Saturday, April 23, 2011

Of Dogs and Kids and Judgment Abound

There have been several great posts about being a scientist and a parent (e.g. Gerty-Z's and PlS's), also a couple of great posts on being a scientist and choosing not to be a mom (Jade's and Dr. G's). I will probably follow up with my own #scimom story at a later date (an epic tale of challenges and perseverance :-), but I have something different planned for today.

I have kids, and I love them. I even like other people's kids, which admittedly only came about after I had my own. Obviously, people who want kids should have them. It is really heartbreaking when people desire to have kids, but are unable to... It is also quite tragic, on a completely different level, when people wish to have kids but believe that their career is completely incompatible with having a family -- this is a failure of our society, and we need to tirelessly keep working to enable every person a chance to find fulfillment on both fronts without having to choose.

I also think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being childless by choice.
Only, whenever I read a statement like this one, whether it's written by me or someone else, I cannot help but feel that it's indeed a very patronizing statement, especially when it comes from someone who has kids. It sounds like I am giving my blessing to people who are childless by choice, whereas, in reality, they should not be expected to give a rat's ass what I or any other random person thinks about their choices.

The people who are childless by choice are often expected to justify themselves, and then they fall into the trap of other people feeling it's their duty to pick apart each reason and offer counter-examples or counter-arguments to show how parenting is actually feasible in spite of said reason. That is totally beside the point -- all problems are relative: I am sure that many of mine would appear completely self-indulgent and trivial to someone else.

Dear childless-by-choice people, please accept my apologies in the name of all us patronizing people with kids. You really, really should not care what any of us think. We really should never get to pass judgment on you. It goes without saying that your choice to not have kids -- or any other of your choices -- is a priori perfectly valid, simply because you are an adult.

But, can a person who has kids really, truly ever understand and respect another person's wishes not to have them? Will there always be a hint of self-righteousness and judgment in there? I think the best way may be to try and draw parallels: for instance, not wanting to have kids would, in my case, probably be analogous in many ways to not wanting to own dogs. (Yes, I know that having kids and having dogs are, in fact, not the same. And neither are the societal pressures to have them.)

I do not want to own a dog. Ever. I do not hate dogs -- I would never wish for anything bad to happen to any dog and I find some of them very cute. I will pet other people's dogs, but I am ultimately always relieved when they leave.

There are many, many dogs in my neighborhood; seemingly everyone has not one but multiple dogs. So whenever I go for a walk, it's impossible to avoid people walking their dogs. I usually just want to be left alone and enjoy the walk, but a lot of people will stop -- especially when I'm with one of my kids -- and offer us to pet the dog, then start talking about the dog's name and how she is nice and gentle and how kids love her, and won't my kid pet her some more, whereas all I am thinking is that my kid now has dog slobber on his hands and where am I going to get something to clean him up. And then there are the questions why I don't have a dog; I say that my eldest son is allergic to pet dander (which he is), but in reality, even if he wasn't, I would never ever own a dog. To me, dogs appear to be an unnecessary hassle and an unnecessary expense. You have to make sure someone's there to pet sit when you leave town, and I don't think I can put a dog on on my health insurance plan. And don't even get me started with having to take them out in all kinds of weather and having to pick up all that poop.

I have a friend from grad school who has four dogs and calls them his babies. He spams me incessantly with pictures of his dogs (and his extravagant holidays). I would not have a big problem with his doggy pics and doggy stories if he ever, even once, showed any interest in my kids, such as asked how they were or whatever. Since he doesn't care about my kids, I am considerate enough not to bring them up in conversation and I certainly don't send him their pictures. I wish he would extend the same courtesy to me.

If I somehow ended up owning a dog (and were for some reason unable to put it up for adoption) I am sure I would eventually get emotionally attached to it, because I am not made out of stone. I am sure owning a dog is great and rewarding for many people, but I really don't care to try. I just don't want to own a dog, period. And I really don't think it's anyone's place to tell me that I should want to own one because it's so awesome (and because if I don't want to, I must be somehow broken), and it's also no one's place to tell me that I am overestimating how much work or money or poop collection they require. And it's certainly no dog owner's place to pat me on the head and tell me, patronizingly, that it's perfectly OK to choose not to have a dog. Duh.


Rebecca said...

