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March 2024 Issue [Essay]

The Case Against Children

Among the antinatalists
Illustrations by María Jesús Contreras

Illustrations by María Jesús Contreras


The Case Against Children

Among the antinatalists

In the summertime, Alex and Dietz decided to take a road trip. The two had met years earlier on Instagram, as fellow animal-rights activists, and had discovered that they agreed on much more than veganism. Actually they agreed on basically everything, including that new human life is not a gift but a needless perpetuation of suffering. Babies grow up to be adults, and adulthood contains loneliness, rejection, drudgery, hopelessness, regret, grief, and terror. Even grade school contains that much. Why put someone through that, Alex and Dietz agreed, when a child could just as well never have known existence at all? The unborn do not appear to be moaning at us from the void, petitioning to be let into life. This idea—that having children is unethical—has come to be known as antinatalism, and in 2021 Dietz set up an Instagram account for a new organization he called Stop Having Kids. By then, the two were dating, although most of the time still living apart. Every so often, they met to hold demonstrations for Stop Having Kids, which Dietz has over time built into a real operation with donors who fund billboards that say things like procreation is not a responsibility and make love not babies.

For their road trip, Alex and Dietz met up in Tucson. Their itinerary was ambitious. They would do outreach from Texas to the East Coast and up through Ontario, occasionally demonstrating with like-minded people. But the trip ran into trouble right from the start. An hour out of El Paso, Dietz lost all his weed, more than two hundred dollars’ worth, at a highway checkpoint. Then, in Alabama, a truck rear-ended his van. In Maryland, his gout flared up; it hurt to walk, even to stand. It was extremely hot. Too hot to stand in black clothing while holding black signs, and way too hot for Alex’s cat, who was along for the ride. When they got to Toronto, their last stop, Canada was on fire, and the shade of the skies seemed to reiterate their point about the world being a bad deal for new buyers.

But Alex and Dietz expect life to be inconvenient, and their misfortune did not dissuade them. One Friday evening, they parked in a garage in the city’s Dundas Square, got their signs out of the trunk, and found a corner to stand on. They each held two signs at once: stop denying the world we live in and let’s help those who exist and are in need. Across the intersection and in front of an H&M, Christians and Muslims distributed flyers for their respective houses of worship, and three young women used the religious petitioners as the backdrop for a music company’s video ad promising the dawning of the “age of pleasure.” An Expedia billboard above everyone suggested that you were made to not work so much.

Alex and Dietz stood in front of a giant flowerpot moated by puddles. They used to hand out condoms to passersby, in all sizes, but guys would confidently request at least a size large, and Dietz became concerned about the possibility that, as he put it, he “might be aiding in an unintended pregnancy.” So no more condoms; now they just waited to see what might happen if, with an expressionless look on their faces, they held a somewhat cryptic sign in a crowded place. Pretty quickly, a young blond man in a Beach Boys T-shirt came up and asked Alex what this was all about.

Alex had smoked a joint, and she began to give an improvised speech that unfurled like a long drive with someone less than sober, the turns unsignaled but nevertheless smooth and confident. She said that the world already has enough people and animals in need of would-be parents’ devotion, including children who want to be adopted or fostered. She said that a lot of people reproduce without really considering why they want biological children. She said that she wants people to determine whether parenthood actually suits them, or whether they might regret the irrevocable act of giving life. “I personally don’t want to impose any additional suffering,” she said, “so I choose not to bring anyone into existence.”

Alex paused to let the man ask questions. He seemed invested in having an educational conversation until he said, “You must be full of self-hatred, huh,” and it became clear that his was a kind of performance for the benefit of the young woman in a red sundress hovering next to him. Alex, who is small and dark-haired, and who from some angles looks much younger than her thirty-six years, nodded into the middle distance. “Okay,” she replied, but she did not hate herself. Some people walking by with shopping bags joined in on the heckling. A man in a Raiders sweatshirt told Dietz to do everyone a favor and kill himself if he was so unhappy. Dietz suggested that perhaps it was the man himself who was unhappy, given that happy people don’t ordinarily tell others to kill themselves. There was a lot of yelling involving the question of whether Alex and Dietz hated babies, whether they wanted to kill children. “I can’t—I’m so uncomfortable right now,” said the woman in the sundress to the Beach Boys fan as she left, her companion racing after her. A student from Austria offered that he had researched the Holocaust and could therefore say with confidence that without suffering there is no joy and that life is worth the suffering. Or something along those lines. “Is it a full moon tonight?” Dietz asked, by way of reply. “Like, what the fuck is going on!”

