Childfreeness: Is It Environmentally Sustainable To Have Children? (A conversation with Environmental Policy professional Lisa McNally about her decision to be childfree.)

"I have always been interested in understanding the interplay between humans and their environments: how culture shapes our environment and how our environment shapes us. Perhaps my overly academic approach to understanding the 'purpose' of cultural systems and institutions and rites of passage left no room for spontaneity and divine intervention when it came to the possibility of me getting pregnant as a result of sex."
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LisaMcNally

Currently, in the United States, population growth has hit an 80-year low (0.6% year-over-year), largely attributable to declining birth rates. These may seem like hard-to-contextualize numbers, but this is something you can feel. Nearly a fifth of all states report absolute population losses over the past two years. Much of this is to do with our aging population (Boomers, or, for most of us, our parents) beginning to pass away, but it’s also deeply connected to the income stagnation that began before Millennials were born. Rising costs of living is a factor, too. Women’s liberation and civil rights movements shifting culture towards more autonomous modes of operating for each of us individually also plays a part in explaining declining birth rates. 

As we explored in our last feature, when we educate women, we change the world. Add in equal rights and new generations completely (well not completely—equal pay anyone?!) altering society's workforce and business culture, plus the message of contemporary science when it comes to the health of our planet, plus globalization, then how we got here starts to make more sense. Additionally, slowing birth rates are an already-familiar phenomenon in some of the world’s most economically advanced countries beyond the US—like Germany and Japan. 

I wasn’t intending on starting this interview off with a diabolical breakdown of statistical information and a history lesson on how societal change brought choice into the procreative narrative, culturally speaking. I was planning on diving deep into the argument that to save our planet we simply must be reflecting on family size, supporting and championing those withholding from genetic urges, and the selflessness I like to attach to my efforts to save the planet through having my tubes tied, simply because I could. Alas, here we are. Environmental sustainability is of course connected to population, population is also inherently connected to government and the power of educated populations (even if it also means societies may rise up to challenge their leaders, for better or worse). But in the midst of pulling data to forcefully validate my position, and interviewing a wildly brilliant woman for this feature, I started, dare I say, to see the bigger picture.

To think population decline, in the face of even just some of the many complicated issues we all face globally, is always viewed as a negative for societies is… perplexing. It has raised some complex questions in terms of "childfreeness." What happens when societal pressures shift to more personal ones? How accessible—let alone desirable—is Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” version of having it all? Can living a deeply autonomous existence really hurt our future, as we are told in terms of population decline? Or could it just be that we as a species (because, after all, we are animals) organically come to feel desire for different things or ways of living when resources, environments, circumstances and societies shift so dramatically and at a pace that is hard for our bodies, minds and bank accounts to keep up? More simply: How do we make our choices, and how do our choices impact the world around us? And, how can all those sentiments and circumstances change us as we evolve?

In this interview, we dive into these hard questions and deep thoughts with Lisa McNally, an Environmental Policy professional of sixteen years. Questions rooted in tough—even controversial—topics are met with critical thinking and complex articulations. From personal impact to personal evolution, from responsibility to societal norms, this interview breaks through some walls, exposing territory we all need to be exploring, as individuals and a society at large. Buckle up, read it twice, and comment with the same level of thoughtfulness Lisa brought to the conversation. The bar has been set high, my friends.

I don't have children, but...select all that apply:

X Always knew I didn’t want them. Or… in the last 3-4 years, in retrospect, I wonder only now if I simply…

❏ Didn’t know if I wanted them or not, then landed on not.

❏ Didn’t know if I wanted them or not, then ran out of time.

X Just didn't get around to it.

❏ Tried, couldn't and didn’t choose or believe in intervening.

❏ Became pregnant, chose to terminate.

❏ Did have a child/children and gave them up for adoption.

What's your story? Break down how you came to be… child free/less.

