Deluded and Immature

When I lived in New York, I knew two very talented and driven artists who had abandoned their children. One had left her son with her parents so she could move to NYC and pursue visual arts. The other had simply ditched his kid with his ex-wife, to devote his life to stage performance. Both told me separately (they didn’t know each other) that, had they stayed to raise their offspring, they would have killed themselves.

I always took the prospect of parenthood very seriously. I believed anyone who had a child needed to prioritize them, and if that meant giving up their so-called dreams, they were obligated to do so. I felt ambivalence admiring my friends’ works, when I learned they had abandoned children to create them. I believed their explanations were honest, that they may indeed have committed suicide if trapped in the parental role, which would have left their families even worse off. I judged them for not thinking this through before they had made innocent new humans to suffer their bad decisions. They were both young when got pregnant and impregnated, respectively, caught up in emotions and hormones and romance and a sense of fulfilling biological and social imperatives. Neither child was “accidental”.

Jordan Peterson recently said not wanting children is “either deluded or immature.” He is speaking primarily to young men, and maybe he’s right about them. He also asserts that many (most?) women are happier as mothers than in high-powered careers. He may be right. Most people seem to desire children, enjoy children, are attracted (maternally and paternally) to children, like being around children, and find children delightful and inspiring. Most parents discover a deep sense of meaning in their children, something they never experienced prior, to the point they see their lives before children as comparatively meaningless and empty. This is their main point of reference: a childfree adult is like a younger version of them that never grew up, because when they grew up they had children.

Not wanting children is socially difficult and alienating. Years ago, on the online forum, a woman asserted that only women are truly childfree. Men may not want children, but only women understand deeply what they are rejecting. 

My fertile years were marked by constant awareness of my difference. Not only did I have no desire to have a baby, I felt pronounced revulsion to the idea, and to babies themselves. I had no ill will toward them, but no maternal attraction either, and preferred to stay as far away from them as possible. I was acutely aware I was supposed to feel and behave a certain way around babies, as relentlessly demonstrated in media: to coo, stare adoringly, ask to hold it, and wistfully long to have my own. My real feelings were perverse and would horrify anyone around me. I internalized much of their hatred. Deluded or immature. What kind of monster would be repulsed by babies?

A woman, first of all. A man with a calling doesn’t need to experience that revulsion; he won’t lose all his energetic resources to reproduction, he doesn’t gestate, give birth, breast feed, or otherwise surrender to children as a woman must. If a woman has a calling – to use her full energies to reproduce culturally, rather than biologically – then whatever culture destined to come through her benefits from her psycho-reproductive resources. Any emotional inclination toward biological children is a threat to whatever Art wants to be made instead. A female artist is at much higher risk of abandoning or starving her creative potential for a child than a male is. And if she abandons her child instead, as my NYC artist friend did, the consequences are devastating and maladaptive.

Only women can be truly childfree.

My own choice to never have children was realistic and mature. First, I clearly had no orientation toward them. It was possible – probable, even – that if I’d had my own, my revulsion would have evaporated and I would have loved them deeply, sacrificing my creative pursuits. Would this have been a net benefit to society? Because I was realistic and mature, I understood children need committed love and sacrifice. Because I was realistic and mature, I condemned the abandonment of children. Because I was realistic and mature, I took my ingrained and unwanted revulsion of children seriously. Most available men desired children; my aversion vastly reduced my relationship prospects. I have never wanted children, but I have wanted men who wanted children. I have also wanted social acceptance and a sense of belonging. My revulsion of babies and parenthood denied me this. But I was realistic and mature enough to understand that however much I wanted the benefits of fitting in, suppressing my feelings (revulsion), my true orientation to parenthood (against it), and my calling (Art), would be dishonest and commit me and any potential family to misery.

I had a calling. Much as parents wonder how anyone can not want children, I marveled how others lived their lives without making Art. How could you have any sense of meaning without creating something beautiful and significant? How dull and empty the lives of non-artists must be. I eventually concluded that the meaning and order Art brought to my life, largely came from children in theirs. Which is how I came up with the idea of a psycho-reproductive system. Our biological reproductive systems are evident; we are shown diagrams of them in sex ed; but our psyches participate as well. 

Don’t forget the brains!

I first learned about how Cuckoo birds reproduce in Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype. Cuckoos don’t raise their own chicks; they hijack the psycho-reproductive systems of other birds, who find Cuckoo hatchlings so irresistibly attractive they feed and nurture them to the detriment of their own offspring. Dawkins points out the behavior of the unrelated birds, hijacked into the parental role, is an expression of the Cuckoos’ genes, which evolved and adapted to do exactly that. Hijacking an organism’s psycho-reproductive system can be a winning evolutionary strategy. I thought about my cats, whom I love with the maternal affection I’m supposed to devote to human babies. Clever cats! Clearly I possess a psycho-reproductive system; I’m not fundamentally devoid of maternal instinct. Mine has simply been hijacked by other species, which have evolved to do exactly that: cats are cute for a reason. I have no regrets.

