Yes, Childfree Is Normal: Why I Moved From "Can't" to "Won't" Today
I think The Atlantic is the best publication around these days, and admire its thoughtful tackling of women’s issues. Why Women Still Can't Have It All, that post by Anne-Marie Slaughter that got so many people talking? I loved it -- smart and well argued.
Of course, that post wasn't about me.
Not Wanting Kids Is Entirely Normal -- the number-one post on Atlantic.com today -- is about me. Except it's not.
When I saw the headline, I clicked right away. It's not every day that mainstream media publishes a positive story about being childfree. Though the first paragraphs put me off with horrible tales of child abandonment and comments by unhappy moms, soon came a statement I really loved:
American culture can't accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother. It goes against everything we've been taught to think about women and how desperately they want babies. If we're to believe the media and pop culture, women -- even teen girls -- are forever desperate for a baby. It's our greatest desire.
Yes, I thought, yes. This needs to be said, over and over.
Then the post got pregnant.
The author, Jessica Valenti of Feministing, linked unwanted pregnancy to a lower quality of life in children, and concluded that we need better infrastructure -- for parents:
If policymakers and people who care about children want to reduce the number of abandoned kids, they need to address the systemic issues: poverty, maternity leave, access to resources, and health care. We need to encourage women to demand more help from their partners, if they have them. In a way, that's the easier fix, because we know what we have to do there; the issues have been the same for years. The less-obvious hurdle is that of preparing parents emotionally and putting forward realistic images of parenthood and motherhood. There also needs to be some sort of acknowledgement that not everyone should parent -- when parenting is a given, it's not fully considered or thought out, and it gives way too easily to parental ambivalence and unhappiness.
I agree with Valenti's point completely. I'm a pretty devoted advocate for better infrastructure for parents, and for realistic images of motherhood. One of the best things about working at BlogHer is the bloggers and parents writing their lives, showing motherhood in all its forms. It's truth-telling as game-changer; it's important, and it thrills me to be a part of it.
But I thought this was a post about not wanting children.
I hit menopause at 25 years old. It's called premature ovarian failure (and believe me, there's nothing to make a woman feel like a woman like being called an "ovarian failure").
When I was diagnosed, I did my research, and came to the endocrinologist with medical concerns that ranged from the long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy to whether I was going to break a hip at Burning Man. My doctor came prepared to hold my hand while he broke the news that I couldn't bear children, refer me to a grief counselor, and tell me, "You never know: Miracles can happen with modern medicine."
Aside from spitting fury at my misogynist endocrinologist, I felt pretty lucky. This happened to me, and not to someone who expected to have kids. Tragedy averted. And aside from a few less-than-fabulous side effects of my condition (I likely spend on lube what I save on feminine hygiene), I rarely think about it.
I've never wanted children. I've known it forever. I'm an awesome aunt and a kick-ass babysitter. I would step up to raise the kids of my brother or best friend if something happened; I love them dearly and care about their well-being. And I'm sure I'd be decent at it. But that's not the life I choose for myself.
A woman's mid-20s is when people start getting nosy about when and how often and with whom she's planning to breed. "Do you have children?" and "How old are your kids?" become the icebreakers. And it’s incredible what power the flat statement "I don't want children" can have to push buttons. I've seen it trigger everything from dismissiveness ("You'll change your mind when you're older") to defensiveness ("Don't you want the joys of motherhood?") to derisiveness ("I could never be so selfish!"). I've heard all of those, verbatim, from well-meaning friends and loved ones.
I hate justifying my decision, and I shouldn't have to. I hate that just speaking my truth freights casual chitchat with tension. I really hate yelling at the Thanksgiving table.
And so my diagnosis ended up giving me a chickenshit gift: the ability to pass as a "normal" woman. In the years since, I've learned that "I can't have kids" comes with its own set of questions ("What happened?" "Have you considered adopting?"), but they're gentle. I'm not immature and selfish when I say "I can't." Sometimes I’m tragic, but tragedy, conveniently, is a subject-changer.
Most women want kids. But I do not, and I feel totally normal -- so much so that I've never thought of the way I use "I can't," except as a shortcut around a crap conversation.
But today I read a post that promised me I am normal, then told me a different story. So today, I'm taking the one sentence from Valenti's post that rang true to me -- "American culture can't accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother" -- and I'm using it as a reminder to tell my own truth, always:
I'm never saying "I can't have children" again.
Image: Odonata via Flickr