The Trouble with Having It All

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

The Trouble with Having It All


Pam Houston

TWO HOURS AFTER President Barack Obama was reelected, I sat on the top floor of the SFO parking lot in the pouring rain listening to his acceptance speech and bawling my eyes out. I had a ticket on the red-eye to Houston, connecting to Indianapolis, where I had a three-day engagement, reading to, teaching, and getting to know the creative writing students at Butler University. It was just under an hour till flight time, but I was going to sit in that car until the president finished speaking even if it meant I missed my plane. He finished, and I made a run for the terminal, still crying. It was all I could do not to hug the six other people in the security line, as well as all the TSA employees.

What I felt most strongly that night was relief. Relief that the attempts to keep African Americans away from the polls had ultimately not been successful. Relief that people weren’t, in the end, quite as stupid as Karl Rove gave them credit for. Relief that in 2012 in the United States of America it was still true that no amount of money could buy an election. Relief, above all, that the people who spent the 2012 presidential campaign waging a war on women and their various freedoms had—at least in this round—lost again.

At Butler University the students were smart, engaged, and engaging. At dinner, the young women did all the talking, mapping out their lives and expressing their hearts’ desires, while the young men sat quietly, some combination of shy and polite, paying close attention to the women as if they might have something to learn. In honor of the election results, one young woman—the liveliest at the table, and the funniest—was wearing all red, white, and blue, and by that I mean that nearly every piece of clothing and jewelry she had on was all three colors. She even had all three colors of fingernail polish on every fingernail, and each nail was appliquéd with a tiny American flag.

Every woman at the table had big dreams about her career; most also intended to have children, but not for a while, not until they had written novels and won Pulitzer Prizes and visited fifty or sixty countries and learned how to surf. “I want to have it all” was an expression that flew around the table, and it was clear that these women had every intention of doing so.

One of the quieter women spoke with admiration about her sister who lived in New York, making a quarter of a million dollars a year at Lehman Brothers while raising two children under five. The sister managed, even with her sixty-hour workweek, to post to her home blog every night about the cookies she had found the time to bake for the kids or the handmade yak-wool couch covers she had ordered from a Kiva start-up in Tibet.

“My fiancé wants to start trying for kids right after graduation,” said another woman, glancing down at the chip of diamond on her left hand.

Two kids was the agreed-upon hoped-for number around the table, except for one woman who wanted “at least three,” and another who was an only child and enjoyed the special treatment that had afforded her.

I noticed Ms. Red White and Blue had fallen a little silent when the talk turned to children. “And you?” I said, to reengage her, missing the way her big laugh had become the timpani completing the symphony of female voices at the table. “Where do you stand on children?”

She raised one eyebrow a full inch above the level of the other and said, “Not if hell froze over and hair grew out of the palm of my hand.”

Our eyes locked for a minute and I felt the corners of my mouth rise involuntarily.

“I used to feel that way,” said the soft-spoken woman, “but my sister says having a baby is the only way a woman will ever stop being all about herself.”

“The worst thing of all,” said the only child, “would be not to do it, and then realize you had totally missed out.”

“I don’t know,” said Ms. Red White and Blue, not aggressively. “I’m pretty sure that having it all might not be. I think maybe having it all is chopping yourself into too many little pieces, taking care of everybody’s needs except your own.”

The other girls leapt to reassure her, “Oh, you’ll feel differently when you get older. Sometime around thirty your hormones will kick in.” They said this with great authority, as if they weren’t all nineteen themselves.

“They won’t,” she said, without a hint of rancor, and I believed her, because take away thirty years and the American flag nail appliqués and Ms. Red White and Blue was me.

* * *

I am fifty-two years old, a writer, a teacher, and a traveler in the old-fashioned sense of the word, meaning I have been to seventy countries and I don’t really feel I can claim a destination until I’ve gotten lost, gotten arrested, or thrown up. I got my first period the same month the Supreme Court ratified Roe v. Wade, and perhaps it was therefore my destiny not to have children.