I absolutely agree with you and could not have said it better myself. And I am glad to encounter another person who is just not a dog person and would never have one herself. Personally I just do not feel comfortable with animals.

inBetween said...

I love this post. I thought I wanted to be childless until fairly late in my 30's so I have a good sense of all the reasons not to have kids. I totally get it. And from my perspective it is very much like your not wanting dogs example. The one big difference though is that you can at least eventually potty train kids. Dogs, you always have to pick up their poo. But you can crate a dog when they misbehave... Pros and cons all around.

academicgrinch said...

Ha! Looks like it will be fun when your kids decide to gang up on you and demand a dog.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Good post, definitely agree.

I never understood the anti-childless-by-choice people, nor the anti-child people. Or the you-need-a-pet-too people, or the you-need-my-religion-too people. Kids, pets, and religion are all personal choices, and people should respect the choices of others. And if they don't respect them, they can at least be polite.

studyzone said...

I am childless by circumstance, and petless by choice. The fact that I don't (and won't) have a dog (or any pet) is what seems to astonish people more than anything. I can't tell you how many times I've had to listen to coworkers, friends, etc. extol the virtues of having a pet and say that I should just give it a chance - I'll love it, etc. So, I have to keep justifying my petless state (I've never learned how to say MYOB nicely), but have never had to justify (or qualify) my childless state. [p.s. I love this post, GMP]

Drugmonkey said...

Dog people are about 583 times more insane than new parents when it comes to proselytizing their new religion. And eleventh million times more annoying.

Ace Khawk said...

Why thank you! All my life I've been put in awkward situations and sometimes "attacked" by the religion (cult?) of parenthood. I am glad you see how patronizing it can be for people with kids to say my choices are acceptable to them. But it's very clear to me that is not your intent. And also, there's vastly more people (in all countries I have lived in) who think a woman doesn't deserve to exist unless she becomes a mother. May sound crazy but true.

I never had a dog, always cats. I may have had 3-4 conversations about dog ownership in my life. I find it uninteresting. Compared to this I must have had hundreds of conversation (attempts) about parenthood. I am OK with it now but in the beginning it was distressing. I now have no problem making it clear that I indeed do not give a rat's ass what these people think.

but thanks for acknowleding our situation, even though you are a parent (which I have absolutely no problem with at all; and I even like kids).

Bashir said...

Ha. That's pretty much how I feel about dogs. They're fine, I get the appeal, but it's just not my thing. I'd sooner get a cat.

I do sometimes get surprised looks when I tell pet people that I've never had one and am not particularly interested in one.

JadeBio said...

Good post! First, I also have the same thought, when someone asks me to pet their dog, "how am I going to clean the slober off my hands?" haha.

But I usually do it anyway.

I also have/had the same pressure for marriage. People who are married push so hard for all of their friends/family to be married.

I had to come up with excuse after excuse for why I was holding off (10 years). Finally I just caved in and, wow were so many people happy about it. We didn't last long enough to get pressure on kids.

In my relationship now I am getting lots of pressure to get married again (not family this time, they don't pressure me anymore). I have my standard excuses all lined up. But I really get tired of having to explain to people why we are not getting married. It's no one's business!

It's just not for me. I don't want to be legally bound to someone. I don't see the need for it.

I guess it's human nature to want to know and inquire as to reasons. I wish people could realize how uncomfortable it is when they are pushing and demanding a reason, even if they are just being friendly or kidding around.

Lesley said...

LOL great analogy!

sciencegeeka said...

Blogger just ate my much longer comment, but as a childless by choice person, what really get's my goose is that people thinking I have pets as a kid-replacer. There is no nice way to tell people that my cat is not my 'baby'. He's a 25lb spoiled feline who has, in the 15 years I've had him, gone into liver failure and scared a dozen pizza delivery guys. I am also not his mother. Last I looked, I didn't have fur and 6 nipples.

Girlpostdoc said...

I have a friend from grad school who has four dogs and calls them his babies. He spams me incessantly with pictures of his dogs (and his extravagant holidays).

I have the same feeling about friends who post cutsie facebook profile pics of their kids or images of themselves with their babies. And although I'm sure no harm is meant by it. That it is really just pride, "Hey look I can and did reproduce!" I find that sometimes it's just a little too much.

gerty-z said...

