from the archives: on being childfree

Several wmtc readers will be interested in the cover story of the current issue of Maclean's: "No Kids, No Grief - A new manifesto argues that parenting is bad for your career, your marriage, your bank book and your love life".

The story, fortunately, is not as snark-laden as the title. It's a round-up of some books that are out and what Maclean's writer Anne Kingston calls "a tiny but growing minority challenging the final frontier of reproductive freedom: the right to say no to children without being labelled social misfits or selfish for something they don't want."

It's frustrating and a bit sad to me that, as the first decade of the 21st Century nears its end, adults who are childfree by choice are still thought to be challenging anything - still explaining themselves, still defending their choices.

As I near my own half-century mark, I'm amazed that some people think that there is anything - any life choice - that is appropriate for everyone. Aren't we each unique human beings? How could such an important life decision be one-size-fits-all?

But I've also learned that women will be criticized for their reproductive decisions no matter what they do - usually by other women. Having children too young, having children too old - having too many children, having only one child - having several children very close together in age, having children widely separated in age. And of course, not having any children at all. I have heard women criticized for every one of these choices, not once, but dozens of times. I'm sure men are sometimes criticized for reproductive choices, too, but I'd bet this year's tuition money that the comments directed at men are a teaspoon to the ocean of judgements directed at women.

I've never blogged about being childfree, because it's simply not an issue in my life. The decision not to have children is probably the best decision I've ever made, and the one I always have been most sure of.

Allan and I knew - both separately and together - that we didn't want to be parents. (Not of humans, anyway. Being a dog-parent is the perfect amount of parenting for me.) We've been fortunate to meet friends who are also happily child free. And, thankfully, I finally have aged out of that burning question: Why don't you have kids? It's the best part of getting older. No one asks anymore.

But people used to ask, and plenty. If blogs had existed in the 1980s and early 90s, I would have blogged about it all the time. After seeing the Maclean's story, I dug up an essay I wrote back then, probably in 1992 or 1993. If you're childfree, it might ring a bell.

The essay was never published, so it's a bit rough, but I think it holds up. And if you want to see the kind of judgements that are laid on childfree adults all the time, just look at the comments at that Maclean's story.
Mother (Not) To Be

At a friend's dinner party, my partner and I sat across the table from a couple expecting their first baby. As they talked about Lamaze classes and why they decided on a midwife, we struggled to appear interested. Eventually, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious for dominating the conversation, the woman asked me, "Do you two ever talk about having children?"

I didn't think this was an appropriate question from someone who I had known less than an hour, and I made light of it. "Yes, but we talk about not having children!"

"Are you serious?" she asked, incredulous. "You don't want kids?"

When I confirmed that was indeed the case, she said, "I never wanted children before, but now. . ." She put down her fork and squeezed her husband's arm. "Wanting a child came out of my love for Bill. When you really love someone, you want to have their baby." I still bristle when I think of her words. And I'm still gratified that, for once, the clever comeback arrived on my tongue at the right moment, and not on the way home. "Oh really," I said casually, "then what do lesbians do?"

My male partner and I do not want children. Our reasons are varied and complex, simple and emotional, and very clear to both of us. For many years, I kept my preference for remaining childless to myself, intuitively sensing other people's negative reactions. Now than I am more candid, those reactions have been very revealing.

While I don't open conversations with proclamations about my reproductive decisions, when you're over thirty and have been living with a man for many years, the subject does come up. Female casual acquaintances and virtual strangers feel free to ask me why I don"t have children yet. When I explain that it's not a matter of "yet," I open myself up to a polite barrage of criticism and disapproval. Over and over, I hear the same tired refrains.

"You'll see, when you're older, your biological clock will start ticking, you'll start to feel maternal. . ." I refuse to believe that biology is destiny. While I am angry that this is the case for millions of women the world over, I am fortunate that my circumstances afford me a little choice. And I've had "maternal' feelings all my life – if one insists on defining the desire to care for others as maternal.

"I didn't want children either, when I was your age, but you'll feel different when you're older." The woman who says this combines an arrogant assumption – that her own experience is universal – with the judgement that I am not mature enough to make my own decision. I thought when I turned thirty I would finally stop hearing this old cliche. As medical technology continues to stretch the age limits of fertility, I wonder when I will finally be deemed "old enough."