I never wanted a child—that much was clear—and yet I had lots of friends who said they didn’t want them but then all of a sudden had them, which here in the first world, post Roe v. Wade, must mean that I didn’t want them even more than my friends didn’t.

The closest I ever came to wanting a child was while writing an article more than a decade ago questioning my own adamancy on the subject in response to all the people—many but not all of them strangers—who told me, uninvited, that I was in some kind of denial. But by the time I finished the article, I was pretty sure I wasn’t. Ten years later I’m even more sure. Or at least confident that if I am in denial, I am never going to know. These same people always told me that I would make a great mother, even if they had only known me for five minutes. For all they knew (as we like to say around my house in response to uninformed assumptions), I could have been fucking the dog.

* * *

It wasn’t all that long ago that we thought Mitt Romney had a decent chance of being elected president, and it seemed clear that at least one of his missions in that role would be to overturn Roe v. Wade. A lot of crazy things were said during that election year, but perhaps none of them crazier than when Representative Todd Akin said that if a woman experienced a “legitimate” rape, she wouldn’t get pregnant because the female body has ways of “shutting that whole thing down.” It is hard to enumerate all the ways Akin’s suggestion is insidious, but let’s try. First, his comment blows right past the usual accusation that women “ask” to be raped by their provocative clothing and behavior and moves on to suggest that any rape victim who didn’t take nefarious pleasure in the actual procedure could avoid abortion altogether by employing her witchy womanly ways to terminate the resulting pregnancy. Abortion would become unnecessary, except perhaps in the case of a very weak woman whose secret powers were not cutting the mustard, inversely proving, in Todd Akin logic, that she had not been “legitimately” raped. And what, one shudders to ask, does that mean, precisely? Is it “illegitimate” rape if you wore fishnet stockings to the bar? Is it illegitimate rape if your car broke down in a shitty part of town? How about if it’s all in the family? Does Uncle Charlie get one free go at the twins at the New Year’s Eve party? Is it illegitimate rape if the rapist is your dad?

* * *

In the 1970s and ’80s it had not yet become critically unfashionable for writers to be concerned about the environment. We didn’t even know about global warming, and yet the average citizen—at least in the circles I ran in—felt considerably more pressure to reduce the impact she was making on the planet’s ecology than she seems to feel today. A woman could say she didn’t want to have children because she didn’t want to contribute to the overpopulation of the earth—that already teeming planet—and while some people may not have believed her, it was an acceptable, even admirable, way for her to take a pass. My friend the writer Terry Tempest Williams made such a claim at the time, which caused a stir, for obvious reasons, in the Mormon community from which she originates. I looked up to Terry—I still do—and loved the natural world with a similar passion. I wanted nothing to do with diapers made out of petroleum products, wanted to take no responsibility for one more dream home being built on wild land.

I have a photo of Terry and me at the Salt Lake City Book Festival in 1992 where, between us, we don’t look drinking age. We are sitting at a table behind stacks of the newly released Cowboys Are My Weakness and Coyote’s Canyon, and behind our eyes I see nothing but excitement and wildness and delight. We are living the lives our mothers’ generation couldn’t even imagine, and we know it. We are architects of our own destiny. We are free.

The feminism of a few decades ago was far less full of booby traps for the woman who wanted to claim it as a stance than it is in today’s superspecialized jargon-laden academicized version. It was far less likely to strike itself to death over semantics like an overagitated snake. Nineteen seventies feminism declared its ideals in simple sentences one could either agree with or not: A woman had the right to be an artist. A woman had the right to run for office. A woman had the right to attend—for instance—Dartmouth College. A woman had the right not to make babies. A woman had the right not to be a wife.

My women’s studies teacher at Denison University in 1980 wore IUDs as earrings. I had such a giant crush on her it can still make me blush. Nan Nowik was tall and elegant and upright in her feminism. In her class we read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Sula, Love Medicine, The Bluest Eye. She accused us daily—no doubt justifiably—of being slaves to the dominant paradigm, by which she meant, of course, the Patriarchy. She was strange, and she wanted to know in what ways we were strange, and in the super-prepped-out frat-party world of Denison in those days, she was a lifeline. Nan Nowik didn’t once tell us that having it all meant we would win the National Book Award and then give birth to 2.3 babies. Nan Nowik would have found the idea of a blog about baking cookies absurd.

