Respect my choice to be childfree

When I was around 14 years old, I realized I had no desire to have children.

And here I am, a few months away from hitting 30, and still, I have no desire for children. Neither does my partner.

It’s not just a lack of desire though. The thought of having my own children, of the ways in which their presence would fundamentally change everything about my life, is unappealing. I enjoy the ability to go out when and where I want without need to tote along a toddler or scramble for a baby sitter. I like being able to control my environment, to rest when I need to. I like spending money on books rather than diapers.

To be fair, I don’t know anyone who actively enjoys changing dirty diapers or waking up at 2 a.m. to a screaming infant, but most people, it seems, are happy to do these things because of the rewards they receive: a burbling laugh, a joyful smile, watching something they created take shape and become a person.

I am genuinely and truly happy for my friends who have (or are going to soon have, or eventually want to have) children. But it’s not for me.

(Considering also my chronic illness, preparing for pregnancy, going through pregnancy, and then caring for an infant would be incredibly difficult. Not impossible, but not pleasant, either.)

childfreeecard

My opinions on lots of big things have changed over the years, but excluding children from my life plan never has. My partner agrees. My parents don’t care if we have kids or not. They’d be happy if we did, but they’re just as happy if we don’t. My in-laws, too, have never hinted that they want more grandkids. They have instead expressed many times that they want us to be happy, in whatever we choose. My friends, too, even the ones with kids or who are planning to have kids soon, think nothing of the fact that I don’t want that life.

Not having children is our choice. It is not a comment on your desire (or lack thereof) for children. It is not a comment on the state of the world, overpopulation, or politics. It is simply the choice we have made for our lives.

Many people—customers I meet at work, business acquaintances, friends of friends of friends, distant relatives, random strangers I meet by happenstance—do not seem to understand, nor to respect, this choice.

Frankly, I am fed up with that bullshit.

Before I got married I heard, “Oh, just wait until you find the right man.”

After I got married I started hearing, “Oh, you’ll change your mind,” and “Oh, if you have dogs you’ll definitely have kids,” and “Just wait until you settle down a bit.”

Found right partner. Got stable jobs. Bought house. Writing career is progressing well. Library career is progressing well. Health is better than it’s been in a long time.

And guess what? We still do not want kids.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why people who hardly know me care so much whether I want children, and I have a few theories.

  1. Women are “supposed” to want kids. We are expected to want marriage and motherhood and to make dinner for our families and do the whole housewife thing, even if  we also have a full-time job outside of the house.
  2. People sometimes see the choices of others as attacks on their own choices. So, me not wanting children is another way of saying their decision to have children is less valid or somehow “wrong.” (It’s not, of course—both choices are equally valid.)
  3. The choice to eschew child rearing is often seen as selfish. Young people are generally considered to be self-absorbed navel gazers, and supposedly become less self-absorbed as they mature. So, to some people, the “selfish” decision to be childfree will eventually be worn away by life experience and the realization that the world is not all about you.

The irony, of course, is that most of these points of view are inherently self-centered. They are based on the assumption that having children is “right” and not having children is “wrong.” These feelings often come with more assumptions: That I hate children and/or look down on parents, especially stay-at-home-moms.

I don’t, of course. Parents are rock stars, and humanity could not go on without them. I love seeing my friends raising awesome little people, and I’m excited for what those little people will do.

The choice to be a working mom or a stay-at-home mom is a personal, individual choice that every mother has to make for herself. One isn’t inherently better (or more “feminist”) than the other. Every family is different. What’s right for one family may be wrong for another.

And I don’t hate all kids, either. Sometimes they drive me up the wall and make me want to scream (I have to deal with them a lot at my job), but sometimes they make my heart melt and they give me hope for the future of the world.

But I personally do not want children of my own. If you want children, awesome! Go for it. Raise the next generation of creators, inventors, doers, movers, and shakers.

But please, please, please stop telling me how to feel or how to live my life. Respect my choice to be childfree, and I’ll respect your choice, whatever that may be.

Yuppies

Perhaps it’s the writer in me, perhaps it’s my mother’s nosiness, but when I eat at restaurants, I can’t help but observe the diners sitting around me.

On a recent trip to Buffalo, New York, for the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, my husband and I ate dinner at a local vegetarian-friendly restaurant called Merge.

There was nothing pretentious about the place. It was decorated like someone’s living room, with plenty of live house plants, odds and ends with character (nothing so new as to be shiny or squeaky), and festive lights. Even the tables and chairs were charmingly mismatched.

And the food, oh my goddess, the food. I had a beet salad and shrimp risotto. I love beets. But I had no idea beets could be so delicious. They were served on top of a bed of mixed greens, with fennel, candied walnuts, and a vinaigrette. I will definitely try to recreate that at home.

