At the age of 35, I became suddenly sure I did not want children. Before the age of 27, I was sure I would have at least 3, maybe 4, but by 35 I understood these past maternal certainties for what they really were. These certainties were in fact deep uncertainties. At best they were uncertainties. In reality, these pseudo-certainties were built on absurdities; the possibility of being a mother seemed so remote as to render decisions irrelevant and pronouncements of certainty easy to come by, cheap, and meaningless. In other words, I wasn’t even uncertain–you have to be seriously considering something in order to be uncertain–I was merely in denial that this was a decision that I would one day really have to make. Or rather, that the question of motherhood was one that would be inevitably thrust against me in some way, at some point along the line.
In my twenties, being a mother felt like a milestone. Along with getting married, buying a house, getting a university degree, bringing home a paycheck substantial enough to pay the bills, and not living in terror every waking second of the day, having children felt like an important part of ‘launching’. In my emerging adult mind, having children cemented your status as a ‘woman’ and as opposed to a ‘girl’. But apart from being vaguely aware that failing to accomplish these developmental tasks would constitute an abject failure to launch, and thus a failure in the eyes of society-I desperately did not want to fail at yet another thing in life-motherhood was not something to which I gave much thought.
If I really thought about it, the idea of pregnancy and breastfeeding was the only part of motherhood that evoked any feeling at all. It made me uncomfortable to think about, like touching an electrical socket with wet hands, or imagining piercing your genitalia, or biting down on a fork. This discomfort prompted me to learn everything about tocophobia that I could get my hands on (tocophobia: a pathological fear of pregnancy and childbirth; a fear allegedly espoused by 10% of women, including Helen Mirren). A professor at UBC once told me that academics choose research topics based on unanswered questions in their own lives. I must be a true academic in at least some sense of the word, because my graduate thesis topic was “The relationship between pregnancy anxiety, intolerance of uncertainty, and online information seeking”.
I also didn’t understand the fetishization of the pregnant belly, the way people were always compelled to rub them and photograph them in string bikinis and lingerie. And please don’t misunderstand me-the last thing I would want to do is shame ANYONE for loving their body in any and every state and shape and way (power to you!), but I just never understood the fascination. The same way I don’t understand people’s obsession with wine or with jazz or with team sports.
Pregnancy in particular triggered reminders of puberty; a time so awful I have come to feel that calling it traumatic is, for me, warranted. My sense of existential dread between the ages of 10-16 was profound. In order to flatten my chest, I wore three bathing suits under all my clothes, subjecting myself to repeated yeast infections and scabs on my shoulders where the skin was rubbed raw from the cumulative weight of three layers of heavy duty lycra. My changing body, as they like to call it in educational videos from the 90s, was the source of a near suicidal despair. I felt powerless, hideous, and out of control. Every night my mom spent two or three hours talking me off the proverbial pubescent ledge. The irony being that puberty, in many ways the beginning of adult life, felt to me like the definitive end of life. And it was a violent, gruesome death at that. This went on for many years. I would sit at my desk and push my chest against its’ edge, delivering the entire weight of my body against the painful nodules blossoming beneath my skin, the stabbing pain a physical incarnation of the hate I felt for myself and for whomever or whatever came up with the genius idea of puberty. I realize that not everyone experiences puberty in this way, and that even those who do may not feel there is any connection between the angst of puberty and the beauty of pregnancy/childbirth, but that has been my experience.