I just recently read an article on Slate.com called, “Do We Secretly Envy the Childfree? Or is Childlessness Still Taboo?”, by Katie Roiphe. The headline on the Slate’s front page had read, “Do We Pity Women Who Don’t Have Children? Or Do We Envy Them?”
(Ed. Note- “Do We Like Headlines With Double Questions? Or Don’t We?” /snark)
This article really hit home for me in a number of ways. First off, I’m a woman in my mid-thirties who is cheerfully child-free. Admittedly, I wasn’t always so “cheerful” about it. For most of my life, other than a brief stint in my early twenties, I thought I’d have a husband and one or two kids by this age.
I think it’s natural for most women who are in their “prime child-bearing years” to think about having children. Most of the time, it comes in the mind-frame of “when” we want children, or “how many” children we’ll have. Perhaps less often, it comes more as a question of “if” we’ll have children.
I was thirty-one when I decided to go off birth control. My husband and I had been married for about three years and I figured, if it happened, it happened. We have a pretty great relationship, so I expected it would probably only take about 3-6 months.
After a year had passed, I started to think maybe this wasn’t going to be quite so easy. So, I started taking my temperature and testing my pH balance every morning. It still didn’t occur to me that anything was wrong; per se. Things just needed a little encouragement.
Around the same time, some of the other women in my life were also reaching the point where they were starting to think about reproducing. One of them was my best friend and one of them happened to be my sister, who is two years younger than me. Together we talked about our difficulties and frustrations. We were all a little confused about why things seemed to be harder than we’d imagined it would be.
My strategy was to try and take a Zen-like mentality to the whole situation. I felt like if I just remained calm and positive, and didn’t stress myself out, things would happen in their due course; kind of a “if it’s meant to be, it will be” philosophy.
That was the plan, anyway. In practice, well, it wasn’t so pretty. I basically felt like one exposed, walking, raw nerve. Every time I had sex, there was this little “what if?” lying in the back of my head. Every adorable child felt like a punch in the gut.
After almost two full years of trying unsuccessfully, I found myself crying, depressed, frustrated and all around miserable. Obviously, nobody can walk around like that indefinitely. Even the softest hands will eventually form callouses. I had to make the conscious decision to start thinking about the possibility that kids may not come naturally, and what was I willing to do to have one?
While I was practicing my own self-flagellating art of “Zen,” my sister was being much more scientifically pro-active about things. Actually, my sister IS a scientist, so it makes sense that when things weren’t working after six months she would go see what could be done about it medically.
First she did the hormone treatments. That basically entails taking hormone pills the size of a small horse, then shooting yourself with a huge fucking needle every night with even more hormones. After that didn’t work, then things turn to petri dishes and turkey basters. (Hopefully you can get the picture without me having to go into detail.)
Once it was determined that also wasn’t working, they started pulling out the big guns and getting into IVF. IVF had her taking even more hormones, waiting until ovulation, going into surgery to harvest the eggs, getting them to become embryos and hoping they come out viable. After getting a few viable embryos, you can either freeze them or implant them. Some were frozen; others were implanted by means of a second surgery.
The whole process was labor intensive, painful, expensive, and time consuming (with all the appointments and operations and check-ups, etc.) Let alone frustrating where health insurance was concerned. There was bloating and cramping and aching involved. Even worse, there was the roller coaster of nervousness and hope, only to be followed by hurt and disappointment.
Each time, I would see her try to adopt a positive, even-keeled, “wait and see” attitude. Not too pessimistic, but not too excited, either. My sister’s eyes after the third failed attempt still haunt me. You could see her soul bruised in their reflection and I just remember thinking nobody should have to go through this, especially not her!
For one thing, my sister is super healthy. She runs and exercises regularly, eats a gluten-free diet, and belongs to a CO-OP so she can have fresh, hormone, range-free meats and organic vegetables. By anybody’s standards, she’s doing everything right.
She’s one of the strongest, most determined women I know. Even after that third attempt, she was back at it, trying to figure out a way to make it work. FOUR TIMES my sister tried IVF. Each time I would see her gear up, do her month-long round of shots, and suffer the uncomfortable side effects.
The fact is, I know I couldn’t do that. There is NO WAY I have the patience or the personality to be that persistent. I definitely don’t have the discipline to give myself shots every night at the same time for months on end. I cringe just thinking about it!
As I was watching my sister go through this process, I started coming to some realizations of my own. Maybe I didn’t want children as badly as I had originally thought. I mean, if I’m not disciplined or perseverant enough to go through hell and back in order to get them, then what kind of mom would I be once I had them? Maybe what I was feeling was more of a knee-jerk reaction. A way of succumbing to societal expectations for a happily married woman of my age. Did I really even want to have kids?
I mean, I love kids, don’t get me wrong. However, I really like my life how it is now, too. I absolutely adore my husband. I love that we can go out to a nice dinner, skip the line for a table, and just sit at the bar. I like that I can stay up WAY too late reading and wake up just before having to fly out the door to get to work. I like being able to slab on the couch with Terry and watch TV shows and then spontaneously have sex in the living room. I like having friends over for a weekend holiday and having them stay in our two guest rooms so we can drink ourselves silly.
