Save Yourself

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016

Save Yourself


Danielle Henderson

MY GRANDMA USED to walk us to school. She’d show up at our apartment on her way to work, when the light was just peeking over the edge of the windowsill in the bedroom I shared with my brother. I imagine she and my mother passed each other like ghosts, my grandma pumping her small, thick legs up the stairs as my mother glided down, on her way to the first shift in the tiny building where she would solder small silver wires to large green plates all day. My grandmother gently shook my brother and me awake and guided us by the shoulders into the kitchen, where we would stand in front of the already warm oven and get dressed. “Gas is cheaper than electricity,” she said, Depression-era thinking still lingering in 1984.

School was only a couple of streets away, but no one let their kids walk alone after the movie about Adam Walsh’s kidnapping and murder had aired on TV the year before. My brother usually peeled off and ran ahead to join his class, but I always stayed by my grandma’s side, kicking through the dry red leaves on the ground.

“I’m never going to college, and I’m never having babies,” I said to her one day.

When she tells this story now she laughs the same way she did then, the sound deep and sudden like the blast of a baritone horn. I heard that laugh just above my head as I kept walking, leaves sticking to the Velcro-fastened Punky Brewster sneakers firmly attached to my seven-year-old feet. “Oh yeah? What makes you say that?” she chuckled, humoring me.

“College is like jail, and babies are gross,” I said, resolute.

“Well, you don’t know what you’re going to do in life yet, Dani. You’ll probably change your mind.”

“No,” I said, “I won’t.”

* * *

I did go to college, and then graduate school, but thirty years have passed since that conversation, and in that time I’ve never wanted to have children. I harbor no deep biological urge, no longing, no worry over who will visit me or wipe my ass when I’m elderly. If the biological clock were an actual organ, mine would be as useless as an appendix. Since I’ve always known I didn’t want children, I never agonized over whether or not to have them as though it were a major life decision. Children were just never going to fit into my life.

Strangers ask me all the time about my reasons for not having children, mostly when they see that I love kids. I always engage children on their level, and I like to give them chances to show off by asking about their favorite books or letting them tell me incredibly long-winded stories full of “ums” or “and thens.” I use my considerable height to my advantage and constantly hike the kids in my life up on my shoulders and ask them to steer the ship by telling me where to walk or run. I like to be the first person to teach them fart jokes, and I always indulge every knock-knock joke, even that endless one about the orange. There’s a near-universal assumption that women who don’t want to have children fundamentally dislike children, but that’s often not the case. I think kids are great; they’re curious about the world in a way that reminds me to be interested and open. I had a lucrative babysitting career when I was a teenager; I love running around with my nieces and nephews in the summer when I’m trying to teach them how to skateboard, or they’re trying to teach me how to work the controls on their new robotic toys.

I recognize the work and sacrifice that goes into being a good parent and I think I’d be well suited to the task; though the idea of pushing a baby out of my body has always seemed painful and ruinous to me, I’m not afraid of babies. I’m not afraid of all the things you have to do to keep them alive, and I think I’d be able to do it all without worrying about them constantly. I don’t think babies need thousands of dollars’ worth of toys or equipment to be happy and well-adjusted, and I already stay awake until three A.M. most nights, bleary-eyed but focused as I work on projects or finish writing essays like these. Parenting doesn’t freak me out. But I spent the majority of my formative years healing from what felt to me like bad parenting, which made me realize that sometimes your willingness to be a parent isn’t enough. Sometimes love runs out. It took me a long time to figure out how to fill my life with the love my parents didn’t seem able to give me. I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself instead.

My mother left us at my grandparents’ house during the winter school break when I was ten years old. It didn’t sink in right away that she wasn’t coming back. My brother and I didn’t even have most of our stuff; all I’d brought were my books for school, a week’s worth of clothes, and the relief of knowing that I wouldn’t have to be near my stepfather for the next seven days. I barely gave my mom a hug and kiss before I wiggled away and ran up the steps to the front door of my grandparents’ duplex. From the couch in the living room, I watched her car turn the corner and disappear out of sight, my stepfather hunched behind the wheel. It scared me to think so at the time, but I was glad to see them go.

The abuse didn’t start right away, but my stepfather’s presence was disruptive from the moment he moved in. He came home at all hours of the night, and we often woke up to him in the living room watching TV or making breakfast in the kitchen. He didn’t care about the rules of the house—he was loud when we were forbidden to be, and he always slammed the door, even when he supposedly wasn’t mad. He made me feel lonely, dominating my mother’s time and constantly telling me to go somewhere else to play when all I wanted to do was be around my mom. Before that, for as long as I could remember, it had always been only the three of us—my mom, my brother, and me. I didn’t like waking up to this stranger in our home every day. My mom didn’t date much and my world was small—outside of our apartment, I went to school; to Hanley’s five-and-dime on the corner to get candy on Fridays; to the Grand Union grocery store; to the Four Seasons diner, where we would sometimes go for breakfast to sit at the counter and spin on the vinyl stools; and to my grandparents’ house. I saw the same people everywhere, and I was rarely in the presence of people I didn’t know.

