The Hidden Consequences:
Are Childfree Heathens Wrong?
©2004 Ingeborg S. Nordén
In several online discussions with a Heathen acquaintance of mine, heated arguments have erupted over issues related to family life and childbearing: I’ll readily admit that much of our disagreement comes from being at opposite ends of the Folkish/non-Folkish spectrum, though personal experience has shaped it as well. She is an able-bodied woman who already has one daughter and is considering a career in the arts; I am a paraplegic who would find sex, homemaking, childbirth, and child care extremely difficult due to several health problems.
Judging by those details, an outsider might conclude that I am unable to see past my own circumstances--that I somehow expect all Heathens to make similar decisions to mine when the question of having children arises. However, nothing could be further from the truth: the fact that I personally do not want to raise a family does not mean that I look down on most parents as bad or misguided people. I have several good friends (Heathen and non-Heathen, online and off) who happen to have children; neither the children themselves, nor any discussions of the childfree question, have inspired any hard feelings between us. What I do oppose, however, is the idea that parenthood should be mandatory in the Heathen community--that reproduction is somehow a divine imperative in our religion, to be valued and honored for its own sake; and that those who decide not to reproduce are somehow betraying the gods and Heathen society.
Why do some Heathens feel this strongly about an alleged divine mandate to breed? Neither the theological nor the social arguments advanced in favor of this belief hold water, in my opinion:
1. "Our ancestors had large families, and Heathens should follow in their footsteps." Even those who consider ancestors a central part of the religion, should realize that honoring them does not have to involve imitating every aspect of early Germanic culture blindly. In ancient times, people needed many children to help with work on the farmstead or in the family business--not to mention replacing the ones who died early. Few of us own farms or run businesses of our own any more; even those who do often need to comply with child-labor laws, or hire outside help to run larger operations than a single family could handle. Expecting a whole extended family to live in the same region, or to share the same skills and interests, becomes unreasonable after a certain point: even the Norsemen sent children off for fostering when they showed talent for a skill that relatives couldn't or wouldn't teach.
As for infant mortality, most people of Germanic descent no longer have problems with their children surviving to adult age. Because of this, the need to replace a dead son or daughter seldom arises as much as it did a millennium ago.
Furthermore, overpopulation is a very real concern both locally and globally. On a larger scale, the earth does not care what nationality a newborn child might be or what religion its parents might follow: the baby is just another organism competing for resources, and the strain on those resources is already heavy. Even within one region, overcrowding and limited resources can create hardships for families. A couple who can’t find a public school close to home, or who learns that the nearest pediatrician is overbooked and won’t take new patients, would certainly understand that situation; they might not be able to afford moving, either. When two equally legitimate Heathen values conflict--honoring family and caring for the land--then the decision to favor one choice over the other should be a matter of personal conscience.
2. "Parenthood is sacred." Perhaps it is, but not all sacred acts entail a religion-wide obligation. The Germanic peoples also considered agriculture, warrior life, and some forms of magical practice sacred: does this mean that any Heathen who is physically able to involve himself with those things must do so, or be condemned as a traitor to the gods? Most of us would consider that attitude absurd if any pursuit other than child-rearing is involved; to declare parenthood mandatory because of its sacredness is to invoke an unfair double standard.
Just like other vocations considered holy in ancient times, parenthood is clearly not right for everybody: some people lack the means to support a child (even when working two jobs for very low pay). Some feel so uncomfortable around young children, that expecting them to raise their own could lead to neglect or abuse. Some might tolerate other people's children and be willing to teach or care for them temporarily; non-parents of that kind can hardly be accused of hateful or selfish motives. Neither could people who already have the burden of caring for a dependent adult in the family--an aging and/or disabled relative who needs constant attention. (I personally know of one Heathen who stays at home to care for a non-Heathen grandparent; should he be accused of hating children or dishonoring his kin? Hardly!)