Culture is also a living and evolving thing. Humans are not human without it. Our brains are made for language (a subset of Culture), and language is made for our brains. Humans raised in isolation, without communication through language and other culture, grow into sick stunted animals, if they survive at all, which they don’t. Culture is insufficiently studied as a life form; it’s commonly considered a product or creation of humanity, rather than a symbiote.

Culture hijacked my psycho-reproductive system — for which I’m glad, don’t get me wrong! I’m part of a proud tradition of humans who have devoted their lives to Culture, although it’s more frequently called God in this context. Jesus Christ was notably childfree, at least in myth. Beloved saints were childfree. In many sects, if one is called to the Church, they must remain childless (celibacy being the means to achieve this). Many social and cultural specialties demand energies otherwise reserved for child-rearing. For some, giving up children to pursue a calling is a sacrifice. For others, the calling – Culture – does what any clever living thing would adapt to do, and hijacks its host’s psycho-reproductive system for its own life support. Not having children was no sacrifice for me. Making Art – cultural reproduction – was a joy. It did not feel like a choice. 

The desire to reproduce, or not, is no expression of delusionality or maturity. Reproduction is a primal drive inherited from the dawn of Life. Humans live in symbiosis with Culture which, although relatively newer and not well understood, is alive, reproducing, evolving and adapting. In humans, biological reproduction entails sacrifice, especially of the mother: an enormous devotion of energy and time, and giving up competing dreams and desires. Cultural reproduction – Art – also entails sacrifice of energy and time and, in my case, of societal approval and a sense of belonging that would have been a great comfort. I will in some sense always suffer alienation from the majority of my species, as I do not share the basic, meaningful human experience of parenthood. Yet, I still seek ways to connect with and understand parents.

Most don’t return the favor. Maybe they’re deluded or immature.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

13 thoughts on “Deluded and Immature”

  1. Hello, Nina,

    I’m also childless, by “fate”(teenage illness). I don’t miss a child, but I do miss being a member of a tribe. Read “The Continuum Concept” by Jean Liedhoff. She studied a Stone Age tribe in the Amazon, and saw how humans need to treat their babies and each other.
    “As soon as it is recognized that treating babies as we did for hundreds of thousands of years assures us of calm, soft, undemanding little creatures, they need no longer cause conflict in working mothers who are unwilling to be bored and isolated all day with no adult companionship. The babies would be where they need to be, with their mothers at work; and the mothers would be where they need to be, with their peers, doing not baby care but something worthy of an intelligent adult.”

    Humans evolved as tribal beings, with all the generations together all their lives, sharing resources and experiences and supporting each other. Modern life’s structure has torn us apart from each other and away from the earth, and many people live with empty souls and hearts. I live alone and lonely but survive through faith (Sufi-style), art (singing and photography) and nature, mostly birding.

    Don’t blame yourself for the insanely artificial way of life we are forced into, and the strange, distorted, confused values of people around you. Blessings to you for your strength, the beauty and light you create, and your courage to follow your insight.
    Aziza Cooper
    Victoria BC Canada

  2. My mother’s mantra while growing up was never get married and never have kids. She was mother to 5 of us, basically one year apart, so after 6 years of birthing she chose to have her tubes tied after me ????????? the story continues with the priest coming into the hospital room after the birth and informs her that she is excommunicated from the Catholic Church. I only learned about this in my 40’s . Only one sibling was married for 8 years and none of us had children. I guess we chose to listen to our mother??

  3. ‘Culture is insufficiently studied as a life form; it’s commonly considered a product or creation of humanity, rather than a symbiot.’ How right you are.

  4. For a book-length consideration of culture as a symbiot, consider reading “The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter”, by Joseph Henrich ( I remember being blown away by cool insights on every other page. “The Secret of Our Success” is my current answer to, “have you read any good books recently”?

  5. Nina,
    You are so right on so many counts here. The instinct to nurture does not require having babies.

    I am also woman who has chosen not to have children. My “maternal” instincts have been deeply fulfilled as a care taker of other adult people in need, and devotion to art – in my case writing – and of course pets, both cats and dogs.

