I’m about to tell you something shocking about myself. Something my family and even some of my closest friends don’t know. Something I’m sure I’ll be judged for, and even possibly ex-communicated from the Catholic Church (as if this would be the only thing that would do it).
I don’t think I want children.
There, I said it.
My biological clock is digital. It does not tick.
Now, for most total strangers, this isn’t necessarily a monumental revelation, so maybe I oversold it a bit in the lead. But make no mistake: women of childbearing age who choose not to have children are judged, by loved ones and total strangers alike.
When I was in my early 20s, I told my father I was leasing a four-door car partly because I figured I might be married with a kid by the time the lease was up. It is possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever said. And when I think about it, I wonder why I even thought that. Did I really think about having children at all? Sure, I thought about babies. And names. But that was probably pretty much it.
My theory is that most people really don’t think about it. They fantasize about it, but they don’t really think about it. I’m not saying I’m smarter than them because I have thought about it. For some people, children are the ultimate consummation of their lives. It’s their whole raison d’etre.
But boy, do they go through hell having them.
I’m not just talking about the sleepless nights or the messes made right after you get things cleaned up, the fevers and runny noses and whining and potty training and testing of limits, and then the growing up and testing of limits even more. When I talk about not really wanting children, I’m not talking about what children are like.
I’m talking about what mothers are like.
The best illustration I can give is Target on a Saturday. Target on a Saturday is the best birth control ever.
One Saturday, as I was perusing the greeting card aisle, a young mother was admonishing her son. “Grayson. Grayson, stop. Grayson, STOP IT. GRAYSON!”
Well, first of all, you named him Grayson, so that’s problem number one.
But this kid wasn’t doing anything wrong. You know what he was doing? He was singing. Not at the top of his lungs. Not a song about poop or farts. He was just singing. He was probably about four years old, and he was happy.
His mother, however, was not.
She was frazzled and exhausted, probably hadn’t had a shower yet that day, and was yelling at her child who was not pulling things off shelves and throwing them all over the floor or drawing on display cases with lipsticks. He was just singing.
Let him sing. He’s happy. You’re not. You are the problem here.
Now, lest a bunch of mothers jump on me, let me say this: I get it as much as a childless woman can get it. I know that kids can wear on you and wear on you until your last nerve is in danger of spazzing out completely at the smallest of irritations. Being a mother is, without question, the hardest thing on Earth to do. I have nephews, and I watch my sisters struggle with discipline and snotty noses and time-outs and neediness and Robert Mapplethorpe-esque outcomes of potty training attempts. They love their children more than anything in the world, and it’s sometimes not enough to keep them from sending me a message that says, “Come and get your nephew before I kill him.”
I live two hours away, so that’s a serious request.
My nephews are the best little guys ever, and I relish the chances I get to spend days (yes, days, not hours) with them. But I know in my heart I could never raise them without losing my mind.
I know women who wanted children desperately – or at least thought they did – and went through all kinds of very expensive and highly unpleasant medical procedures and marital strain to have them. And then they did have them, and a few years later they realized they hadn’t really thought it through, didn’t realize what it would entail. Turned out, reality was not the romantic notion they held in their heads and hearts. They don’t really want to be mothers. What a devastating and self-hatred inducing conclusion to come to. There are some women who might be able to barrel through this realization and be good moms. And I’m not saying the people I know don’t love their children. They do. You know who they don’t like? Themselves.
Being a mother comes with plenty of guilt and second-guessing, even when your children could not be better behaved and your relationship with your partner is thriving and you have it as together as is humanly possible. But being a mother when you don’t like yourself? That’s going to hurt you, and it’s going to hurt your kids.
I don’t hate myself, but I think I would if I had children. I would constantly be worried about whether I was doing enough, giving enough, loving enough, sacrificing enough, trying enough, showing enough, teaching enough, pleasing enough. I would constantly be worrying whether I was enough. I would find myself often wishing they would just go away. I might lose out on moments of joy because I was wrapped up in the anguish and exhaustion. There is precious little validation for these worries in a mother’s life, and I’m just not sure I’m wired to handle that kind of lifelong self-doubt and sacrifice, let alone protect my children from sensing it.
I have a sister who was born when my parents were 39. She was not an accident; rather, she was a last-ditch effort. My parents knew that, if they wanted another child, it was now or never. And so she came to be. And that meant my parents would be 57 by the time that little girl turned 18. She has kept them young and up on the kid lingo of the day, but having her at 39 had a pretty significant impact for my mother.
My mom didn’t go to college, and her working life has always been as a secretary. There is nothing wrong with that. She worked hard, and she did it so that her kids could have a few extras in life. My mother was the kind of mom who believed that she had to give everything over to being a mom. She criticized herself for every impulse or desire that seemed selfish, and told herself she couldn’t have any of the things she wanted if she wanted to be a good mother.
The problem is, I don’t think she was happy. And she felt guilty that her children didn’t make her happy, that we were not enough to fill her life and satisfy her. (And of course we weren’t. We were loud and annoying and messy and germy and constantly complaining about what she was making for dinner.) And her unhappiness – her fatigue and isolation and frustration and dissatisfaction – came out to her children in a lot of criticism and judgment and negativity. I’ve realized that this is exactly why she and I have always had a tense relationship. I was her oldest child, the one who made her realize that children are not little balls of personality Play-Doh that she could shape into being exactly what she wanted them to be. I was not the first daughter she had dreamed of. She told me as much once. And she has watched all of her girls grow up and go to college and have careers and do everything she might have wanted to do. And she resents it.
A few years ago, she uttered a sentence that told me more about who she was than all the years I had been her daughter: “I always thought that I’d start my life when my kids were grown.”
If she had only known how beautifully wrong that thinking was, she wouldn’t have put it off for so long that she no longer had a dream of what to do. She robbed herself of happiness, and, in turn, set an example for her daughters that the way to raise children is to try to give them everything, keep nothing for yourself, and then be jealous of them.
I would never say my mom was a bad mother. She was not. But she was not a happy woman, and this is why. And happy women make better mothers. I find it an immutable fact. So much so that every time one of my friends or sisters got pregnant with their first child, I told them not to forget the women they were before they had children. It seems that can be easy to do. And when all you’ve ever wanted since you were three years old was to be a mom, well… then you never knew the woman you were before becoming a mom. Like my mother.
One day all your kids are out of the house, and you are a stranger to yourself.
Researchers have found that childless adults are happier and less stressed out than parents. (You can read a super-telegraphed article with links to the studies here.) One woman has written a book about how, in the midst of a divorce, she realized she did not want to be a full-time mom, and she gave custody of her children to her ex-husband. What a gut-wrenching realization… and how brave of her to share that story. I don’t know for sure if it’s true that childless people are happier, though I’m a sucker for empirical data that back up my suspicions. But I can see plenty of reasons that it might be true, even if it’s just that none of our clothes have vomit stains on them and we can take a shower whenever we want. I’m not being flip; those little things are a big deal.
And yes, I know that not having children might set me up for loneliness and sadness in my old age. But I don’t think that having someone to wipe my drool when I’m 85 is a good reason to have children now. There’s an awful lot that goes on in the 50 or 60 years before you get there that could make your kids want to smother you with a pillow as soon as look at you when you’re an old lady.
So I go to Target on a Saturday and I see these women, who are yelling at their happy little ones and telling them not to sing, and it breaks my heart. I feel terrible for a woman who is so worn out that she doesn’t see the pure beauty in a child who just wants to sing. And I think, “It’s not that I don’t want children. It’s that I don’t want to be her.” And I wheel my purchases out to my 2-door car, and head on home.