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Being childfree isn't selfish - it's my moral responsibility

Legacy is a myth, we must start caring about each other


But what if you can’t have children?

 

He asked me one day, out of concern, albeit disapproving of the cigarette habit I picked up as a teenager.


I remember feeling so much shame towards myself—my body, addiction and femininity, because of my inability to fit the role of mother, nurturer, and caretaker. But, my body was not his, and it was not his place to decide. While his comments often came across as sincere—eventually surveilling me to ensure I wasn’t smoking crossed a line. A decade later and men still try to control and police our bodies.


I was eighteen and somewhat naïve after living a relatively privileged life. I developed a nicotine habit because it seemed to be the only thing that prevented me from losing my mind. 


While I am not glorifying my nicotine dependence, I am grateful for how it aided me. Many of us will struggle with addiction in our lives, and the effects of substance use rarely crossed my mind back then. Harm reduction remains a taboo topic within Muslim and South Asian communities. We avoid these conversations and it undeniably harms us.


But this essay is not about addiction or Islam. This essay is about ‘antinatalism’, a term and ideology that has been around for centuries. This essay is about my informed decision to live a childfree existence, which is not rooted in my shame of smoking cigarettes (I quit).


It is a decision rooted in my pleasure of celibacy, something I have been practising since the start of the pandemic and the end of a long-term relationship. Secondly, it has to do with the urgency for climate action. Lastly, I want to be able to live my most authentic life.


Somewhere along puberty, I knew—from the core of my womb—I was not destined to be a mother. I knew that my purpose was to care for the collective. And if I were to have children, it would be through adoption. I quickly understood the class disparity between myself and children going through manufactured poverty. I met many in Pakistan, knocking on my car window and asking for help.


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It is also related to my parents divorcing when my sister and I were just five and nine years old. I remember watching violence erupt between them while neglecting us because of their interpersonal stress. I had decided then, as a young child, that I would not have children—because of the fear and parental nihilism it had instilled in my childhood.

Often, people may find themselves on the opposite side of the spectrum, which is to create their utopic nuclear family after experiencing the disintegration of one. I did not want to go through what my mother did when she had to figure out how to support a child on her own. I did not want to risk imposing feelings of abandonment, rejection, guilt, blame and endless shame I felt as a child. How painful must it have been, for my dysphoric inner child, to be aware of all of this back then?


My decision is also rooted in a great love of the earth. While overpopulation is not a driving factor of climate change, humans are terrible for the environment. We are the destroyers of it.


Yes, all of us are contributors. The earth will heal once humans stop harming it. I don’t value family legacies or nationalistic ideology over the state of the earth. There is nothing without the earth, flora and fauna, rivers and trees, and birds and bees. We have become so far removed from the root of it all.


There are so many children, babies and animals who are left out to die. A disproportionate number of children starve, lose their parents to apartheid, war, or disease, or disappear within a carceral system, like social services, immigration or juvenile detention, and the literal streets. Knowing these truths, why would I want to fulfil my primal and narcissistic urges so badly by procreating for the sake of my genes and legacy? How could I be so selfish?


I should ask this question to those who loathe abortion and ensure no woman or femme will possess agency over her body. Those who view us as chaste wives, innocent young women meant to be protected, or masculine nationalists and patriots. But no longer will we allow the patriarchy to box us and deny us our right to live a life.


However, on the other hand, many procreate out of choice. Many forcibly, many accidentally, and many needed to do so to survive. But unfortunately, the institution of marriage and the policing of bodies (biopolitics, as Foucault termed it) is ingrained in us. They have forced us to believe we are not whole human beings without a child.


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While I do not believe we should not have children - reproduction is a natural desire for many of us - I do feel refraining from having children is part of my moral responsibility. I believe information, informed decisions, and consent is essential. Hordes of information are inaccessible to many of us. We are subjected to a strict structure of how to live and dismiss necessary conversations such as climate justice.

Over the next thirty years, the effects of climate change will become increasingly noticeable. Many of the coastal cities that will be flooded or wiped out are cities in the global south. If there may not be a world for them to thrive in, why is having children still so important to us? Indonesia already suffers, as climate change is inherently racist.


They must grow up between pandemics, forest fires, record-breaking heat waves, and capitalist class wars. Those in power favour fossil fuels, profits, and their large, tinted glass and gas-guzzling SUVs. We need to move towards a better world.


How about we ensure no child is a refugee, killed, or incarcerated and collectively focus on saving the planet so that there is one for future generations? Ensuring we have to earn a living means we don’t deserve to be alive. To be unmarried without a child means you’re not fulfilling your purpose or duty, only to a patriarchal society.


I don’t need to procreate nor have penetrative sex to do so. No man (or woman), government, or any patriarchal institution will shame me out of it. Children bring joy, but so do other things, and my urgent attention and care must go elsewhere.


You might call me a pessimist, but I know how close we are to colossal and irreversible damage. I don’t feel less of a woman or disconnected from my supposed ‘womanhood,’ either. I feel as solid as a rock and powerful for being able to hold agency over my body and life.


My heart goes to the women and femmes who cannot have children but yearn for creation. But there are magical and unknown parts of love and life outside motherhood. Countless wishful and living children, animals, and trees need to be loved. And they need us, with an infinite capacity and desire to love, to love them back.

About the author

Zahra Haider is a writer and community organiser, born and raised between Pakistan and the UAE, and is currently based in Canada. Her work focuses on the intersections of class, gender, queerness, migration and trauma that affect brown femmes within the diaspora and back home. She has written for and appeared on Vice News, BBC World, CNN and others. Instagram: @zarahaider

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