T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock is literature’s most celebrated example of a character who is afflicted with catatonia, the neurotic inability to act for fear of doing something wrong. His question, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" suggests that he does not feel at ease in an alien cosmos. He imagines himself to be the proverbial bull in a china shop and adopts the strategy of doing nothing. His tragedy is that in doing nothing he becomes nothing.
Prufrock is the literary descendant of Samuel Johnson’s "modest man," whose principal concern is not to offend anyone. Like Prufrock, who is "etherized upon a table," the "modest man," or rather, the man of fashionable timidity, plays it safe by not acting. He does not offend, but he hardly lives.
In 1969, valedictorian Stephanie Mills, of Mills College, announced to her graduating class that "the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all." In so saying, she raised the level of an inaction, like our two literary antiheroes, to something that appeared to be more positive than any action. It is a curious declaration since even a deceased person can achieve the feat of having no progeny. Could there be something more humane for a human being to accomplish?
Affluent couples who decided to have no children were soon referred to as DINKs (Double Income No Kids). And DINKs naturally produced PODWOGs (Parents of DINKs without Grandchildren). The determination not to have children, as a positive gesture, became a trend with a social identity, though perhaps not a flattering one.
The most recent clarion call for not having children appears in the GINK Manifesto of Lisa Hymas, senior editor at Grist, the online environmental journal. The acronym stands for Green Inclined No Kids (March 30, 2010). Prufrock also asked the question, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Our contemporary anxieties, however, are more finely tuned. We must now worry, Ms. Hymas advises, about adding to our "carbon-bloated atmosphere." She is going childless for the sake of the environment.
Her decision to go childless is a poignant one since the child who is sacrificed to benefit the environment will never live to enjoy its charm. Moreover, the environment does not care one way or the other. It would just as soon be spewing forth volcanic lava, producing tidal waves of gigantic proportions or causing violent earthquakes. The earth was once a ball of fire. Why should a person be catatonic before an environment that has often been cataclysmic?
It is one thing, of course, for a person to decide, for any number of perfectly valid reasons, not to procreate, although the matter of not having children is not always simply a choice. Many couples "choose" to have children only to have their desire frustrated by nature. We tend to overrate our power over nature. Moreover, many couples choose not to have children at one time, only to experience a change of heart years later.
Ms. Hymas does not want to go quietly into her life of childlessness. She, like her predecessor from Mills College, declares that her choice to remain childless is "the most humane thing for me to do." She may be selling herself short. There must be something she can do that is more "humane" than her decision not to do something. Humanity cannot be a grateful recipient of an inaction.
Not content with merely making a public declaration of never becoming a mother, she needs to buttress it with support from the world of academe. She cites a certain Daniel Gilbert, whom she identifies as a "happiness expert," who teaches psychology at Harvard. According to the learned professor, children "tend to crowd out other sources of happiness."
One need not be a Harvard scholar, however, to figure out that one choice negates another. If I travel to Boston, I give up going to New York. If I marry Jane, I give up the chance of wedding Joan. If I become a monk, I crowd out the joys of parenting. It is the very nature of choice that when I choose one thing I exclude its contrary. As G. K. Chesterton points out in his Orthodoxy, every choice is both an act of "self-limitation" and "self-sacrifice."
But Professor Gilbert does not remain on the level of tautology; he sinks below the level of common sense. Ms. Hymas cites his 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness, in which the good professor alludes to "careful studies" that show that "women are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television."
Napping! Can an unconscious phenomenon such as napping be more gratifying than raising one’s own children? Such studies, indeed, must have been very careful, so careful, in fact, as to make sure that they excluded the common experience of virtually all of human history’s mothers and fathers who found delight in raising and relating to their sons and daughters. These studies, Gilbert goes on to say, show that looking after one’s children "appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework." Apparently, it would be more humane to give up housework. That should be next on Ms. Hymas’s agenda.
Samuel Johnson, who did not teach at Harvard, once said, "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labor tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution." The family, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas has stated, is the only thing that protects us from being "captured by the reigning ideologies of the day." But were these views based on "careful studies"?
One may ask: Why did it take so long for people to figure out how unrewarding it is to raise children? And why was there all this fuss about them: the photographs, the birthday parties, the trips to the amusement parks, T-ball and dancing lessons, Christmas gifts, helping with homework? Now we know that all these activities are less happiness-inducing than taking a nap. Do we need more "careful studies" to learn that the loss of a child is incomparably more heart-breaking than the loss of one’s television set?
As Hamlet’s mother said about the play her son devised, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." We are all children of parents. We owe them enough gratitude for our existence not to treat childrearing with such profound disrespect as to regard it as either a burden, a diminution of our happiness, or as a blight on our environment. One may decide not to have children gracefully, without reducing them to the unjust and ignominious status of environmental polluters.
Plato remarked that happiness is the desire to reproduce the beautiful. This, we might add, is why God created the world. The Hymas manifesto, "Say it loud: I’m childfree and I’m proud," has a hollow ring to it. If not doing something is Lisa Hymas’s most humane accomplishment, she will have no reason to be proud.
Dr. Donald DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, is a member of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.