kids or not for most people (though not everybody). Making babies is what we do. Having kids was not a choice for me or my husband. When and how many, yes. But there was no question that we needed kids in our lives. Just as one’s sexuality can’t be chosen, having kids isn’t a choice either. Being a parent is part of who I am.
I think this is about right. Of course, some people have no interest in, or need for, having children; and among that group some are better off without and some are better off with them. But a good majority of people experience the desire to have children as a need—the experience of raising children is something without which they could not fully flourish.
But then I’m not so sure about the following:
Having kids is an incredible sacrifice, and not only in the sleep department. My friends without kids may put in an extra couple of hours on a Friday night, but we work all weekend to feed the kids and keep them safe. It’s also a huge expense. Couples who work full time without the expense of childcare or diapers are much better off than we are. They have houses, while we live in a dumpy apartment. They take vacations and only pay for two plane seats. They have two full time salaries with benefits. Children are the leading predictor of poverty.
Again, she’s absolutely right that having children is a predictor of poverty (in rich societies; not in poor societies, especially agararian ones, where having children is an investment strategy). And Ann Crittenden argues that the financial sacrifice is massive—hundreds of thousands of dollars for middle class Americans, and that’s just in forgone income; it doesn’t include expenditure on the kids.
But is it an-all-things considered sacrifice? Not if the parent needs to have the child in order to have a fully flourishing life, as Laura says she does (and I feel the same way). To be charitable, perhaps, this is what people are thinking when they say having children is a choice. Laura, again rightly, says that children are a public good; but they are a public good that we produce for private reasons, which is why non-parents do not feel obliged to compensate us at all.
We need to separate two things here. 1) What is a sensible family policy from the point of view of non-parents? 2) What are parents owed? My guess is that parents aren’t owed that much, at least in terms of financial compensation, given that they are getting a good (being a parent) which non-parents either cannot get or have rejected as something that would not be good for them. But in rich societies, where we risk a serious undersupply of children it might be very good family policy to give parents a lot, so as to a) encourage child-rearing and b) enable people to do it better (so that we get a superior product).
(I am bracketing the gender inequality issues on which I have posted before; I believe, but shan’t argue, that we should try to mitigate if not eradicate the unequal prospects between men and women that is the predictable consequence of the gendered division of child-rearing labour).