Who Will Take Care of You When You’re Older and Other Responses to Being Child-Free
In his new novel, Robert P. Ottone explores the world of modern parenthood, and finds the drive to have kids is now lacking some urgency. He explains why he felt compelled to explore this topic in his suburban family folk horror The Vile Thing We Created (out April 18 on Hydra), and his own responses to society’s pressure to procreate.
I think the weirdest thing people say to me when they find out my wife and I are child-free is easily “who will take care of you when you’re older?”
Truth be told, I can’t imagine living to old age. Not with the cocktail of physical ailments I deal with on a daily basis, coupled with my immune system which is best described as “Dickensian orphan,” I just don’t see lasting to what I imagine people refer to as “old age.” Add to that the imminent collapse of the environment, society tearing itself apart through ignorance and inaction, and the inevitable heat death of the planet and well … you see where I’m going with this, I’m sure.
But Rob, do you hate kids!? (I imagine you saying this while clutching a Martha Wayne-style pearl necklace)
I feel I need to mention up front that I’m not anti-children. In fact, I’d rather hang out with my little niece and nephew than any other members of my family. Mine and my wife’s friends’ kids are all funny and cute, and I’d honestly rather hang out and learn about whatever cool book they’re reading or whatever TV show they’re into than talk about golf or whatever inconsequential sport their dads are into. “Oh, Kansas City won the superb owl? They’ve got a team there now? Good for them!”
When I started writing The Vile Thing We Created (which had an altogether different title originally), I was thinking a lot about my wife’s and my decision to not procreate and how, for years, I had this insane desire to be a dad. I wanted to provide a future for a child the way my mom and dad did for me. But really, the world is such a different place than it was when I was brought screaming and angry into this plane of existence.
As time has gone on, and the pressures from society continue to put the squeeze on childfree couples, I find myself pushed further in the opposite direction. My wife would be an amazing mom. I know that. She’s nurturing, warm, brilliant, funny, all other positive things. But would I be as good a dad as my dad was? I don’t know. I’m selfish. I’m a workaholic. When not at my normal job, I prefer to be writing, or spending time relaxing with my wife. Introducing a kid into that equation just sounds like a nightmare to me. I don’t sleep enough as it is, I’m supposed to wake up every couple hours and feed a baby or change a diaper? Good God, that sounds like a lot of work (and based on feedback from my friends who have done this – it certainly is).
This ain’t no team sport, guys
The thing I’ve noticed is that people seem to have children without any real thought behind their decision. They don’t mentally assess themselves in the way many of us should, maybe through blindness or perhaps through sheer hope for the future. I remember talking to a friend of mine after his wife had just had their second kid. She had gone through a horrifying birth and a terrible pregnancy. Their first child, a daughter, was what they called a “dream pregnancy,” but the second one, not so much. When they had their second daughter, my friend told me that they’d be trying for a boy in a few months once the mother had recovered enough.
“Wait,” I said, confused. “You have two. The second one could have killed your wife. Why are you in a rush to have a third kid?”
“We want a boy,” was the answer.
“Okay, but you have two healthy daughters,” I said, feeling as if he needed reminding.
“But we want a boy,” he reiterated, as if his logic was perfectly sound. That two lives weren’t enough, that a third was required.
And it’s not a gender thing, this could have been reversed. Wanting a girl and getting two boys. Whatever the case may be. I merely mention this as the actual example I was provided at the time.
This concept both floored and, truth be told, disgusted me. If there was any chance that my wife wouldn’t make it through child-birth, I feel like that would be more than enough to not try again. But I’ve heard the opposite (and seen the opposite, thanks to Reddit) so many times. Parents who are blessed with healthy kids over and over at the cost of the mother’s health and sometimes, life.
I’ve gotten similar answers regarding children from other friends. “Well, we want two.” “Well, our ‘team’ isn’t complete yet,” (never mind the cringey-as-fuck referencing of their family being a “team”) etc. I remember during the heart of the pandemic seeing how many anti-vax moms I went to high school with decided to have not one, not two, but three children in short succession. It was bizarre. As if the possibility of the end of the world wasn’t enough to deter procreation.
But why are we told to have kids?
Recently, Seth Rogen made a brilliant statement about being child-free. “I mean, a lot of people have kids before they even think about it, from what I’ve seen honestly,” he told the Diary of a CEO podcast. “You just are told, you go through life, you get married, you have kids — it’s what happens.”
But why? You can google the question “why are we told to have kids” and the top two results will be from a far-right Christian organization preaching that “children shape our souls like few other things in life” and an anti-natalist group saying “it is usually the case that humans have children for reasons rooted in egocentrism.” Both of those views are exceedingly polarizing. While there may be an element of truth to both, I hesitate to say that it’s fair to specifically state either one as fact. Have I seen parents rise to the occasion and become even better people than they were before? Absolutely. Have I seen parents continue to have children for no reason other than “their team isn’t complete yet?” Absolutely. Both are interesting. But neither answers the real question as to why we, as humans, feel the need to procreate.
Maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe all the creepy church-funded websites I’m finding are true. Maybe babies do offer a constant, endless stream of “hope.” But I think, especially with my generation and perhaps younger generations, we don’t see the hope for the future that previous generations saw. Most of this loss of hope is rooted in financial woes.
The eighties, as I remember them, were not the Stranger Things-tinted nonsense entertainment would have you believe. Simpler times. A house where I live in New York, on average, cost less than $100,000. Now, try and find a shack that costs less than $100,000. Insurance rates have skyrocketed. Property values are volatile. Jobs haven’t kept up with inflation. See where I’m going here?
The cost to raise your average, middle-class child in the United States today? We’re talking figures north of $300,000. That’s about the cost of a tiny house where I live in New York. And when I say “tiny,” I mean it. We’re talking a one bedroom, one bathroom house on 1/5th of an acre of land.
Bring it on home (as long as you’ve got that juicy-juicy 20% downpayment)
So, take the volatile real estate market, couple that with society’s tensions, the planet’s environmental collapse and the insane cost of living and what do you get?
“But who will take care of you when you’re older?”
Honestly, just bury me in the back yard and say I fell off a cruise ship. I really don’t care. I have preparations for my eventual demise. I’ve had them for a few years now. My wife knows them. My best friends know them. My mother knows them. When the time comes, they know the score.
But really, I applaud the parents who make it work. There’s plenty of you out there. You just need to chill out on asking your childfree friends about when they’re gonna’ join you in parenthood, because we’re too busy sleeping and indulging our other passions.
The Vile Thing We Created is out on Hydra on April 18, 2023. Pre-order it at your favorite local bookstore today.
- About the Author
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Robert P. Ottone is the author of the horror collection HER INFERNAL NAME & OTHER NIGHTMARES (an honorable mention in THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR VOLUME 13) as well as the young adult dystopian-cosmic horror trilogy THE RISE.
His short stories have appeared in various anthologies as well as online. He’s also the publisher and owner of Spooky House Press.
Robert is also an English as a New Language teacher, as well as a teacher of English Language Arts. He can be found online at SpookyHousePress.com or on Twitter/Instagram (@RobertOttone). He delights in the creepy and views bagels solely as a cream cheese delivery device