Choosing Career Over Children

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

“I used to sit outside on the front doorstep while your father screamed in his crib,” my grandmother told me. “Every day I sat out there, or I sat on the couch, covering my ears and eating chocolates. Later, when he stopped crying or I could stand it, I would go inside and throw everything up. I never wanted to be a mother. I didn’t even want to marry your grandfather, but my family wanted me to because he had money. I didn’t think I had a choice.”

I was twenty years old, and coming out of a post-operative morphine stupor to the sound of my grandmother’s voice. I had just had my right ovary removed. A grapefruit-sized cyst had taken over, twisted and cut the circulation off. The ovary was dead. Not knowing that I was the keeper of family memory, my grandmother poured her heart out thinking I would forget everything the next day.

It would be convenient to say that this moment with my grandmother was the moment I decided not to have children. It would be convenient to say that I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that between my broken reproduction system and my dubious parenting lineage, I never wanted to feel the kind of regret that makes you confess you were a lousy parent at your granddaughter’s bedside. It would be more than a decade before I put all the pieces together. It was a conversation that was a little hard to absorb.

Eighteen years later, my husband and I were closing a loan to refinance our house. We took our seats across the table from a very nice woman who walked us through the gazillion documents we had to sign. The title officer—a woman about my age—began, as most people do, by exchanging pleasantries:

“How long have you been married?”
“Eight years,” we answered in unison.
“No,” we replied, and I prepared myself for the assumption I knew she was going to make. She obliged:
“No kids yet, right?”
“No, no kids ever.”

This statement is nearly always greeted with silence, a puzzled look, then questions. Bank tellers, cab drivers, house painters, neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues always feel they have the right to ask “why.” Deciding whether to have kids or not is a deeply personal process. It wasn’t an easy decision for us to land on. We thought for years about how beautiful our own would be—a mixture of Chinese, Mexican, German and Jewish. We pictured ourselves taking turns with the feedings, carpooling for school and music lessons. I could hear the laughter of children running away from my husband as he pretended to be a monster. I could feel the delicious chaos of the large family that I grew up in. It didn’t matter to us whether we had our own or adopted—we were in love with the idea. But one day, before we were even engaged, Steve said something about the point of marriage being to have kids. That stopped me short. I didn’t want someone to make a lifetime commitment to me just for my ability to be a mother. I wanted to be wanted for me. “If you can’t see us together without kids,” I found myself saying to him, “then I’m not sure we have a strong enough relationship to begin a family at all.” I gave him some time to think while I cried my eyes out, wondering if he would leave me for someone who was more certain about children. But he didn’t. We got married less than a year later.

After the honeymoon, after settling into our first home and into couplehood, we talked about starting a family. We did a hard examination of lost vacations, lost time together, changing our careers to accommodate parenthood, the lost space to continue building our relationship, and a limited ability to improve ourselves. After years of discussion we opted to keep it simple.

The pressure to have children is so pervasive that having them just feels like something you do—you’re born, you grow up, you get married, you have kids, your kids have kids, you have lots of reunions, and eventually you die. Often, we act first and think later. I’ve heard it so many times, “In my day, we didn’t think about it. We just had them, and they’re there, so you love them,” said a colleague who is a grandmother. “Just do it. That’s what I told my daughter,” she continued. “Find your husband, lie down and get busy. You’ll manage somehow. Everybody does.”
In the spring of 2002, Sylvia Hewlett was on every talk show and evening news magazine touting the results of her study showing that women like me—late 30s, career-oriented, no children—were miserable, with an unbearable yearning for what we couldn’t have. We had waited too long, assuming we would be able to have children after the career was settled, only to be hit with the inescapable fact that our eggs were old, our uteruses weren’t so friendly to fetuses anymore, we would go broke trying to get pregnant, and in the end suffer total disappointment. She sent a wave of panic through an entire generation of women, that, I fear, is pushing them into having kids before they know they are ready—the way my grandmother had kids because she thought she was supposed to. Yes, even highly educated women do this.

