Entering my second marriage is a good time to reflect on my life and the choices I have made thus far, and to appreciate the journey. Thankfully my husband shares my commitment to being child-free and we are aligned on this life orientation. I was not so aligned in my first marriage, but I was young, and he was idealistic. At age 22.5 I told him: “I do not want to have children. I have never wanted children, and I am fairly certain I will not change my mind.” His response: “oh, you will change your mind. Everyone does.” I disagreed, but I told him he could take the risk and he married me anyway.
At age 30 when we divorced, I realized I had been putting off finishing my master’s degree completion partly because school was how I justified putting off having children. If I finished the degree, I no longer had the excuse to shield myself from doing something I really did not want. Interesting that Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love came out in 2006, a couple years after my decision to leave my marriage. I did not discover the book until 2013, after I saw the movie version, which never does the book justice. When I re-discovered it and then listened to the audio version read by the author, I realized Gilbert expressed so many profound realizations I had also experienced in my own story.
When Meghan Daum released her book Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed I realized that there was important cultural conversation here, and that women like me need to come forward and tell their stories. I have not yet read the book but it is on my reading list. “Auntie” Liz Gilbert explores the issue further in her book, Committed: A Love Story. She speculates that “a certain degree of female childlessness is an evolutionary adaptation of the human race” and I am inclined to agree with that. She calls childless women the Auntie Brigade and explains their role in supporting and nurturing those who are not their biological responsibility, and that no other group does this to such a large degree. I have two aunts who are Catholic nuns in Mexico, and certainly one could not argue that their decision to forgo children was a selfish one.
I remember feeling relieved when I turned 40, because I figured people would stop asking me if I intended to have children someday. At some point, doesn’t that question seem pretty rude and intrusive to ask? I thought so.
I have enormous respect for parents and for the hard work that they do every day. I believe parenting is a serious responsibility and I appreciate those who give of themselves for this important work. I salute them (maybe you) and am grateful that, as I joke to my husband, there is no threat that the human species will become extinct if I do not procreate. But has never been an aspiration for me, and I do not apologize for that. In high school I remember writing an essay encouraging adoption rather than procreation, because so many children in the world need good parents. A teacher was quite upset with me over my point of view, saying “it is the smart kids like me who should be having kids” instead of the [presumably irresponsible] ones that end up having them. Then there was my Dad, who always told me to wait until I was 35 to get married and/or to have kids, because “once you do that your life belongs to your husband and children.” He wanted more for me, a life free to pursue my education and my career, unencumbered by the need to slow that down in pursuit of those other goals.
Granted, feminism has helped us come a long way in terms of women’s ability to make choices about their reproduction, a right we should never take for granted. We have also made great progress in terms of expectations for men in terms of family responsibilities. But we are far from achieving the kind of equality we need to create a thriving community that supports families adequately. In my own family, Mom stayed home with us until I was in high school, when she went back to substitute teach part-time. I am grateful for the sacrifices she made in order to be there for us, and she would say today that it was not a sacrifice, she wanted to raise us and be part of our lives in that way. So I wonder sometimes if my younger sister and I, with no children, just cannot imagine balancing children and work at the same time, which may have factored in our choices.
When I was in high school and college, I did a good amount of babysitting to earn money, and while I enjoyed playing with kids aged ~6 and older, infants and toddlers were never my favorite. Some women cannot wait to hold the baby when their coworker passes around a newborn. I feel more like the scene in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where she is holding the baby with a look of trepidation as though it might be a bomb about to go off in her hands.
I am grateful my parents never pushed me to have children, nor made me feel guilty for making the choices I have made. Many of my friends, including my husband, had to endure a lot of pressure from their families, and still some receive much questioning on their choices not to be parents. It is viewed as some type of character flaw rather than a personal choice and one that reflects a thoughtful decision-making process. My husband likes to joke that he’s “not into poverty or slavery” as the reasons he has never wanted children. While it is tongue-in-cheek, it also expresses a fundamental understanding that the decision to have a family is not a casual decision and it is one that requires a big commitment.
As I consider the work I do, and the role I play on my team, I remember that I was called “a mama bear” for my group. I was the person everyone sought out when there was an issue or a problem, or when they needed my help. When I took the Strength Finder assessment back in 2012 with my work team, and it came out with: Intellection, Input, Relator, Developer and Empathy, this made perfect sense to me. I get so much satisfaction out of helping to develop team members’ and colleagues’ careers. I had always attributed this to the fact that I come from a family of teachers, but maybe there is some deeper trait there. Perhaps I channel those “maternal” instincts in a different way from women who have children, and I still create value in the world in this way.
I am an introvert, and I enjoy a lot of quiet time and solitude as a way to keep myself balanced and centered. Children complicate that scenario. Perhaps my limited imagination, or way too much babysitting, did not allow me to envision a future where I could live my best life, contribute my gifts fully and be a parent. But in any case, I know at a deep, spiritual level, I have made decisions that keep me in my integrity while doing the best I can. Certainly I have made mistakes and there are things I could have done differently, but this decision I own deeply. I hope that others who make the same choice can embrace their decisions and feel worthy to live their lives as they see fit, rather than feeling shame or regret about not fulfilling others’ idea of how to life a good life.