Some people say that having children in today’s political and ecological and social climate is both incomprehensible and socially irresponsible. They ask who would want to bring a child into Trump’s nuclear world? They want to know why a person would want to raise a child in a world riddled with white supremacy and racism and alt-right-ism? Who would want to take their child swimming in an ocean full of mercury-infested tuna, or a river teeming with ten-eyed fish? What joy is there in giving birth to a creature who must live in a world full of school shootings and airlines splintering in mid air on their way to London, and three hurricanes in two weeks that leave apocalyptic scenes in their wake; streets full of crocodiles and live electric wires and nursing homes full of seniors overheating to the point of death? What kind of child would be happy living with the ever-present and always increasing danger of sea levels that threaten to rise and swallow low-lying towns and cities like giant cartoon sand worms out of Beetlejuice? Really? You really want to have a child on a planet where the likes of North Korea are threatening to unleash nuclear fire and fury by sending weapons of mass destruction across the ocean to Seattle? What about all the cannibalistic serial killers that prey on socially inept people looking for friends on Craiglist? What about cyberbullying? Social media? The list of scary things in this world is endless. Wanting to bring a child into this chaotic fray, these people say, is madness. And this is to say nothing of overpopulation and ecological footprints, of the fact that by giving birth to a child you are incrementally hastening the destruction and devastation and ultimate demise of the planet earth.
This is all true. These horrors all exist. But I fail to find these arguments compelling. One can debate at length, and many intellectuals and political scientists do, whether the world has become more or less violent or more or less safe, however my personal experience has been that life’s capacity for beauty and joy utterly outweigh the evils of the world. But I also realize that this sunny and optimistic outlook rests on my position of privilege in this world, and that many people may legitimately come to a different conclusion based on their own experience. For me, even knowing my child might be blown up by a meteor at age 15, I would still not wish to deny them a shot at the smorgasbord of wonder the world can offer. Insofar as ecological footprints and the destruction of planet earth are concerned, this is a tough one. I suppose if I were to have a child, I would like to think they might spread enough kindness and do enough good, to have made their existence worthwhile, to tip the scales.
Choosing not to have children still feels like a radical act. Despite all the progress we have made as a society in the area of women’s rights and reproductive rights, and all the lip service paid to a woman’s right to choose–to abort, not to abort, to work full-time, to become pregnant through artificial insemination, to have a baby with another woman, to marry, to remain single–this is a decision I find myself, more often that not, compelled to conceal. I’m not embarrassed about this choice, only tired of trying to sound convincing.
Personally, I’m not offended by questions about childbearing. I understand the curiosity. It’s like the way I feel when I see somewhere walking around with a huge whitehead on the end of their nose. It’s totally okay to do it, but I just really want to understand the thought process. Why-and more importantly HOW-did you not pop that fucker? I’m not offended by these questions, but I certainly know a lot of people who are. I know of women who tell people they have had five miscarriages or are infertile, simply to cut off that line of questioning. I understand why people are curious, or even incredulous, and I also understand a woman’s need to lie in order to preserve their sanity and dignity.
When I have this conversation with people, I generally end up placating them by saying I am planning on trying ‘when I finish school’, ‘once I become more financially stable’, ‘once my marriage feels more secure’. These are explanations people understand. Sometimes it’s just too hard to explain my decision otherwise . And it’s even harder to state it without qualification. I really do not want children. Not even one little bit. I think one reason it is so difficult to state this decision unreservedly and without qualification has to do with my concern it will sound critical. I worry, even now as I write this, that mothers and friends and fathers I love and respect might misunderstand my passionate desire not to be a mother as a critique of those who want or have children. I worry people will think my emphatic desire to stay child free is, by implication, a belief that being child free is ‘better’ or ‘braver’ or ‘more honest’. This is really not what I mean. But although a mother can say that, helllll no, she would rather be strapped to the top of her car, slathered in honey, and driven through a sandstorm, than go back to school–saying the same thing in response to a question about motherhood feels suddenly very personal.
For a long time, motherhood and domesticity were the defacto realm of the woman. Women were relegated to these roles whether or not this was what they wanted. What women wanted did not factor in. Fast forward to the 60’s and to second wave feminism, where motherhood and all that is domestic was openly derided as a woman’s prison. To be a modern liberated woman meant having a choice about whether or not one wanted to be a mother or a ‘career-woman’. The choice was dichotomous to a degree. My generation, on the other hand, finds itself between its’ own rock and a hard place. In some ways we are so much better off than our mothers and our grandmothers, and yet in some ways we are expected to fulfill a mandate all the more extreme and unattainable. The expectation for women of my generation has metamorphosed into the the expectation that one will be a mother, but not ‘just a mother’. In such a way, motherhood is denigrated to the position of a part-time job, and women are expected to be strong enough, smart enough, independent enough not to have to choose. Why choose when you can do it all? Finally, the message to women remains that no matter what you do you are not enough. Around mothers I know who work, I cannot help but detect judgement (perhaps envy?) of mothers who have chosen to be ‘just mothers’. And among ‘just mothers’ I sometimes sense a shame, a societally imposed, self-conscious feeling of unearned privilege. Whereas in the past, we worked to afford women the right to work, it seems at times that today, the true privilege might best be described as the ability/possibility to study/work, without the obligation to do so.
