“This was enough, this fraction of the whole,
just as the leafy scene in the windows was enough
now that the light was growing dim,
as was she enough, perfectly by herself
in her place in the enormous mural of the world.”
~ Billy Collins, “(detail)”
I walked toward our back door, responding to the frantic scratching and whining from our cavalier King Charles spaniel who always hits the glass as if she’s three feet in front of the first wave of the zombie apocalypse.
In the center of the area rug, halfway to the door, I had the feeling of a strange and fleeting release, and I knew what it was in the way I know my own name. Wisps of identities and whispers of individuals floated up, out of my mind, out of me, out into the room, dissipating and disappearing. Gone forever.
These whispers were the children I would never have. After a decade of ambivalence and questioning, resignation, peace, worry, grief and satisfaction and dissatisfaction, it somehow settled in my psyche, as any last vestigial hopes left me, that I will never be a mother.
In a noetic, wordless manner, I accepted the ghosts of the future’s departure in a way I had never completely done so before—even if I had said, and believed, I wanted to. Those pale, abstracted, misty faces floated up and away, and by the time I reached the door to let our dog inside, I saw more of my future: childfree, independent, and with a stability and realism I had never envisioned.I will be “childfree” or, if you prefer, “childless by choice.”
I did not have the feeling that I was “settling” at all. No, in contrast, I am lifting.
As anyone who sees newsstands is aware, more and more American women are choosing not to have children. One recent study from the Pew Research Center estimates women without children at one in five. This number is a 100 percent increase since a similar statistic was compiled in 1976, according to Women’s Enews, though it does include women who want, but cannot have, children. According to Melanie Notkin in an article on childlessness in the Huffington Post, about half of the women who are childless by the age of 40 are so by choice.
A recent controversial Time magazine article, “Having it All Without Having Children,” asserted that women who choose to be childfree often confront societal values that assume a woman cannot be feminine without ultimately becoming a mother. At the same time, another recent study, reported in Women’s ENews found a correlation between intelligence in women and the choice not to have children.
Of course, correlation is not causation, and the tricky deciphering and decoding of variables begins when such studies are cited, but regardless the childless numbers continue to climb.
In Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice, author Laura Scott asserts that the primary reason women give for not having children is that they are protecting a quality of life they currently enjoy from the catastrophic change of becoming a parent. Nearly three out of four of these women say they have no internal or inherent desire to have a child. Without that maternal instinct, the motivation is simply not strong enough, and the resistance to becoming a mother can become a powerful force.
These women have things they want to do on their own that having a child would derail or endanger. They are making an active decision about their futures, rather than falling into a preset role for women in society.
When I began my relationship with my husband, I was in my 20s, and he was in his early 40s. He did not want more children—he already had two. It was not an option to be with him and have children.
I was talking with a friend of mine at the time about my decision to pursue a real relationship with him instead of theoretical children some day. She had three grown children, and she said candidly to me that the instant she had her first child, “a thousand decisions were made for me. It’s okay if you want to make each one of those decisions about your life for yourself. That sounds really good to me, too.”
One of my closest friends and I recently discussed childlessness from simultaneously similar and different perspectives because we’ve both experienced the aching ambivalence that comes with that choice. During my late 30s, I went through an extended period of wanting children very deeply. My husband’s position on the matter had not changed, and I had to make the choice again, in a more painful and very real way: him or maybe-someday-children with maybe-somebody-else. But time has passed, and I’ve experienced the lifting of those anxieties. My friend said her ambivalence is now at about 30 percent for kids, 70 percent against.
“But how can that 30 percent hurt so much?” My friend asked. Her eyes were shiny with tears.
I’m at about four percent now, I told her, but sometimes I think the ambivalence is more painful—or at least painful in a different way—than certainty, even unfulfilled certainty. There is a great deal of self-doubt, fear of regret and awkwardness at times fitting yourself in among women who know more about where they fall on the spectrum.
On my 44th birthday last month, my mom sent me an email, “Happy birthday! You’re now the age I was when you were born!” As my mind spun with thoughts of how disruptive a child would be for me at this point in my life—where would we put the crib? How could we take those long trips to Europe every summer? —I could see how much more I am embracing this life I live.
My positive and very rich relationship with my mother is the only thing that ever gives me pause anymore about not having children of my own. That is the one thing I would like to “pass on,” how she raised us with patience and respect and how she loves the people we are, no matter how different we are from her. I won’t have a similar relationship with a daughter of my own. Everything is a trade-off, and I see that as I age, my decisions narrow opportunities for my future.
But even when I’m navigating that lingering 4 percent of desire, I know that something at the heart of me has always seen this coming. One of my earliest memories is playing with a baby doll, enjoying myself as I cared for her pretend needs and thinking with amazing clarity for a child of around 4 years old, I don’t want to grow up and be a mother. I don’t want to do this for real.
Maybe this has something to do with growing up as the youngest of nine children. Maybe it’s a personality trait linked to those that led to my college-era eating disorder (research does make a connection between these two phenomena). Maybe it’s my introversion and the real need I have for time by myself. Maybe I agree with Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote there is something strange and frightening about a third person living in the home who did not come in through the door.
And though I could talk for hours over cocktails or on the running path about complexities of the desire to have children versus the desire to maintain life as I know it, at its heart the truth is that this life I lead with my husband, our dogs and our cat is enough for me. “Perfectly by myself… in the enormous mural of the world.”
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Assistant Editor: Paige Vignola/Editor: Bryonie Wise