I just finished reading a collection of essays titled Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. The editor, Meghan Daum, opens the introduction with a quote from Anna Karenina:
“People who want children are all alike. People who don’t want children don’t want them in their own way.”
She (and I) both understand the incongruity of this statement, but it serves as a reasonably solid foundation for a book in which sixteen individuals (men and women) each present their own historical, emotional journey to the point of living a childless/child-free life. And this book, as she is quick to point out, is a collection of those who made the deliberate choice not to have children.
She (and I) both also understand the tongue-in-cheek nature of the title. As she says in her introduction,
“Cable news hosts purported to be ‘shocked’ at the idea that some people don’t want kids (the more diplomatic were quick to add, ‘Not that I’m judging!’). On the Internet, the standard barbs of ‘selfish’ and ‘shallow’ ricocheted around comment threads, even as thousands of contented nonparents expressed their gratitude that their issue was finally being talked about. […] It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.”
I thought about writing a traditional “book thoughts” blog post as I tend to do around here (here’s a good one, and another good one, if you’ve never read these from me before). I wasn’t sure, though, how to write it without it sounding incredibly similar to what I’d written about Jen Kirkman’s book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself. The thing that I loved about this collection of essays, which I also loved about Kirkman’s work, is that I finally felt heard and understood on a level that had been seemingly denied to me before.
And then I remembered, two years ago when I wrote that blog, that I said one day I would expand on my own thoughts about being “Childless/Child-Free By Choice.”
So, in lieu of one of my “book thoughts” blogs, I instead offer you what would be my entry in a collection like the one Daum has complied here. And if she ever decides to compile a sequel, I hope she asks me for a copy of this. 😉
The Scary Age
I was blessed to go to elementary and middle school in Southern California during a reasonably progressive period in time, which meant I was part of a comprehensive sexual health education program. This meant that, from pre-puberty onward, I was not only aware of the clinical terms for the male and female reproductive systems and their functions, I was also aware of things like STDs and contraceptives and conversations about sex. But one thing, for some reason, that embedded itself in the deepest recesses of my brain was the day we learned about fertility rates.
We were seated on uncomfortable metal chairs in the school’s multipurpose cafeteria/performing arts center, all slightly smelly and slightly sweaty “tweens” (as they’re now called; back then, I don’t know that they had a word for us), and our physical education teacher was using a manual overhead projector to display printed transparencies covering the day’s lecture. Suddenly, the incandescent bulb lit up a line graph – Women’s Fertility Rates.
I cannot tell you what the whole graph looked like, but I can tell you how it looked to me, at age twelve, staring up at the screen. There was basically a long, straight line until you got to the number 35. And then, it was Splash Mountain. You hit 35, and you plummet down into the abyss below. Game Over.
Not only that, but the discussion continued into the long list of potential “problems” that, were you actually to get pregnant on the Splash Mountain Drop, would likely accompany said pregnancy, including increased chance of miscarriage, birth defects, medical problems during delivery, etc. etc. etc. Our teacher launched into an explanation of why an amniocentesis test is “essentially mandatory” (at least, as was the practice in 1996) for any pregnant woman over the age of 35. When she said the words “long needle,” I was out.
Now, this is not the only thing that I remember from those “Sex Ed” days. I also remember the day we talked about contraceptives and their percents of effectiveness (and yes, “Abstinence = 100%” was in big, bold letters at the top of the slide…though, of course, one of my smart-ass friends leaned over to our group seated together and whispered “Oh yeah? What about Jesus?”) I remember being floored that anyone would choose a birth control option that wasn’t either the pill and/or a condom, which were rated at 98% and 97% effective, because everything else seemed to fail a lot more often. And trust me, as someone who prided herself on getting a good GPA, I knew that 96% meant the difference between an A and an A-, and I was always going for the A. I also remember the boy on the bus who tried to get a group of us girls in trouble for giggling by telling the teacher we were “laughing about wet dreams.” (We were actually laughing about maxi pads, so there.) But despite these other important formative moments, the fact that women’s fertility rates drop and the risks associated with pregnancies increase, both dramatically, at the age of 35 was the strongest and most significant of anything else we learned.
