Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016
I SPENT THE ENTIRE ninth year of my life horrified that I was pregnant. It began at the tail end of second grade, and continued on until I was ten, when my mom innocently handed me a book that explained the particulars of human development and made perfectly clear that pregnancy could not come before menarche. At the time, I was living with my parents and my little sister on the northern edge of a California college town, where, after school, the neighbor kids and I played on the dark gray macadam of our quiet cul-de-sac, and sometimes, in and around the drainage pond at the end of the street, some two hundred yards away. There were tiny fish in that pond, and nearby, crows, and gophers, and probably a fair number of snakes, although I saw evidence of the latter only once, when I rode my bike past the corpse of an unlucky garter, his skull flattened by the thick tread of one of the motorized bikes that pimply teenage boys rode, whizzing up and over the packed hills of dirt on the farthest reaches of the pond.
The “pond,” as we called it, was nothing more than a place where runoff was collected, and, one assumes, drained, but it was teeming with life: cattails, dragonflies, mosquitoes, tadpoles, and, later in the season, baby frogs. I played there by myself, and sometimes with my friend Rachel, and sometimes with Daniel, a boy two years my junior who lived in a duplex three doors down from my family’s one-story Streng Brothers—designed home. Daniel was shorter than I was, covered in freckles, and probably Scottish in descent—he shared a surname with the man who later became my husband and then ex-husband—and his straight hair stuck out at odd angles, like the bristles on a stiff brush. He was not blessed with a particularly compelling personality—the most interesting thing about him was the fact that he had accidentally aided in the strangulation of his family’s pet cat after he left a string around her neck that got snagged on the slat of a wooden fence—but he was the only boy on the block, which meant that he could be counted on to do the things other kids my age didn’t want to do, like racing our bikes around, and playing Cyclops, and covering ourselves in the Capay soils native to our area as we brandished plastic shovels and tried to dig our way to China.
Daniel could also be counted on, at least for a few months, to drop trou and show me his penis. I wouldn’t call what we did “playing doctor,” because I had no interest in the medical arts or in feigning illness in order to get a glimpse of someone else’s forbidden flesh. Despite my straightforwardness about what we did, however, I was well aware that there was perhaps something tawdry about pulling down my drawers to expose my genitals to a neighbor boy—and, even worse, asking him to do the same—but I didn’t care: I wanted to get a gander at the goods. Some days, we’d meet up after school and squeeze into the narrow space next to the eastern wall of my house, pull down our pants on the count of three, and spend a few minutes eyeballing one another. Eventually, looking begat discussing, which begat touching, which begat the one day in the summer of 1981, after capturing four baby frogs and placing them in a Mason jar for safekeeping, I pulled down my pants, had Daniel do the same, and thrust myself up against him. We stood there for ten seconds or so, my knees bent and my hips tilted upward so I could snuggle his little penis between my legs more easily—I was a good five inches taller than he was—but soon he got nervous, wiggled back into his shorts, and set out for home. The next morning, after discovering that the baby frogs we’d captured had perished in the suffocating conditions of the sealed glass jar, it occurred to me that the previous day’s sexual child’s play might have made me pregnant, and I spent the next year in a state of mild panic, examining, whenever I remembered to do so, my bare belly for the swelling that suggested evidence of human gestation. None ever came.
I did get pregnant later. I was nineteen, and in love, and having the sort of constant, frenzied, and, yes, unprotected sex that many of those in the midst of early adulthood know not to engage in but engage in anyway. (I would become pregnant twice more, once when I was twenty-four, and again when I was twenty-seven.) The first termination took place at a Planned Parenthood in downtown Sacramento, California, and I was terrified but resolute: there had never been any doubt in my mind as to whether I would go through with the pregnancy, and little concern as to whether I might later regret the removal of the mass of cells embedded in the walls of my uterus. I didn’t, and I didn’t regret the next abortion, or the next one, although I did marvel, in later years, at the fact that had I taken these pregnancies to term, I would, at thirty-five years of age, be a mother to, respectively, a sixteen-year-old, a ten-year-old, and an eight-year-old. I found the idea amusing—and utterly, completely terrifying.
