A few weeks ago, I was out for an evening of adventuring on Commercial Street with Jeff & Michelle Houghton and their baby, Elias, who is painfully cute and delightful. At dinner, Elias was discovering the thrills of drinking water from a grownup non-sippy glass (cue the heart-melting baby giggles), and Michelle asked me, “doesn’t this make you want to have one of these?!”
Boom. The room goes dark. A spotlight shines on me from above. Strangers at other tables put down their forks and turn their heads, awaiting my answer. Which is: …No.
The moment is not nearly so dramatic, of course, but it can feel that way. I get the same faint pit-in-my-stomach anxiety as when somebody asks me why I’m vegetarian—while they nibble on a burger. In both cases, I know what my answer is, but I’m careful not to offend. This one’s particularly tricky, because people in general are more invested in their babies than their beef. But…
I don’t want to have kids.
Let’s allow that statement to just hang there for a second. Does it make you feel uncomfortable, maybe? Do you want to shake your head and tell me with a smug smile that I’ll eventually change my mind? Once I find “the right guy” or the ol’ clock starts to tick or I finally grow up or whatever seismic shift is required to reverse a lifelong underlying feeling that tells me I do not want them.
I don’t need any help questioning this, by the way. Most everyone around me is having babies or wanting to have them. Even my own biology is betraying me lately: I get squishy around toddlers and feel emotional at baby showers. And I know my mind doesn’t make me feel this way; it’s my baby-making mechanisms, and they are kicking into high gear, now that 30 has arrived.
So this week I was thrilled to discover that TIME magazine’s cover story a couple of weeks ago was “The Childfree Life.” (I even bought the one-month digital subscription so I could read the whole thing. For $2.99, it’s not a bad investment, if you’re curious.) It seemed to present the idea without negative connotation, which is a refreshing change of pace.
A common thread among those who are childless-by-choice seems to be either admitting you are selfish (“I couldn’t have kids; I’m just too self-centered!”) or being accused of selfishness by others. But what if it’s not that simple?
My college medical ethics class was the first time I was confronted with asking why someone would have kids. Even then I didn’t think I wanted them, but I also hadn’t felt that this was a legitimate choice I could make. Or at least I never thought you could ask “why?” about it. People had kids because people had kids; that’s why.
I remember feeling shocked to learn that people have kids for some very selfish reasons. It’s not always about making a family or taking the next natural step in adult life. It’s sometimes about ensuring you’ll have someone to take care of you in old age. Or trying to make up for your past mistakes by raising a kid and “getting it right this time.” Or having a kid so they can live out the dreams that you never could. Or having a kid so you fit in with everyone else around you.
Reducing the decision not to have kids to “selfishness” is as unfair as reducing the desire to have kids to any of those not-great reasons above.
What if, any time someone you know told you they’re having a baby, you responded by—instead of giving the usual congratulations—asking “why?” It seems silly, right? But to me, it makes more sense to ask someone why they DO want to have kids than why they don’t…
There’s not one particular reason why I don’t want to. I just don’t. And I think it’s actually an act of selflessness to go against the cultural grain, take the risk of being all alone in my 80s, and decide that “well, you’re just supposed to” is not a good enough reason for me to create another human being.
But then again maybe it’s not selfless at all, but it’s still a choice I get to make.
I recognize that there’s still a chance, albeit slim, that someday I will change my mind. That’s the great thing about minds, you get to change them if you want. (There’s a joke to be made about diapers; I can’t quite get there.) In the meantime, I get to keep being Aunt Sarah to the nieces and nephews in my life, both biological and honorary.
And if my mind never changes, I can still live a full and fulfilled life. I’ve heard new mothers talk about how they never knew what they were missing. And I believe them when they say they’ve never felt love like that before. But there are all sorts of ways to feel love in this life. My question is: If I never know, am I really missing it?