Illustrations by María Jesús ContrerasFrom time to time, people were perfectly pleasant. One of the church proselytizers dropped by to say that he agreed with Alex and Dietz about the unsuitedness of the world to new life—“the selfishness, greed, corruption”—“but how about if we followed Jesus Christ? If we followed him, there’d be no rape, no jails, no hunger.” In response, Dietz said that he thought “a lot of books have provided examples of quality human behavior, but at the end of the day humans are humans,” and the man agreed, shaking his head, which bore a hat that read jesus is king. “People don’t practice what they preach,” he said. He went on to tell Dietz he would have agreed with him regarding the babies issue until three years before, when he found Jesus, but still, everything that Dietz was saying about the fallenness of the world—yes, it was true.

An older woman in Armani eyeglasses nodded when Alex said that she wanted to validate women who don’t have children. “I have one,” the woman said, “but it wasn’t planned, and I never wanted kids. I didn’t want to bring someone into this world.” She gestured around as if to indicate the world: the elderly man with swollen legs who was sitting quietly in a wheelchair, yellow plastic bags hanging from the handles, and a man standing at the intersection wearing cowboy boots and plaid pajama pants, vomiting and pacing, stopping in the middle of the road to howl. Both men later introduced themselves to Alex and Dietz. The man in the wheelchair said that he sure was glad to be at the end of his life, rather than at the start of it, where his poor grandchildren were. The man in the cowboy boots told them to keep up the good work and returned to the street, where he dumped a bottle of Vitamin Water on his head.

A young woman with a guileless smile came up to Dietz and said that she herself had been the product of an unplanned pregnancy but was living life to the fullest. “I’m having a fabulous time on Mother Earth,” is how she put it. A short man in a baseball cap and large black sneakers shuffled close to her and said, softly, “But not everyone has the life that you do.” The woman turned and said nothing. A young man she’d walked up with, who had an open face and a ponytail, leaped to her defense, saying, “But everyone has the opportunity to have a beautiful life.” The short man said that wasn’t true, and the man with the ponytail backtracked slightly and said that everyone could at least have a positive attitude, and the woman beside him said that was it: her attitude was good; she loved her gorgeous life and this gorgeous world. The short man said she would eventually suffer. The woman stared back at him. “You will suffer,” he reiterated. “One hundred percent, you are for sure going to suffer.”

He told me his parents had immigrated from Pakistan when he was a baby. Now, at twenty-eight, he had been laid off from an engineering job. He already identified as an antinatalist. “The whole notion is you’re so forced into this bullshit playing field where the rules don’t make any sense,” he said. It seemed to him that a lot of people wouldn’t have consented to being thrown into the game had they been asked in advance. He certainly wouldn’t have.

Most of the time, the people who approached wanted to know if the demonstration had to do with overpopulation and climate change. Probably because they have encountered the term “antinatalism,” or similar-sounding ones like “child-free,” in the New York Times or the Washington Post, on NPR or the BBC or CNN, all of which have asked in the past few years whether people should still have children with the planet heating up so severely. Generally, these articles and news segments conclude that it’s fine to have kids, as individual self-denial isn’t what big social changes are made of—a conclusion that frustrates many antinatalists, who argue that making the world better is just one of the numerous benefits of abstaining from procreation, but not the primary one. The point is that if people stopped having babies, there would no longer be anyone new whom we might need to protect from climate change, or who would be obliged to try to solve it. The point is that the planet would be better off without people, and that people would be better off not being people.

I began reaching out to antinatalists after seeing an article about some stop having kids billboards in Portland, Oregon. But I was already reading articles about not having kids because I wanted to be pregnant, badly, immediately, and had become obsessively preoccupied by that desire. For most of my life, I’d only idly wanted a child, and for the usual reasons: undergoing one of life’s most interesting experiences; being so profoundly wanted by someone that they’d like to create life with me, out of me; meeting the newborn person I’d been told I’d meet since I was a girl. Sometimes, too, I hadn’t wanted a baby, also for the usual reasons: the cost of care, of course, but also dread of how my body would handle pregnancy; of not writing a book because I was too busy; of things going badly between me and the man with whom I’d be obligated to pass a kid back and forth; of the child’s really not liking me, or my really not liking them, and how regrettable it would be to live every day with this choice that I’d made. Anyway, I was still in my twenties when I thought like this. I had time.

