I have known that I didn’t want to have kids for a long time. Like, a long time. My determination to eternally keep my womb as empty and barren as the surface of the moon predates the birth of both of Britney’s babies, the premiere of Gilmore Girls, and the entire existence of nearly-adult human being Elle Fanning.
But I never felt like not wanting kids made up the core of my identity or anything — it was just a thing, like enjoying The X-Files or having an strong aversion to mayonnaise; a small aspect of my overall self. I never felt the need to consult with other women who didn’t want kids because, well, who needs a support group for not liking mayo?
That was, until I hit my 30s — a time when many of my peers were, if not already actively reproducing, at least engaging in some extremely focused pre-planning regarding the wee people who would eventually come sliding out of their lady parts. What had been a small element of my personality was suddenly in the foreground, simply because it was different than most other people’s choices. I was suddenly, shockingly, in need of a support group.
And so, I just as suddenly became obsessed with reading anything written by women who had also made the choice to skip having kids. Sure, we’re an increasingly common species — 19 percent of American women are childless by the end of their reproductive years, a massive jump from decades past — but women in their 30s without kids still get such a hard side-eye from the culture at large, that I felt desperate to learn how other women had dealt with it.
I loved the variety of voices in these pieces, the rainbow of reasons given for deciding one’s own reproductive fate. But even in the essays that I’ve loved, I noticed that many of the authors made a point of specifically noting that they’re not skipping out on having children because they themselves had a bad childhood.
In comedian Jen Kirkman’s amazing book about being childfree, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, she notes that her decision has nothing to do with her childhood, which featured loving, supportive parents. A 2009 Maclean’s piece on the growing phenomenon of childfree women noted that assuming a “bad childhood” was to blame for a woman’s decision to not bear children is an old-fashioned explanation, one that barely plays a role today compared to factors like increased educational opportunities for women. Lilit Marcus, a fantastic writer who frequently comments on issues relevant to child-free women, even wrote an entire essay about her own ”idyllic childhood,” in response to those who assumed her reluctance to breed must have had to do with some deep-seated childhood trauma.
On one hand, I am thrilled that so many writers are challenging the assumption that the only women who chose to take a pass on motherhood are “damaged.” Many people instantly make a lifetime’s worth of assumptions about you the second that you mention that you aren’t having kids, and the biggest of those is often that you have “problems” — problems that keep you from functioning like a normal (that is, child-bearing) member of society. I understand, and support, the fight to normalize a childfree life as something that any person, with any kind of background, might choose for herself for any reason.
And yet, as a woman who chose not to have kids for those very “old-fashioned” reasons —I had a bad childhood, and boy howdy, do I have problems because of it! — I sometimes feel like I, and women like me, are being written out of the new narrative of healthy, happy childfree womanhood.
I want to make clear that I’m not blaming any of these writers, or any other woman, for being honest about her happy childhood, or any other aspect of her life. I am, however, blaming a society that is still so absolutely suspect of childfree women, that we often feel that we need to develop airtight, logical, precise arguments for why we don’t want to have kids — arguments which we can efficiently whip off at a moment’s notice to parents or friends or some busybody who sits next to us on the train.
The typical airtight narrative goes a little something like this: I never liked dolls; I adore children but don’t have the temperament to be around them all the time; I have never felt the tug of my biological clock; I’m not having children because I like my life as is, not because I’m afraid of them or avoiding something larger.
This script is similar in my mind to how, if you have an abortion, convention dictates that you’re supposed to express some half-hearted regret about how it wasn’t “the right time,” but then confirm that you have never faltered from believing that it was the right decision in the end. It places your experience firmly inside the walls of “normal,” and proves that nothing extraordinary or weird led you to your decision — that it’s a decision anyone could make.
I understand the need for these scripts. A woman’s right to bodily autonomy is still under constant fire — legally and socially — and there is a feeling among childfree women like we need to circle the wagons, to protect ourselves by agreeing to tell a story about our choices that doesn’t make us seem like damaged wrecks making the only choice we could handle, but rather cool, smart, dispassionate thinkers making an informed decision.