* * *

These days it is widely assumed that a woman who doesn’t want to have children is reacting—perhaps overreacting—to damage that was done to her in her childhood. I can’t refute this claim with any certainty, because the usual trifecta of abuse (alcohol, sexual, physical) did indeed define my own. And yet I become, as I age, less and less convinced that is the whole story. In the first place, thirty years of teaching creative writing has proven to me that my childhood story is as common as a two-car garage. In the second place, I’ve been working my whole life to heal those old wounds and, frankly, I don’t feel that damaged anymore.

Try this on. What if I didn’t want to have babies because I loved my job too much to compromise it, or because serious travel makes me feel in relation to the world in an utterly essential way? What if I’ve always liked the looks of my own life much better than those of the ones I saw around me? What if, given the option, I would prefer to accept an assignment to go trekking for a month in the kingdom of Bhutan than spend that same month folding onesies? What if I simply like dogs a whole lot better than babies? What if I have become sure that personal freedom is the thing I hold most dear?

Some of my closest friends love being mothers, live, to a certain extent, to be mothers. It has been the single most challenging and rewarding endeavor of their lives. Others of my friends don’t like it that much, thought they would like it better than they do, are counting the days till the last kid goes off to college so they can turn their attention to their own dreams. A few friends pretend to love it, but everyone within twelve square miles can hear them grinding their teeth. Still others pretend motherhood is the world’s biggest hassle and yet you can tell they love it deep down. And then there are my childless friends, who fit right into corresponding categories: the ones who love childlessness, the ones who regret it, and the ones who pretend to be in the opposite camp from the one they’re in. A childless friend recently said to me, “I will never regret not having children. What I regret is that I live in a world where in spite of everything, that decision is still not quite okay.”

It seems unreasonable, not to mention sexist, to suggest that because all women have the biological capacity to have children, they all should; and that those who don’t are either in denial or psychologically damaged. My score on the LSAT indicates that I have the mental capacity to be a lawyer, but I have not gotten one single letter from a stranger or anyone else telling me that I would make a really great lawyer, that the fact that I am not a lawyer must be related to some deep-seated childhood trauma, that if I would only straighten up and become a lawyer, I could pay off some unspecified debt to the world.

* * *

There are quite a few actualities of contemporary American life that despite all the time I’ve had to get used to them still stagger my imagination. It staggers my imagination that so many people who are struggling physically and financially are so resistant to the policies that would provide them with affordable health care. It staggers my imagination that an angry teenager can walk into a store and buy a weapon that will fire a hundred rounds of ammunition without reloading, but I can’t take my 3.2-ounce bottle of Aveda shampoo on board an airplane embarking on a forty-minute commuter flight. And it staggers my imagination that any woman will vote for a politician who has been up front about wanting to control what does and doesn’t happen inside her womb.

In the years since the Roe v. Wade ruling, conservative lawmakers in many states have whittled away at it, adding laws about waiting periods, mandatory counseling, parental consent, and, bizarrely, in Indiana, the size of the hall and the doorway through which morning-after pills are distributed. At the time of this writing, six states—Utah, Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri, and my state, Colorado—have “trigger” laws on the subject of abortion, meaning that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, abortion would become illegal in that state effective immediately. Twenty-three additional states have trigger laws on late-term abortion. Pro-choice activists believe it is only a matter of time before a state writes a bill that effectively dodges the language of Roe v. Wade. In 2012, NARAL estimated that if Mitt Romney were elected president, seventeen states would ban abortion within the year.

