Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Childless Heathen

I'm 46 years old and I never had children.

When I was a teenager, I couldn't imagine myself as an adult woman at all, much less married and taking care of children. I wanted to grow up and be a writer or an artist, traveling around on planes and seeing exotic lands and wearing glamorous clothes. Yet at the same time, in the back of my mind I kind of figured I'd probably end up like everyone else and get married and have a baby or two. It seemed like the default position.

Before sending me off to college, my mother gave me one uncharacteristically intense piece of advice: Don't get pregnant. I could see the sense of that. I was careful not to, even though I fell in love for the first time and spent many hours daydreaming about a future that included marriage and a house and babies.

But it didn't work out with him, and the next guy who came along had gone through a divorce and had a baby of his own. We lived together for several years and became engaged, but instead of getting married... we broke up.

So I was in my mid 20's, and kind of liked the idea of getting married and having children. But having gone through two relationships that ended, I was in no hurry. I moved into a little apartment of my own and enjoyed being single.

I always liked having my period, the introspective, hormonal, creative changes that come with it, and the break in my routine that it forced. I loved the idea of being pregnant, and who doesn't love the idea of smelling a baby's head and playing with the tiny toes? But actually raising a child and being a parent seemed overwhelming and exhausting, and really not appealing in any way. Maybe everyone feels that way, I reasoned, and tried to imagine little arms hugging me around my neck. Probably some sort of instinct would kick in when I met the man who would be a good candidate for fertilizing my sad, unused eggs.

Then all of a sudden a decade had passed, and along came Greg. A few months after we started dating, we went to St. Petersburg and stayed at a hotel on the Gulf of Mexico for a little vacation with my mom and dad, my brother and his wife, my niece and her husband and their baby daughter. The first morning we were in my niece's room, and the baby, who was not yet a year old, wobbled over to Greg, who scooped her right up. He held her in his arms and tickled her and talked to her, and I just stood there watching, waiting for an alarm to go off in my uterus. "She's never like this with strangers," her parents gushed. "She sure likes you!" Despite my silent uterus, Greg went up a couple of notches in my already-besotted estimation. He's so good with kids! Babies love him!

At 38 I got married to Greg, glad I waited for the right guy. No baby-wanting instinct kicked in, though. Since my mother had given birth to me when she was 45, I figured I had a few years left to think about it, and discuss it with my new husband.

We had many, many conversations that all went like this:
Me - How many children do you see yourself having?
Greg - None, I don't want any kids.
Me - I don't know what you mean by that. One baby?
Greg - I like our life the way it is, I don't think it could be improved by bringing a baby into it.
Me - But you love babies.
Greg - I love other people's babies.
Me - But you want one baby.
Greg - Do you want to have a baby?
Me - Not really.
Greg - Okay, then! No babies.
Me - But are you SURE?
Greg - YES!

After Greg and I had been married a year or two, I spoke about it to my parents. When they told me that having a baby is certainly not something that I should feel pressured to do, that it was fine with them if I didn't and that they would not be a bit disappointed if I didn't present them with a grandchild, a big chunk of the weight lifted off my shoulders.

Despite the fact that it's a pretty personal decision, a lot of people asked. One friend with a small child told us how we just had to have a baby, it's the greatest thing ever, it completely changed his life for the better. He pushed parenthood with all the fervor of a Christian pushing religion. One person wanted to know who would take care of me when I'm old, if I don't have children. While I can kind of understand the logic of each generation taking care of the previous generation, I don't think that's a good reason to bring a human into this world. A few years ago when I had my episode of existential questioning (we won't call it a crisis, particularly since it led to a novel) I felt real sadness about my family photos, knowing no one would want them after I die. If, right then, I could have been guaranteed to have a baby who would grow up wanting to painstakingly preserve and document family history (particularly about me), I might have been tempted. But no one knows how things will work out, and it's entirely possible the baby would have grown up to have normal interests.

And with each passing year the idea of getting pregnant also got more and more medically questionable. I began to have an irrational fear that, at age 44 or 45, suddently Greg and I would realize that we actually did want to have a baby, very much, and then I'd be unable to get pregnant, and then we'd be sucked into the depressing vortex of attempting painful and expensive medical treatments.