Then I met the single father of a two-year-old girl. We fell in love, and he introduced me to his child at a Christmas-tree farm. This could be a chance, my friends said, to raise a kid in a more ethically interesting way. My boyfriend had the child half the time; he and his ex-wife exchanged her at a gas station on Saturdays. I thought of the term “non-traditional family,” which had appealed to certain of my friends. Now I was in one. Perhaps becoming stepparents, caring for children whom they can’t treat like legal property, and who don’t bear their genetic material, might make them capable of the sort of parenting they’d vowed to do in their twenties.

But I didn’t really think about it in those terms. I was just in it, this family, and while I was in it, the baby became a five-year-old girl who said “mom” when she meant me. That word, when she began to use it in place of my name, was beautiful to me, a credit to the mothering I’d done for her, which, even though she was away from us half the time, had been totalizing, consuming—the worrying, the planning, the reminiscing, the longing for her return. For Mother’s Day, my boyfriend, who became my husband just after the child turned five, made a compilation of all the videos he’d taken of us over the years, and there I was, there she was, walking hand in hand on playgrounds, in gardens, on trails, in wading pools, in our own living room, at fairs, in hospitals, at dance class, at museums, at farmers markets. She kept track of the bug bite on my left thigh like it was her own wound. “I don’t want us to fall apart,” she began to say when it was time for us to separate. The summer she turned five, I nearly fell apart every morning that the early sunlight fell upon her empty bed.

Before I met her—a child to whom another woman had given birth—I had imagined that only birthing would make me a mother. Or rather, I had not thought about it at all; I had assumed it. As the kind of mother who would have delivered from a hospital bed or a bohemian inflatable pool, I imagined that my relation to the title of “mom” would be straightforward. I would know that the child I bore would always be mine, that she and I could trust in something culturally enduring and legally binding. I would know, when I washed my child’s lunch box and held her on my lap at the ER on Christmas Eve (pneumonia) and breathed with her through tantrums in grocery store parking lots and fastened her into her car seat, that my efforts had meaning—that they were in service of what I had decided to do with my life, which was to create her. As her mother, as her only mother, I would be singular, unrivaled. My claim to the word “mom” would be stable and immutable even if the child’s father and I broke up, and it would remain intact if—no, when—she grew up and heard from the world that biological mothers are the only ones that matter, are the only real mothers.

All that year, I understood myself to be at once a mother and not a mother, and it was tiring. I was tired of people asking me if “her mother is in the picture.” I was tired of explaining that I was her mother, too. I was tired of always trying so hard—often in vain. And amid that exhaustion, my fiancé and I made a decision. Two weeks later, the test indicated that I was pregnant, and my fiancé addressed my stomach to tell the almost-child not to be too concerned about the situation. Like most parents, all we wanted was to tell the child how to be better than us—to see the way the world was working on them, to discover that they have many options for how and who to be, a fact that their parents might themselves have understood all too late. I was so happy to be pregnant, because I was so happy to be “mom,” to stop resisting, to be at rest.

