April Herndon, Ph.D.

April M. Herndon Ph.D.

Dry Land Fish

I'm Nobody's Mommy, and That's Okay

Over the years, my commitment to being childless has been unwavering.

Posted Apr 15, 2013

I’ve never wanted children. In fact, when my parents got me a Baby Alive one Christmas I disowned her on the back steps after I fed her the packet of split pea soup that came with her (disgusting enough already) and was completely appalled when she proceeded to poop out the slimy green mess into her diaper. I was actually physically sickened. No thanks. To the back steps she went, face down into the concrete.

Whenever anyone asked about whether or not I wanted babies, I replied with a firm “no.” Over the years, my commitment to being childless has been unwavering. In fact, I can’t remember a single time in my life when I actually considered having children. My choice not to have children may, in fact, be the only choice I’ve ever made that I’ve yet to reconsider.

The fact I haven’t reevaluated that choice is especially surprising given how many times I’ve been asked to reconsider having children. Over the years, I’ve been consistently confronted by other people who wished to assure me that I would eventually want children and that if I didn’t it would indicate something profound about me. I’ve been told not wanting children was a selfish phase I would grow out of. A colleague who heard that I had been abused as a child came to my office to ask me if the reason I didn’t want children was because I was afraid I’d abuse them. I’ve been told that all women eventually want children and that “mother nature” will catch up with me. I’ve had people ask me why I don’t like children, as if not wanting one in my uterus or my house necessarily means I dislike children in general.

The portrait that such sentiments, which I assure you are quite common, paint of women who choose to be childless is one of selfish women denying their nature, women who are hateful, or women who are so inherently damaged that they fear having children and perpetuating a cycle of violence. I don’t think this is true of all women who choose not to have children, but it may be true of some. Regardless, I’m left wondering why people care so much about whether or not I have a child. If I am that selfish or damaged, why would anyone want me to have a child? Why try to convince a woman otherwise?

I finally grew so weary of people trying to convince me that I really did want children that in my mid-twenties I just started telling people I hated children. I developed a particular flair for using my Appalachian sense of colloquialisms and started telling people that I thought children ought to be used as speed bumps or that they were as useless as screen doors on submarines. It seemed that’s what some people believed I thought anyway, and it certainly shut down the conversation. People were aghast, but they shut up. I felt empowered. I felt like for the first time in my life I could be myself and not be picked to death about not wanting children. How interesting—and sad—that I had to lie to feel like I could be myself and live the life I wanted.

As I got older, I stopped being so hyperbolic and tried to sensibly explain my choice not to have children, but I didn’t have any better luck. Although I didn’t relish the process or the recovery, when I had to have a hysterectomy at 38, I was a bit relieved. I thought maybe the physical inability to carry my own child would stop the conversation, but it just shifted it toward adoption and whether or not I regret not having children. Apparently, losing your “womanly” bits still doesn’t get a gal out of the perception that motherhood should be something “natural” to all of us.

I was struck by how much the assumption that all women want and should want to be mothers is still with us when 57 year old Isabella Dutton recently published her piece about having children being the biggest regret of her life. Like me, Dutton never really wanted children, but she ended up marrying and having a son and a daughter—mostly because her husband wanted children and she felt the familial and social pressure to meet those expectations. Reactions to Dutton’s declaration have been mixed, with some people feeling relief that a woman finally gave voice to a regret that many women must surely feel. There’s no doubt that having a child changes a woman’s life irrevocably. Could it really be the case that women never regret those changes?

Only in the world of fetishized motherhood is that possible, the rarified world where women are only perceived as mothers (or potential mothers) and not seen as individuals with their own needs, wishes, and desires—all of which are surely compromised and changed when one has a child. But because our society so rarely sees mothers as people, many were shocked by Dutton’s article. I can’t tell you how many Facebook discussions I’ve seen with women reassuring the world that having children was the best choice they ever made, expressing disbelief that any woman could regret having children, and chastising Dutton.

Maybe people just don’t want to hear that a woman regrets having children because it ruins their fantasy of women and motherhood. I, for one, am grateful for her honesty and insight into what I think is a real issue in the lives of many women. I can easily imagine myself in Dutton’s shoes if I hadn’t somehow managed to resist the insistence that I must want a child and that there might be something wrong with me if I didn’t. I can’t help but think there are many women still in Dutton’s shoes and that women will continue to live with regrets as long as the message that motherhood is a woman’s ultimate duty remains. I’m also grateful that my parents bought me that Baby Alive because she helped me understand that I am no one’s mommy, and that’s okay.