3. "You can't know our ancestors/the gods properly until you've raised a family like them." Direct imitation of deities, heroes and ancestors may help some people to live their religion; however, that approach may not work well for everyone. Many Heathens find it more meaningful to interpret lore in terms of their own time, place, and culture. To do otherwise would imply that the gods are relevant only in a tribal, agrarian warrior society--that they have no valid place anywhere else.
I concede that even for radically modern Heathens, using the lore as a guideline for proper behavior is important up to a point. The trouble is that few people make similar lore-based claims about any decision other than parenthood: Using a similar argument, only people with military or occult experience could know Odin reasonably well; only a disabled veteran, judge, or police officer could thoroughly understand Tyr. Yet I have known housewives devoted to Tyr; landlubbers dedicated to Njord; and physically unimpressive, even-tempered people who were attracted to Thor's forthright common sense. If deities and followers can be less-than-exact matches in other areas of life, then why should someone need to be a parent in order to feel more spiritual?
4. "You're not a real man/woman until you've had children." Although being able to reproduce marks biological maturity, raising a child ethically and responsibly requires other kinds of maturity as well. Most of us have probably read about parents who abandon or neglect babies, who refuse to pay child support, or who spoil a child and then complain that they can't understand his misbehavior. (Some of us might have had those problems with our own parents, as sad as that is!) Even worse, attitudes like that tend to be reinforced and passed on in families: theologically speaking, bad parenting can create bad luck and a difficult Wyrd for the line several generations later. Is it honest to call such people "real" men or women? Biologically, perhaps the definition fits; but socially and spiritually, it does not fit at all.
Furthermore, not every respected character in our lore is a parent (whether divine or human): think of the heroic warriors who lamented being the last of their line, or the women who refused a marriage proposal after their suitors insulted them publicly. If the lore does not question the manhood or womanhood of those characters, why should we question it when a modern Heathen's achievements don't involve raising children?
5. "Our people need babies; Heathenry cannot be sustained by converts alone." Even a need for more "homegrown" Heathens should not obligate every follower of the gods to produce children: those who are both able and willing to raise families responsibly, make up for those who are not. (I've corresponded with one godhi in France who has had fourteen children by a series of wives, to give the ultimate example!) Furthermore, mandatory parenthood for Heathens could actually produce an unintended backlash against the religion. A child who grew up hearing that he was born only because the gods expected the family line to continue, might well feel unwanted and blame his parents' beliefs for the ill-treatment he gets at home; if the family pressures him to raise another generation the same way, both he and any child he might have are likely to leave Heathenry instead of preserving it.
Besides the possibility of an anti-Heathen backlash in the family, the "our people need babies" argument contradicts the idea of parenthood as sacred. Turning human reproduction into a numbers race between faiths or nationalities might not be racist, strictly speaking; but it is grossly biased, irresponsible and unethical. If exposing a child to a specific culture or belief system is vital to someone--let him adopt an existing baby, or teach others' children about Heathenry if their family shows genuine interest. Those solutions, at least, show respect for both families and the land without either being compromised. Even the ancient Germanic people recognized foster children as legitimate, full members of a family; continuing the religion and values, rather than a specific bloodline, should be enough for at least some Heathens who want to keep their faith alive.
6. "Childfree people are bitter, selfish, materialistic child-haters." This argument goes beyond strictly Heathen issues, true; but making sweeping generalizations about all people who decide not to have children is neither honest nor fair. Bitter and kind people, selfish and altruistic ones, greedy and frugal ones exist on both sides of the child-rearing divide: people deserve to be judged case by case, rather than lumped into either a good or a bad stereotype. Not every mother can raise her family to become a Heathen equivalent of the Waltons (from the TV series of that name); not every non-mother is a ruthless career fanatic who spends money frivolously or disrespects those who do have children. Claiming otherwise is like claiming that all men are loud-mouthed boors obsessed with sex, sports and power tools; some may well fit that description, but the rest will try their hardest to prove the stereotype wrong.
Now that I've debunked most of the common arguments against childfree people in the Heathen community, it should be clear that imposing mandatory parenthood is neither realistic nor reasonable. Those who do hold the beliefs above should at least be aware of the logical consequences of those beliefs and respect those who disagree.