My mother was a great mom in the beginning, even though we didn’t have much. My parents split up a couple of months before I was born. This was easy for them; they weren’t married, and my great-grandmother paid for my pregnant mom and one-year-old brother, Cory, to take the bus home to Greenwood Lake, New York, after my mom ran away to North Carolina with my dad, her high school sweetheart. My brother and I lived with our grandparents for a year while my mom got back on her feet, then moved into a small two-bedroom apartment over a deli in the middle of our very small town. I didn’t know what the word welfare meant, but I did notice that the money my mom used to pay for groceries looked like the money in our Monopoly game, and our milk came in a powder-filled box instead of a carton of liquid like it did at my friend Erin’s house. It was 1984, and the first rumblings of the personal computer era could be heard all around us; my mom worked the early shift at a small electronics company. She wanted to be home with us after school, but sometimes she also worked a job at night cleaning offices while the next-door neighbor made sure my brother and I got to bed on time. Though we were on public assistance, my mom saw welfare as a stopover on the way to the rest of our lives and was very careful about saving where possible. No amount of crying or complaining on my part ever resulted in my getting a Barbie doll for my birthday, but we had enough to eat most of the time and never had to worry about where we would sleep at night.

Everything changed when she met my stepfather. It was the summer I turned seven, and Cory and I spent it in California with my aunt in order to give my mom a break and a chance to work more overtime. My aunt flew back with us in August, and when we got home, our apartment looked amazing. My mom had somehow made enough money to buy a new couch and end tables, and brand-new furniture for our bedrooms. Instead of the black metal bed frame that had been passed down through three generations, I had a white wooden frame with a small headboard, a tiny group of colorful flowers painted right in the middle. My dresser matched the bed frame and had brassy pulls that made a tinkling sound whenever I opened or closed the drawers. Our new couch was a pastel-striped affair with three overstuffed cushions pushing out from the back, one space for each of us. My mother was so proud she couldn’t stop smiling, couldn’t wait to show us everything.

“Tomorrow we’ll all go to the city and buy some new school clothes,” she said.

We lived an hour outside of Manhattan, where my mom had grown up in Harlem, and it was a treat every time we got to go there. Even now, the hair on my arms stands at attention when I round the corner for the Lincoln Tunnel and the entire skyline opens up. Inside the tunnel, I relish those quiet moments underwater before spilling out into midtown, a party already in full swing. When we got to Macy’s that day, a man shopping in the shoe department started talking to my aunt right away. When he asked for her phone number, she sucked her teeth, rolled her eyes, and walked away to look at a different pair of shoes.

Then he turned to my mother. He was the tallest man I’d ever seen, even with his slight hunch, and had short-cropped hair that was slightly receding in the front. He wore jeans and a light colored T-shirt, and his eyes darted around like he was waiting for someone to sneak attack him in a never-ending game of tag. I was too far away to hear what he said to my mom, but she opened up like a flower when he approached her, and a week later he was sleeping on our new couch and using our new plates.

I’m not sure when my mom realized how much trouble he was, or why, once she found out, she didn’t throw him out and change the locks on the door. I don’t understand why she didn’t protect us. Later, Cory and I would realize that he used drugs, but at the time all we knew was that we had to be very quiet when we came home from school because he was always sleeping and would hit us if we woke him up. We knew that our furniture was starting to disappear, and my mom was always yelling at him about money. We knew that my mom switched to the night shift at the electronics company so she could earn a little extra doing another job during the day. After I went to bed, this man who’d never left our house after that weekend at Macy’s would hover in my door in the darkness.

* * *

The Macy’s man lived with us for three years. Then came the winter break when my mother married him. She dropped my brother and me off at my grandparents’ house and moved with her new husband to his mother’s apartment in the Bronx. We didn’t see my mom for two years after we watched her drive away. She called sometimes, but what could I possibly say to her on the phone to make her come back? My grandparents had retired by then and moved into a two-bedroom duplex, and our arrival split the house awkwardly. I shared a room with my grandmother, and my brother shared a room with my grandfather. They traded in their queen-size bed for two twin beds. Life at my grandparents’ house was easier; both of them went back to work to support us and we always had food in the house. During the week, after we finished our homework, we were allowed to play with the new Nintendo they got us, and on the weekends my grandmother would play Monopoly and Parcheesi with us. It was better than living with the Macy’s man, but I still missed my mom and our life before him.

