Last month, I read Pamela Paul’s piece in Vogue (crap, I can’t find it online to link to here. Sorry, everybody) about the politics of the right not to have children – namely the child free by choice movement and the patronizing hassle that women seeking sterilization face. I’ve been thinking about the piece a lot. My response was overwhelming agreement pared with a deep gratitude for my own unexpected boot from the childfree set. It’s complicated. Because the thing is that I used to be childfree by choice. You know, before I kind-of accidently became a mother.
My husband and I made the decision early on in our relationship that we probably, almost-definitely didn’t want kids. We also decided that we were way into pizza and a host of other lifestyle choices. But there was something about answering “uh … maybe never” to the intrusive enquiries as to when we’d be having children that really seemed to get people’s hackles up. And wouldn’t you know it, the hackles were always pointed toward the “me” component of the “us” duo. Sexist bullshit alert! “Shocking!” said no one.
If pressed on the issue, I’m pretty sure that all but the truly bonkers among us would agree that of course it’s anyone’s right to be childfree. But still, people have the compulsion and gall to obnoxiously comment on a woman’s decision to have or not have kids like it’s somehow their purview. It’s as if not knowing is causing these people some kind of pressing anxiety. This phenomenon functions like a neon arrow pointed at a heap of steaming patriarchal bullshit. And there’s a little shack built on top of the bullshit heap with a sign on the front that says “The World.” And incidentally, it’s no place to raise a child, so …
I was (and am) so irritated by the way people talk to women who are child-free-by-choice. “You’ll change your mind in a few years” they’d say with a wink before launching into a cliché landslide thick with “biological clock” debris. “Don’t you like kids?” they’d demand. “But you’re so good with them!” For the record I did like some kids and I was good at being in the same room with them. I was also super-good with fish and nobody was demanding I install an aquarium in my place. I must have missed the day where we learned that if one physically can and might be good at doing something, it’s mandatory. Why are there not more people digging big holes?!
Obviously there is something else going on here. Perhaps it’s that women who decide not to have children are perceived by some (see above re. bonkers) as dangerous. If we’re willing to subvert THAT cultural expectation, there’s no telling what other expectations we might eschew. We might decide to set our own whole agenda for life. One that probably has everything to do with composting that bullshit heap and rehabbing that shack.
So all this to say, I really appreciated Paul’s piece. I am in solidarity with people, and especially women, who are childfree by choice. I endured the bullshit and was prompt to dispel the myths that all childfree people are messed up kid-hating jerks. I was a sterling member of the community. That is, until I became a mother.
So here’s where it gets weird. Because even as I nodded along in total agreement while reading Paul’s piece in Vogue, in the back of my mind was the needling awareness that I was also really glad my childfree decision went to pot. In one tangle of thought, I acknowledged the injustice of not having sterilization as an accessible option, and at the same time I felt a deep hypothetical sadness as I wondered if I’d have taken advantage of it had it been accessible to me before I became a mom. All at once, memories of the awful moment when I saw the plus sign on the pee stick and blacked out in the bathroom flooded my mind as my awesome daughter ran into the living room wearing her snow pants and bike helmet, crushing into my body for a hug.
This is obviously not an argument for restricting women’s choices. It’s not an argument at all. This is just, well, I guess it’s just to say that holy shit it’s complicated to be a woman.
“What are you reading, Mama?” Ida asked. “I’m learning about women being in charge of their bodies”, I said. “You’re a woman”, she said. “Yup.” She continued, “I’m a girl and I’ll be a woman when I grow up more and I’ll be strong!” She jumped down, grabbed a handful of pencils and ran back to her room, yelling, “I’m in charge of my body!”
I smiled and though for a minute about how cool and smart she is. And then it occurred to me that maybe I should have told her. Maybe I should have said that it doesn’t feel like you think it will. Or that being in charge of your body is really complicated and that for some reason other people feel entitled to manage your choices. And that “choices” seems to imply a neat list of well-defined options, each with clear pros and cons, when really choices feel different. Or at least they do to me.
I realized that the most important thing I can do for Ida is to share my experience with her. Maybe by being honest about my story – our story – I can help open up more space for her to find and respect her own story as it unfolds in a tangle of choices and the messy realities of living in a body so ripe with possibilities.
My transition from childfree by choice to motherhood was disorganized and sudden. It was terrible and indescribably good. I had an unwanted pregnancy, the most satisfying day of my life laboring and giving birth, and have subsequently discovered my favorite vocation in motherhood. My experience is not available for coopting – it is not meant to serve as an example for anyone to use to prove or disprove the validity of a choice. It’s mine. It’s complicated. And it’s here for the purpose of contributing one more woman’s voice to the conversation – an actual expert witness.