Today, at 44, I am child free! Taking a moment to reflect on this topic and the how, I recognize that over these last 20 to 25 years, I remained consistent and intentional as I made my way through a gauntlet of cultural expectations around women, self-actualization, and child rearing during the formative years of the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s. I acknowledge that there have been persistent undercurrents that formed at an early age that helped to keep me moving in a direction contrary to child-rearing. So, the caption under my current life’s snapshot reads, “I always knew I didn’t want them.”

Growing up in the 1980s, my parents—dad English-Irish and mom Mexican—held familial roles that were the inverse of the typical stereotypes and expectations related to division of labor and wealth generation. Although in very different disciplines, both of my parents were in the field of social work, with my mom being a psychotherapist making three times as much money as my dad. My dad worked just as hard, but as an educator with a more flexible schedule, he more often played the “typical maternal role,” taking care of us when we were sick or hurt and tending to many of the daily domestic chores. (My dad also had the patience to engage with his kids as people and challenged us with philosophical considerations at seemingly mundane moments throughout our development.) 

The majority of my friends’ mothers stayed home to raise the kids. If their moms did work, they either had domestic help or had jobs with flexible schedules. During my formative years, this was my world, embedded in the broader landscape of cultural norms at the time. And though I’m very much a product of my environment in so many ways, even then I knew a little bit about what it felt like to buck the dominant paradigm of familial frameworks, and I already had a sense of existing in an alternative model of being. Surely this has informed the goals and desires that have compelled me, with child rearing not ever in my line-of-site. At the same time, my family and the institution of family remains incredibly important to me.

The youngest of three, the only girl, I was raised in an upwardly mobile family with strong sense of loyalty to family, engendered by both Irish and Mexican influences. Any extra emotional energy my parents had to give during the work week that focused on inculcation and life-messaging, they placed on getting a good education as an air-tight way to manifest one’s destiny. Ipso facto, having kids might poke holes in my ability to manifest! They left no question in my mind that I should choose whether to have children—and not having them was just as much a viable outcome as not. As far as my parents were concerned, they could take it or leave it if their daughter had children. Now, in retrospect, if I were more rebellious by nature, I think my story would be different, and I may have had kids to assert my choice to have them, with or without a partner.

Childfree by choice and child free by circumstance are NOT the same thing. Why do you think we get lumped together?

It can be more palatable to lump these two realities that share the same end result because it helps people make sense of something. One reality is that choice has been extracted from decision-making; in the other, choice is squarely in the middle of decision-making. Not wanting something that seems so biologically natural can surely raise questions about your ethos, values, and rightful place in society.

Understanding intentionality shines a spotlight on human behavior. In general, to be intentional comes with so much responsibility it can be excruciating. Culture can be an effective salve in minimizing regret, helping to take the edge off of after making potentially bad personal decisions. If you put trust in the idea that everyone else seems to be doing it, there is a sense of solidarity and support, and even if it doesn’t feel right, you should just grit your teeth and dive into it like everyone else. I have been aware of the feeling that having kids is just not right for me. I also feel like my decision to not have kids by choice comes with a certain responsibility to trust myself for doing something that I have believed has been right for me. And… with this responsibility, I reserve the right to raise a child (i.e., adopt) if my truth evolves and points me in that direction. At the moment, I’m not feeling the pull, but I want to keep myself open to new directions. Could it be that only now, at 44, I am starting to be curious about having a child and how that experience could in fact stretch and deepen my self-actualization as opposed to threaten it?

Curiosity’s connection[s] to self actualized experience[s] have always intrigued me, as it feels deeply rooted in one’s desire for growth and a deep connection to living in an active state (rather than one that is reactive or passive). You are not the first person, who has shared–or even acted upon–such sentiments, including the depth of experience because of prioritizing the self first. I’d like to unpack your sentiments attached to adoption after procreative years have passed, if you are willing.

Despite having a high tolerance for risk while growing up—which also came with an ample share of naïveté—I’ve operated with an intuitive instinct that I would need to be a more experienced person before I could properly be responsible for an utterly dependent being. Of course, experience is relative, but I knew then that having a kid in my 30s felt like cutting myself off prematurely from necessary development. In retrospect, while trying to understand the driver for staying clear of procreating, what I can surely say today is that I am far more confident in my abilities to offer unconditional love, be flexible, and be adaptable. And, given my age, I finally feel that the pressure is now off to achieve that “obviously natural” milestone in my life for the sake of it being the “natural thing to do,” not for the sake of it being the right thing to do for me. Hazy then, clearer today. 

In my 20s and 30s I know for certain that I would not have had the confidence to raise a child without being a total control freak, and having the fortitude to allow room for another being to express themselves fully and accepting and embracing all the physical and emotional messiness that comes with that. My decision-making skills were all over the place, and I knew that I did not trust myself to commit to something so seriously heavy without the fear of totally losing myself and compromising my own growth in the process. I was so hard on myself, and only now in my early 40s learning how to be more forgiving of myself has created a fertile landscape of opportunity! I find it amusing how my emotional and intellectual development has always been a bit misaligned with my physical development and capabilities.

In our last interview, the power of education brought to light a lot about personal freedom and being empowered by choice, even if subconscious. Can you reflect on how your background in environmental policy may–or may not–have impacted your decision or feelings about not to have kids?

Actually, I think it is the other way around for me. My early and persistent sense of being someone who did not ever feel consoled, excited, or grounded by the thought that “one day I’ll have my own kids” may have in fact influenced my decisions to study cultural anthropology and environmental science and policy in undergrad and graduate school, and to continue in that line of professional work for the last 16 years. I wanted to understand historical and utilitarian drivers of tribes, family, existing in the world. I was curious about what legacy meant to different cultures, and how our environment impacts decisions to have children. 

I have always been interested in understanding the interplay between humans and their environments: How culture shapes our environment and how our environment shapes us. Perhaps my overly academic approach to understanding the “purpose” of cultural systems and institutions and rites of passage left no room for spontaneity and divine intervention when it came to the possibility of me getting pregnant as a result of sex. In retrospect, I wanted to do something that felt bigger than me, and that was delving further into learning ways that I could affect positive impact at a bigger scale, and this did not include having a child, quite the opposite.

I share the feeling of wanting to do something bigger than myself. And in all honesty, I often fear expressing such sentiments in part because it seems rather controversial, inferring parenting is less than or my self value is presumed to be more valuable. In reality, I think it is far more complicated. What does it mean to you to have devoted much of your adult life towards ‘doing something bigger than me’ and how do you relate to the tensions within that statement/position?

I have not yet achieved a sense of doing something bigger than me, I feel like I’m right in the middle of it. By bigger, I am assuming that if it were an either/or choice, like if I was presented with this option to have a child as a way to fulfil my contribution to the world or to fulfil a natural requirement…I have never seen having a child as a relevant key to having a meaningful contribution to something. It has felt more like a taking away, of self, of resources.

Environmental considerations—such as biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, deforestation, water and food shortage—are among the issues that are connected to population’s impact on climate change. As a woman choosing not to have children, do you ever reflect on the positive environmental impacts your choice has made?

At a personal level, I do not necessarily equate going childfree as having a positive environmental impact. Our society is packaged for serving more than one person in a household. At a practical level, living childfree could be viewed as inefficient. Being childfree could mean more expendable income, which could result to spending more resources per household. For example, taking more frequent and farther-away trips which can put a strain on resources elsewhere, especially if taken in a car meant for more than one occupant. Spending money on food and both necessary and luxury products for oneself and then ending up with too much stuff, especially just for oneself, can lead to waste because there are not enough people in the household to use it all fast enough.

I recognize that population growth intensifies resource impact, but I do not think having or not having kids is what ultimately shapes environmental outcomes in its own right. I think thoughtful, equitable, and accountable policies, ethical advancements in technology and expansion in the awareness and education about our ecological systems are what can have the greatest positive environmental impacts. I am not denying that a consistent growth in human population won’t impact resource use, but I also think how we use those resources can trump all demand. A fear of scarcity is effective in driving action to improve policies around access and equity, but I don’t think it’s a useful narrative to justify personal decisions about how you may wish to evolve as an individual and the type of legacy you want to leave.