I wish I was a cool, smart, dispassionate thinker in any aspect of my life — but I’m not. I do love my life the way it is, but that isn’t why I decided not to have kids. I didn’t look at life’s bountiful options — all the possibilities that are supposedly open to me as an educated, middle-class woman — and choose the one that was most sensible and seemed like it would benefit me the most. Figuring out my life choices has not been like purchasing a pair of hiking boots. I am definitely not having kids because I am avoiding something. I am a wreck, making the only choice that I can handle.
On my mother’s side, I’m the end product of at least three generations of child abuse (that I know of) — abuse that tapered down from booze-fueled violence a hundred years ago, to just the intense verbal abuse, mood swings, and gaslighting that I grew up with as my mentally ill, untreated single mom’s only child.
I did not articulate my decision to not have kids until my late teens, but long before then — before I realized that you were allowed to go through life without procreating — I knew that any talk I engaged in about my future offspring was just going through the motions, trying to keep people from thinking I was even weirder than they already did. When people asked what I would name my kids, I always made something up on the spot, because I had spent zero moments daydreaming about being a mother, and thousands of moments gritting my teeth at the idea of eventually having to become one. The day that I realized that women were allowed to choose to not have babies, I literally wept with joy.
My mother’s mothering was like a hurricane, knocking me every which way during the years we lived together, and once I left her, I knew I was going to have to devote the rest of my life to trying to feel like I was standing on solid ground. Raising kids didn’t mesh with the idea of trying to give myself a sense of constancy — hell, when I first moved to New York, I didn’t leave the city proper for two years straight, just because I needed that feeling of consistency, that feeling that I wouldn’t wake up to a new world with new rules that I could barely understand and had already somehow broken, as I had so often in my mother’s house.
I didn’t want to be a mother because I had seen motherhood in one of its darker iterations, yes, but that wasn’t the only reason. I knew that, should I be so lucky to rebuild my life into something that eventually felt stable under my hand, there would never be any room in it for midnight feedings and tantrums and a person who couldn’t always explain themselves and their actions to me in clear, well-reasoned English.
It was as surely as if my womb had been taken out of my body and placed on a shelf. I had never even bothered to spend a moment contemplating whether I felt that maternal tug these writers were always talking about, or if I liked kids but didn’t have the temperament to be around them all day. My childhood had already made the decision for me. I would never have children. And I felt fine about it. It was a fact, just as true as the color of the sky or the temperature outside.
The urge to distance childfree narratives from the “bad childhood” explanation isn’t just because it’s “old-fashioned” and invokes a lot of ugly, publicity-unfriendly emotions — it’s also because it’s the one reason for not having kids that even people who believe that all women should bear children understand. Those who spend their free time obsessed with the contents of strangers’ wombs give women who grew up with maternal abuse something of a pass — often a pass with a comment like “But you could learn from her mistakes!” but a pass nonetheless.
They are the same kind of people who believe in anti-abortion rules with clauses for rape victims only. They want women who don’t have children to have really suffered for it, to be so potentially deformed by trauma that they are bad risks for motherhood. Older women who would otherwise talk my ear off about how I should freeze my eggs shut down when I casually mention having spent my own childhood alone with a mother who picked fights with strangers, who suspected that she was under secret surveillance, who believed that if I was not in the room and listening to her I did not love her. It gets me off the hook.
I do not want their pass. I want all reasons for being childfree to be respected, not constantly interrogated and undermined. I want to make sure that, as the public conversation about childfree women rolls on, we who have chosen the childfree life because of abuse and trauma don’t get left behind, as “old-fashioned” examples, people who have nothing to in common with the cool, independent, modern role model women who are choosing to not have kids.
Not only because child abuse will always exist, even among elite Millennials (and to pretend that it’s an outdated as a history textbook is insulting) — but because we need to show how many reasons there are for women to pursue childfree lives. It was never exclusively about bad childhoods in the past, and it isn’t just about being happy with your life and loving your disposable income now. It’s always been both, plus a million more narratives. There are as many reasons to not have children as there are to have children — and just like the decision to have children, sometimes the decision to not have children comes from a place of joy, and sometimes it comes from a place of trying to correct trauma. And we need to open our arms up to all of them.
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