Life Musings

I’m so glad I don’t have children

Folks, I want to hear from those of you – male, female, transgender, whatever – who share my preference for a childfree lifestyle. I’ve been flirting with the idea of not having kids for the better part of a year. What started as “Hmm, I don’t know about this motherhood thing” has started to settle into “I literally can’t imagine having kids.” With every passing day, my disdain for childbearing grows.

At dinner tonight, I told an entire table full of male colleagues – several of whom were parents – that I did not want children. I won’t bore you with the details of how this even became of subject of discussion, but suffice it to say that before I had time to self-edit, I heard these words flowing from my tongue: “Every time I see someone with children, I feel sorry for them.” That is probably a horrible thing to say, but it’s true.

It would be more accurate to say that I feel sorry for women with children. Not because they aren’t happy — I am sure at least some of them are thrilled to be mothers — but simply because the thought of having children increasingly makes me unhappy.

When men wax poetic about how great it is to be a father, sometimes I quip: “Yeah, if someone would come along and bear my children, and I could swoop in and parent when I feel like it, that would be fantastic” I’m exaggerating here, but the truth is that mothers still bear the brunt of parenting and domestic duties, even when they also have a professional life of their own. The gendered burden of motherhood – for all its joys – is quite unattractive.

Being somewhat solipsistic, I did not realize – and still do not fully realize – that it’s “taboo” to speak of not wanting kids. If it’s a taboo, no one but Google has told me so directly. I have a number of childfree female friends who feel the same way and a few friends who are mothers who tell me I’m right to be circumspect. I don’t have any rose colored glasses when it comes to parenting.

Another contributing – though ironic – factor is my own mother. My mom was – and continues to be – a heroic parent. I owe everything redeeming about me to her wisdom, sacrifice and love: my strong connection to God, my commitment to personal development (though I hate that term, particularly as I no longer principally define myself as a ‘person’ due to my dalliance with non duality) and my intellectual curiosity and self confidence. But it is precisely because I see how hard she worked – how committed she has been – that I have no illusions about parenting. It is difficult, day-in-day-out work. A life sentence, in most cases. And while it surely has its highs and moments of fulfillment, there is also frustration and bitterness and disappointment and fatigue and stress and worry.

I do not feel the need to defend my disdain for parenting, but it does give me some joy to talk about it. I am also genuinely perplexed as to why having children seems like such a “natural” thing for folks to want to do. Setting aside the biological/evolutionary impulse, the sociologist in me marvels at the way most people seem to regard reproduction unreflexively. I do not hear enough people having critical discussions about whether it’s actually a good idea to procreate. There are many, many, many people who should not have children but have them anyway. I do not see that this world needs as many people as are being produced and I do not understand the urge to keep popping out humans to overrun this already overrun and decaying planet. Not to mention all of the children who await adoption. If I ever decide to be a parent, adoption is something I would seriously consider, for the simple fact that biological procreation in the midst of children begging for a home seems wrong, somehow.

I am happy that some people derive happiness from parenting. I suppose someone’s got to do it. But that’s also the great thing about life: since other people are having kids, I don’t need to. The species will propagate even without my genetic contribution.

In speaking with other junior faculty – male and female – it dawned on me that being childfree also reduces my professional vulnerability in all kinds of ways. I have more time to work and be productive, obviously. But I also have more flexibility and control over my career. If I need or want to take a job elsewhere, I have nothing and no one holding me down. I’ve known this abstractly, but it’s only now that I can better understand why I feel so happy and confident in my professional prospects compared to some of my friends and colleagues who feel forced to get tenure at a particular place because they have a family and a mortgage.

Don’t get me wrong: I have my mommy moments. I fall back in love with the idea of reproducing when I am in love. I know if I were in a committed relationship, parenting is something would be a more concrete possibility.

But for now, I absolutely love my freedom. I also appreciate that I can focus my energies on whatever I want: my creative interests, my spiritual practice, my hobbies, my friends, my romantic life. I am also free to channel my compassion and nurturing spirit into a variety of non-parental outlets: teaching and mentoring students, service and activism in the community, being a helping hand and support wherever and whenever I can.

Without children, I am also able to face squarely some of the very difficult problems of existence that most people – parents and otherwise – have to put on the backburner: What is the meaning of this life? Why am I here? What should I do with my time? Who am I? What is my relationship to the rest of creation? What is my relationship to the Creator? What is death? How should I conceive of it? Can I prepare for it? What is the purpose of my work? What are my core values? What is the ego? What is consciousness? Yes, you can tackle this even if you have kids, but you have less time and opportunity to confront these issues when you are changing diapers or helping Charlie with 6th grade algebra.