That terror, that utter horror, had very little to do with my feelings about children and everything to do with my feelings about myself, namely, my hunger to do things, and meet people, and carve out a special space in the world in which I could find my authentic self, whatever that came to mean. Motherhood had never been of particular fascination for me—my one and only youthful foray into performative parenting involved a Baby Wet & Care, a doll manufactured by Kenner that was designed to break out in a diaper rash after being “fed” a bottle of water and wetting a diaper. In fact, from the time I was a young girl until well into my thirties, I did not fantasize about having babies, or find others’ babies of much, if any, interest. (My own baby sister, born when I was four, was met, I am told, with a warmth and affection one notch below my reverence for things like Sesame Street and illustrated children’s encyclopedias. But maybe that’s the way it is for every kid with a new sibling. Regardless, I love her very much.)
Part of this was, no doubt, a function of the era—the 1980s—in which I was raised, a time when the birthrate of the United States was in the midst of a lull that had begun back in the mid-’70s economic recession. And though the country’s conservatism was reflected, to some degree, in its popular culture, which still relied on depictions of functional, conventional, nuclear families in order to sell time to advertisers, the female heads of households in those narratives—Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Elyse Keaton on Family Ties, the eponymous heroines of Kate & Allie, to name some television examples—were more than just moms: they were also, for the most part, career women. (Allie stayed home and took care of housekeeping and the kids until the show’s fifth season, when she and Kate started a catering service.) As such, their fealty to their kids was profound but not prohibitive: one got the sense that they did not locate their successes, and certainly not their senses of self, within the comings and goings of the minors under their care. In fact, sometimes children of ’80s-era television women were so ancillary to their mothers’ identities as to be almost beside the point: after the high-powered Murphy Brown decided to go it alone and give birth to a baby she would raise as a single mom, her son all but disappeared from the series writers’ radar.
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Mothers who are able to successfully combine work and family are all around me, yet the compatibility of career and kids remains a concept I understand intellectually but seem emotionally unable to accept. And so when I tell people—usually female friends—that, at age forty-one, I “don’t know” if I want children or still feel that I’m “not ready,” what I’m really saying is that I don’t believe I can do the things I want to do in life and also be a parent to kids, nor am I willing to find out. Fueling this tension is a deep and paralyzing fear, a fear that, again, is not so much about children but about my own latent caretaking instincts. I suspect I would be a good mother—a fantastic mother, even—thanks to the gifts bestowed upon me by my own parents: the ability to give and express love, the indulgence of curiosity, and the prioritizing of imagination, education, and personal integrity over societally approved successes like financial or social achievement. (I take an inordinate amount of pride in my own emotional intelligence, but that particular gift has little to do with my parents and almost everything to do with the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve spent on psychotherapy over the past twenty years.) But herein lies the rub: as it stands now, I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena. Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.
My therapist would describe this as magical thinking—and she might be right. But the example set by my own mother is one that informs much about my decision to not have kids, and her story fills me with both pride and guilt. A skinny, curious Midwestern girl who escaped her insular, tiny Ohio town and headed east to New York City, where she earned the first of two graduate degrees, worked in social justice, and traveled the world, my mother found herself, a decade and a half later, trapped in a wholly unremarkable suburb ten miles west of Sacramento, California, teaching typing skills to snotty thirteen-year-olds and supporting two grumpy daughters desperate to be left alone in their rooms except for occasional shopping trips to Macy’s in search of Guess? jeans.
Is this the life she imagined for herself? My mother would no doubt take issue with what I’ve just written. She would flinch at the idea that her two children are anything but beautiful blessings, beings made from love between her and my adoring father, conduits through which she was able to channel all of her love, and to experience and further indulge her curiosity and wonder at the world. (Not to mention her politics.) She would deny that she lost something of herself in motherhood, and, though she might concede to having felt the occasional bout of frustration, and maybe even acknowledge a relationship between child rearing and ambitions left unfulfilled, she would maintain that she had never communicated this to her children with any specificity. She’d be right; she did not. But my sister and I did not need to hear our mother acknowledge how much parenting—much of it single parenting—limited her life; we saw it every day. We understood that by devoting her life to us, she was, in some ways, giving up herself. (As for my dad, well, let’s be clear: this neglect of self in the service of children, while not wholly specific to women, is at the very least highly specific to them. Women have long been responsible for a disproportionate amount of the child care.)