There are many controversial issues in contemporary American politics where, in spite of my strong feelings, I have the ability to understand and respect the other side. But the notion that we could ever pretend women have real equality in this country when a man as uninformed about basic reproductive gynecology as Mr. Todd Akin could take away my right to decide whether I want to spend a minimum of eighteen years and an average of $235,000 raising a child—not to mention the significant cost to my own dreams and goals or the myriad ways my child might ultimately suffer for my having been denied the ability to make that choice, the ways so many children suffer every day at the hands of their frustrated, stultified mothers—is an absurdity.

Against abortion? the bumper sticker says. Then don’t have one! And in 2015, that should be the end of that.

* * *

I was in Missoula, Montana, recently, doing book promotion, when a young woman I had never met asked me out for coffee. A beloved editor we knew in common had passed away, and the idea was that we would get together and tell a few “Carol” stories.

“I have to admit,” she said, when we had settled into our table, “that you and Terry Tempest Williams are my biggest literary heroes, and one thing I have always admired about you is that you are both childless by choice.”

I realized when she said it how long it had been since anyone had found that particular aspect of my life admirable. What most people—especially women—found it, almost without exception, was selfish, misguided, or even mildly creepy, like the way Winona Ryder got away, at first, with shoplifting, but eventually, inevitably, got caught.

“What I want more than anything is to have a life like yours,” she said, “writing, traveling, publishing books.”

I knew she had recently sold her first book to a very good press and said, “It sounds like you are well on your way.”

“The only thing is,” she said, “I’m eleven weeks pregnant, and I guess why I really asked you out for coffee is that I was hoping you would tell me that I can have it all.”

There it was again, that advertising slogan. While I stalled for time by sipping my latte, she told me she had similarly asked Terry out to coffee and presented her with the same conundrum. Kind, unsarcastic Terry, who had the benefit of being raised in a culture that values politeness so much more than we did back in New Jersey. However poorly she had scored on this unexpected test, she would have done a million times better than I.

Not to mention the tricky fact of eleven weeks, which was a lot different from four and also different from thirteen. Did this young woman really want me to tell her she could have it all, or did she want me to say, Quick! Here’s my cell phone. Make the appointment while there’s still time!

“How many weeks pregnant were you when you talked to Terry?” I asked, still stalling. When she looked at me strangely, I said, “I’m sorry. I guess I don’t believe you can have it all. I don’t believe any of us can. In fact, I believe the very expression having it all is not only a myth but also a symptom of how sick we are in our contemporary culture. Nobody gets to have it all, not even Donald Trump. You will have one thing or another depending on what choice you make. Or you will have both things in limited amounts, and that might turn out to be perfect, just exactly the life you want.”

* * *

Feminist friends my age groan in agony when they meet young women who don’t even know precisely what the words Roe v. Wade refer to. But, in fairness, what did I know, at eighteen, about Margaret Sanger, or everything it took to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, or how many states failed to ratify the ERA? Not nearly as much as I should have. Not enough to understand the debt of gratitude I owed to the women who had come before me.

But what is perhaps even more unsettling is my dawning understanding that because I came of age right on the heels of Roe v. Wade, of Gloria Steinem and Adrienne Rich, of Joan Didion and Alice Munro, it might have been more okay for me not to have children than it is for the women I met at Butler University. Maybe my generation had the distinct advantage of watching our own mothers see on the horizon the choices that would soon be available to women, only to realize how half buried they already were in the quicksand of overbearing husbands and carpool commitments and the Junior League. Maybe because we watched them retreat into the bottle, or the prescription pills, or worse, it was my generation who swore upon our Barbies and our Mystery Date board games that we would not be similarly trapped. Maybe those battles have fallen now, too far into the rearview mirror, or maybe, as Nan Nowik would say, the dominant paradigm has taught this generation of young women how to police themselves.

* * *

The first time I got pregnant was exactly nine months before my first book was slated to come out. I was twenty-nine years old, and I conceived around a diaphragm (with spermicidal jelly). The father of the child and I were not married, but we were in a decent enough relationship. I liked him a lot, which I understand now is probably the best thing one can say about any relationship, and I thought he would make a pretty good dad.

