The Choice to Not Have Children
Confronting social norms: When you're the only one in the room without children.
Posted Jun 12, 2018
When I am greeted at the baby shower, I am handed an “Advice Card” to fill out for the woman who is about to become a new mom, given two miniature clothes pins to wear (and steal) in a game, and encouraged to go design and color a bib for the baby, who is due to arrive at the end of July. In the first two minutes of the shower, therefore, I am cast in the roles of expert parent, attentive competitor, and inspired artiste. My impulse is to flee.
The room gradually fills with attractive, healthy women in their thirties, and the bride’s mother, who tells me that at baby showers in her day, there were none of these games and activities, as she decorates a bib with a message about “Mama.”
I feel out of place: I have never had a baby shower, with or without games, because I never had a baby. I decide to enter in rather than stay out. I color a bright and cheerful bib, noting how competitive I feel as I do so next to an experienced and talented bib-colorer, who knows that simple, bright designs are good and that coloring the facing on the bib makes the whole effect much more sophisticated.
I do not demand clothes pins the first few times the women I am coloring with use the word “baby,” the cue to steal a pin, because I do not want to disrupt the flow of conversation or seem childish. When someone steals one of mine, however, I get over that hesitation pretty quickly. And I realize that I’m the only woman in the room without children.
I haven’t been to many baby showers, perhaps only one. I remember it vaguely. My life path was very career-oriented, not that that meant I couldn’t have had children. But it did mean that I didn’t have a lot of friends who were having babies. In college, no one did. There was a woman in graduate school who was pregnant; she and her husband both finished their PhD’s with a young baby, the woman a few years after her husband.
At the start of my academic career, when I was in my mid-twenties, no one in my department had thought about babies for decades; I was the youngest by a generation. My peers in other departments were, like me, focused on getting tenure, and though a dear friend wanted a family, she looked carefully and waited a long time to find the right man. When she finally did, they had a beloved baby at midlife.
Each of my two husbands and I talked about having a baby. The first husband had had six already, in a course of four previous marriages, and although he told me that he thought he now had what it takes to be a good father, I wasn’t convinced since I was the one who had paid the arrears in child support to one of his former wives. The second husband, the good one, was a lot older than I, and I didn’t relish the likelihood of being a widowed mom in middle age. When he died after thirteen years of marriage, I felt good about that decision.
Friends had babies in normal times of life, but when they did, it was a difference between us. I loved—and love—their children dearly, and for a few became a trusted auntie (with a lower-case a). I remember one friend called me when she had a newborn and a 4-year-old. “Elizabeth, could you come over?” I heard the urgency in her voice. “Of course,” I said, picking up my purse to head out the door. “Are you okay?” “Um, yes,” she said with uncertainty. “I am just scared that I might not be. The baby and little Alan—” She paused. “I thought I’d better call you because I just feel so overwhelmed.” “I’ll be right there.” When I got there, she was crying, the baby was screaming, and Alan was wailing. I was able to give everyone a hug, get everyone to go to sleep, and wash dishes for an hour while they napped. It was easy, useful, and mercifully temporary.
Several of my dearest friends talked, when we were in our twenties and thirties, about always having wanted a baby, more than anything. I never felt that way and was actually surprised the first time I heard that people did want one, so much. I think those friends thought I was a little weird—or maybe more than a little weird—to not have felt that. But I had always had creative work; young people in my life; a mild fear of children because I didn’t identify with kids, even when I was one; and no sense that I needed to promulgate my genetic line.
In fact, I had some sense that I didn’t want to pass on my genes: when I was first diagnosed with diabetes, I overheard the pediatrician tell my mother, “She will probably be able to have children.” But the implication, which at ten I didn’t know how to interpret or question, was that I probably shouldn’t. Knowledge about diabetes—etiology, treatment, pregnancy, complications and mortality—has grown so much in the last 45 years that I’m pretty sure most 10-year-olds today wouldn’t overhear such a remark. But it probably affected my self-story.
I had a relative who was a biology professor. About 10 years ago, he commented to me that it was pretty odd that neither I nor my siblings has had children. I suppose it is, and of course each of us has thought about why, and the implications. My mother commented once—the only thing she ever said to me even remotely related to the subject of her lack of grandchildren—that she was sorry that “your excellent genes are not passed on.” I decided not to tell her at that point about overhearing the pediatrician’s remark. Retroactive anxiety only causes pain.
My relative continued his musing, oblivious to my deliberately discouraging silence. “I suppose it’s lack of hormones,” he said. I suppressed the expletive that sprang to my lips, but I was livid. I put his remark out of my mind as best I could, but he had called a choice of mine a defect, and that was hard to forgive. Perhaps especially hard for someone who already felt physically defective by virtue of having diabetes.
Back at the baby shower, I find myself detached, a little lonely. Throughout my life, I have had many deep friendships with people—couples and singles—who chose to not have children. We talk about the social assumptions—that everyone wants children, that lack of children means a defect exists, that a choice to not have them is unfathomable, and presumed to be a mistake. We note that it is a relief to have friends who are like us.
Long before I hit menopause, a friend had to have a complete hysterectomy, and she made a quilt covered with red dots: the “unused” ova removed in the operation. “I cried as I quilted each one,” she said. “All the children I did not have.” I had thought that she had chosen to not have babies, and I felt sad for her when I learned that she grieved the decision. I wondered if I similarly would feel regret when I no longer had a choice.
But I didn’t feel any regret. I think occasionally that when I’m 90, I might wish I had a kind, adult daughter or son to come visit me. But that’s all, really. Maybe it’s hormones, like my relative said. Maybe it’s a fear of passing on a difficult chronic illness. But I don’t think so.
When I was approaching menopause a couple of years ago, I talked to Lydia-my-wonderful-therapist about not feeling regret about not having children. She could decipher my double-negatives and clarify my abstract contemplation of things that didn’t seem to be problems.
She smiled at me as we sat facing each other. “I think people need something to nurture,” she said. “And I think you have always found that in your life: your students, the hospice patients and families, your therapy clients, your writing. It doesn’t have to be a baby.”
Lydia encouraged me to feel what I feel, do what I do, be what I am. Now I too encourage people to be who they are, and to know that they are not weird nor defective if they choose not to have the children that society thinks they need to have.