“I know I’ll never have children.” I say it plainly, without emotion.
The responses I receive raise the intensity level of the conversation:
“Of course you will.”
“That’ll change when you meet the right guy. You’ll love him so much you’ll just want to bear his children.”
Or there’s an anecdote shared about a friend, a woman who never wanted to have children, but now has several and is happy.
By then, the look of dismay I cannot hide usually shuts down further discussion. I’ve learned not to argue in these situations. It’s the one feminine thing I can do in the moment: avoid conflict.
As a civilization, we’ve walked on the moon, we’ve cloned animals, and we’ve created technology fearsome in its reach. But still the concept of femininity is equivalent to being a wife, and more importantly, a mother.
I always regret these moments of weakness where I confide my true feelings on being child-free. The secret I do not share: If I did not fear surgery, I would undergo sterilization. Even the word sterilization is subversive, all lab coats and hushed tones. I’ve read accounts by young women who struggle to find a doctor who will even agree to perform the sterilization they ask for. The message they hear is: You will change your mind. Your body will not always be your own (if it ever was). You cannot possibly know what you will want in the future. You must heed the manifest destiny of your biology.
My voice is a whisper compared to the roaring of the dominant narrative: Women can be two things, a mother or a career woman. If I do not become a mother, I must become a top executive. Work must be my surrogate child. Instead of waking up for twilight feedings, I should be awakened to the chime of urgent emails, demanding my acumen and expertise at the expense of my sleep.
If I ignore my calling to be a mother, I must have a high-powered career to fill the void. There is no room for the soft solitude of my vocation, ripped pages and ink stains. I have yet to find acceptance of the third option.
In theory, the idea of “opting-out” should be fraught with less controversy than “opting-in”. Perhaps the decision to become a parent should be met with a list of qualifications and explanations. But there is no parenting license to obtain, no standardized test with a billion dollar industry behind it, no study guides besides “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” (16th Edition), no home visits or reference letters required, no test of moral character and fortitude. Biology and desire are the automatic qualifiers.
Another secret I do not share: I do not feel qualified to be a mother.
As an only child, I spent little time around other children, if I had any say in it. Other children were unpredictable. They didn’t conform to social norms. They didn’t behave with grace or decorum. They weren’t satisfied with reading or drawing quietly in the corner, two of my favorite activities.
Other children were demanding, impatient, curious to the point of rude. I couldn’t understand their motivations, their raison d’être. My childhood was spent restless with the lack of freedom allowed me. Yet the prospect of freedom was too ferocious for me. I had to be coaxed into extracurricular activities and forced to put down my pencil.
My standards for myself are impossible to meet. I am the stereotypical only-child perfectionist, who destroyed my own creations I deemed less than perfect and feared failure worse than never trying. I could not choose to be a parent unless I was fundamentally positive that I could succeed.
If a child does not meet your expectations, what then? If I do not meet my own expectations, will I destroy myself? And what to say of the child’s own expectations for a parent?
Ideal motherhood is selfless – the trope in popular entertainment of the mother who goes hungry or feeds her child first, gives up her own desires for those of her children, suffers in silence. My whole life I have been called selfish, by such a wide range of people I have grown to believe it.
I do not think I could sacrifice parts of myself, my happiness, my essence for another. As Jennifer Aniston wrote in her recent Huffington Post essay, “We are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child.”
I can not rely on a child to make me complete, to make me more than the sum of my parts. I cannot love another more than I love myself. The selfish card is the first card I’ll play when I deal my hand.
A child is not an appeasement; he or she is not a compromise or an argument which ends in “giving in”. The hypothetical thought of my parenting being questioned at each turn makes me weary.
“When are you going to have another one?”
“Don’t you think he’ll be lonely if you only have one?”
“You really need to give him a little brother or sister.”
The last statement is unabashedly flippant, as if a new life is the same as a stuffed toy or a board game, a reward for existence. It seems the choice to have just one child is worse than choosing to eschew parenthood entirely.
When I was 3 years old, my mother picked me up from Toddler Time and asked how my day was. My response: “It was really rough.”
While I’ll never remember exactly what trials and tribulations I faced that day, nothing exhausted me more than the very point of attending Toddler Time: the forced interaction with other children.
The last secret I do not share: I can only imagine being a mother would leave me feeling the same way.