I am single, I have no children, and six weeks ago, at the age of 29, I underwent a tubal ligation. It was, undoubtedly, the best decision I have ever made.
The process of the tubal was less about physically preparing myself for the procedure than it was about mentally and emotionally preparing everyone else in my life. I was most surprised by the reactions of close friends and family who had long since been aware of my desire not to be a mother: despite how supportive everyone had been of that choice, the decision to make it medically permanent seemed to raise a flurry of concern and nervousness that I had never seen before. Why, I thought, is it so easy to respect a woman's choice not to have a child as long as she doesn't physically alter her body to support that choice?
To be clear: six weeks ago wasn't the first time I had a conversation with a physician about making permanent the decision I knew I had made ages ago. Being responsible for another human life, including the emotional selflessness, financial expense, and physical exhaustion that came along with it was a concept that only ever repelled me. I tried to have a tubal done right after college, when I was 21, and then again right before I got married, at the age of 25. They were two separate doctors (for what it's worth, and it may be worth nothing, they were both male doctors), both practicing in Manhattan, and neither would perform the procedure. "You're too young," I heard. "You may change your mind, yet," was another favorite.
The sentiments of both of those NYC physicians echoed statements I had heard from everyone else my entire adult life. A few notable additions were "you're selfish for not wanting kids," "what if you meet a man that wants children?" "you don't know what you want," and my personal favorite, "your life will be incomplete without them."
When I was younger, such pompous, presumptuous statements would drive me into the type of immature rage that comes with being young and needing to convince people of your certain beliefs. As I got older, though, I realized that most of the verbal diarrhea I experienced from folks questioning my decision had nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. There's nothing like introducing an idea that runs counter to traditionally-held beliefs to incite discomfort and anger. The responses crossed age, gender and sexual orientation boundaries, as well. Older women, younger men, straight girls, gay guys: everyone had an opinion (or more like, a rebuke) on something that was, let's be honest, none of their damn business.
It's 2016 and the idea that every women is meant to be or wants to be a mother has long since become inaccurate and quite frankly, tired.
Author Meghann Foye recently got skewered in the press for an interview she did broadly comparing maternity leave to a "sabbatical-like break" that allows men and women to "shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn't revolve around their jobs." The flurry of think pieces that came out in the days surrounding that interview railed against Foye for comparing maternity leave to a "break" and included mothers and new mothers angry at the author for "downplaying the real work involved in mothering a new child." Even the pieces defending the idea of a break for workers across the board ultimately catered to an audience of parents and focused on the benefits of parental leave. But were we all really so angry at Foye for introducing the idea that everyone should take some time off to focus on something other than work? Or were we more angry at the idea of a self-assured career woman without children calling attention to the inequitable cultural mores surrounding time off, in general?
No one would seriously argue that maternity leave is equivalent to a vacation or true sabbatical, and neither did Foye. Maternity leave (or paternity leave, for that matter) is a grueling, tiresome marathon of learning to care for a new life. But isn't it also exactly what Foye said: a shift in focus from work to something else? Something, for those new parents, much more important?
More importantly, isn't the decision to have a baby something controlled and decided by the potential parents themselves? In the vast majority of situations, a new baby doesn't just get thrust upon you. It is, generally, a thought-out decision made by an individual or couple. Of course it's hard, but the choice to have a child is just that: a choice. Parental leave in the United States could, undoubtedly, use a significant upgrade. But underlying Foye's interview is simply the point that new parents receive critical time off for a choice they made to have a child. Why should we be so angry when she suggests childfree individuals should also receive critical time off for a different choice?
As for me, while I did not take any significant leave for my operation, I did immensely value the short three days I took off to have my tubes tied and recover. What I valued less, however, was immediately being questioned by several different people about what I would do when (not if!) I changed my mind. Do we still live in such a patriarchal world that we think a woman's greatest achievement can only ever be to be a mother? Or even that a woman's highest desire should be to be a mother?
Maybe we haven't got it all worked out with it comes to a childfree life, parenthood, or anything in between, but it's 2016 and it should be simple enough to work out that at the very baseline of our relations with one another should be respect for each other's choices.