Voices: I’d rather have cats than kids – what’s selfish about that?

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‘The truly selfish thing would be to have children when you don’t really want them’  (Reuters)
‘The truly selfish thing would be to have children when you don’t really want them’ (Reuters)

Yesterday, Pope Francis made some comments during a general assembly at the Vatican that to me, seemed incredibly tone-deaf.

“Today,” he said, “we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child. Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children. This may make people laugh, but it is a reality.”

The idea that being child-free by choice is somehow “selfish” is not just regressive and insulting, it’s actually quite ridiculous. We’re already seeing the devastating effects of the climate crisis around the globe, including deadly droughts and raging wildfires. It is absolutely understandable that some people are choosing not to bring children into a world so full of uncertainty.

My hypothetical children would find themselves in the eye of the storm in terms of the climate crisis. I don’t know what their lives might look like; what natural, social and economic disasters, shortages of basic essentials and extreme weather events they may face.

I wouldn’t wish the challenges that the next generation will be saddled with – due to the inaction, greed and yes, selfishness – of those who have gone before them, upon anyone.

Another extremely pressing concern is the financial element of having children. Over the next year, people in the UK – particularly the poorest and most vulnerable – will be facing a worsening cost of living crisis.

For those (like me) who live in pricey rented accommodation with no spare bedroom, a child is just not feasible. When money is tight every single month, how are people expected to give their potential child a comfortable, secure life?

Early years childcare in the UK is incredibly expensive, only becoming cheaper when the child turns three. The average cost of sending a child under two to a nursery for 25 hours per week (part-time) rose to £7,160 in 2021, compared to £6,800 in 2020. It’s generally the most expensive in London, where I happen to live.

Then there’s the well-documented “motherhood penalty” that women who choose to have children face. Their earnings are substantially lower than women who are child-free, by up to 45 per cent. Conversely, fathers who work full-time get a “fatherhood bonus”, earning up a fifth more than their child-free counterparts. Choosing to have kids, as a woman, generally means taking a very real hit to your career and earnings.

For people who live with mental health problems and other disabilities, there are all sorts of other things to consider in the conversation about whether to have children.

For others, there might be issues of hereditary medical conditions, lifestyle incompatibility and trauma relating to the experience of childhood abuse. Some people simply never feel ready for kids. They don’t feel a biological imperative, or that parenthood is for them. All reasons are valid. The truly selfish thing would be to have children when you don’t really want them.

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Of course, if you want (and have) children, they can be a source of immense joy. It’s not all doom and gloom. But if you can’t, or don’t want them – and find the idea of pregnancy, hormonal and body changes, the birth experience, the risk of postnatal depression or anxiety, years of sleeplessness, toilet-training and even issues such as having to explain what revenge porn is to an eight-year-old quite awful – then you can make the call to stay child-free; and no one should make you feel guilty about it.

Let’s not forget – having kids will never be an issue for the Pope. But for people like me, it’s about making a considered personal choice.

I simply don’t feel that my purpose on this planet is to procreate or raise a child; so I’ll stick with my cats and future dog, thank you – and neither the Pope, nor anyone else, should get to have a say in that.

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