Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

an interesting reply

I read something yesterday that I’ve been mulling over all night and all morning. It is a quote attributed to Thales of Miletus, a Greek philosopher of the 6th century BC, and is said to have been his reply when he was asked why he did not have a child.

“Who truly finds reality sufficiently desirable to introduce their son or daughter to the inevitability of death, to the treachery of man’s dealings with man, to the self-interest that fuels the world, to the burden of being forced to do tiring work for pay, if not to precarious employment? … How could parents be so naive, stupid and short-sighted as to love misery, illness, destitution, poverty, old age and misery enough to want to pass them on to their own offspring? … Should we really use the word love to describe the transmission of such evils to the flesh of our flesh?”

(The idea is quoted in a book I hope to review here soon and the word ‘misery’ appears twice there on the list of things-inflicted-on-descendents. I don’t know if it’s an error or if Thales of Miletus just wanted to make doubly sure we knew about misery!)

So, obviously I’m not a fan of calling people naive, stupid and short-sighted and I don’t think that parents are more likely to be any of those things than non-parents. Also, while I see a lot of misery in the world, I also see a lot of beauty and goodness that is absolutely worth passing on. But nonetheless, twenty-seven centuries later, I’ve actually had similar thoughts to these.

My own position is pretty firmly aligned with Buddhist teachings on suffering – the idea that life itself can be meaningfully equated with suffering, because our nature is to imagine a feeling of perfect contentment and then grasp at it as though we believe it to be not only possible but sustainable, whereas real life is characterised by absolute impermanence. The Buddhists don’t seem to me to be quite as hopeless as Thales of Miletus. They think we can deal with the problem of suffering at its root by learning not to grasp, but to make peace with reality as it actually is. But even they admit that it could take us several lifetimes.

Personally, I’m a pretty happy person (and I certainly never found life more beautiful than when I started to engage with these kinds of teachings). But I’m talking about quite a fragile kind of beauty and a tender sort of happiness. To me, it would feel like an incredible gamble to bring another human being into consciousness, in the hope that she or he would somehow learn to surf the painful reality of impermanence well enough to catch a life-long wave.

I don’t think non-parenthood is the only conclusion its possible to draw from this kind of thinking. Perhaps it also points, significantly, to the value of sharing everything we ever discover about creating lives that are meaningful and beautiful. That’s my own aspiration in the different kinds of work I do and I feel sure it has been the aspiration of many non-mothers before me.

But for all that, I really feel I know what Thales of Miletus meant.

If you would like to read more about philosophical approaches to non-motherhood you might enjoy this post about finding workability or this post about managing aspirations.

But in the meantime, what about you? How do you respond to the defence for non-parenthood given by Thales of Miletus?

[The beautiful image above is presented with permission from the work of Yataro.]


16 comments on “an interesting reply

  1. rantywoman
    April 3, 2012

    Have you heard of the book “Better Never to Have Been”? Write-up here:

    I agree a lot with this: Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states.

    That’s a meaty Thales of Miletus quote… I have been inspired to post more on my blog.

    • olivia
      April 3, 2012

      I hadn’t heard of the book, but I will look it up now – thank you very much for the recommendation and also for your thoughts. Now I think I’d better go and check out your blog!

  2. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    April 3, 2012

    I’m a Buddhist Atheist, and I started thinking about the teachings on “suffering” in Buddhism while reading the quote from Thales of Miletus. There’s really no English word for the Pali “dukkha” – although it’s usually translated as such, it’s broader than “suffering;” the closest approximation would probably be “discomfort.”
    I do find myself wondering at times…why do people bring children into this world? There is starvation, war, disease, poverty…on and on.
    But then I see a beautiful painting, draw a portrait, drive my car on a sunny day, curl up with my nice warm doggie…and see why people would want to share that with another being.
    It depends on your perspective, really. 🙂


    • olivia
      April 3, 2012

      Thanks for your thoughts, Audrey. I love those discussions of the exact definition of ‘dukkha’. I’ve heard elsewhere that ‘dissatisfaction’ is one of the best translations. Perhaps, as per the second part of your comment, it depends somewhat on the perspective of the translator and their own experience of grasping and pulling away. I don’t speak any Pali, so I am always entirely at the mercy of whichever author/speaker I engaged with last!

    • Tory
      April 4, 2012

      I also call myself (when I have to call myself anything) a Buddhist Atheist, and like a bad-atheist-but-good-Buddhist, I was listening to a dharma talk in the car yesterday that broached the topic of the definition of dukkha… and what I really got from it was, “Life’s not perfect – what are you going to do about it?” Not in a rhetorical sense, like, there’s nothing you CAN do about it… although, there really isn’t in that you can’t eliminate imperfection, suffering, discomfort… But you can change the way you react to things, and you can control many of the ways you are proactive in the ripple effects you send out into the world yourself.

      Relating this to childfreedom, I think you can choose to send out your positive ripples (do I sound like a hippy yet??) by raising children to think the way you do (although this is of course never guaranteed) or you can do it in other ways (without falling into the traps that have been discussed on this blog, like needing to “fill the void” of children with charitable gifts and service). I choose to do it in other ways, one of which is just being content with the things I have and trying to spread a positive attitude around me in my day.