When I called to tell my mother I was pregnant, she said, “You have a very special talent, Pam, and if you decide to have that baby, you are going to become perfectly ordinary, exactly like everyone else.” My mother was an actress, a singer, a dancer, and an acrobat. When she was sixty-five years old, she could still do handsprings down the beach. To cope with her life’s disappointments, she drank three fifths of vodka per week and took a mountain of daily Vioxx, the combination of which would kill her within that year.

When I called my editor to tell her the news, she said something much less pointed, though along the same lines and undeniably true. The publisher was behind my book of short stories in a way that was not so common—they were sending me on a multicity book tour—and it would be in the book’s best interest if I was able to go.

Contrary to the belief of some outspoken congressmen, no woman ever wants to have an abortion. I have never met one who takes it lightly, who hasn’t thought about the abortion with if not some version of regret, at least with some sadness for the rest of her life.

I have often wondered what would have happened if my mother had had a more standard reaction, for instance excitement about being a grandparent or a guarded hope that if I had a child, it might settle me down. Had there been even the slightest parental pause, space that would have allowed me to say how I was feeling about it, would I have made a different decision? Twenty-nine feels so young to me now—surely I thought I had unlimited time ahead of me. I was so naive about the pressures of the publishing industry I might have believed that if having the baby hurt this book’s sales, I’d be given the chance to write and promote another. Had this all happened before Roe v. Wade, every single thing about my life right now would be different. Not necessarily worse and not necessarily better. I don’t believe under any circumstances I would think I had it all.

* * *

I will admit without hesitation that my life is rich and full of pleasure. I love to work hard and I do, at both teaching and writing. When I’m teaching, my job is to make and hold a space for someone else’s creativity; when I’m writing, I get to prioritize my own. I spend the money I earn at both pursuits on adventures that will lead to more writing, the publication of which will lead to better teaching opportunities, which will lead to more adventures, which will lead to more writing, and so on, if I am lucky, for the rest of my life. I value my time because it gives me the capacity to earn money and I value the money I earn because it buys me freedom, and these seem like reasonable priorities. I live on a spectacular piece of land in a spectacular part of Colorado. I paid off the mortgage last summer, after twenty-one years, with every single dime of the money I earned either teaching or writing. It feels to me, all in all, like a comparatively honorable life.

It also seems honorable that another woman would value motherhood over all my priorities. But I do not believe that I am selfish and she is not. There are women who choose motherhood for selfish reasons. There are mothers who act selfishly even if they chose motherhood in a burst of altruistic love. Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal—and I believe it is—perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity. It is quite possible that I would be a less generous teacher, a less supportive partner, a less available friend if I had children of my own to take care of. Love is not a pie, the saying goes, but it is also true that there are only so many hours in a day.

Or, in the parlance of the Butler creative writers, is it necessarily a bad thing when a woman gets to be all about herself? Is that not what our feminist foremothers were trying to tell us, that if a woman actually had five minutes to be all about herself she might find a cure for breast cancer, or win an Olympic gold medal, or negotiate peace in Gaza, or become president of the United States?

* * *

A student sent me an e-mail telling me she was dropping out of my private writing group: “I love the group and will really miss it,” she wrote, “but I can’t see spending the money I ought to be spending on my children’s education on my own.” I pictured her imagining, as she wrote the e-mail, a bunch of women standing around giant pieces of brightly colored plastic playground equipment in the town where she lives nodding sagely at her sacrifice.

But what I wanted to ask was, Why not? Why is their education more important, inherently, than yours? You are a very talented writer with immense potential. What if your children turn out, even after that expensive education, to be just a couple of dolts?

The median home price in the town where she lives is $904,000, so we can rest assured that her kids are in no real danger of remaining uneducated. I do understand that it is noble to want what is best for one’s children. But I worry that we have taken a big step backward if it is perceived as nobler still when doing for one’s children comes at great expense to oneself.

