Within five minutes of getting married, the first question I was asked went something like this: "So, when are you having kids?"
"I'm not," I responded, with what I hoped passed for polite patience.
"Oh, don't worry, you'll change your mind."
This was the standard response I usually received whenever I told someone I didn't want kids and it had been that way since I was 12. It seemed no matter how much I aged, I still wasn't adult enough to have formed a considered opinion on the subject of having children. If the response wasn't condescending, it was negative: "How could you not want children? You must have had a bad childhood or you must be selfish. Or both." It always struck me as odd that people felt quite justified in commenting so aggressively on what should be a private topic. I've never heard anyone say that I was making a mistake in choosing the career I did; undoubtedly, it would be considered rude. Yet, my decision to abstain from motherhood was suddenly up for public debate.
I can't tell someone I don't want children without heads being turned and incredulous looks being exchanged. For all our hard work in women's liberation, we are still expected to have the dream of the knight on the horse, the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids -- but this time, we're supposed to want the perfect job as well. If we don't want just one of these things, it's assumed we're broken.
What's worse is that it's not just men's expectations: women do it to one another. I recently finished Anna Quindlen's new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, a memoir about aging and the maturity that comes with it. I've always respected Anna Quindlen as an accomplished writer, but even her book smacked of the smug superiority that comes with knowing she was not only a working woman and a wife, but also a mother, the one thing all women should aspire to be. For women in today's world, "having it all" has become synonymous with a successful professional life, a fulfilling partnership and a busy motherhood. Few people recognize the growing crop of young women that only want one or two of these things. Even in Anne-Marie Slaughter's widely read recent piece "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", she doesn't address the possibility that to some women, having it all might mean not having children.
Consequently, there are few assertions more likely to breed distrust of a woman than the one that she doesn't want to procreate. Women are supposed to be nurturing, matronly and soft. If we aren't, we're either labeled cold and heartless or stupidly indecisive. When I told my last therapist I didn't want children, I was immediately challenged with, "Well, we'll have to explore what's causing that issue." My visceral response was indignation: My therapist was an intelligent woman, well-regarded in her field and yet even she couldn't get her mind around the idea that it was possible to not want children and simultaneously be a fully functioning, rational female adult.
I'm also often told that my desire not to be a mother makes me selfish. Selfish how, exactly, I'm still not sure. If selfish means I've put enough thought into it to realize I shouldn't bring a child into this world if I don't want to be a mother, then maybe I am selfish. Perhaps, however, the unselfish thing is to truly reflect on who you are and what you want instead of simply having children because it's expected of you. I'd challenge the assertion that having kids isn't selfish: do we honestly believe that every woman or couple who has a child is doing it for purely altruistic motives? There was a time when we needed to repopulate the Earth, but that time is long gone. Now, in the face of world hunger, dwindling resources and overpopulation, having a child might be the selfish path. Regardless, many women feel a purely emotion urge to bear children and their decision, rightly, is never questioned, never insulted, always respected. The choice not to have children should be worthy of equal respect.
It seems as though there's no statement other women take more defensively than hearing me say I don't want children. Somewhere along the way, we've forgotten that the choices we make for ourselves can simply be that: choices. They don't always carry the weight of influencing a generation or defining who we are. Our mothers and grandmothers fought for our rights and they may not have had the same opportunity for choice as we do. But if "having it all" means something different for me, that doesn't mean I'm undoing, or worse, disrespecting their work.
For all the progress we've made as women, it's ludicrous to assume a woman is broken simply because she chooses to forego the "joys" of motherhood. My childhood wasn't bad and there's nothing wrong with me. Incidentally, what about the "joys" of the parentless? CNN's Katherine Dorsett recently suggested that couples without children are actually happier. Personally, I've always imagined a life filled with sleeping in late, travelling at the drop of a hat and living abroad. This doesn't mean I'm less of a woman or that I'm broken; it simply means I'm sure of what I want and destined for a life without diapers.
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