The Life They Never Chose: On Deciding Whether to Have Children in a Time of Pandemic

Étienne Brown, San José State University

My friend Sophie just had a baby, and it is, strangely, a defining moment in my life. This is not because I spend much time with her or the baby; in fact, I have never met him. I live in California while she lives in Quebec, and people do not travel much these days. Instead, Sophie having a baby is a defining moment for me because, until she did, our lives were practically the same. We both grew up in the same city, went to the same high school, completed our bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same university, took all of our courses together, moved into our first apartment with a third friend of ours, then left for Paris, where we both completed doctorates in philosophy. Sophie obtained a tenure-track job as a professor last year; I got mine in this year. We know each other so well that in 2009, when the University of Ottawa called to inform me that I had won the gold medal for the student with the highest GPA in the faculty of social sciences, Sophie kindly informed them that she, in fact, should have rightfully won. Her GPA was 0.1 points higher than mine, a fact that she of course knew without having to look. Somewhere in my mother’s basement still lies a gold medal that I never truly won.

Newsweek

For the first time, however, there is a consequential gap between Sophie’s life and mine. She has a child and I do not. Her days are nothing like mine. Not that currently I want a child, to be honest. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been thinking about parents whose lives have suddenly been transformed into uninterrupted child-rearing marathons, and I frequently whisper to myself “Thank God I don’t have a child.” The lives of young parents often look like perfectly choreographed routines that involve teachers, day care workers and instructors of various kinds, but now all those disparate workloads come to rest on the shoulders of parents alone. You have money? Spend it on something else: the delegation of domestic labor to third-party contractors is no longer available, pandémie oblige. To me, the lives of young parents are beginning to resemble ones they never chose. Sophie told me about one of her colleagues– a Hume scholar – who recently had glass panels installed in his house in an attempt to transform part of his living room into an office. Before the pandemic, little did he know that what he had in fact bought himself was an obstructed view of four children defiantly making faces at him all day long.

My recurring thought – “Thank God I don’t have children” – should not be understood as a smug judgment passed on the lives of those who wittingly turned away from a life of indulgence to create more humans. It is rather the expression of my deepest fear: being an inadequate husband. Since the beginning of my studies, I have found that one of my greatest strengths is my ability to leave the world behind and focus on my work. Provide me with a philosophical task, and I can forget my surroundings and bodily needs for countless hours (my phone is buzzing right now, and I haven’t eaten all day, but I don’t care). This might be the result of my undergraduate training, which consisted primarily of reading the work of very old men who portrayed those with the ability to shut out worldly distractions as highly gifted individuals destined to live the noblest life one can possibly imagine. Indeed, my impressionable 17-year-old self was not left unmoved by the writings of male philosophers who lived in wooden shacks because they considered themselves too pure to live in society (and to file taxes, for that matter). In all honesty, it took me quite some time to realize that my ability to leave the world behind is not an ability at all, but a permission that society grants me. Without a doubt, it is the consequence of the privileged social position I occupy as a white man. When someone looks away from children making faces in glass panels, someone else is probably cooking dinner for them. When I leave the world behind, my partner is usually standing right the middle of it.

I would be lying if I told you that I hope never to have a child. I always wanted one. Eventually, I would like to have a smaller partner-in-crime with whom my wife and I can steal oranges from Californian trees which stand on the front yards of properties that we will never be able to afford. To me, stealing oranges with children is in fact much more interesting than writing philosophy. Yet, I am far from convinced that I would be a good father now that parenting has become parenting without a pause. Men of my generation often define themselves as feminists, but I suspect that many of them still struggle not to outsource the majority of domestic labour to their female partners. In my view, the current pandemic is the most important gender equality test we have to face so far. We are now at home with the vacuums, pots and pacifiers. We no longer have excuses not to use them.

That said, I may be fooling myself when I attempt to assess my performance as a hypothetical father. In her article “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting,” philosopher Laurie Paul argues that deciding whether to have children by picturing what it would be like for you to have one is irrational. This is because the experience of having a child is not projectable. In Paul’s view, becoming a parent is both epistemically and phenomenologically transformative. Childless adults know neither what it’s like to have a child before they see and hold theirs for the first time, nor how their desires and behavior will be transformed as a result of this experience. I’m not in the best position to assess the plausibility of this thesis. Still, I stubbornly beg to differ. In fact, I can tell you with certainty that becoming a father would necessarily exclude at least two things for me: leaving the world behind and, most importantly, glass panels.  

April 27, 2020.

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