I have always wondered about the "pushers": marriage, pets, kids, religion, etc. Do people do this because they are desperate for someone to validate their own decision? For any choice that someone makes, they are giving up something. But, there are things in my Is convincing others to follow "your path" somehow make it seem more like you must have made the right decision? I'm happy with how my life is now, even though I may not have the unrestricted freedoms of my former single-and-childless self. I really don't care how others choose to arrange their life situations. I want my friends to be happy, but that is about it.

Anonymous said...

Sort of related: Don't assume that the childless are happy, care-free people enjoying every advantage in the world over the academics with children. My (non-academic) wife and I are childless because of a medical condition that makes pregnancy ill-advised while also making life complicated enough that some adoption agencies might not see us as ideal candidates.* And while my wife works, her income is very low compared to most of the spouses (of either gender) in my department. So, we work on saving money and trying to get our complicated lives in order while I pursue tenure, so that in a few years we can make our case to an adoption agency.

I know that academics with kids don't have it easy either, but if we could we would not hesitate to trade places with somebody with kids. Despite that, I've had colleagues tell me that I'm "lucky" and that I have an "advantage." Oh, if only they knew what our life is like...

*My response is that dealing successfully with life challenges is the perfect qualification for parenthood. We'll find out in a few years whether they buy that or not.

Dr. Sneetch said...

You know those rat dogs that people dress up in jackets and carry around like babies.....

Barefoot Doctoral said...

Once upon a time, I remember visiting some friends and being very disturbed that it sounded like they were praising their child in the same way I would expect to praise a dog. "Good eating, good sitting" etc. I was childless at the time, and my house mate had a dog I helped care for. A few weeks later, I realized that, no, in this society we talk to our dogs like we should talk to our kids. "Go get it boy, you are such a smart poochy". Then I was even more disturbed.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I really feel for you and your wife and wish you the best. (Childless faculty with painful yet invisible chronic disease).

gerty-z, yes I think the pushers are frequently unsure about their own choices and are more trying to validate themselves than influence you. Because ultimately how much could they really care about my uterus contents?

I never did forget all the guys with pregnant or new-mom wives who used to hit on me when I was younger, drinking and spilling the beans. That's what I know lies behind at least some of the facebook posts!

Ms.PhD said...

Great post! I may have to use this argument next time somebody asks. Yes, in theory I could have a dog with the right person, if I were sure they would do their fair share of poop-scooping. But I always get the lecture about how I'm still young enough to change my mind, and I find that insulting and incredibly inappropriate, especially since I think it has hurt my career.

Anonymous said...

Girlpostdoc: funny how you can agree with a post about non-judgmentalism with a judgmental comment.

GMP: I love your post. Can you now put one together about academics who shake their heads when a faculty member has a child and mention stuff like "I knew she wouldn't be serious about her career"?

Anonymous said...

Great post!

As a single female untenured academic, I find it almost as hard to imagine having a puppy as having a baby, although I love dogs and other animals (not kids though). I can barely manage a cat right now. (Cue jokes on how no one "manages" a cat.)

And I agree with the commenter that all those pictures of people's kids are kind of obnoxious. I want to know how/what my friends are doing, not just their offspring. Perhaps it's judgmental of me to think that there must be something more to their lives than procreation.

Anonymous said...

@Anon at 11:11 - I make the same joke about *my* cat, who has chronic diarrhea. Then I tell people that maybe a kid would be better, because at least you can put a diaper on a kid and contain said diarrhea and the kid would not step in the diarrhea on the way out of the litter box and track the diarrhea all over the damn house.

GMP, thanks for this post, it is spot on. I'm kidless by choice, unmarried (but partnered) by choice, and agnostic by choice. I don't care what anybody else decides for themselves, and it baffles me that I get people trying to convince me that I've made three very wrong decisions. By far the worst is the inevitable look of pity that I get when I tell someone that I don't intend to procreate.

Ioana said...

I think there is tension in defending both the position that:

1. Having kids is just a personal choice.


2. "We need to tirelessly keep working to enable every person a chance to find fulfillment on both fronts without having to choose.", quoting GMP. Where "both fronts" means career and children.

If you're going to defend position 2 you need to believe that people with children deserve special protection so they can thrive in their careers despite the very real costs of having children. Even though having a dog, as you rightly mention, may require pet sitting and other personal sacrifices, no one is concerned about allowing every person to have a dog.