      There are so many painful things in the world, and there is so much beauty. And would we recognize the beauty without the pain to offset it?

      This was a HUGE tangent, I just felt I had to reply; it seemed to serendipitous that I had just listened to that talk yesterday about dukkha and here y’all are discussing it 🙂

      • olivia
        April 4, 2012

        A wonderfully relevant tangent to explore, Tory – thank you so much for such interesting thoughts!

        I very much like your concept of ripples and I think there’s such value in beginning with an aspiration to personal contentment, just for its own sake.

        I’m actually starting to wonder now how much Buddhism there is floating around in the world of non-mothers…

  3. olivia
    April 3, 2012

    Rantywoman has continued this discussion on her blog, here:
    It’s well worth a look.

  4. Megan
    April 3, 2012

    Another extremely thought-provoking post, Olivia. I can relate to what Thales of Miletus said in some ways – for example, I had a pretty bad experience with bullying as a junior high school student, and that is something that I absolutely cringe to think of anyone close to me (or anyone, for that matter) going through. After high school, life improved dramatically and I now genuinely consider every day a blessing – but I still do struggle with some aspects of life as a true introvert in an extroverted world. I think I would have done terribly badly with watching a child go through the inevitable disappointments of life, even the mundane ones like an awkward adolescence. I do think that I am much better able to experience the best that life has to offer specifically because I don’t have children, and am therefore better able to avoid some of the “misery…destitution and poverty” that Thales spoke about…avoiding “old age” would be a good trick too, but even being childfree can’t prevent that : )

    • olivia
      April 3, 2012

      As a fellow introvert, Megan, I hear you loud and clear. I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences with bullying and I couldn’t agree more, that is one of the heartaches I feel I would find almost unbearable to watch someone I had brought into the world go through.

      Avoiding old age would be brilliant, wouldn’t it… But failing that, I think there is some hope that there are enough of us thinking and talking about it that we could work together to find ways of making it less grim.

      Thank you as always for such a thoughtful response 🙂

  5. multifoiled
    April 3, 2012

    Reblogged this on [better conscious inertia].

  6. Banner
    April 3, 2012

    I suffer from debilitating migraines. Mine are not inherited, but at the same time there is no guarantee that what I have won’t be passed on to my own offspring. That is one of the biggest factors in deciding not to have children.
    I am part of several chronic pain/migraine forums and the number of women who have or desperately want children on there is astounding. I would not wish this pain on my worst enemy, much less my own flesh and blood! When I ask them about it, and ask if they feel guilty when their child suffers from their obviously inherited migraines, they usually say they never even thought about that! Talk about selfish.

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      That sounds really tough, Banner, and a compassionate and generous decision on your part.

  7. Amy
    April 4, 2012

    I can’t tell you how often I hear the chorus to The Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in my head. After reading this post, I think that Buddhism is something I should really look into! I hate to sound cynical, or negative…but I often feel disappointed, dissatisfied and frustrated with existing. People talk about chasing your dreams, and living the life you want to live – but the reality is, we all need to work to live (and dreams don’t necessarily pay the bills)!

    Onto the main point – I can definitely relate to Thales of Miletus – why would I want to bring a child into this world, only to eventually experience the same dissatisfaction? Not to mention the obvious negatives/risks: war, hate, bullying, ignorance, corruption, disease, pedophiles, the increasingly degrading state of the environment…the list goes on.

    Again, I really don’t like to sound so negative…there is a lot to be appreciated on this planet….but life is not the pretty rainbows and happy unicorns that we raise our children on.

    The last thing I’d like to add: I’d be hesitant to be so blunt about my general dissatisfaction with a parent…I fear that their solution would be “Have kids – that’s what life is all about!”

  8. olivia
    April 4, 2012

    Amy, if you’re interested in having a look into Buddhist thought (for me its a philosophical thing, not a religious thing) I think Pema Chodron’s work is a great place to start. You can find loads of her free talks on youtube and itunes.

    I think the current cult of positive thinking leaves anyone who is even slightly realistic feeling as though they’re sounding cynical and negative. You just sound clear-sighted to me :).

    I know just what you mean re your final point. I think one of the frustrating things about being a non-mother (I’m finding this especially as I enter the last bit of my thirties) is that any discomfort we express is so very easily reframed as the need for a child!

    I am glad to be meeting people here who understand that life can be quite a bit more complex than that!

    • Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
      April 6, 2012

      I would also recommend reading the Dhammapada. It’s traditionally described as the words of the Buddha himself. The verses also great for use in meditation and introspection.
      I also recommend the Dalai Lama’s book, ‘The Path to Tranquility.’ It is daily quotations from his writings, in a dated format. It’s helped me to develop my meditation practice, and has been the catalyst for change in my general outlook on life.

  9. M
    June 17, 2012

    I couldn’t really find a relevant blog to attach my post to but just read this article in The Weekend Australian (it’s free to sign up for 28 days) and it struck a chord but also seemed like the kind of writing you would like, if you don’t already know her. Have a nice week.

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