That’s probably why it’s no surprise that I am writing this essay eight days shy of my 35th birthday.
When I was fourteen, I was invited over to a new friend’s house to hang out on a Friday night. Our little group was in its fragile, formative stage, all having come from different middle schools into the same large local high school, bound together by the fact that we’d all decided to take Drama 1 as our fine art. This was the early onset of us turning in to “theatre kids,” and we were listening to Broadway musical soundtracks.
Somehow, as the conversations tend to do among teenage girls, the topic turned to marriage and children. This is my earliest memory of saying I had no interest or intention of having children of my own. In fact, what I remember saying is, “I’m pretty sure I don’t ever want to have kids.”
In the highlight reel of my life, I hear a record scratch in this moment, and can physically feel the pain of all the eyes in the room boring in to me. My heart immediately speeds up and I can feel my chest getting tight. It’s that immediate emotional teenage panic of saying something “against the group” and worrying that you’re going to be shunned and your life will end, right there. In fact, their reaction is still so strong in my mind that twenty-one years later, as I write about this story, I have to get up and walk away from my computer for a few moments, take some deep breaths, and center myself before returning to tell the rest of it.
I was not, as it turned out, immediately ostracized. One brave soul in the moment said, “I mean, it’s probably a good thing you don’t want them NOW. You’ll change your mind when you’re an adult, though.” And that was it. Conversation over. We were back to singing showtunes.
If my life were to be written as a Broadway musical, “You’ll Change Your Mind When You’re Older” would be the obnoxious choral refrain that I would skip over on the CD. But this was the constant refrain. As a senior in high school, I played the role of Mae in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which meant I not only had to wear a fake pregnancy belly onstage, but I was de facto in charge of the younger brothers and sisters of my friends who we’d cast to play my “no-neck monsters.” I remember only half-joking as I threatened to make my director pay for me to have a voluntary hysterectomy to guarantee I’d never have to go through any of this in my own real life. On stage was one thing; reality was another thing entirely.
The funny thing is, as much as I despised my fake pregnancy belly, I actually loved my no-neck monsters. We would play checkers backstage, and I’d ask them about school. We’d read books together. After the show was done, when I would go visit their older brothers and sisters to study or hang out on Friday nights, I would proudly greet them with “Hey! It’s my kid!” and a giant bear hug.
I have friends who don’t want children because they really hate children. But then, I have friends who want children who also really hate children. I love children. I love being around them. I think they’re magnificent. But none of that means I want any of my own. (Like, I love Disneyland, but I wouldn’t want to live there.)
As I got to college, more of the young women I met started to share in my assertions. “I don’t want kids either.” “I’m pretty sure I’ll never have kids.” “Kids totally aren’t in my plan.” In our late teens and early twenties, pregnancy was basically the scariest thing any of us could imagine. We had parties to go to and term papers to write. I finally felt somewhat safe; I could share my own feelings on the matter and not worry that my world was going to come crashing down around me for saying what was outside the norm.
But even still, there was that choir behind all of us, constantly singing, “You’ll change your mind when you’re older.” And, as it turns out, a lot of them did. But my mind never wavered. What did end up happening, and what continues to happen, are two things:
(1) Those that do have children end up having children that I love and adore and worship more than the moon and the stars could ever imagine. My friends make great parents, which makes sense, because they’re great friends.
(2) I end up feeling slightly betrayed. As #TeamNoKids continues to dwindle around me, I find myself experiencing some of that gripping fear I felt when I confessed to my new high school clique that I didn’t think I ever wanted kids. That if you all leave me for “the parenthood,” I’ll be cast out. All alone. Who will I traipse around Europe with, drinking good wine and staring at art and being slightly smugly thankful that we don’t have to worry about the cost of diapers or dance class or college tuition?
