Please note that I'm not saying people who want kids are more selfish than those of us who don't. I'm also limiting this discussion to the reasons people want to have kids before they actually have them. I realize that raising children requires endless sacrifice (if you're doing it well). I'm talking solely about the motivations for wanting children in the first place.
Why do people want to have children? My friends who haven't had kids, but want them, are usually unable to answer this. I'm startled by how little people think about their reasons for wanting children. It seems they don't think about it at all; they just know they want them. But when pressed, people say things like:
1. I want the experience of being a parent.
2. I have so much to teach a child and I'll learn so much from them.
3. You're not fully grown up until you have your own kids.
4. I know my partner and I will be great parents.
5. I've always wanted a family.
These aren't altruistic reasons. Reasons 1, 3 and 5 are about satisfying your own desires and making sure you get certain life experiences. Reason 2 is neutral, but I wonder about people who want children because of the ways they themselves will learn and grow. You're going to create a human being to serve as a living workbook for your benefit? And reason 4 sounds a bit egotistical, too. Does this person want to show the world how parenting should be done? Do they think some people are more deserving of children than others? What makes them think they're better?
These are just the reasons people are most likely to say out loud. There's also wanting children to take care of you in your old age, wanting the respect of others for being a good parent and wanting children to dispel your loneliness, either in or out of marriage. From talking to friends who've been raising children for the past 10 to 25 years, I know less-spoken reasons are peer pressure, family pressure, spouse pressure, not fully realizing there's an option to not have kids, and being afraid of running out of time (to be able to biologically carry a pregnancy to term). None of these are good reasons to have a child either. Having a baby to ease your guilt or lessen the feeling of being the odd person out fits my definition of self-serving. And do I need to mention the selfishness of creating your own biological child when the world has so many abandoned children who desperately need homes?
Then there's a reason I'm sure no one will ever cop to. One of the subjects of a recent This American Life episode voiced it (that's National Public Radio's weekly show that explores topics by featuring real life stories on that topic). Two high school girls were given robotic dolls that acted like babies, so they could get a glimpse of motherhood. Using technology that made each doll specifically respond its "mother," the system taught each girl what it was like to have a baby wake you repeatedly at night, the frustration of trying to figure out what a baby wants and the critical need to handle babies in specific ways (such as supporting the head). The girls couldn't leave their dolls or hand them off to someone else because they wore bracelets that would send a signal if they did. They were stuck with their ersatz children for a full week.
By the end of the week, the girl who had dreamed of being a mother by age 21 had changed her mind. She decided to push children back to some later point in her life. The other one hadn't been sure how she felt about motherhood before the experiment, but at the end she decided she'd love to have kids and was looking forward to it:
Because I kind of like the feeling of having a baby. For some reason, I guess the idea that someone or something needs you and only you makes you feel all important. [CHUCKLES] It was awful, but at the same time, I was-- I kind of liked it. I'd never really thought that I would want to have a kid younger, but maybe I would. [from the transcript of the show]
There it is, and I don't think this is uncommon. People like to feel needed, especially when it makes them feel irreplaceable. There's a lot of appeal to having a little creature that loves you and only you in this special way. It's an ego boost. It makes you feel important. It makes you feel loveable.
So when Pope Francis, or whoever, makes those well-worn statements about how those of us who choose not to have kids are selfish, I want to say, "Okay, maybe I am selfish for not having kids. But let's examine the motivations behind couples who decide to start a family. Are they completely selfless and altruistic? I think not." I'm not saying people who want children are more selfish than those of us who don't. I'm saying that if we size this up fairly, we come to the conclusion that we're all the same amount of selfish. People take action for their own personal gain. That's just human nature. So let's state the full truth: we are all selfish in our own ways. Having kids is selfish and not having kids is selfish. Likewise, there are selfless reasons to want kids and selfless reasons to not want kids (not genetically passing on disease, leaving more resources for the children of others, etc.). No one's perfect. Except maybe for the Pope, I guess.