My observations and thoughts in all three pieces on motherhood are very limited to a particular socioeconomic bracket. They are the musings of a white woman, middle class, economically privileged, educated, attractive-in short, they are representative of only the narrowest swath of society. I would imagine that for most women in this world, the privilege of choosing a fulfilling career outside of/in addition to domestic work, is an impossibility. Notice that I write ‘fulfilling’ as the majority of the women of the world do work, in addition to being mothers. They work doing menial labor at minimum wage, or in high risk occupations where they must put their bodies and psyches at risk. I am also aware of the problematic implications for gender of what I have written in these three pieces. I’ve talked about mothers mostly, but what about fathers? What are their options? Where do they fit? What about trans men and women? LGBTQ2++ people? These voices are all important parts of this conversation. We don’t hear them enough on this subject, on many subjects. My focus on my own experience does not negate the need for these voices and I lament not having been able to represent all perspectives. What I have offered is a deeply personal voice, a voice that is necessarily limited in scope and this is a failing and a limitation of my writing.
Rebecca Solnit, Virginia Woolf, Jennifer Anniston, Elizabeth Gilbert, Laura Kipnis, Helen Mirren, Portia de Rossi, Ashley Judd, Zoe Deschanel, Cameron Diaz, Simone de Beauvoir, Marisa Tomei, Kim Cattral, Gloria Steinhem, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Austen–these are all women I admire who are child free.
Many of the writers I most admire have one child. Among artists, there is a theory that a woman is most productive with one child, but more than one child and she is hooped. Alice Walker was the one who said it most succinctly when she said female artists become ‘sitting ducks’ with more than one child. Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion would all seem to bear out the one-child theory. All are prolific writers and all say that they entered periods of intense creativity following the birth of their child. I’ve also read accounts that describe some of these mothers as ‘mom-ish’ as opposed to truly motherly. Sigrid Nunez wrote in her memoir of Susan Sontag titled Sempre Susan: “Every once in a while, noticing how dirty [her son] David’s glasses were, she’d pluck them from his face and wash them in the kitchen sink. I remember it was the only mom-ish thing I’d ever seen her do”. In discussing Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana, another reporter was quoted in saying: “Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parent’s house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother”. And while I am aware of the patriarchal implications of the mom-ish monicker (we don’t often say men are dad-ish if they are traveling for business without their children), I also understand the sentiment. How to be prolific in one’s career without making adjustments in one’s home life? I don’t think any woman alive have figured out how to accomplish this. Being mom-ish is a luxury. Didion and Sontag had the economic privilege and professional success to be mom-ish, but they are in the minority.
If I could be ‘mom-ish’, I might do it, but too much about my history suggests that I cannot be “ish” about anything. I have neither the temperament nor the privilege to be mom-ish. Alice Munro had three daughters and wrote as they hung from her neck as she washed the dishes, but I don’t trust myself to be that person either. I have trouble working or writing when another person (adult!) is in the house. I think I would not be able to be a writer under these circumstances, or even ‘writer-ish’.
In the end, I have chosen to forgo the sisterhood and the delight of children, to devote myself entirely, without consideration of an -ish, to all the other things I love. Someone once wrote of Virginia Woolf’s decision not to have children, that from her perspective, many women could give birth to a child, but only she, only Virginia Woolf could give birth to “To the Lighthouse”. This is not to say that writing a book is more worthwhile an endeavour than being a mother, only that each person has their own work here on this earth, and perhaps the trick is to know what that work is, to be at ease with one’s decisions. At peace with everything that has been lost and sacrificed, and grateful for what has been gained.
I read these pieces to my husband on the porch of our home as the rain came down around us. I asked him, once I had finished: “What do you think?” In characteristically enigmatic fashion, and without skipping a beat, he said: “I think you would be really great mother”. This made me laugh out loud. This from a man ambivalent about children at best–typically he falls on the side of definitely not.
But I’ve lived long enough to know that life has a way of taking the things you hold dearest, the truths of which you are surest, and turning them inside out like a king-sized sheet in the wash. These are my strong sentiments on motherhood at this moment. I don’t anticipate they will change. At the same time, almost all the things I love most in this world (school, yoga, Girls, Arrested Development, coffee)-were things I once resisted with vehemence. For the moment, I’m happy to add my voice to the conversation. In the same way that we laud women for being passionate about motherhood, perhaps we might come to celebrate women who are passionate about not being mothers, about taking an alternate path, about walking a road less travelled. Either way, I will walk the road less travelled.