One of the advantages of living in the 21st Century is that we get to choose the way we live our lives. When it comes to love and marriage, some stick to the white picket fence, while others cohabit without ever tying the knot. Still others stay blissfully single for life, free as birds. Same sex couples, ever the scourge of conservative society, can now legally marry in eleven countries and several American states. It is therefore all the more surprising that, in our age of live-and-let-live sexual liberation, one segment of society continues to be stigmatized by a stubborn social prejudice: married couples without children.
I am not talking about infertile people who can’t bear children – they get their fair share of pitiful looks from friends along with unsolicited advice on how to raise their sperm count. I am referring to married folks who, for financial, emotional or philosophical reasons, decide to stay child-free. While no one ever questions why we want children, those who choose not to have them are constantly put on the defensive. The procreative presumption is so ingrained in our collective psyche that we are puzzled by, and feel sorry for, couples that go against the grain. We view their lives as incomplete, empty and devoid of meaning. We brand them as Peter Pans who have chosen fun over responsibility, who have gotten their priorities mixed up, and who are bound to regret their decision later in life. Saddled by evolution with the burden of childbirth, women bear the brunt of this social stigma. The notion that “you are not a woman until you are a mother” marginalizes and disempowers childless women. Ironically, the hardest part about being a single woman – the Samantha Joneses of the world – is not so much the lack of a husband to take care of her as it is the lack of a child for her to take care of. No matter how she raves about the single life, the discussion will always end with a question she can’t answer: “But don’t you like children?”
|There are even self-help books|
The social pressure to procreate, one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice, can be traced to the traditional agrarian society, where bigger families meant more manpower in the wheat fields or rice paddies. For wealthier folks, more children – in particular more sons – meant a larger share of the family estate. In feudal China, few blessings were more coveted and flaunted than multiple generations living under the same roof. The Chinese character hao, which means good or well, is made up of the pictograms for son and daughter. In the modern world, children remain an important part of the economic equation. Even in the age of 401(k) and MPF, children are still regarded as our most dependable retirement plan and insurance policy. Having multiple kids helps diversify the parenting portfolio and hedge their sector risk, in case one of them gives up business school and majors in theatre.
|"The more the merrier" is a medieval concept|
Entrenched social norms notwithstanding, there are signs that the balance is beginning to tip. As our society becomes more affluent and its citizens more individualistic, married couples are increasingly aware of the enormous opportunity cost of having children. The truth is, raising kids involves big sacrifices and irreversible changes to our carefully crafted lives. According to libertarian writer Ayn Rand, parents become “sacrificial animals” who no longer live their own lives for themselves. That’s just a fancy way of saying: “Honey, we haven’t gone to the movies in years.” Indeed, parents put off their personal aspirations, whether it is taking up ballroom dancing or writing a novel, until their children turn 18. Worse, the burden of child-rearing falls disproportionately on women, as they are the default caregivers in most, if not all, cultures. In addition to the physical toll a nine-month pregnancy may take on their bodies, women are expected to slow down their careers or give them up altogether.
|Off the bucket list|
In cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, the burden on women is mitigated by the availability of affordable domestic help. Migrant workers from the Philippines and Indonesia free mothers from their child-rearing responsibilities and enable them to re-enter the workforce weeks after their pregnancy. Despite this advantage, Hong Kong and Singapore have the lowest fertility rates in the world, according to a study by the U.S. government. In Singapore, for instance, there is less than one birth for every woman, the lowest among the 223 countries surveyed in the study. Money seems to be the biggest factor at play. In much of the developed world, the desire to procreate rises and falls with the economic cycle, making birth rate the ultimate consumer confidence index. For instance, Hong Kong’s fertility rate dipped during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and plunged again during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Likewise, the United States has seen a sharp decline in the number of births per woman since the Great Recession began in 2008. To many would-be parents, making babies is all about dollars and cents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of raising a child in America, excluding the cost of university education, is around US$250,000. Factoring in four years of college tuition, the total cost can easily top half a million.
Having children is expensive, and no one knows that better than parents in Hong Kong. In an ultra-competitive society where an over-achieving child is the parents’ weapon of choice, victory is defined by which private schools and overseas universities the mini-warriors attend. To keep with up the Wongs, children are put through endless piano lessons, ballet classes and karate practices, all of which can add up to a fortune. One local economist puts the cost of raising a child in Hong Kong at $5 million (around US$645,000). And that doesn’t include the sky-high rent many parents pay just to live in a sought-after school district like Midlevels or Kowloon Tong. Considering that the median family income in the city is just over $20,000, it is little wonder that Hong Kongers think thrice before having a child.
|Over-zealous Hong Kong parents|
The crushing financial burden of child-rearing is often accompanied by an emotional one. The spectre of birth defects, autism and other health concerns sends chills down the spine of every prospective parent. Even a fever is enough to send new parents to the emergency room and into a tizzy. Then there are the worries about grades, friends, alcohol and drugs. It’s enough to make married couples question whether they are cut out for the job in the first place. And when the children are finally out in the real world, those Gen-Yers and Gen-Zers seem incapable of holding down a steady job, many of whom continue to live off their parents well into their 20s and 30s. So much for a dependable retirement plan.
|Do you trust him for your retirement?|
I am constantly struck by the number of married couples I know who have chosen not to have children. These free spirits prefer climbing the corporate ladder and travelling to far-flung corners of the world over adhering to social conventions. We call them “DINKS” (dual-income-no-kids), the demographic that luxury car makers and real estate agents salivate over. They represent a new generation of men and women who enjoy their lifestyle too much to give it up, who realize that having children is not a prerequisite for a full and happy life. They have weighed all the pros and cons and thought long and hard before making the most important decision in their lives, one that warrants respect and not justification.
|How do you see them?|
Procreation is a matter of choice, and it is an intensely personal one. To every friend or co-worker who badgers you and your spouse for not having children, the appropriate response should be “why did you choose to have children?” It’s about time you turned the tables on those who so chivalrously decide to bring a new life into our complicated world without another thought. It’s about time you put the onus on them to explain whether their procreative motive is based on narcissism, boredom or a chance to make up for their own failures. And while you’re at it, ask to discuss their qualifications to take on the biggest responsibility in the human experience. But you aren’t going to do any of that, because you live and you let live.
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This article previously appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."
|As printed in Manifesto|