Not long after I got married, I started getting asked The Question. You know the one: "When do you think you'll have children?" Those of you who have encountered this question in its many forms will note that there is always one element that remains the same, no matter how it's asked. We are always asked "when," not "if."
When I tell people I don't want to have children, I am met with a barrage of responses, most of which range between, "You're young. You'll change your mind," and "Well, it's best not to wait too long. You wouldn't want to run out of time." The problem is, though, that it's not that I don't want children right now. It's that I don't want them at all. However, there seems to be very little room in modern day rhetoric to allow for those kinds of decisions.
When it comes to the question of whether or not to reproduce, we're surrounded by a culture of fear. If we choose not to have children, we fear we will regret that choice. If we want children later, rather than now, we fear waiting too long, exhausting our bodies and bank accounts in fertility treatments, and still ultimately baby-less. It's enough to scare you into having a kid right now, just to eliminate the anxiety.
The bottom line is that when we pressure women to have children, even if we are just innocently asking "when" it will happen, what we are really saying is that women aren't worth much without them. Men aren't asked this question incessantly. In fact, many famous men have had wonderful careers and are looked at as good role models without reproducing: Quentin Tarantino, Patrick Swayze, and Kevin Spacey, just to name a few. When famous women decide not to have children, however, the stories about them contain underlying judgments about them being barren or focusing too much on work and, consequently, an assumption that they will eventually regret not having children. If you don't believe me, see any gossip magazine's stories on Jennifer Aniston, Kim Cattrall, or Renée Zellweger. In an article in the Daily Mail, we see a picture of Kim Cattrall accompanying an article stating, "Bosses believe [childless women] are 'cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way that leads to them being excluded from promotions that would place them in charge of others.'" An article about Jennifer Aniston's childfree status begins with the surprised exclamation: "but she's happy!" -- as if it is totally astonishing for a woman without children to actually enjoy her life. Framing celebrities' choices about families in this way just adds to the culture of fear. We certainly wouldn't want to end up barren and full of regret like them, now would we?
The truth is, no one ever tells us that we might, actually, not regret living child-free. We might not regret being the best aunts ever while having most of our personal time to devote to a great marriage or several great relationships. We might not regret having the time and resources to travel frequently. We can save for retirement in such a way that we won't need adult children to support or take care of us. And with almost one in five women in the U.S. remaining childless, according to the June 2010 Pew Research Center study, we won't be alone.
As for our supposed primal, biological need to reproduce -- that evolutionary urge to make sure humankind doesn't die out -- it may not be as urgent as it was in, say, ancient Mesopotamia. Because only women have the ability to bear children, and can only carry so many at a time, the ultimate responsibility for continuing the species has long been on us. However, with the world's population hitting seven billion people this week, I'd venture to say that the pressure is off. Humankind will not end because you did not give birth. There are, officially, plenty of humans to go around, and it's safe to say that a significant number of them will produce more humans.
In other words, we are off the hook. If you want children, go for it, but do it because you want those children and because you want to be a mother, not because you're afraid of the alternative. Those of us who've taken the other route are doing just fine.
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