Hm, maybe this childless situation isn’t so bad after-all. Maybe I wasn’t feeling so child-less as much as child-free! So, I stopped stressing out about trying to have kids. I can finally say I feel like my not having children has become more of a decision and less of a reaction.
I did talk with Terry and create a contingency plan, just in case I change my mind. When I’m forty years old, if I discover that, actually, I DO want kids, then I reserved my right to adopt. The minute I realized I had a backup plan in place, I felt a huge relief. Suddenly my life seemed much less chaotic and I could enjoy it again. I made that decision about a year and a half ago, and the longer it’s been, the more being child-free feels right for me.
Is Childlessness Still Taboo?
My attitude on whether or not to have kids has been a long progression that required a lot of soul searching and a lot of observing. It’s an evolution of perspectives that I can’t fully say has finished, yet. The decision to be happy and make the most of what life has to offer, regardless of whether kids are involved, has been well fought and hard won. Which is why, sometimes, it can be really frustrating operating within a society that defaults to the assumption that all young women must want and aspire to have children.
Which is worse? Being a woman who is “defective” and can’t have kids, or being a woman who is “defective” and doesn’t want to have kids? See what I did there? The assumption is the woman is faulty, no matter the reason for not having kids.
Infertility, or even just choosing to be a woman who doesn’t have kids, seems like such a taboo in our society. Why is that? I think it’s because there is an automatic expectation that women are supposed to (for lack of a better word) breed; that it is our main purpose for existing. There is also a suggestion that females who don’t have kids probably wanted kids, and the fact that they can’t deserves pity. Guaranteed, most women in that situation probably don’t want to be pitied.
I’m guessing the majority of women who don’t want kids just want to be accepted as not wanting kids. It doesn’t mean they can’t have exciting and fulfilling lives; that they are forever doomed to walk around with some missing hole in them. Speaking for myself, I can’t accept that as my only option. I have to be allowed to just move on and enjoy my life.
Part of my job entails working with the general public. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve had people ask me if I was married. Inevitably, the next question is always, “Do you have children?” When I say no, they usually say, “Well, how long have you been married?” When I tell them it’s been over seven years, they inevitably say something like, “Oh.” It makes me feel like I have to apologize and explain why I haven’t managed to successfully procreate yet.
Or, even better, how about when someone automatically assumes you have children? If I make a reference to my husband in conversation, someone might say, “Oh! How old are your children?”
Actually, the worst situation is when I have someone at my desk and we’ve established that yes, I’m married, but no, I don’t have children and I watch them automatically default to, “Oh, well, I’m sure it will happen for you one day…” <awkward silence>
I want to clarify, I don’t think that these people are mean-spirited and I don’t hold it against them for trying to make conversation. The fact is, the vast majority of people my age, who have been married for a while, tend to have kids. I get it. So, I try to be really open and nice during these exchanges and give them the benefit of the doubt.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I don’t always manage to feel graciously about these types of exchanges. One of the things that’s frustrating is I’m expected to maintain tact while fielding questions like these. When I was talking to my sister she mentioned that it’s not fair she has to hold her tongue but many others don’t have to. People assume it’s perfectly alright to ask why you don’t have kids, but it’s not acceptable for her to go into all the nitty gritty details as to why.
It’s a pretty delicate matter, if you think about it. How does one know what someone has gone through? Unintentional or not, that line of questioning can be cruel and hurtful for a person who has gone through the experiences my sister has gone through.
Do We Pity or Envy Our Society’s Childfree Women?
Seriously? Are those the only two choices? I’ve found in my short time here on Earth that things are rarely black and white. I doubt any woman would say they 100% pity, or envy a woman, regardless of her child, or child-free status. The fact of the matter is, I’m sure there are good and bad parts to both sides of that situation.
Does a woman with children wish that sometimes she could have five quiet minutes to herself? Be able to go to the bathroom with the door closed? Take a day off and go shopping and maybe have a nice dinner with her husband or girlfriends? Sure! I imagine she does. And, when she hears about her child-free friends getting those opportunities, then I’m sure the thought has crossed her mind that it would be nice to join in, too. Does that mean she wishes she didn’t have kids? Of course not! There’s a gray area there.
When I hear kids playing and laughing at the playground, or I see a super cute kid skipping down the sidewalk holding her daddy’s hand, I can say that would be nice, too. However, it doesn’t mean I want one full time. That’s also a gray area.
The real problem with framing a conversation in this way is that it puts one side against the other. Why are women constantly being pitted against each other? Who hasn’t heard about the “Mommy Wars” at this point, where society pits stay-at-home moms against career moms? What? Now we have to have the women with and without kids on opposite sides, too?
Can’t we just accept that everybody’s situations and preferences are different and that none of us really know what’s best for the other person? Aren’t we all just trying to make life work the best we can for ourselves?