I am the youngest of my siblings: a brother 3 years older than me, and two sisters, 11 and 13 years older. I didn’t grow up with babies. While I’m sure I had the standard baby dolls when I was very little, the only dolls I remember are the ones that had boobs. The ones that were more or less adult, independent. They had cousins, like me, but no children. I wanted to be Marlo Thomas, That Girl, when I grew up.
A couple of weeks ago, I read an essay in the Sunday NY Times on choosing to not have children. “Childless by Choice” is a rather sad essay by Michelle Huneven about she came to be childless. She had one stark opportunity for motherhood when she was young and single and broke. I recognized that part of her story because I too once had an opportunity when I was young and single and broke. Like Huneven, I passed it up.
And like Huneven, I followed with a “series of time-consuming, life-swallowing love affairs” mixed with a fair amount of drinking (and also, in my case, drugs). We both grew up in families that were short on love and affection, although Huneven’s family far overshadows mine in terms of dysfunction. As she put it: “I didn’t trust myself not to recreate the turbulent family I’d known.” And there our stories begin to diverge. For me, it was more the fear of recreating the turbulent me that I’d known.
When I was younger, I didn’t like myself much, and I didn’t trust myself. I had flashes of violent anger that frightened me. For a long time I was convinced I was mentally ill and just got from one day to the next by a sheer will to live. So the thought of a mini-me running around was horrifying. But when people talked to me about having children, I would just joke that I was too selfish. I didn’t want to go shopping for anyone but myself.
I would also joke that God neglected to wind up my biological clock. I can honestly recall only two episodes in my whole 57 years when I even semi-seriously considered having children. Once when I was 14 and with my first steady boyfriend and we were both saying we wanted to have our own kids as well as adopt a bunch. Five minutes after that conversation, I remember thinking to myself how crazy that was. At the time I didn’t even like kids!
The second time was after I had read an essay by Louise Erdrich in Harper’s (May 1993). She was writing about women’s work, work that includes having children: “With each pregnancy, I have been thrown into a joy of the body that is religious, that seizes me so thoroughly that the life of the imagination sometimes seems a spare place.” Erdrich made it sound so soft and fuzzy and warm, an experience that every woman should have. And I exclaimed to my husband that perhaps I had made a mistake, for it was too late now.
Several years before that essay, and a year before I married my husband, I had my “tubes tied.” Tubal ligation to be technical. I was about 30 when my body started spiraling out of control: every month I was beset by heavy periods, knee-buckling cramps, and painful bloating. I had been on the Pill for 10 years without incident. My husband-then-boyfriend wanted me off the Pill, concerned that long-term use might lead to cancer. But what to do? Neither of us wanted children, at least not right then. He seemed more uncertain. My indifference to children in general and antipathy to being pregnant made my decision easy: I would be sterilized. That way, if we broke up, he could still have a family.
So there my story again diverges from Huneven. She seemed to simply avoid chances to settled down and raise a family “until it was biologically impossible” for her to have children. She did marry (around age 50) and she has enjoyed sobriety for 27 years, but she had to get to that point–the sobriety and the biological impossibility–before she could think that she would be “somewhat willing to be a parent.” I took a stand relatively early (31 to be exact). And aside from my brief infatuation with Erdrich’s rendition of pregnancy and motherhood, I’ve never regretted it.
But I know I belong to a club with very few members. Roughly 80% of women in the US have a child by age 40. The remaining 20% no doubt includes women who want to have children but cannot. An article in the LA Times reports, “The percentage of married women ages 40 to 44 who had no biological children and no other kids in the household, such as adopted children or stepkids, reached 6% in the period from 2006 to 2010.” It is an increase, but it’s still small enough to make me feel like an overlooked minority.
Whenever I meet someone new, whether at work or a social event, I’m inevitably asked, “Do you have children?” I inevitably answer, “I have cats.” And I smile. Often the questioner smiles along with me, but sometimes she also squirms a bit. I want to reassure her that I’m childless by choice but quickly realize that would make things more awkward. I am an uncommon phenomenon.
Even when I lived in San Francisco, after my husband and I married and were joyfully spreading the news, people assumed children were in our future. When my husband told one of his coworkers that we were not going to have children, the coworker retorted, “What are you going to do? Just sit around and stroke each other’s egos?” Both of us wondered, what the hell is wrong with that?
And for the past 25+ years of married life, we have been happily stroking each other’s egos, with cats the only demands on our time and resources. I make no apologies. But after all these years, I still feel a bit like a freak. If I had had a biological desire to have children but chose not to say, for environmental reasons (e.g., overpopulation), that would be one thing. If I had had that desire but was infertile, that would be something else. But there’s been no desire. Nada. Nil. I can’t claim some lofty rationalization. All I can say is “Meh, the biological clock never got wound up.”
A bit of irony comes with this story: In early 2001, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. This cancer is precipitated by an overabundance of estrogen, an overabundance usually caused by early menstruation (I was 9 when I had my first period), no completed pregnancy (there we go with the whole not-having-children thing), and obesity (I was not obese, but I was overweight). Fortunately, it was Stage 1 and resolved through a total abdominal hysterectomy. I’ve never needed any other treatment, and I’m considered “cancer-free.” But it was a slap in the face, to be brought down by that kind of cancer, even when I had purposely gone off the Pill to avoid it, and when I had purposely (and literally) cut off any chance of ever getting pregnant.
I’ve gotten over it, though. It wasn’t long before the happy realization that I no longer had to plan my life around my periods over-rode any Twilight Zone-ques feeling of Karma. I’ve never identified with my uterus except to resent it’s monthly bloodly and painful intrusions. Having cancer was scary, but having children for the sake of avoiding cancer would have been stupid. And, no doubt, if I had, that mini-me would still be likely to be sending her therapy bills to me.
And all is not lost. As the percentage of women who choose not to have children grows, we might also see an increase in the percentage of people who understand: https://motherhoodtherealdeal.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/what-youre-not-going-to-have-children-a-mother-finally-understands-why/.
It’s a start.
Marie A Bailey
Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.