One way to tell the story of antinatalism is to say that it begins with the beginning of the world, or with the beginning as it is described by most major belief systems—with the creation of a universe that contains misery, and whose inhabitants eagerly await their chance to be released from it, to rest in the arms of the divine, to transcend the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Pratima Naik, one of the founders of Childfree India, a support group of sorts for antinatalists in the country, told me that she was drawn to antinatalism in part by the Hindu and Buddhist satsangs she heard as a child, which suggested that “the main purpose of life is not to be happy” and “to come out of the cycle of birth and death.” (Schopenhauer was notably moved by both faiths, which he found told the story of existence not unlike he did.) “I do not think that one should have children; I observe in the acquisition of children many risks and many griefs, whereas a harvest is rare, and even when it exists, it is thin and poor,” the Greek philosopher Democritus is supposed to have said. He thought people should adopt, as “one can take one child out of many who is according to one’s liking.” In The Childfree Christ, published in 2021, the Belgian antinatalist Théophile de Giraud argues that the Bible is an antinatalist text, a view emphatically held by Kierkegaard, who found it obvious that the Bible instructs the Christlike not to have kids. Jesus gave his followers lots of examples of how to be good in the world, but one thing he did not do was start a nuclear family. Instead, he collected a spiritual family, like that replicated in nunneries and monasteries. Some Christian sects—most famously, the Cathars, who were sentenced to death by Pope Innocent III in the thirteenth century—later found cause to conclude that the Christly thing to do was not to procreate. “Better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun,” writes the author of Ecclesiastes. “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived,’ ” says the miserable Job. Likewise, the Talmud has it that “it would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created.”

The less religious of our ancestors meanwhile found in the ugliness of the human world confirmation that God had not created this mess; we had. Human suffering served no plan besides the human project to grow a workforce of replaceable laborers. Al-Ma‘arri, a Syrian atheist born in the tenth century, wrote that existence was plainly not Allah’s gift, but a life sentence, a punishment. He was blinded at four by smallpox and, as a non-believer in a believing time and place, lived alone in a cave. “I know but this,” he wrote, “that him I hold in error / Who helps to propagate Time’s woe and terror.” The epitaph on his tombstone, in northwestern Syria, describes as his greatest accomplishment that he never created anyone fated to die. “This is my father’s crime against me,” it reads, “which I myself committed against none.” The South African philosopher David Benatar blamed what he called “pronatalism” for stopping us from thinking clearly about whether the animal desire to reproduce remains worthwhile, or something that we should rid ourselves of through reason—as we have tried to do with other base prejudices.

Benatar introduced the word “antinatalism” into circulation in his 2006 book Better Never to Have Been. (De Giraud, the Belgian writer, also used the word, in a French-language publication from the same year; its English title is The Art of Guillotining Procreators.) Using what has since been described in antinatalist circles as the “asymmetry argument,” Benatar argues that existence contains both benefits and harm, whereas non-existence contains neither. The most ethical choice, given this asymmetry, is to avoid harm. In fact, he argues, each of us has a duty to keep from increasing the world’s net suffering, a responsibility that procreation necessarily violates. (De Giraud was being only slightly hyperbolic about executing procreators, who, as he says, universally sentence their offspring to death.) “Only existers suffer harm,” Benatar writes. “None of this befalls the non-existent.”

The antinatalist Cansu Özge Özmen, who translated Benatar’s book into Turkish, told me that she has decided not to have children because she does not want them to suffer when they could just as well not. “I will never stop wanting a son,” she told me. “I think it’s all so beautiful—pregnancy, breastfeeding, babies—but the more suffering I have seen, the more convinced I have become of how unfriendly and unsafe the world is. I can’t have a biological child. I can’t—I will never be able to protect him from any potential horror. I will feel ultimately responsible for everything that would happen to him. I can’t risk it. Not my beautiful boy.” This was last February, after some fifty thousand people had died in an earthquake in southern Turkey. She continued: “Many parents have told me I don’t understand what it is like to have a child, what a strong bond there is between mom and baby, but it’s the opposite: I understand, and that’s why I didn’t have one.”

In Better Never to Have Been, Benatar assumes that people will tell him—as the man in the Raiders sweatshirt had Alex and Dietz—that if he really thinks life is so nasty he should just kill himself already. But that, he writes, would be a nonsensical leap. There is a difference, he writes, between generating a life and continuing one. Benatar also presupposes that his critics will contend that the good in life is sufficient to neutralize the bad, and that not giving potential beings the gift of life is its own kind of harm. Not so, he retorts, because those who do not exist cannot be harmed. As the Indian antinatalist Raphael Samuel put it to me, “I have nothing to thank my parents for—I was born for their pleasure.” (Samuel became briefly infamous in 2019, when he announced his plan to sue his parents for giving birth to him.) And if it were true that the unborn were all awaiting this gift, then not only would we be obligated to create life wherever possible, from puberty through menopause, but non-procreative sex would be considered horribly wasteful, as in fact it is among some religious groups.