    I think you are right about culture as a living thing, a symbiote. But I think culture is many things, like siblings competing for our attention, devotion and love. One part of that culture insists that biological reproduction is the only kind that matters. I think that is part biology speaking. It is also a perversion of biolgy in a culture that devalues all other things that women produce. It is a form of control, based on fear and jealousy of the female role in reproduction. The fact that we are reproducing ourselves into harming our planet, and jeopardizing our own survival in the process speaks to how deeply rooted and at some level harmful this is. The fact that we are continuing to force women to carry virtually all pregnancies to term, without any meaningful system to support those children points to the fact that that element of the situation is more about control and fear than it is about care or love of babies.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  6. Varying degrees of harm and pleasure await all of us who exist. Those who do not exist bypass the harm and aren’t in need of pleasure.

  7. I do think its legitimate to have no childrens. My comment is on the child prespective. As one did not choose to be here with us there is plenty of knowladge of the importance of the father/mother idea in one’s personality development. So when we have a child we better be his/her best parent.

  8. I love this, Nina! Still child-free over here and appreciating it. In my younger-than-now years, I developed close relationships with my nieces and with friends’children. They are now grown and it has brought me great joy to see them develop into adults. As a therapist, I was blessed to have many deep and important relationships. My life has been filled with nurturing connections and meaning. My life energy went into our culture, creating ripple effects of as much goodness as I could muster. I would not have been able to support so many people with the level of generosity that I had, if I had had to raise children. I’m child-free in part because I think being a good parent should be the number one priority for parents. In other words, I, too, am realistic and mature. While I see many parents who seem quite deluded and immature. It’s interesting that once they have kids, they are apparently off the hook, and granted “maturity” by virtue of have had a sexual interaction that “took”.

  9. Thank you for this very thought-provoking essay! I am childfree by choice too, also for artistic/work-related reasons. I’ve known since I was very small that I did not want children (I am the youngest of 7) and have never regretted putting my psycho-reproductive energies toward things other than bearing and raising kids. I feel like worldwide, culturally, this is a conversation we sorely need to have. We can’t afford for all women to be defined by biological motherhood and should be actively encouraging anyone who is even a little bit on the fence to find fulfillment elsewhere. There are a zillion responsibilities we can take on that will ‘grow us up’ the way parents say having children does. Unfortunately, lots of babies remains the quickest, surest way to grow your power base for religions and ideologies of all kinds, so like most sensible ideas, it’ll never happen.

    Thank you for thinking about these things, and writing about them! Lots for the brain to chew on!

  10. My experience is very different than this. It was only when I had a child that I felt inspired to create art – the child triggered the inspiration. I have been much more culturally creative as a mother than I ever dreamed of before. It was like going through the developmental stages along side her completed something in me that had remained unfinished or dormant. NOT saying others are undeveloped without having children, just that I developed further. Much further. It was not a sacrifice of my personal interests and talents, but an evolution and a massive injection of new energy and perspective – a paradigm shift, a leveling up.

  11. Unfortunately there are those whose pleasure-optimization really does center around total destruction,
    around “Armageddon”. We are stuck with one such person at the head of what is supposed-to-be
    our anti-madness major party, the alternative to the “G.O.P.” national nesting-place for scoundrels since
    at least 1876 .
    Anyone staging a capitalism coup during February 2014 (murdering 38 Kiev policemen) and resurrecting the Babi Yar Nazi collaborators; and dumping unprecedented ever-escalating levels of weaponry (that would never be tolerated on OUR borders) every day, since 20 January 2021, into areas contiguous with the borders of nuclear Russia; and now approving the shelling of the largest, dangerous nuclear facility in Europe; and approving the bombing of huge Russia/Germany gas pipelines in international waters; and planting tons of explosives within a truck sent onto a 12-mile-long bridge within Russia (analogous to bomb-laden cars or trucks detonating themselves on the Brooklyn Bridge or the George Washington Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge) —– that game
    player at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is leading us inexorably to his sweetest, sickest, ultimate catastrophe and Joy, THE END, overseen from his perfect vantage point on the Throne of the Almighty !

  12. From the standpoint of evolution (for us), all that’s required to perpetuate the species is to have sex. …Then babies happen, and women are expected to assume their socially prescribed roles. We’re the product of thousands of generations in which women probably married and had kids not just because of societal expectations, but due to economic necessity. If “desire for children” hasn’t been the #1 factor for getting pregnant, then we shouldn’t expect “desire for children” to be a universal thing.

    Lack of interest in parenting has also been observed in domesticated animals. Without natural selection weeding out the lineages that aren’t good at parenting, the shelter of domestication enables the perpetuation of those that don’t have as strong a “parenting instinct”. Our own species is self-domesticated since the civilized world shelters most people. Petersen supposedly understands evolution, so he should know this stuff.

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