For me, leaving a legacy does mean leaving “less” of an environmental footprint. But even more so, I hope to leave a legacy resulting from a lifetime of investment in promoting policies that increase responsible stewardship of resources. Like, bridging public responsibilities with private motives to generate further alignment with a triple bottom line for a broader good.

How has your understanding and expertise impacted how you view the choice to have children in the face of the [many] environmental crises humanity is preparing for?

I think having children is a deeply personal decision. As such, I do not like to laden any right to choose either way with righteousness or guilt. If you live in a wealthy country, if you have access to resources that make your life comfortable--whether childfree or with children--I feel strongly that it is our individual and collective responsibility to remain mindful of our daily decisions and their resulting impacts and to take actions big or small to mitigate negative outcomes whenever possible.

Unpacking stereotypes - Which stereotypes, if any, have you dealt with related to childfreeness and how have they impacted your life? (Culture/medial, familial/heritage, peer group[s] - friendships/professional, etc)

I worked for an incredibly hierarchical, outdated, and conservative corporation for the last nine years, doing work I deeply believed in, implementing energy programs to meet climate policies and equitable distribution of resources. When I started, I worked with a cohort of other bright, ambitious, creative women in their late 20s and early 30s. By the time I left the corporation in my early 40s, all but two or three of this 20-person female cohort that remained at the corporation had had at least one if not two children.

I am a proponent of maternity and paternity rights, and I’m also a strong advocate for equal access to resources. Since there are resources available to women and men who choose to have children, including extended benefits for time off to focus on child rearing, there should also be benefits to employees who choose not to raise children and who do not make use of these resources. I would love to see similar benefits (time off from work with provision of health benefits and guarantee of holding your position) extended to those who choose to forego child rearing but instead want/need time to explore an alternative pursuit outside of work, perhaps a creative venture, and still be able to come back to work after the sabbatical, more dynamic, multi-dimensional rejuvenated and…whole.

While a large amount of literature/research is devoted to understanding the impact of maternity leave on children’s outcomes and the careers of women, less is known (i.e. researched) about the consequences of maternity leave at the workplace on coworkers. I’ve wanted to unpack this HIGHLY controversial topic publicly for a while now, in part because it is so taboo. In the face of a society and business culture still failing to integrate truly equitable working conditions, including reasonable parent leave, I wonder if we are even capable of integrating equal resources for those who choose not to procreate. What do you feel will be the necessary steps business, government and society will have to enact to reach such equitable offerings?

The question of how to also invest equal resources in those who choose not to procreate requires deeper inquiry into the ways we choose to value labor across the marketplace. This question centers on respecting contributions of labor equally. I am not arguing a zero-sum outcome. In general, it behooves society that parents have the right to spend time away from work growing, rearing, raising their children. We already know that on average, women are paid less than men. We need to also be asking if women who choose not to have children are paid as much for the same work as women who choose to have children during the height of our income generating years. This absolutely needs to be part of the equal pay for equal work discussions. And it is true, women and men who do not procreate often temporarily take on the extra workload for colleagues who take a leave of absence to raise their children. I have done this several times over my career, absorbing projects and responsibilities and keeping shared projects moving on behalf of a colleague (both men and women) who were on extended leave to raise their child. I was not compensated for the incremental labor I invested on behalf of these colleagues, on behalf of the institution. Perhaps the assumption is that labor would be equilibrated at some point, that within a workplace what comes around goes around, but I never had the opportunity to cash in on that extra investment - and the institution benefitted from that investment. Since the reality is that there is a very real shift in burden that is absorbed by some who are not equally compensated, there is therefore an opportunity to balance the ebbs and flows of labor and impacts that are experienced by those who disproportionately take on the extra work; balance, specifically through paid sabbatical opportunities.

What do you feel you’ve gained through choosing not to have children that may not be known to women who are mothers or are childfree by circumstance?