Sylvia Hewlett wasn’t the first woman I heard deliver the warning about waiting too long to have children. When I interviewed for a job at thirty, the female CEO put the pressure on. A wise and wonderful role model who is generous with relationship advice, she said to me, “I hear you’re getting married soon. I just want you to know that if you want to start a family right away, don’t worry about it. We can accommodate anything. And don’t wait too long because while the feminists say it’s ok to wait, what they don’t tell you is that the eggs don’t age well.”

Are we supposed to have kids just because we can? Gehlek Rimpoche, a lama in his 60s who grew up in, as he calls it, “the good old Shangri-La Tibet” (you can’t get more old-fashioned than that), said to me once, “It is not your God-given duty to bring children into the world just because you are a woman. You have a choice.” A monk or a nun isn’t, I don’t think, judged for their decision not to have children. I don’t choose to live a celibate life, but I do choose to try to commit almost as deeply to how I’m living the life I now lead. I’m trying to become a wiser and kinder person, and I’m trying to continue to publish books that people tell me are helping them. I might turn up nothing on my adventure, leaving my husband childless and my parents without grandchildren. On the other hand, there are worse things to regret—like having children that grow up feeling like hell because mom is absorbed in her career and they’re feeling neglected. Is there something inherently wrong with choosing career over children? Men make that choice all the time. You can see it in the proportion of those that stay at home.

The day we closed the re-fi on our house, I told the title officer that I was writing a piece on the decision not to have kids. She stopped toeing the party line and opened up. “Good for you,” she said. “Don’t do it. If I had it to do over again, I would not have them. I would have made very different decisions for myself if I hadn’t had children. I did it because I thought I was supposed to. The only role model I had was my mother. She got married young and had kids, so did my grandmother and every other woman around me. There’s no question that my life has been drastically limited, and I’m not happy about it. I couldn’t complete my education, and I’m not able to get the kind of work I think I would find fulfilling. And when I’m not happy in my life I have a hard time being a good mother to my kids.” She wasn’t the only person to tell me this. Since I started writing this piece, several parents—women and men—have whispered to us that they were jealous of the decision we made. Just fyi, a study for a book called He Works, She Works, by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers found that the most satisfied people were working mothers.

If I hadn’t had surgery on my ovaries twice, if my plumbing hadn’t been interfered with, if my grandmother hadn’t told me the truth about her life as a mother, I might now be speaking to you as a harried mother, or maybe I wouldn’t be writing at all because I might have put my career, which has me commuting between San Francisco and New York, aside.

Many younger women have confided to me recently that they don’t want children. And many don’t feel they can resist the pressure to have them. I don’t blame them. There’s a lot at stake. When a thirty-year-old woman I know told her fiancé that she didn’t want kids, he moved out. She wanted to pursue martial arts and didn’t feel she could do that to the degree she knew was necessary to succeed and be a good mother at the same time. She knew she was risking losing the man she loved, but she chose to pursue the dream that would make her happy instead of the one that would make everyone else but her happy.

And so I was disturbed by the article in today’s New York Times (September 20, 2005), “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” and it wasn’t the first time. I’ve been seeing articles in Barnard Magazine for years by young women who want to conquer the world until they have kids. And that’s great, except that I simply don’t believe that for most of these young women any of this is a conscious choice. According to Louann Brizendine, MD, the psychiatrist who founded UCSF’s Mood and Hormone Clinic, at college age, the brain’s reality is about having children. There are circuits in place, forged in utero and boosted by estrogen, that compel this choice. Peter Salovey, dean of Yale College is quoted in the article saying, “What does concern me, is that so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn’t constructed along traditional gender roles.” What I’ve learned from Dr. Brizendine is that it takes a tremendous amount of awareness to buck both biology and society. I applaud those who decide to have children. I only wish for them that it’s a real decision. I don’t want to see anyone else end up like my grandmother.