This isn’t a post about good food, though. It’s a post about class. (Not that the two aren’t intimately related, but that’s another post.)

A family—father, mother, grandfather, three kids—sat at the table behind us. I didn’t notice them until I heard the father say, “We’ve got theater tickets for 7:30, so we need to be quick about this.”

It was 6:30. Something about his tone, demanding and so self-assured there wasn’t space for doubt, got my hackles up. I looked over. They were all appropriately dressed for a show, with slacks and dress shirts and sweaters.

Over the course of their meal, I watched this family interact with each other. They chatted about school and the menu, and the father repeatedly exercised his fatherly authority over his children. I hardly heard a peep from the mother. And it was this—the constant insistence of “I’m your father, and I’m in charge”—as much as the impression of easy money that had me gritting my teeth.

But I did get an impression that they had enough money that the didn’t have to worry about their finances beyond whether their retirement investments were simply doing well or outperforming the market by 10 percentage points.

Of course, that’s where my own biases come in. I grew up directly across the street from a steel mill. We never had to worry about enough food, but we had to worry about union strikes and debt, about growing gang violence in our town, about my dad being called up from the reserves to fight in Iraq, about the car breaking down (again).

Things were secure, but they weren’t that secure. I remember sitting in my parents’ bedroom while my dad packed his Navy duffel bag, and the air was so tense with anxiety and excitement I didn’t know how to feel.

Thankfully, my dad didn’t wind up going to Iraq. And I know no family, no childhood, no life, is perfect. Money doesn’t make you happy, but not having enough of it can surely make you miserable. Even as a (mostly happy) child, I was acutely aware of this fact.

The kids sitting at that table in Merge? I’d bet they had no idea. In a way, that’s good. Kids should have the freedom to be kids without worrying about their next meal. But in other ways, it’s not so good. It creates a false sense of security, a sense that everything will work out for you no matter what, a sense that you have some power and control over your life, or the expectation that your parents will always fix your problems for you.

A bit of stress and worry is good for you. It creates resilience. Without it, sometimes you start thinking you’re better than the people who have to worry about the next meal, or, in this case, that you’re better than the people serving you the next meal.

I don’t really know anything about that family. Dad could have been having a bad day, or they could have planned to be at the restaurant at 5:30 and gotten held up by something out of their control.

Ultimately, that’s irrelevant. My point is that class is a huge issue, even divorced from the issue of race. The media and politicians reinforce the ideas that the rich have somehow earned the right to be rich and the working class and the poor should just try harder if they want to get ahead.

And clueless upper middle class people help perpetuate the problem by ignoring what’s going on around them and breezing through life and climbing the corporate ladder and sending their kids to excellent, expensive colleges as if all these things were a given.

For most of the population in the United States, none of those things are a given.

If someone gave me a large sum of money and told me they had the power to send me back in time so that I could grow up in a 100% financially secure household where my parents worked because otherwise they’d be bored and not because they needed the money, I’d say, “No thanks.”

I’m grateful for the uncertainty I experienced growing up. Yes, I’m also grateful that the uncertainty didn’t extend so far as to affect my ability to eat, but I am glad that I learned early on that nothing is a given, and getting what you want requires a lot of hard work and dedication—and that achievement for the sake of achievement or for impressing other people isn’t valuable.

Basic kindness is what’s truly valuable in our interactions with each other. I can’t solve class issues in America, but I can be kind to everyone I meet, regardless of what they look like, how much money they make, or what they believe (unless they believe in genocide or denying basic human rights, in which case I might not be kind, but I’m not going to be mean, either, because that doesn’t solve any problems)*.

And yes, that extends even to the family of yuppies who inspired this post.

*This is, obviously, a work in progress.

#FridayReads: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows coverSuicide is not the kind of thing you discuss at the dinner table.

Even when we do talk about it, we tend to take one point of view: Prevent it at all costs.

But who are we to decide what course someone else should take?

Miriam Toews’ novel All My Puny Sorrows raises that question and then thoroughly explores it.

The narrator, Yolandi, fiercely tries to prevent her sister Elfrieda from committing suicide like their father did. Elfrieda is a successful pianist with a wonderful husband and good friends. Yolandi, by contrast, is divorced, feels she’s botched parenting her two teenagers, and can’t get her love life straight.

Even with all her troubles, Yolandi wants to live. So why does Elfrieda, with her charmed life, want to kill herself? And by extension, why does anyone want to kill themselves?

The writing style is semi-stream-of-consciousness, and it’s done well. Each sentence drips with tension and raw emotion; this book is a literary page-turner. Frequent white space gives the reader some breathing room between Yolandi’s breathless musings.

I’m halfway through the book, and I have no idea if Elfrieda will succeed in killing herself or not. I find myself torn between wanting her to embrace life and wanting her to be happy—which would mean suicide.