As some consequence of my choice to not have kids, I’ve wondered if my other relationships in life—family, friendships, romantic—have been able to allow or have encouraged me to explore my depths of empathy and kindness in the same way that caring for a child might challenge me to do so. I have been working through feelings and ideas of aloneness (even with many loving, dynamic relationships in my life), and I realize with or without children, I would still be where I am in my emotional growth. Although it is hard to say for sure, but I think I’m further along in my emotional development having not had children. For me, not having children has allowed me to contend with my aloneness perhaps sooner than parents who go through the process of letting their children go when they become adults. I think wrestling with the idea of inevitable aloneness is perhaps what lies just beyond the flawed assumption that it should be only natural to want to have children.

I’ve wondered, too, if having a kid would be a requisite catalyst to helping me be less self-focused and if so, to what end? Paradoxically, being self-focused benefits everyone around me, because I am more emotionally available and present and vulnerable and softer with others, which has taken my lifetime to achieve thus far, and I am still practicing and working toward softness with myself and others. But I need the space to be so, and I think nurturing and raising a child (versus maintaining any other loving relationship) has threatened to thoroughly erase the line of separation between me and other. The idea of that kind of blurred shared existence is terrifying to me. Does the responsibility of bearing another dilute or make me full? Both questions induce anxiety in me. 

Any ‘by choice’ questions/issues I missed that you’d like to address and think are vital for this column ?

These questions were difficult to answer. I think your questions have been good at guiding and capturing many different angles of this complicated and controversial topic. The hardest part was wanting to be true to myself in my answers, while leaving some room for my own recent evolution around the possibility of someday (adopting) a kid as yet another way of opening myself and another to new possibilities...while remaining committed to minimizing negative overall impact.

Women without children will never know what ‘love’ really is.” Discuss. 

This is a bold statement that does not resonate with me. It makes me wonder if the inverse is true: Kids without parents won’t ever know what love really is. This statement does not allow for so many other opportunities to explore other ways to love, bond, connect, learn from, etc. in this world and relegates the act of having a child as a key to some exclusive feeling of “true” love.

“Having it all must include children.” Pro or con this ideology?

No, having it all for me is maintaining good physical and mental health, fostering and growing loving relationships with my family and friends, growing my capacity to generate short- and long-term financial resources and wealth so as to not have to struggle, and having the freedom to choose how I want to live my life. At an early age, I equated “not having kids” with self-freedom. It wasn’t until I was much older, in my 30s did I realize the responsibility that this freedom carries, specifically in the form of confronting your aloneness in the most accepting and non-judgmental ways in various contexts that question that very aloneness. Those contexts being social, in a space where I have so naturally felt curiosity, perhaps scrutiny from others in my child-bearing ages in my naked childfree aloneness, and it persists at my current age where so many people around me, in my child-friendly affluent neighborhood, have them.

As a woman just over the prime of child rearing, I have felt vulnerable to the critiques and judgments and narratives of others, wondering in what ways “I must be lacking” by not having kids. So, although I do feel left out, sometimes not part of the party, I suspect I do not feel an inherent lack any more or less than I would feel with having had a child (that existential sense that something is missing, or that death is inevitable, etc.). I feel like I have had a fortunate opportunity to become whole and full—having kids threatens to put me at a place right up against this notion of “lacking,” puts me up against a place where I might have to contend with ongoing emotional scarcity, compromising my own development by being stretched too thin for the sake of growing someone else. I am still filling up my emotional and financial reserves I suppose. I am a slow bloomer.

These last 4 years or so, I sense a recurring liminal agitation of having excluded myself from something. Or perhaps sensing that I lost access to a specific social collective opportunity—not left out of the opportunity to parent—but left out of the party of parents. Family and partners’ children aside, I don’t yearn to be at a child’s birthday party, but I’ve felt that this is where many of my friends have spent many weekends as of late, and where my new friends for life might have been found! Being a parent seems to give one access to new fertile ground where fresh seeds of community are grown, and new rituals and customs and neighborhood cohesiveness are generated and weekend camping and beach trips are spawned.

“All women without children are selfish.” True or false?

False. 

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