Opinion

Um, no — it's not OK to shame parents for having 'too many' kids

Telling women how many is too many in terms of kids is every bit as much of an invasion of a woman's body and life as is a restriction on abortion.

The dynamics of wanting to have a child are complicated and personal

It's insulting, and ultimately inaccurate, to imply that women who do want to have children – sometimes so much so that they resort to difficult fertility treatments – want kids only because of the "cultural conditioning" they have received. (Panom Pensawang/Shutterstock)

Last Sunday night, with my three kids in bed and a headache keeping me awake, I did some poking around online. I don't recommend poking around online as a remedy for a headache – or for much else, really. But I don't always practice what I preach. So, I found myself on cbcnews.ca, reading Kristen Pyszczyk's opinion piece on criticizing parents for having too many kids.

It was a difficult few minutes for me. Pyszczyk's argument – that we should "call out" people for having an excessive number of children (the precise moment at which another child becomes one too many is not defined) – struck me as nuts. And my first instinct was to roam around online, alerting people to the article and saying things like, "Look at this! This is nuts!" It was late, and my head hurt.

In the light of day, and with pain killers in my system, I realized that if I was going to be of any use at all on this subject, it would be by highlighting, in unsarcasmitized sentences, the problems with this line of thinking.

Pyszczyk seems to be speaking in earnest when she declares, "It's not OK to have five kids without considering adoption." I hope it's clear I bring an equally sincere intent in declaring, "It's not OK to dictate how many kids other people should have."

If there's a good place to start, it's probably women's bodies. "Now, as a feminist," Pyszczyk writes, "I tend to oppose any cultural conversation that involves telling a woman what to do with her body." This statement would be far more powerful if Pyszczyk didn't start her next sentence with the word "But…"

She has to, though, because mandating an acceptable number of biological children involves telling women exactly how many fetuses they should harbour in their wombs in their lifetimes. Or at least how many they should carry to term. It's every bit as much of an invasion into a woman's body and life as is a restriction on abortion. Probably more of one. Which makes it an awfully inconsistent position for a feminist to take.

Population control

Pyszczyk acknowledges that the idea of "population control" has some bad associations, including eugenics and "other nasty historical events." But we have to talk about it, she says. For the sake of the planet.

I'm okay with talking about it. In fact, I'd like to talk about the many historical instances of "population control" being used as a pretext for exerting authoritarian power over vulnerable and poor people. For example, the involuntary sterilization of 6.2 million poor Indian men in a single year during the country's 1975 emergency. Presumably that number would be even higher if 2,000 of the men hadn't been killed by the shoddy surgeries.

Or we could talk about the human suffering caused by China's one-child policy and the sterilizations and abortions it has forced on Chinese women (many of them rural and poor); not to mention the female infanticide, sex-selective abortions and gender imbalance (with men now outnumbering women by more than 30 million) that have followed in that country. Not exactly a resounding success.

China's one-child policy hasn't exactly been a success. (David Gray/Reuters)

At first glance, it might be difficult to see why these examples of forced population control have any bearing on the population-control-by-shaming technique endorsed by Pyszczyk. We're not going to sterilize anyone – just make them feel horrible about themselves by humiliating them on Twitter! But the two methods share a grim commonality: an easy slide into turning the birth of a child into a matter of population and resources rather than a matter of family, love and human beings.

In her piece, Pyszczyk casually suggests, "Women need to be presented with options for a fulfilling life that don't involve taking 20 years of their lives to care for offspring."

I realize experiences of motherhood differ and aren't all sunshine and roses, but reducing having and raising a child to mothers "taking 20 years of their lives to care for offspring" misses a million nuances of beauty, responsibility, sharing, growth, wonder, pain and understanding.

Social media shaming

For women with no desire for kids, not having kids is grand. But it's insulting, and ultimately inaccurate, to imply that women who do want to have children – sometimes so much so that they resort to difficult fertility treatments – want kids only because of the "cultural conditioning" they have received. The dynamics of wanting to have a child are far more complicated and far more personal; which makes them a poor choice of target for social media shaming. Unless your goal is to make women miserable.

As I mentioned, I have three kids. I suspect this is at least one too many for Pyszczyk's liking, though I don't think I qualify as one of those "people having kids like they're going out of style" of whom she writes. I have shown some moderation in procreation.

But my kids are not just my offspring. They are distinct individuals who embody and experience the joy and hurt of living, and who will decide for themselves what is meaningful. Maybe they will want to have children. Maybe they won't. I hope measuring the size of their carbon footprint isn't how they decide.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Marni Soupcoff

Marni Soupcoff is a Toronto-based writer, commentator and policy analyst.