I was recently talking to a colleague who argued that having kids is a personal choice just like watching TV, that people do what they want with their free time. Therefore, he argued, people should bear the cost of their personal choices. So people with children do not need to be helped any more than people who watch too much TV.

I was left a little speechless because it's hard to defend the need for people (and especially women faculty) with children to be helped in their careers without getting into some possibly unpalatable arguments. For example, you could argue that women scientists should be able to reproduce because it would improve the abilities of the next generation. But do we really want to go there?

I'm still unsure what the right answer to my colleague's argument is.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your colleague.

I guess one could argue that if society doesn't help parents then there won't be any offspring for the next generation.

But Ii don't think it's true--people get some sort of inate pleasure from raising kids that a few disincentives probably won't undo in any catastrophic way. Not to mention that a decent portion of parenting will still be shouldered by those who accidentally get pregnant and don't want to abort.

GMP said...

Ioana: Well, I would tell your colleague that raising children has a different role in the society that owning pets or watching TV. Society actually needs at least some people to decide to bear and raise children.

On the level of an individual, yes, having kids and many other aspects of life are certainly personal choices. But when it so happens that a certain type of personal choice is prevalent and affects the society's dynamics, then different structures in the society intervene. When the personal choice to smoke resulted in massive health care costs due to lung cancer, the government intervened and now we have all these bans on smoking and a drastic reduction in the number of smokers. If everyone all of a sudden decided not to have kids, the society would have to intervene: Europe and Japan are rapidly aging, I am sure their governments are doing something to motivate procreation; China's measures to curb population growth are well known -- you may or may not think that they are draconian, but I understand that they had to do something. Perhaps if it turned out that the personal choice to excessively watch TV or play online games is good for, say, work productivity, I am sure we would see incentives to get people to make these choices.

Dual income families are now prevalent -- and it's not just because these pesky feminist women want to work despite what is traditionally meant for them (being perpetually barefoot, pregnant, and chained to the kitchen); the middle class's demise makes it impossible for most families to survive on one income. Therefore, procreation cannot be solely in the domain of two-parent, single-income families, which presumably need little work-life accommodation. So it is clear that lots of people who procreate will be in the workforce (single working parents or working couples), and you need to accommodate them.

It feels really silly having to argue in favor of accommodating work/family needs for working parents (men and women) at this day and age. Are working parents universally viewed by fellow coworkers as slackers who dump the work on others, or what?

I am curious about the age, marital and family status of your colleague. If he's not an old timer, I will be very disappointed

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great post: I am bookmarking it and will send the next person who tells me that I should have kids a link :D

Unbalanced Reaction said...

This just might be my favorite post. EVER.

prodigal academic said...

Awesome post, GMP! I often wonder why some people feel threatened by those who make other choices.

I know many more people who want to spend less time on work than happy workoholics. I know many talented people of all genders and family makeups who have left science over a lack of work-life balance. We would all benefit from a less work-centric culture regardless of our family situations.

As for why I expect some accommodation for my family? It is because I help out my coworkers who have other pressing obligations (family or not). It is the human thing to do. We all exist outside work, and everyone has a family of some sort. Even in the absence of this feeling, there is a normal reciprocation between people who work together. I help others, they help me. I would not enjoy working someplace where this was not the case.

Also, the time-intensive part of child rearing is a small fraction of someone's working life (unless they have an unusually large family). Everyone has periods in their life when they are more and less productive. Calling someone out over having children is just more socially acceptable than calling them out over an obsessive love affair.

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Shera said...

Great article! I'm 44, female, and childFREE by choice -- and I love my dog! I have never asked anyone to pet my dog, or care whether or not someone else has a dog. I do - however - post her picture to facebook occasionally.

I state my gender, because people seem to view a female that chooses not to have kids harsher than a man. My boyfriend is a "hero" for not getting married or having kids while people "feel sorry" for me, or assume I hate kids. I love kids....I'm the one on the floor drawing pictures of dogs with them.

Having children is an entire lifestyle change... a lifestyle that is not for everyone. So why is the woman who chooses to be childfree and has the nerve to be happy with no regrets... such a mystery? I don't know. Just glad we live at a time when things are becoming more accepted! Gotta go walk the dog now. Ciao!