Benatar has also argued that our lives aren’t as good as we think they are, and that the lives of our progeny will be worse. He writes that we think our lives are good because it is our way of tolerating a state that we did not choose. Existence is filled with frustrations, inconveniences, and tragedies; we think of these as meaningful, but only because it would be too miserable to do otherwise. “We last as long as our fictions last,” wrote the Romanian-born pessimist E. M. Cioran. “To exist,” as he put it, “is equivalent to an act of faith, a protest against the truth, an interminable prayer.” Those who do not kill themselves, Cioran elaborated, are among the “great believers.”

In 2017, The New Yorker called Benatar the world’s most pessimistic philosopher, a distinction perhaps previously claimed by Schopenhauer, who wrote, in 1851:

Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence? Or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?

It is a description that helps explain why antinatalism isn’t as popular as other positions (e.g., veganism) considered similarly contrary to our desire for ease and satiation: people would rather be enthusiastic collaborators in a global project than be skeptics of its fundamental integrity. Antinatalism implies or counts on our eventual extinction, and thinking this way is painful. So yes, Benatar writes, people who inhabit the fiction worth reproducing “may be happier than others.” But no, he continues, “that does not make them right.”

The month that my baby would have been born, they were not, because the would-be child had grown in my fallopian tube—what is known as an ectopic pregnancy—and was terminated with four injections that made my body a disastrous place for growing life. Not long afterward, I drove to Chicago to meet an antinatalist activist named Amanda Sukenick, who suggested we meet at the Field Museum, where we could look at the happily extinct animals. Amanda, who moderates the antinatalism subreddit and hosts an antinatalist podcast, on which she has interviewed more than eighty like-minded personalities, is short, ponytailed, gregarious, and deferential. We walked first through the bird exhibit, which has about a thousand taxidermic birds. “Look at that blue one!” she said. “Wow! You know, I think nature is awful, but it is pretty.” We walked on. Amanda is an efilist—“efil” as in “life” spelled backward—which is an offshoot of antinatalism, or else it is antinatalism, depending on whom you ask. Efilists argue that it would be best not only if humans went extinct, but if all DNA on earth were destroyed. (Benatar includes all sentient beings in his 2006 manifesto; other antinatalists argue that non-human life should be excluded from the conversation.) We decided to sit in front of the bison, and I told Amanda that, the previous day, I’d taken my stepdaughter to see an IMAX film about the Arctic—she had been both impressed that baby harp seals exist at all and puzzled when the camera settled on a baby harp seal who had been left alone by her mother, as is usual, at just three weeks old. Ordinarily, I fast-forward to skip the painful bits—as far as my child knows, Bambi is the tale of a deer who enjoys a variety of seasonal weather in the forest. “Right, all of these things are beautiful, they are wonders,” Amanda said, “but I can’t justify it, the holocausts, the animals—they all rip the shit out of each other—and I just can’t make sense of that.”

When Amanda and I began corresponding, I’d wanted to know how she felt about her own life; I wanted to know, more or less, whether antinatalism was exclusively the philosophy of the miserable. “I’m perfectly capable of being a very contented, happy person,” she wrote, “who is able to suspend my disbelief enough to accept the various forms of meaning that I’ve created for myself as being enough. I would end this world in a second if I could, but while it’s here, and while I’m here, I will collect, archive, obsess, love & create with great joy.” The daughter of an oil painter who was imperious about art, Amanda became a sculptor who preferred that art tell the truth about the world as she saw it—that its inhabitants suffer. As a child, she liked horror movies and monsters, especially the title character in ThePhantom of the Opera. Like the Phantom, she felt monstrous. Around 2010, when the online antinatalism community was picking up on YouTube, she started posting antinatalist videos. She later became active on Reddit, and in 2020 started her podcast.