Greg - Aww, look at this picture of the new baby, isn't she cute?
Me - You want a baby.
Greg - Oh my god, there is something wrong with your brain.
Me - Seriously, it's almost too late now, you have to tell me!
Greg - I have told you! No baby!
Me - But are you SURE?
Greg - YES!

During the year that I was 45, I thought a lot about my mother giving birth to me at that age. I began to have a whole new appreciation for how hard it must have been for her. Greg said that he likes our life the way it is, and even if it's kind of selfish, he didn't want to change it by having a baby. But really, is it selfish to decide not to have a baby? Our planet is overpopulated, maybe it's selfish to have a baby. But what if our baby was smart, and we raised our baby to be kind, and forward-thinking, and to, on a large scale or a small scale, make the world a better place? There are certainly a lot of babies born to thoughtless or abusive parents that grow up to make the world a harder place, shouldn't those of us who would focus on nurturing and loving do our part to at least even things out? Of course, the best thing to do would be adopt a baby. Or better yet, a child. But then that would be giving up the one thing that I think I'd actually like, the being pregnant part. But if all I want is to be pregnant and not actually be a parent, should I even be considering it?

And finally, at the age of 46, I am putting all these thoughts behind me. I am not going to have a baby, I am not going to adopt a baby. Greg and I are our little family of two (or four, if you count the furry family members). And, whew! All I feel is relief. No regret, no questioning. It was the right decision.

Now what am I going to do with the part of my brain that has been worried about whether or not to have a baby for the past 25 years? All of a sudden my head feels roomier.


  1. I wept over not having children of my own when I turned 40. I had planned on that happening one day, but didn't start living with Charlie until I was 34 and he was already "fixed" and had 2 kids ( 19 and 14). I thought maybe he'd go for sperm harvesting one day so we set up housekeeping together and the 19 year old boy moved in with us and became my baby.I mentioned the possibility of wanting a baby of my own and my new son was adamant in his preference for that NOT to happen...I love Charlie's children and think of them as my own to a large degree. I have a heart for and an interest in the lives and well-being of friends towards whom I feel an auntly interest (like you and Greg, Jacki and Mickey, Gretchen and others)and I might not have had that kind of room if I had borne my own children. I used to tear up when I held babies, longing for my own, but now I appreciate my freedom.
    I enjoyed your reflections on this topic, e:)

    1. Oh Wooz, I'm so sorry this issue was painful for you. You are one of the sweetest and most nurturing people I know, and I am honored to have you as my dear auntly friend.

    2. You are a doll, e -- and it doesn't hurt as much as it once did. Your post was an insightful and humorous exploration of the path that led you and Greg to decide on what a family would be for you.
      BTW, I am happy to read that little Alabama is better now:)

  2. the thing is to know thyself. it's such a personal and individual decision, and you clearly made the right one for you. growing up, i did not know if i would get married, it seemed foolish to bank on that, who, after all would ask me. but i did always know i would have a child, and it was sort of liberating to know that that was within my control to make happen. just as i knew i wanted to be a mother in the traditional way, you knew that you did need to follow society's expectations for you. sometimes what others think we should do can drown out what we feel for ourselves. I am glad you were able to hear your own voice on this. happy 46th year. today is my birthday. i am almost a decade older than you are. much much love.

    1. The pressure to conform to society's expectations is sneaky, and I always thought I was the sort of arty free-thinker who wouldn't let myself be swayed by such things. What a silly thought, huh?

      Much much love back to you on your birthday, my dear bloggy sister. I know your lemon cupcakes will be delicious, and I hope your day is delightful :)

  3. I actually think it's selfish sometimes to just have a baby because it's the next thing you're "supposed" to do when you get married. Far too many people have kids without even thinking of the consequences, and end up miserable and making the kids miserable too!
    If you're at peace with your decision, then it was definitely the right decision for your family.

    1. I feel like a lot of people do exactly that, and you're right, everyone ends up miserable if it was the wrong decision.

      Thanks for stopping by! :)


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