My mother said one thing to me more than any other and it was “I gave up everything I loved for you.” It was an expression she used for almost any occasion: to make me clean my room, to make me part my hair on the side, to make me wear my retainer, to make me sign on to one of her psycho diets, to make me wear those awful Ann Taylor jackets with the four-inch shoulder pads, to make me break up with whatever boyfriend. I could fill pages with the things this simple set of words had the power to make me do. Years after my mother died, my therapist asked me to make a list of the things my mother loved, and as usual I obliged him: acting, singing, dancing, tennis, sewing, travel, vodka.

“And how many of those things did she enjoy after you were born?” he asked me.

“All of them,” I said. “Every single one of them, right up to her death.”

“How about that?” he said. “Turns out the only thing she gave up was … what?”

“The condition of childlessness,” I said, which I had to grant her is no small thing, and a condition I admit to loving myself.

* * *

And maybe it’s love, unsurprisingly, that all this comes down to. And love, like selfishness and generosity, is not exclusive to one demographic; it infuses every single thing we do and are. I love the physical world and the experiences I get to have in it so deeply and completely that it threatens to break my heart every minute, and I have made countless life choices—in addition to childlessness—to ensure that I can be out and in the world on my own terms almost all the time.

When I am puking my guts into a hole in the ground in Bhutan, I am loving the prayer flags that flutter over my head; I am loving my body’s ability to preserve my life by expelling whatever poison I was too stupid not to consume; I am loving, in retrospect, the temple where I was given the cholera-tainted orange that has landed me in this position; and I am loving, most of all, the fact that some combination of luck, hard work, and skill has landed me on assignment in Bhutan, a place that has lived in my imagination since I was a map-devouring child. And for Bhutan, feel free to substitute Bolivia, Botswana, Laos, Serifos, Paris, Istanbul, or, while you’re at it, Telluride, Provincetown, Grand Forks, or New Smyrna Beach, to name only the tiniest fraction of the totality of the places I love. And when I say I love them, I mean I love their particularities: the smell of the yak butter candles in the Gyantse monastery, the woman in Kasane with beads in her hair who took my hands and taught me to dance, the four gangly graduate students at the University of North Dakota who asked me, during my visit, if I wanted to get up at eight on Sunday morning to go to the gym and sit in a smelly little plexiglass box and watch them play basketball.

“When you look into your baby’s eyes,” my friend Sarah once said to me, “that will become your Tibet.” I have no doubt that looking into one’s own baby’s eyes is many inexpressibly wonderful things, but one thing it is not is Tibet.

* * *

For the last seven years I have had the great and specific pleasure of being a stepparent, and I therefore have a somewhat more realistic idea about the amount of time and money and psychic energy a person commits to expending when she agrees to have a child. And when I say a somewhat more realistic idea, I mean exactly that. My stepdaughter was already six when I met her, and she lives with her mother most of the time. I love Kaeleigh with the kind of love that would make me throw myself in front of a freight train to save her, so along with some small idea of the sacrifice, I also have some small idea of the reward.

You might think the joy that loving Kaeleigh has brought into my life would make me regret my earlier decisions, but just the opposite is true. I believe my childlessness contributed to my ability to step unhesitatingly and fully into her life at a time when she really needed me. First, having Kaeleigh in my life was new and interesting (yes, Sarah, not unlike Tibet), and by the time it wasn’t new anymore, I had fallen completely in love.

When I am at my best with Kaeleigh, I am able to show her a different type of life from the one her mother chose. In this house, I am the primary breadwinner and as such make most of the decisions; I fly 100,000 miles a year, sometimes to places she has never heard of. I took her to her first rock concert. I read her her first Salinger; I taught her how to ride a horse. On the other hand, I fly more than 100,000 miles a year, sometimes to places she has never heard of. I missed her eighth birthday celebration because I was stuck in O’Hare Airport, and I am almost never the one who holds her hair back when she gets sick.

I always used to say, when pressed about children, that I figured some kid would show up someday who needed something from me and I would be ready. Not only is that exactly what happened; it turned out I needed something she had to give, too. You might be tempted to say that with the arrival of Kaeleigh, I got to have my cake and subsequently eat it. You might even be tempted to say that now I have it all. But having it all is a slogan for ad execs and life coaches. I’ll settle for having freedom of choice.