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How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children,  by Rachel Chrastil.

December 5, 2019

How to Be ChildlessHow to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children,  by Rachel Chrastil.

A thought-provoking book about the prevalence of childlessness in our past and why it is a valid choice today.

Rachel Chrastil is a European History Professor at Xavier University.  Her undergraduate degree is from Indiana University and her Ph.D. is from Yale University.  She also is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Xavier.  She has written two books focusing on civilian experiences of war and the rise of humanitarianism.   Her overall approach to scholarship looks beyond simplistic dichotomies to the complexity of issues, weaving together the presence of both choice and external circumstances in decision-making.  Such an approach is particularly useful in considering a topic like childlessness.  Her new book clearly displays adherence to high academic standards.  At the same time it is written gracefully and is easily accessible to more general readers.

The first section of Chrastil’s book refutes the common assumption that singleness is a relatively recent phenomenon, a choice available only after World War II and the Pill.   She summarizes both statistical and textural evidence of often overlooked singleness in the European past.  Chrastil has read widely in primary sources describing how ordinary people lived in Europe since about 1600.  She quotes from these to give readers a sense of how single individuals supported themselves or blended into the households of others.  Statistical sources give further evidence of how childless adults have lived and worked in households of others or found means of self-support in the past.

Next Chrastil refutes the contemporary assumptions that failure to have children is selfish or misguided in today’s world.  Many individuals who do not have children are confronted by those who continue to assume that having children is a necessity of a fulfilling life.  Chrastil does not attack the traditional nuclear family; instead she insists that bearing children is not a universal good which must be achieved by everyone. Having a child is not always a private option even for those wanting children.  Economic and social factors can be determining factors beyond personal choice.  As she points out, society in the present and future needs people to make a variety of contributions.  While some may bear and raise their own children, those without their own offspring are necessary to produce a world that is a decent place for children of the future.  For example, on the issue of leaving a legacy, she considers how flourishing people act for many other people rather than simply their own children.  Those who are, as single, living lives in which they feel responsibility for society at large are leaving a positive legacy.  Chrastil insists we consider a larger range of what it means to live a full life, to flourish and contribute to society beyond physical reproduction.  As she explains,

Continuing our species takes a lot more than having babies. It requires solving the biggest problems facing our time, creating the art that brings beauty to our existence, the philosophy that guides our actions—including how we raise our children.

Chrastil enumerates some of reasons given for pushing everyone to have children and then refutes each of them.  When stated clearly, traditional expectations for having children are clearly problematic.  I support much of what she says, but for me, some of her statements raise questions worth exploring.

One of the arguments against childlessness that Chrastil challenges is the claim that we need to have children in order to have someone to provide for us in our old age.  I am twice as old as Chrastil and have a different perspective.  Rather than approaching this question as one of whether I should have children in order to have someone to provide for me in the future, I can’t help but approach it as a question of what support I can count on right now.  From that perspective, my concern with aging is primarily with the specific ways society fails to offer support. We do not live in a society where the status quo is sufficient, regardless of whether someone has children.  For many, Social Security is the only “safety net,” and in the United States conservatives continue to try to end its assistance.  In addition, care for parents is not simply about affording to pay someone else to care for them.  Communities where people care for each other are hard to find or create, especially in a world where most of us move frequently. Parents need connections and continuity as they age.  If children are willing, their love and attention can be a critical factor.

In addition, I liked Chrastil’s decision to research and write about childlessness for both men and women.  This is not a topic of choice which women make alone.  Obviously men are involved in whether or not children are born. Not only are individual men fathers; they also play major roles in the laws and structures that shape what it means to have a child.  The fierce attempt to prohibit women from having abortions in the United States is a critical factor in who has children and who doesn’t. And if we are to consider what it means to have virtuous and flourishing lives we need to consider all people, not only women and men, but those who are moving outside traditional gender roles.

Chrastil does not claim that we should give up nuclear families.  She simply advocates that not all people be pushed into them.  Treating the nuclear family as the only way of organizing society has meant privatizing social concerns like education and elder care.  The assumption is that the upper classes can ignore all those in society who are not blood kin.  In other cultures, and in our culture in the past, some of these concerns were addressed in extended families or communities.  Today, the nuclear family is breaking down and other styles of family are emerging—including childlessness. Perhaps Chrastil’s new book can contribute to tolerance of a variety of families and a larger conversation about the need for rethinking how we care for each other.

How to Be Childless is an important book which should be read and discussed by academic and general readers.

Disclaimer:  My daughter, who gave me this book for Mother’s Day, is a friend and colleague of Chrastil.

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