Recently, Slate columnist Katie Roiphe raised the possibility that the choice not to have children remains a taboo, that no matter what we say to our childless friends at dinner parties—that we envy them, that we wish we, too, could go out every night and wake up at 11 on Sundays—we “secretly feel sorry for or condescend to or fail to understand women who don’t have children.” Not that the child-free owe us any explanation, but we are asking for one. More like a full and proud defense. Our aim here is to clear the taboo once and for all.
Readers, we invite you to submit your testimonies on why you are child-free and happy to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will choose the best ones and run them on the blog. We want you to write if you knew you would never have children, if you found yourself in that situation by accident but have come to appreciate it, or any other path we haven’t thought of. And we really want to hear from men, too.
“I was hoping for something more than a baby receptacle.” That’s what one of my 32-year-old male friends said to explain why he was dating a woman seven years his junior. Apparently when he dated women his age their romance got overshadowed by the “tickin’ clock,” as he put it. The women would be in “a rush” and go straight into “let’s do this” mode. At first this sounded to me like the kind of retrograde philosophizing you would hear from a movie like The Hangover, not any deeper truth about women of a certain age. But as I enter my mid-30s, I’m realizing not that my friend is right, or considerate or anything, but, loath as I am to admit it, there may be some truth to what he’s saying. The only reason I didn’t see it is because I was wrapped up in my own perspective, the rare perspective among my friends of not wanting to have kids.
Sometimes I’m not even sure I have a biological clock. The only time I envy parents is when they are in their 30s, had their kids in their 20s, and are that much closer to getting them out of the house. Is that normal? To want kids just to see them leave? Because with all the thirtysomething mommies who blog (Heather B. Armstrong, Kelly Oxford, Julie Robichaux, et al. ), the sudden thirtysomething celeb baby boom (Sienna Miller, Jessica Simpson, Drew Barrymore, et al.), and the general mommy talk around the over-30s, it’s hard not to feel like not wanting kids at my age is a handicap (just ask Jennifer Westfeldt or Zooey Deschanel).
When one of my friends’ 5-year-olds recently asked me why I didn’t have any kids, I told her honestly that I didn’t know what to do with them. “You just take care of us,” she said, six words that made me understand why J.D. Salinger was so smitten with children. But considering it has taken me 32 years to understand how to take care of myself, perhaps someone over 5 could take a moment to understand why I might need more than just vague references to a ticking clock to decide whether I can give my life over to taking care of someone else.
I don’t know what it’s like to know you want kids, but I can imagine it’s beyond reason, which is all there is when you’re not sure you want one. In my case the reasoning usually takes the form of largely unanswerable rhetorical questions: What if I’m a bad parent? What if my baby’s a sociopath? What if I can’t pay for some school I want junior to go to? What if our bundle of joy looks like the worst parts of both me and my boyfriend and then it’s our fault that the kid gets bullied?
These preconception questions seemed not to have crossed the minds of parents like Canadian mommy tweeter Kelly Oxford, who is famous for writing catty 140-character comments about her offspring, or Adam Mansbach, who penned Go the Fuck to Sleep after his 2-year-old inconsiderately refused one too many times to go to bed. This duo is part of a new generation of hipster parents who are celebrated for telling child-rearing like it is. And my thought is, they would have known that if they had bothered to ask what raising children is like before simply going ahead with it.
I had one friend who in her mid-20s had decided that, boyfriend or not, she would be with child before she turned 30. On her first date with her now-husband she made sure he knew she was broody—I believe they conceived within weeks. Then there was the party of thirtysomethings I attended recently at which no one talked but simply stared in awe at one of the attendees’ toddlers while s/he terrorized the host’s pet turtle. Giving your life up for a child like Kolya or Ponette is one thing, but the real McCoy is rarely as precious as cinema’s promise.
The reality of terror children has not yet inspired me to get my tubes tied or, as one of my acquaintances did at 25, to formally announce to my entire extended family and all my friends that I would never have children. I might have children. I might, like Madonna, get pregnant at 38 by my Cuban personal trainer or I might decide to adopt children at 50 like Diane Keaton, because I feel the grim reaper breathing down my neck. Or I might not.
What probably won’t change is the fact that I don’t consider babies a miracle any more than I consider a seed growing into a tree particularly miraculous. So how are you a real woman if you don’t give birth? All I can say is that I’ve never particularly defined myself by my gender, nor did I feel the urge to do so once I turned 30. What did happen to me at 30 was that I gradually started to settle down, though not in the traditional sense of the term—by becoming pregnant or putting a down payment on a mortgage or even getting married.
For me, settling down is located in my head (for the Buddhists among you, this is called mindfulness). It meant realizing that I wanted to share my days with my long-distance boyfriend without Skype as an intermediary; that I wanted to stop responding so impulsively to everything; that I didn’t want to keep working on a website in New York despite how much it helped my career, because I actually wanted to write, not rewrite.
“Some people are just fecund with their minds,” my mom said.
And, lucky for us, there is no ticking clock on that.
See some of the reader testimonies below: