Nope. Not happening. (photo via Creative Commons)
My time is up. Throughout my twenties and thirties when people asked me if I wanted to have children, I would say “no,” firmly. But I knew I had a “maybe someday” tucked in my back pocket since I still had time to change my mind. Now, my fortieth birthday is right around the corner and since I don’t want to dabble with reproductive technology or adopt, that nebulous “someday” has arrived.
I’ve identified as a feminist for nearly 20 years. I like to think of myself as determined and capable: a woman who loves to make a plan and execute it. So it pains me to admit that definitively closing the door on having my own kids scares me. In theory, I should feel empowered about my choice. But I can’t help but wonder how people will judge my decision.
More U.S. women than ever are choosing not to have children and some feel it is their greatest achievement. Yet, we’re often still openly stigmatized. In the new anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids—which comes out today from Picador press—13 female and three male writers open up about their experiences opting out of child-rearing. Editor Meghan Daum intentionally chose this gender ratio because it was “more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth.” Every contributor chose not to have kids, it didn’t just happen by default, but peoples’ motivations for the choice varied. Many of the female contributors attest that their biggest challenge to being childless is not regret, but having to deal with other peoples’ assumptions that they’re cold-hearted and cruel.
I highly recommend the book. Each essay is unique and thought-provoking. Here are some of my favorite highlights.
In the essay “Babes in the Woods,” Courtney Hodell writes,
“When you talk of not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive, like you’re trying to prove the questionable beauty of a selfish and too-tidy existence. It is hard to come across as anything other than brittle, rigid, controlling, against life itself.”
In “Save Yourself,” Danielle Henderson concurs. She feels that it’s important to honor her decision even in the face of the judgment, scorn and pity of mainstream society:
“As a woman who chooses to be childless, I generally have just one problem: other adults. Living in a culture where women are assumed to prioritize motherhood above all else and where a woman’s personal choices are often considered matters of public discussion means everyone thinks they have the right to discuss my body and my choices, so anyone who is curious about my lack of spawn feels the right to march right on over and ask me about it.”
In her essay, Beyond Motherhood author Jeanne Safer argues that the hardest emotion childless women have to work through is the shame put on them for being selfish, unfeminine, or unable to nurture. While infertile women have their own anguish, their femininity does not get questioned because society assumes their hearts are in the right place. Her choice led her to take a stance that she calls an Affirmative No, which requires “rejecting attitudes and courses of action… that most people treat as gospel” and “saying yes to points of view that may be unpopular but are in fact authentically in line with your own thoughts and feelings.” One can only arrive there through “relentless self-reflection.”
Anna Holmes writes in her essay “Mommy Fearest” that she was afraid of her own competence:
“As it stands now, I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena.”
Given my good-Catholic girl patterns of overachieving, that’d probably happen to me as well. Letting go of my “maybe” and replacing it with an Affirmative No is tempting. To be sure, regardless of whether I become a mom or not, I’d like to figure out how to reject societal expectations and embrace my life without apology. That sounds like a victory I’d like to experience every day.