Now, I recognize how insane the second one sounds, especially since so many of my friends have become parents, and while our relationships have shifted, they’re still in tact. No, we don’t traipse around Europe (though we make plans to, someday). But we do talk on the phone and drink wine and take smaller trips. And I haven’t been cast out. Yet, anyway. I’m not going to lie, there’s still a fear there, which probably has a lot to do with the TV shows I watched in my formative years…
In college is when I also became obsessed with the television show Sex & The City. In Season One, there’s an episode about a baby shower, in which Miranda mentions that she “lost two sisters to the motherhood,” and they describe being a mother as being part of a “cult.” The episode is painfully over-the-top in its division of women: non-moms, outside. This is mommy club, and you can’t join. Is it any surprise I developed a bit of a complex around the idea?
In Season Four of Sex & the City, Miranda has a one-night stand with Steve and ends up pregnant. She is contemplating having an abortion (spoiler – she doesn’t), and asks Carrie to go with her. While in the waiting room, they have this conversation:
Miranda: Charlotte only has a 15% chance, and she’s really trying. What if I wake up, and I’m 43, and I find out my one decent ovary gave up and I can’t have kids?
Miranda: That’s my scary age.
Carrie: Mine’s 45.
At nineteen, completely naive about the world and how it all worked, I was shocked to hear those numbers. Why isn’t it 35? Haven’t they seen the Splash Mountain graph?! Why is your scary age in your forties?! You’re going to be too late!
Dear reader, I would like to remind you once again that I am writing this just one week shy of my own 35th birthday. Yes, a date that has stressed me out for twenty-three years, from the first time the flimsy transparent was flicked on to the glass in front of my twelve-year-old eyes, and that graph scoured itself in my retinas. A date that has caused me great, grievous concern for fictional characters who seem entirely ready to just blow on by it. Perhaps, I recognize now, this is because we already celebrated Carrie’s 35th birthday two seasons prior, and freaking out about a medically statistical decline in fertility rates when you’re already past the Splash Mountain Drop probably doesn’t make for good television.
But, yes. At nineteen, I was floored that Carrie’s “scary age” could be a solid decade beyond what, in my mind, had always been the scariest scary age. And I say this without any irony and a sincere curiosity: If I’ve never wanted kids, why did the number 35 freak me out so much?
As I am now 34 years, 11 months, and 3 weeks old, I can say with some certainty that I think it freaked me out then because I worried the chorus might be right. You’ll change your mind when you’re older.
Now, of course, I am a slightly more educated and experienced woman of the world than I was as a college freshman first watching Sex & The City and letting it warp my sensibilities about life. I have plenty of friends and family members who have had healthy, successful pregnancies and births past the age of 35. I have also had plenty of friends and family members struggle with pregnancy and birth past the age of 35. I’ve also had plenty of friends and family members struggle with pregnancy and birth BEFORE the age of 35. All of this to say, it really seems like some sort of great big universal crap-shoot, no matter what my 7th grade PE teacher said about the matter.
But despite all of this longstanding emotional fear baggage, and my “scary age” barreling at me like a speeding bullet, the truth remains that I’m pretty sure I don’t ever want to have kids. And I am a firm believer that kids are the type of thing you need to be pretty damn sure about before you go and have one.
Since I am not pretty damn sure I want them (and, in fact, I remain pretty damn sure that I don’t), my birthday next week is no longer my “scary age.” My new scary age is 64. Why sixty-four? Because I remember reading an article about a debut author publishing their first book at 64, and I remember thinking to myself “Gosh, I really hope I’m published before then…” I’m working on it. I don’t think it’ll take me 29 more years to get there, but we’ll see. If I do get there and don’t have any books yet, I’m sure, just like I am this year, I’ll pick a new scary age and just keep living life on my way to it.