I’d never wanted to have children. Even before my stepfather unleashed so much chaos into our lives, parenting had always struck me as an extreme pain in the ass, a total time suck. But watching my mother fail so completely at protecting us didn’t make motherhood look like a job worth having even for those who said they wanted it. Motherhood was always difficult for her and her struggle was always right there on the surface. Through her I learned that motherhood has no guarantees—you didn’t have to love your kids, and you didn’t even have to stay with them and finish the job. My mom worked more than anyone I knew and was often testy and short-tempered with us. I got the feeling that we were a complete drag—she worked so hard to take care of us, and then she barely wanted to be around us. We got to play and explore, but she never had time to herself. My grandparents had been fantastic when we were not living with them, but when we moved in and shook up their lives, they started to take on that tiredness I’d seen in my mom, too. Through my mom’s parenting I learned that there was more pain and hurt than there was joy and happiness in the world, and it scared me to death to think of bringing a brand-new person into that heady mix. How could I ever be sure that I would do a better job? What if her failure was genetic, and I was worse?

Recovering from my childhood required a lot of emotional heavy lifting. During the three-year stretch when I lived with my stepfather, my grandparents had been kept at arm’s length. They didn’t know the extent of the abuse I’d suffered, and when Cory and I moved in and they became our guardians, I couldn’t find a way to tell them. I wouldn’t see my first therapist until I was almost twenty years old. I spent most of my teen years feeling suicidal and disconnected from the world. I had friends, but the shame of what had happened to me made me feel isolated. I did some after-school things like drum corps and softball, but I mostly stayed in my room and read or watched TV while I was sewing, a favorite hobby. My mom went on to have three more kids with my stepfather, a new family, and she eventually came back to see us when I was thirteen years old, but it was only a visit and she had no plans to take us back. I had already decided I wanted nothing to do with her; I just wanted to get out of my small town and get to a place so far away I never had to see my mother again.

It’s not fair to say that my mother is the sole reason I don’t want to have children. Like I said, I’ve never had those biological pangs. I could have had the best mother in the world and still relegated childbearing and raising to the list of things I’ll never do. But she added a layer of uncertainty to the whole endeavor, which makes me wonder if the nature-versus-nurture debate is as black-and-white as it seems. A lot of people who had terrible childhoods have kids to prove that they can do a better job, or to fix some cosmic rift by being the parents they needed to their own children. I sometimes wonder why I fall into the category of people who respond to their own crappy childhoods by never wanting to have kids. It’s possible that I’m not very brave; you have to have a lot of hope and faith that you’ve somehow learned everything your family was supposed to teach you but didn’t. You have to tell yourself you’ll be able to avoid the pitfalls you grew up with. But, even then, you create new pitfalls. I negotiate the terms of my life every day and work hard to maintain an emotional status quo that I had to create from scratch. That’s hard to do with a child in tow.

“But you’re so good with kids,” my friends say. “You know you’d be a good mom just because you’ll never make the same mistakes your mom did. Children have a way of healing you.”

That sounds like a spectacularly shitty premise to me, and way too much pressure to put on a child. In an attempt to piece myself back together, I was in therapy for most of my twenties. I would later go to graduate school for English literature and gender studies, but in between I moved around the country a lot, including to Alaska, and tried my hand at several different careers—barista, bookstore employee, bartender. Finally, I figured out that I didn’t need to have my mother in my life to feel deeply loved, and that I could choose what kind of relationship I wanted to cultivate with her (which, as it turns out, is no relationship at all).

* * *

As a woman who chooses to be childless, I generally have just one problem: other adults. Living in a culture where women are assumed to prioritize motherhood above all else and where a woman’s personal choices are often considered matters of public discussion means everyone thinks they have the right to discuss my body and my choices, so anyone who is curious about my lack of spawn feels the right to march right on over and ask me about it. If I’m feeling generous, I laugh off their questions by putting the onus on myself and my perceived lack of certain capabilities. “Oh, my mom was really terrible at being a mom and it seems like a hard job,” I’ll say. When I’m feeling less than generous, I ask, “Why do you want to know?” or tell them that not every woman wants to have kids. Sometimes a discussion will stem from there, but most of the time I just want people to realize that they’re not only breaching my privacy but also putting their flawed assumptions directly in my lap.

As bothered as I am by having to defend my decision, I’m more incensed that people think they have the right to ask. That’s because to ask me why I don’t have children is really to ask me to unpack my complicated history with parenting, or to try to explain something I’ve felt since I found out where babies come from. Since people often ask this question as casually as they ask, “What brought you to Seattle?” I’m expected to answer it in an equally casual manner, which I am unable and unwilling to do.