Two years into the project, Amanda interviewed the Finnish philosopher Matti Häyry, a self-described “postmodernly cynical, negative-utilitarian, probably nihilist and pessimist, close to sentiocentric, voluntary-extinctionist antinatalist, anticonsumerist, anticapitalist, wanna-be vegan anarchist.” The two hit it off. Like Amanda, Matti communicated creatively; he had written an antinatalist rock opera and included whimsical dialogues in his academic writing. Amanda initially wanted him as a guest, in part, because he had written a paper addressing the (to him problematic) fact that a lot of people do feel very grateful to their parents. In it, he granted that it was true that some kids have a good life, but stipulated that most do not. Every birth is a risk. And even if one particular baby was fine, what about that baby’s baby, and that baby’s baby? The odds that a desperate child will be born increase over time. Matti calls that eventual offspring the “Omelas child,” after the Ursula K. Le Guin story in which a nine-year-old child is locked in a basement to take on the full weight of all earthly suffering, so that the other residents of the mythical Omelas may be relieved of it. In the antinatalist reading, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” as the story is called, are the ones who decide not to procreate. By putting an end to all life, they put an end to a perverse game of baby roulette, and to the inevitability of someone, somewhere, suffering grievously.

But Amanda and Matti had lately decided to try a new argument, and in a paper published in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics last summer, the duo proposed that antinatalists reorient the discourse around the notion of life as an “imposition.” The word has been in the antinatalist lexicon for some time, usually referring to the idea that parents are imposing on a child all the attendant duties of maintaining and funding a life for which they didn’t ask, as well as the unavoidable and dreaded task of eventually exiting life. In their paper, however, Amanda and Matti are more interested in the intractable mental imposition of being raised in a world that tells you what you should do with your life and how to do it. The imposition, Amanda wrote in an email between the three of us, is “having to move through the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds of a life unasked for, to have to find meaning we don’t need, and all the while being subjected to all the ways in which our cultures have enforced obligations to comply.”

Over time, the emails between the three of us became a Google Doc, and the Google Doc grew to thirty-six thousand words. I wrote to them about the child I’d almost had, and the child I still want to have. They said that they understood, that they had sympathy for me. They also wanted me to see that the decisions I make about my reproductive life are happening in a world that is imposed on me, in which I am not fully free to act or think for myself. I want to be a mother, they argued, because I live in a pronatalist world which enforces the belief that a mother is a meaningful thing to be; I want to be a biological mother, they said, because this world gives one kind of motherhood special meaning; and I want my life to have meaning because I was born into a world that imposes the job of meaning-making on us. Matti and Amanda wrote that my prospective child would be similarly unfree. “If you weren’t strong enough to choose your own life,” Amanda wrote, “what chance does she have?”

As our Google Doc sprawled, more reasons not to have kids accumulated: Philanthropic antinatalism (meaning, in this context, generously sparing the unborn from the suffering of life), which is probably the dominant strain. But there is also misanthropic antinatalism, which is concerned about the harm that your kids will do to others and the planet, eating its animals and washing beaded facial scrubs down the drain and so forth. Also worth considering is whether you might be happier without kids: Antinatalists also talk about maternal regret, which some research shows is more common than we tend to admit. Perhaps there can be happiness, they argue, in not having to worry about the happiness of a person you made, in avoiding the pain of witnessing your child’s inevitable unhappiness.

“I hope whatever joy & happiness one can get out of doing the right thing will serve as part of the attractiveness,” Amanda wrote. But then again, people “shouldn’t want or need to gain happiness out of the decision not to harm their children,” she wrote. “I am quite satisfied to admit that I would hope people would make the decision to abstain from procreation, even if it made them miserable.”

After the demonstration in Toronto, I decided to ask Alex and Dietz about politics. Given the choice between being trapped in a room with adherents of the left or the right, as Alex put it, they’d pick the right, because they find the left too intolerant of dissent. Which is not to say they have much sympathy for the right. Neither of them votes. They find most people to be extremely stupid. “I really do believe that all of us humans are trash, but some of us are higher-quality trash,” Alex said. She has a tattoo to that effect. “We try to do better,” she said. “We try to mitigate the amount of harm that we cause. But the majority of us are so apathetic. If it doesn’t affect you directly, they just don’t care.” She was still thinking about the guy at the protest who’d said she must hate herself, annoyed, because people who hate themselves give up. It’s precisely because she doesn’t hate herself, she said, that she keeps pushing their cause.

