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“Child-free is easy, the difficult part is other people’s opinions.” ~ Anonymous
I never really liked kids—in particular, babies.
Maybe it was because I was the youngest in my extended family and had no access to small children, which made them seem foreign and abstract. Maybe it was because I didn’t particularly enjoy being a child myself.
Whatever the reason, no one would have or could have predicted that one day I would be a mom to six.
I didn’t get there the typical way. As with most things in my life, I had to be a little bit off kilter. So when I met a great guy who happened to have full custody of his five kids, I didn’t do what most other 29-year-old women would have done—run! Instead, I embraced the challenge.
These were, after all, not babies (the most dreaded of all creatures); they ranged in age from 5-12. How hard could they be?
Well, really hard. My life became a whirlwind of laundry, cooking, bedtime stories, parent teacher conferences, and all the attendant minutia of raising a family. It was totally consuming. As I left the other parts of my life behind to take on this role, the years seemed to spin by, and suddenly, I was 32, my biological clock was ticking, and I was forced to wonder: Would these be my only children or would I ever have any of my “own”?
I had deeply mixed feelings. On one hand, the family seemed complete. It was big and rambunctious, and there was so much for me to do—as well as so many people to financially support. Adding more ingredients to the Leibrandt stew seemed like the potentially fatal error chefs make when they over salt a dish at the last second, ruining its delicate balance.
On the other hand, though I felt my usual distaste at the thought of raising an actual baby, would I regret it if I let the opportunity come and go?
Everyone seemed to have an opinion about this. I remember one conversation in particular at a Halloween party where an inebriated neighborhood dad started crying as he implored me to have my “own” children. I will never forget how he persisted despite my heartfelt and logical explanations about why that might not be the path for me.
Reflecting back on it, I have so much empathy for women of a certain age who are faced with similar commentary and thoughts about what they should do with their own lives. It seems like once we hit 30, everyone—everyone!—is wondering, “Will she or won’t she?”
The fact that I ultimately decided to add one more human to our family equation in no way softens my resentment toward the way I was looked at prior to that decision. Not by my own parents or siblings (I am lucky that they put zero pressure on me either way) but by my community—a distinctly child-centric group who had a whisper and a stare ready for me (the weird, childless interloper) at all times.
For the first time in history women are in a position to imagine what a child-free life could look like. It’s crazy to me that in 2022 women still have to defend their right to be child free, and it speaks to the deep systemic oppression that’s really at play here.
I’m not saying that the patriarchy is the only reason other people are invested in what a woman chooses or doesn’t choose. Some folks truly had their lives open up after having children and they want others to have that same joyful experience. But others lack imagination and can’t envision a purpose other than procreation. And then there are the people who just run out of conversation starters and let themselves slip into the same boring, old routine: “Isn’t the weather beautiful?” “So, how about those (insert sports team here),” and sometimes, “Hey, are you thinking about having kids?/Why haven’t you had kids yet?/How could you possibly not want kids?”
In her book Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children, Jeanne Safer, PhD says, “Motherhood is no longer a necessary nor a sufficient condition for maturity or fulfillment. It is a biological potential and a psychological vocation which a significant minority of women, upon reflection, recognize does not suit them.”
Let me tell you about being a mom. It’s great—and it’s also an unending personal sacrifice which, if pursued, can quite possibly disallow the pursuit of other equally meaningful endeavors. Although I’m sure some have done this, I’m pretty sure if I felt called to be an astrophysicist, I wouldn’t be able to honor that calling if I was also a mom. And as great as (I now believe) kids are, the world really doesn’t need more of them. Female astrophysicists, yes. Female artists, yes. Female doctors, lawyers, politicians, spiritual leaders, world leaders, yes yes yes!
But it’s not imperative that we women have another calling in order to justify not wanting to have kids. Some of us just don’t want to. The reasons are important (and I actually love hearing about them), but are also completely beside the point. Some women simply aren’t interested—and that needs to be okay.
When we think about the decision to have or to not have children, I believe what we’re really asking ourselves is: What kind of life do I want to have? How do I want to allocate my resources? What do I want my legacy to be?
The answers to these questions are as varied as people themselves.
My sense is that the important thing is to ask those questions in the first place, regardless of how we choose to answer them. That we dare to challenge ourselves to fully inhabit our own lives, no matter how controversial or unorthodox those lives may be to others.
In doing so—kids or no kids—we make an impact and create an example of authentic living which might help the next woman waste less time defending herself and spend more time being herself.