I admire women who look at the rigors of parenting and decide they’re just not cut out for it, or just don’t want to try, and I wish that we had more conversations about childlessness that didn’t force us to approach them from such a defensive place. I’m also sensitive to the fact that there are plenty of women in the world who want children and are unable to have them naturally, or women who have miscarried, often more than once, on their journey to parenthood. It seems hostile and uncaring to have a conversation about motherhood that is rooted in selfishness when so many women are unable to walk down that road.

When I started dating in my early twenties, I let my partners know right away that I did not want children. I was always quick to broach that subject with anyone I dated seriously, not wanting to go further if we weren’t on the same page. For the most part they didn’t care—men in their twenties tend not to be too focused on when or whether they want to become fathers. In fact, I never felt like it was something I had to explain until I met my husband. He was an easygoing artist from Rhode Island who spent most of his time reading and talking about comic books on the Internet, and we were friends for several years before we started dating. He has always known that I didn’t want to have children, but now that so much time had gone by and we were facing the world together as partners as well as friends, I was worried that we would disagree on this fundamental topic. What if he had changed his mind? We had a short engagement; there were only five weeks between the day we decided to get married and our Halloween Day wedding. During that time, in the midst of my grad school teaching schedule and generally hectic life, it occurred to me that I should check in with him again about the kid thing.

My timing tends to be rotten; when I have something on my mind I just blurt it out, so one night while we were having dinner on the couch I said, “So I still don’t want to have kids.” He looked at me and smiled, and in his incredibly chill way told me it was fine. He said that he’d never made plans to have kids. Then he joked that he might have kids he never even knew about and that they could show up at our door any minute. I told him I was worried that he might change his mind in the future and be saddled with me, but he laughed and said we could just get divorced if he ever changed his mind. Some might see that as harsh, but I saw it as honest—and not all that likely to come to fruition. In the end, he doesn’t think he wants children, but he does know he wants to be with me, so we’re hanging our hopes on that hook.

* * *

As with overcoming my childhood abuse, choosing not to become a parent means that I’ve had to redefine my concept of family. I consider my family to be a cobbled-together group of friends and people I’m related to, all defined by the fact that I can count on them. My grandmother is my family and so is my older brother; my husband is my family for sure, and through him I’ve been able to count his mother, father, and brother among my family. My best friends are my family—Alexis, whom I’ve known since sixth-grade science with Mr. Waleski; Sarah, whom I met through blogging when we were aimless twentysomethings; and Sandra, whom I met at a concert in New York City when I was twenty-two and who immediately felt like a missing link to happiness.

I am the person responsible for my grandmother’s well-being; I manage her medical bills, arrange all her monthly payments, call to check in with her doctor about his plan for her to manage her diabetes, and fix her iPad when she wants to upgrade her games. She lives across the country in New York and I am in Seattle, but I’m the one caring for her—not my mother. As I watch her age, I want to shield her against anything that makes her feel scared or unmoored, and I can’t help but wonder who will do the same for me. Though I’ve often said I’m not afraid to get old without the built-in support system most people find in their children because I’ve created my own chosen support system, the truth is that I won’t know for sure until I get there. What I do know is that I have nieces and nephews whom I’m proud to see growing into interesting, thoughtful people. I have friends whose children I adore—even children I haven’t met yet. As I write this essay, three of my closest friends are pregnant after years of uncertainty as to whether they even wanted to have kids. I call all these buns-in-ovens “Porkchop,” and I look forward to passing along my own wisdom and being part of their lives.

Those who hear my story might be tempted to assume that my desire to be childless is rooted in loss—the loss of my mother’s protection and loyalty, the loss of faith in family, the loss of childhood itself. But to me, the lack of desire to have a child is innate. It exists outside of my control. It is simply who I am and I can take neither credit nor blame for all that it may or may not signify. But the decision to honor that desire, to find a way to be whole on my own terms even if it means facing the judgment, scorn, and even pity of mainstream society, is a victory. It’s a victory I celebrate every day.

Every day, I try to be my own parent—the parent I never had. Every day, I learn new ways to treat myself with compassion and patience. I’ve made a life that centers around writing and that gives me freedom to travel and to construct my day around my moods and thoughts. Yoga helps me alleviate stress and get out of my head a bit. A couple times a week, I like to sit and have coffee with my neighbors on the back porch. We catch up on each other’s lives and talk about the world, or our place in this city we love so much. My husband and I spend a lot of time together, reading or going out to eat or just talking about the dreams and goals we have for the future, like buying and renovating a house, adopting a dog, or retiring in Paris. My childhood was so inconsistent that I never expected normalcy, and it’s enough for me to be able to have time and space to be good to myself and the people around me. Children are nice, but I decided to save myself instead.