I flew home, and in the morning my stepdaughter crawled into our bed, put her forehead against mine, and fell asleep. From time to time, I recall that when I first met her, I often pitied her. She has, and had then, the comfortable life of a white middle-class child, raised by four parents in a soft Midwestern landscape of public pools and mall carousels. But I felt terrible telling her she couldn’t eat Halloween candy at bedtime, say, or couldn’t have that stuffed toy from Target. I felt terrible having to wake her up for preschool on dark winter mornings as she told me, “I just want to stay home and be cozy.” It was a reasonable request—and one that will go mostly unfulfilled all her life. I felt terrible that though her other parents and I could still protect her from most stress and pain, she nevertheless was already encountering the limits, responsibilities, rejections, disappointments, obligations, and inconveniences that will eventually prove to be relentless. When I closed the door to her bedroom at night and left her alone in the dark, I’d worry that she was lonely or frightened, and I felt sad to consider that this was only the beginning of all the things she will have to face without us. Even the good experiences in store for her—making friends, finding love—seemed so perilous, so shadowed by failure.

Eventually, I began to feel this way less and less. I felt less sorry to teach her rules, and more excited by what she might do with them, or in spite of them, or how she might try to change them. And I became more inclined to talk about gifts, miracles. Sometimes, though, that language fails me. Sometimes I think that the child in my arms can’t stay in them for long, not before it will be time to wake and greet the world she did not ask for. Time to go to kindergarten, time to comfort herself without our help in a world that isn’t natural, and can’t be.

The day after our museum visit, I went to Amanda’s apartment to sit in on a taping of her podcast. She lives with her mother, a retired psychoanalyst who is very ill, in the Chicago apartment in which she grew up. She cares for her mother full-time. Her bedroom is small and orderly and filled with toys, especially Dragon Ball Z action figures. We sat in her office, which has numerous screens and shelves still stocked with the books of a precocious adolescent. Her mother’s Chihuahua, Sasha, declined to be petted and scooted under Amanda’s desk, and Amanda reassured me that Sasha did not dislike me, because then she would be barking at me. It was that moment that allowed me to understand Amanda’s brand of extreme kindness.

She put on her headphones and opened a video screen with Miguel Ángel Castro Merino, a teacher in northern Spain who had just released an antinatalist book. A colleague of his interpreted. Amanda had not been able to read Merino’s book, and their call was halting, but Merino’s thinking seemed in line with her own. Merino said that the reason he thought people shouldn’t have kids is because of the “perpetual harassment” that is life. “It’s the air we breathe.” He continued: “Although we may have the illusion that we are free, that we make our own choices, in fact we are conditioned by the environment, by our family, by our education, and we are not conscious of to what extent.”

When it was over, Amanda seemed tired but upbeat. Her mother, who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, poked her head out of her bedroom and asked about dinner. Amanda said she would handle it. “See you in just a bit, Mama,” she said, to which her mom replied, “Thank you, baby,” and apologized to me for being so ill. I sat on the couch, and we kept talking for a while. I told Amanda that, honestly, I still really wanted a baby, for all the reasons that we had gone over in our emails. I said that I didn’t see any way out of this wanting. I didn’t know it then, but I would be pregnant again in a few months, and would be pregnant up until the baby girl’s heart stopped. During the operation to remove her, I would cry just before going to sleep, and the nurse would hold my face and promise me it would go okay, and she would be right that I was afraid, but what I feared was that there would be nowhere to go now but back to the self I was before the baby—back to feeling wasted, back to waiting, wanting, until I could try yet again. At the apartment, I asked Amanda if it was possible to unthink it, this wanting. We looked at each other and were very quiet, and I felt that Amanda understood what I myself was only then coming to understand, which is that I did not want to unthink it, not really. Cioran wrote that existence “is a habit I do not despair of acquiring.” I have despaired, and will despair, for every time I have come close to existing exactly as I have so long wanted. Amanda thought for a while and said, “I think we’re just now trying to figure it out. There’s not much room to unthink it, is there?”

Later, I called Benatar and told him I remained unconvinced. He said he found this unsurprising, because he doesn’t think that antinatalists can ever convince most people. Look at veganism, he said: “How many people are vegans? Five percent? Less? Eating animals is just obviously wrong, and yet people will throw out all the resistance they can. There are lots of things that are hard to convince people of.” He went on: “Climate change—people keep denying it. When people have vested interests, they will not buy it.” But “this doesn’t tell me anything about the argument,” he concluded. “It tells me something about the obstinacy of people.”

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October 2022

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