Throughout my childhood, insofar as I ever thought ahead to my adult domestic life, I assumed I would do exactly as my mother had done. I thought the ideal plan was to get married straight out of college, wait about three years, and then have three daughters, each spaced out two years apart. There was a sort of fairy-tale symmetry to that arrangement. While it was comfortably far off in the future, I could take it for granted that I wanted something similar. I took it for granted, as I think most girls do, that I would want children.
Then the future came up to meet me, and found me changed.
The truth is that I don’t want children. It is only in the last few years that I have come to be able to say that in so many words, even to myself: I don’t want children. Not now, not ever. Not biological, not adopted. No kids.
The choice not to have children, as a woman in our culture, feels like a possibility only recently imaginable. In 2012, Slate ran a series of articles featuring testimonials by women who had chosen not to have children, also posing the question of whether people with children envy the child-free or whether childlessness is still taboo. Time Magazine’s August 2013 cover piece by Lauren Sandler explored this new phenomenon: “The Childfree Life: When Having it All Means Not Having Children.” That same year, No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood, edited by Henriette Mantel, was published. In a similar vein, in last year’s defiantly titled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum, sixteen writers (mostly women) describe their decisions not to have children. There has been a proliferation of books and articles on this subject, and in this climate, it’s become marginally more acceptable to be open about not wanting children. At the same time, that openness is often still barbed with defensiveness, with the need to reject the accusation that a decision not to have children reveals one to be, in fact, selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed. For women, in particular, this choice goes against such a weight of traditional beliefs and expectations about women’s biological and social purpose, about what a “normal” woman naturally wants—or should want—that it still seems radical enough to need justification.
As a student of nineteenth-century literature, I’m especially aware of the deep roots of our culture’s mingled veneration of motherhood and extreme expectations placed on mothers. I’ve taught Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening in a women’s literature course, and have heard students, female as often as male, insist that while they can empathize with the heroine’s forsaking her husband to find herself, her abandonment of her children renders her decisions unforgivably selfish. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House has always created a similar discomfort in readers and audiences: even those who would be ready to applaud Nora’s leaving her egotistical husband are scandalized that she would leave her children. (In fact, in an alternative ending Ibsen was compelled to write for German audiences, Nora apparently abandons her decision to leave her husband after being led to see her children). What I’ve tried to explain to my students when teaching Chopin’s text—and I think it applies as well to Ibsen’s—is that in the nineteenth century, women had few readily imaginable options but marriage, and once married, motherhood (no infertility preventing) was a matter of course. My point is that women like Edna or Nora never really had real agency in either marriage or motherhood; both states were basically compulsory for a respectable woman. Such women never had the privilege that women like myself have now, to visualize the option of a future voluntarily child-free.
We’ve come a long way since the nineteenth-century, since the time Leo Tolstoy wrote that “Every woman, however she may call herself, and however refined she may be, who refrains from childbirth without refraining from sexual relations, is a whore.” (1) Then again, if one looks at the opinions of certain religious denominations and much of the GOP about contraception and women’s reproductive rights, maybe we haven’t come all that far. A woman making any independent choice involving her body somehow remains a slightly scandalous figure. Furthermore, women have so internalized the sexist tendency to define ourselves in relation to children that we are often the most judgmental about each other’s parenting decisions (or decisions not to parent).
No one who knows about my choice not to have kids has reacted with hostility, but incredulity is par for the course. When I used to, more tentatively than now, say I wasn’t sure I wanted kids, I’d sometimes hear a variation on this theme: “Once you find the right man, you’ll change your mind.” When I expressed my sense of not being particularly good with kids, or of not feeling especially maternal toward them, I’d inevitably receive the response: “It’ll be different when it’s your own.” But I always wondered what would happen if it wasn’t, and whether it was fair to my potential child to take that chance.
For years, I’ve waited for my biological clock to kick in, but now at nearly thirty I have come to realize that it’s not going to happen. I thought that eventually the sight of a baby or a little child would make me yearn for one of my own. This has never been the case. Instead, such sights generally fill me with relief that I have been spared that particular responsibility. I am an aunt to a beautiful baby girl, almost two. I love her. But the task of watching her reduces me to the stale TV stereotype of a new father: bumbling, panicked, ineffectual.
It’s also true that physically it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for me to have a child. Early in my twenties, my very forthright gynecologist informed me that, due to the damage caused by my adolescent bout of anorexia, I would be very unlikely to have more than one child, and that one child would need to be born before I was thirty. This information shook me up at the time, but didn’t devastate me. And the fact that over the years it has never caused me a moment of grief or panic— and I am very easily panicked—as my thirtieth birthday looms ever closer tells me volumes about myself.
Beyond this, I know that having a child would be likely to exacerbate my existing physical and mental health conditions, and possibly—probably—create more. Then there is the question of whether I really want to pass on those health issues to my offspring, or to bring a child into this dangerous world at all. But none of these are central reasons for my decision.
Really, the best analogy I’ve come across to explain why I don’t want children is the “life-mask” analogy posed by Liz Langley. She refers to the way that, on board a plane, we are told in the occasion of an emergency to have our own life-masks secure before helping anyone else with theirs. “My mask has never felt secure,” she says, and I can fully relate to that feeling. This is not to say that people need to have their lives totally together to be parents, but they do need to have a sort of internal and external stability that I’m still seeking. There are, after all, enough bad parents in the world. As Langley puts it, “Those of us who opt out of having children often do so not because we take parenthood lightly, but because we take it so seriously.”
At the same time, my decision is not as purely fear-based as the life-mask analogy makes it sound. It’s a decision which allows me to leave open a broad expanse of different possibilities, to live my own life, to travel and fulfill myself creatively, to find how I can be most useful in the world. Once you have a child, their dreams take priority. And selfish or not, I haven’t lived my own life yet.
I still want to get married. It’s true that when I’ve seen married friends who don’t have children, I’ve wondered if they feel like their lives are missing something. But I also know that there are infinite things that can give life meaning. The heteronormative imperative insists that the purpose of marriage—and, really, the purpose of sexuality and of women themselves—is reproduction. But the struggles of both the feminist and the LGBTQ communities have made new definitions of marriage, family, and even of a meaningful life thinkable.
I’d like to think that my decision is in part a small feminist statement, a rejection of the centuries-old, globe-spanning reduction of women to baby-making machines. But really, that wasn’t part of the choice, and certainly no woman who wants children should decide not to have them on that basis. In fact, it never seemed so much a choice as a slowly realized certainty: I didn’t want kids, so I wouldn’t have them. And really, that’s the only reason I should need.
- Cited in Bram Dijkstra Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin de Siècle Culture 216.