Some might call my trepidation at the idea of motherhood “selfishness”—I would call it “agency”—but those people are probably either (1) dudes or (2) self-satisfied professional parents, and I’m not sure I care enough about their opinions that I wouldn’t just agree with them and shrug my shoulders in shared chagrin. (Those who inquire after my plans for parenthood often interpret my childlessness as a function of my dislike for kids, when, again, nothing could be further from the truth: the barrenness of my womb has nothing to do with a distaste for kids, who, along with animals, I like and identify with more than I do with most adults.) But the fact is, it is never far from my mind that the means of reproduction—and its costs—are beasts of burden borne, historically, by the fairer sex.
Times have changed, of course, and men are shouldering more of the responsibilities of parenting—and tethering themselves to the Snuglis and BabyBjörns—but the demands on and expectations of women, at least in the highly educated and relatively affluent milieu I inhabit, have not so much disappeared as shifted to other things, namely, a set of insidious though by no means unprecedented expectations for the maintenance of outward appearances. (The term MILF, which, for the uninitiated, is an acronym for the phrase “Mother I’d Like to Fuck,” only gained widespread popularity some fifteen years ago.)
Nowhere are these hoary ideas about womanhood—this performance of perfect femininity—more routinely on display than on the streets of the South Brooklyn neighborhood that I inhabit, which is lined with low-cal frozen yogurt shops and yoga and Pilates studios and overpriced boutiques filled with one-of-a-kind maternity clothes and hundred-dollar sets of receiving blankets made of “all organic cotton.” One recent Mother’s Day, on my way to meet two friends for an early dinner of pizza and beer, I walked by an apparel shop displaying a sandwich board exhorting (presumably unintentionally childless) female passersby who felt sad about the holiday to come in and buy a dress that would get them “knocked up in no time.” Add to that the creeping commodification of childhood in the form of must-have status symbols—baby carriages, sleeper clothing—and the economic inequalities and educational failures that find parents signing up their toddlers for placement in private elementary schools years in advance and you’ve got yet another reason for some of the aversion I have for the demands of modern American parenthood.
In the end, maybe my ambivalence about motherhood comes down to the fact that I just don’t trust myself enough. (Or that I need to move somewhere far, far away from New York, where kids can play safely in the dirt, and grocery store aisles are blessedly free of four-dollar single-serve pouches of sweet-potato-and-pear puree made from organic vegetables gathered by exoticized indigenous populations living south of the U.S. border.) But I believe that there is something else going on here, a societal discomfort not just with women who choose to remain childless but with those who decide to become mothers and dare to confess to feelings of frustration and exasperation over the choices they have made. In the spring of 2014, just five months after becoming the first lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray was excoriated by the city’s tabloid newspapers for having the gall to suggest in an interview that the arrival of her first child, Chiara, was celebrated with anything but complete and utter devotion. “I was forty years old; I had a life,” Ms. McCray told New York magazine. “But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it … I’ve been working since I was fourteen, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ’I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.” (The editors of The New York Post interpreted these comments to mean that Ms. McCray was a “bad mom” and said as much, in huge type, on the cover of their paper’s May 19 edition.)
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What McCray left unsaid, but what I suspect she was also getting at, is that it often takes a long time for women to “get into” taking care of themselves, and that her need for autonomy was as much about basking in her hard-won self-actualization as it was a reaction to the exhaustion that comes with tending to a child’s every need. These days, as I enter my forties, I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no. (No, I cannot perform that job; no, I cannot meet you for coffee; no, I cannot be in a relationship in which I feel starved for emotional and physical connection.) Despite (or because of) my single status right now, becoming a mother would feel like a devolution as much as an evolution, and the irony is that if and when I reach the point where I feel able to give my all to another human being and still keep some semblance of the self I’ve worked so hard to create, I will probably not be of childbearing age. Them’s the breaks.