Unraveling these existential concerns is my full-time job. I can understand why Buddha had to leave his family to figure it out. But Buddha *could* leave his family. His wife could not.

Children generally delight me, but they are no more special than adults. Children are just small people discovering the world. Their newness, cuteness and innocence is endearing, to be sure. But then they do this thing called growing up. And I know it must be fulfilling to see your child develop into a talented, wonderful human being. But, you know it’s also just fantastic to BE a talented, wonderful human being and to help other people develop in that way. Birthing a person is not necessary for that kind of fulfillment

I will admit that I think it’s a bit sad that lots of parents report finding the meaning of life or their purpose in procreation. To me, it’s just as sad as folks who think that their work makes life worth living or whatever. Finding some external person or thing and deluding yourself that this individual, or your social role brings meaning to your existence is unfortunate. If there is a purpose to this life, it is for you to wake up and realize who you really are – beyond your social roles, beyond your identities, beyond your conditioning, beyond your wishes, hopes and dreams. You can do this as a parent or a civilian – but either way, your life is not figured out just because you start a family, or just because you decide not to. The most important thing in your life should not be a social role — as a mother, father, daughter, sister, friend, whatever. The most important thing in your life should consist in being a conduit of love and compassion. Period. And then that love flows through whatever your role is in whatever particular situation you find yourself.

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Academic Musings

The Nondual Academic: Ex Uno Plures

This is the second in a 12 week series of essays on doing academic work from a nondual, spiritual perspective.  The idea is to open up a new conversation about academia, social responsibility, compassion and the ego.  Most Sundays, I’ll share my reflections on a variety of topics related to writing, researching, teaching and mentoring in the light of teachings from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christian mysticism as well as my own experiences.   

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One of the core tenets of nonduality is the notion that the boundary between self and other is illusory.  What separates me from you is a thought — specifically, the thought of distinct, individualized personhood.  From a nondual perspective, no object or person is really disconnected from anything else.  All things are not only interconnected – they are are aspects/manifestations of the Self. Rather than e pluribus unum, it is ex uno plures: out of One, many.

As boundaries between self and other burn away, attachment to the ego dissipates.  For me, this has had a direct impact on my attitude toward teaching.  My primary motivation for getting into academia was always research.  And, while I was surrounded by professors who were deeply committed to teaching at my liberal arts alma mater, Wellesley College, I spent 7 years in graduate school being trained by high-profile Ivy league academics whose primary interests were research and publishing — not teaching, and certainly not undergraduate teaching.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t encounter some incredible educators at Harvard–I did.  But, like many research universities, Harvard attracts academics who emphasize scholarship and graduate student mentoring above all.

Since the dawn of my spiritual “awakening” last year, my attitude toward teaching has shifted dramatically.  Whereas before, I saw myself as separate from my students, nondual spirituality has tempered my egoic identity.  The lessening of my ego allows me to cherish my students, to respect them more than ever before, to care about them and their concerns.  In the past, I was stricter and more authoritarian.  Nonduality has loosened me up (a bit).  I still have a reputation for being a hardass because of my expectations and high standards, but my students also know that I am ultimately on their side.

With less ego, I’ve also been able to approach teaching with more humility and grace than before.  As a new professor, I used to be more concerned about my ‘presentation of self’ (to throw a little Goffman at you).  Now, I feel I have less to defend and less to worry about.  True, this might not be nonduality per se, but simply the result of being more experienced, but I do see this progression through the lens of my spirituality.   I have an easier time admitting when I do not know something, because I do not pretend to know everything.  I see my Self in my students and so I have compassion for their circumstances and challenges.   This compassion, in turn, allows me to appreciate their brilliance, their contributions and most importantly, their presence.

Speaking of presence, nondual spirituality has also allowed me to stay present while teaching.  Because of my regular practice of present-moment meditation, I am now able to remain aware of what is happening in the moment.  This means I am more attentive to class dynamics, more in tune with what my students are saying and more capable of adjusting to the demands of whatever is happening as it emerges.  Teaching in the “now” also forces me to slow down, take stock, allow for silences, breathe.  This is advantageous not only for me, but also for my students.  It isn’t rocket science to know that they learn better when their professor is attentive and compassionate.

In next week’s entry, I’ll write about how nonduality is changing my attitude toward work-(and especially research)-related stress.