"What a shame – you would make such a good mother! The world needs people like you to be parents!" I suppose this is intended as a compliment. I must assume that whatever qualities of mine inspire this comment also mean I can be a good partner, a good sister, a good daughter or friend. Like many people, I think I would be good at many things. I once thought of becoming a lawyer, but I decided I'd rather be a writer, and sometimes a teacher. No one ever laments, "But you would have made such a good attorney!"

"But you'll never know what it's like to have a baby grow inside you, to look at a child and know she is biologically related to you." And perhaps this woman will never know what it's like to write a book, or climb a mountain, or perform brain surgery, or any one of the myriad things a woman might do in her lifetime. No one can experience everything. Last time I heard this remark, I wondered if it would be rude to say, "I'll never know what it's like to pay for day care, either."
Will I ever see a baby and feel wistful? Perhaps. Our friends who are parents frequently envy our freedom. It doesn't mean they wish they never had children.

"What does Allan have to say about all this?" This is not a neutral "How does Allan feel?"; the question is laced with a touch of alarm, even disgust. The speaker assumes that I arrived at this decision alone, then sprung it on my unsuspecting mate, who could not possibly share my unnatural desire. Now I have deceived him in the most treacherous way: my man has just learned that I am not a Real Woman.

These are all actual quotes, and I have heard each several times. All the speakers could be considered my peers – college-educated women between 30 and 50 years of age. They all had children, or are planning to, at a later age than their mothers did. Learning of my intentions to not have children, they were amazed, appalled, or simply mystified.

I frequently compare the attitudes of my contemporaries with those of my female students. Ranging in age from 16 to 24, my students did not finish high school and are now studying for their high-school equivalency exam. Almost all had children when they were teenagers.

The question is inevitable: "Miss Laura, do you have kids?" And then, "But are you going to? Do you want to?" Upon hearing the answer, the young woman is invariably shocked. I have grown accustomed to students openly marveling at me – a woman who, by their standards, is nearly old enough to be a grandparent, but has not had even one child. At 23, I was single, rootless, cultivating my career and my friendships. My twenty-three-year-old students often have two children, the oldest one in first grade.

Listening to the few young women in my classes who do not have children illuminates why the majority do. "I'm not ready for kids," says Tamika. "There's so much I want to do first." "I'm going to college," declares Kesha. "It'll be much easier if I don't have children to worry about." Tamika and Kesha have stretched beyond their insular world enough to discover that women can do things besides have children – that we can be happy, at least temporarily, without being mothers.

Natasha's words are especially telling: "I got nothing to prove." When asked to elaborate, she explains, "Guys will kill each other trying to prove they're men. Girls have babies."

These women encounter very few alternatives to having children at a young age; almost everyone they know did it. Having children is what you do. Having babies is part of growing up female. Indeed, it's what makes you female.

On the surface, this attitude is foreign to my peers. Certainly, many of us had sex at a young age, but we did our level best to avoid pregnancy, and those who were unsuccessful never considered having a baby. As girls and young women, we knew we had exciting, interesting futures ahead of us, and having a baby wasn't part of the plan. We didn't need babies to fill our lives or to prove ourselves.

Yet, as more mature women, these same people have warned me against loneliness, against missing the greatest experience of my life. They have implied motherhood was my social obligation. They have questioned my commitment to my partner. They have ominously cautioned me about the ceaseless ticking of Time. They have challenged my femininity.

For some women, becoming a mother at 16 or 17 is the norm. For others, motherhood may be delayed, meticulously planned, and may include only one child – but not omitted altogether. Across differences of race, class, income and education, this concept adheres: women are supposed to be mothers.

I have much in common with my female students, despite our different backgrounds and cultures. In this respect, however, my students and my peers are more alike, and I am a foreigner in both worlds. For most women, Womanhood is still inextricably linked to Motherhood. A woman who is childless by choice is a radical outsider.

To be fair, I have encountered a few individuals who did not respond negatively to my decision. I'll never forget the relief I felt when my sister, the wonderful mother of two wonderful children, said without hesitation, "I can understand that." And once in a while I meet a woman who says, "Me neither." And then: relieved laughter as our feelings are happily and unexpectedly revealed. "Do people act like you're crazy?" I ask her. She touches my arm and says, sarcastically, knowingly, "'You'll see, when you're older, you'll change your mind.'"

Nice to get this out there after 15 years.

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