I ran across this really excellent article by Jessica Valenti in The Atlantic: “Not Wanting Kids Is Entirely Normal.” Thank you, thank you, thank you Ms. Valenti. Everyone needs to read this. It exposes the dirty, secret truth about parenting: there are a lot of mothers out there who regret becoming parents, who didn’t know what they were getting into, who hate the drudgery, the thanklessness, the loss of identity, the loss of their old lives, and who are miserable and depressed. But our society does not accept this. Parenting is always a joy, a gift, it transforms your life in a wonderful way. To feel otherwise is shameful, and to admit that you feel otherwise is taboo. To illustrate, Ms. Valentini directs us to the Secret Confessions website, where there have been thousands of responses – most of them commiserating – to a woman who posted “I hate being a mom,” back in 2009.
This is a topic near and dear to my own heart. As a very young child, I really hated baby dolls. They creeped me out. I didn’t like playing with them. I didn’t like pretending to take care of them. I stuffed them into my closet so I wouldn’t have to see them. And then I went and played with my brother’s cap guns, Army jeep, and Lincoln Logs. Still, somewhere in the back of my mind, there was an assumption that one day, I would be a mommy. It just seemed like something that went along with being a girl, and being an adult. I didn’t know any women who weren’t mommies.
Then one day, in my early teens, I was contemplating the unfairness of the whole pregnancy phenomenon (rather like Alien, although the movie hadn’t been made yet), and suddenly it hit me, all at once: the worst part comes when the pregnancy is over. You have this little squalling, helpless infant to take care of just as intensively as a complete invalid, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for years. You have to teach him everything: how to eat, drink, talk, walk. Not to crap his pants. Not to scream indoors. Not to hit, bite, break things, throw tantrums. You might have no adult conversation for many hours per day. Just that babbling, drooling, endless repetition which is so crucial to acquiring language, and yet for which I have no. patience. whatsoever. It is not adorable. Spit-up, vomit, snot, diapers, spilled food, stains, Terrible Twos. As the child grows, he begins to assert his independence. There is peer pressure, teen rebellion, sullen resentment. They are most certainly not a chip off the ol’ block. This goes on for decades. Don’t fool yourself; 18 years is a long time but the kid won’t just magically turn into a 30-year-old, successful businessman with his own home on his 18th birthday. He might never.
And the only thing worse than having this turmoil, angst, expense and frustration derailing your life would be if something happened to take it all away.
What a horrible Catch-22 situation to be in! I decided then and there, at that moment, that I was never going to have kids. I had a strong sense of identity. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up (still don’t), but I knew I wanted to be me, not Somebody’s Mom and Somebody’s Wife. I wanted to travel, see things, do things, be involved in the larger world. Not trapped in a house with a two-year-old and saddled with the responsibility that parenting brings. And this was before all the additional burdens we have piled onto parents: childproofing everything, no spankings, car-seat rules, what foods to feed or avoid, ADD diagnoses, allergy worries, fears of pedophiles, helicopter parents, nosy neighbors and social services misapplying their authority at times – had I wanted to be a parent, all of that might well have given me pause. It was never easy, but I sort of have a perception that it is harder and more expensive than ever today. Gone are the days when you could just throw your kid out of the house to play in the spray from the neighborhood DDT truck, and tell him not to come home until dinner (hey, we turned out OK).
Since having this epiphany – for which I am profoundly grateful – I have spent every year defending my decision or enduring knowing platitudes from those who assured me I’d change my mind, this is what women want, what they’re made for. Well, not this one, jerks!
Why is it surprising that a woman might want a life in the company of other adults? She’s an adult, isn’t she?
I went on to have a full and satisfying career. I still don’t have kids and still don’t want them. And yet, the last time I was pestered about this, it came from a male acquaintance at work, when I was 45. As always happens with folks who have decided that you must be a mommy, for every protestation I would make, he had the easy answer. My age, my career, my personal desires – oh, pooh. None of these were obstacles to the God-given destiny assigned by my work buddy. He even trotted out my personal, nonsensical favorite persuasion: “You just have to try it!” as if you can return the child to the store if it doesn’t fit. “Try it? Do you hear yourself?” He didn’t. They never do. Eventually he dropped the subject, and I hope I have heard the last of it. It gets truly tiresome. In my younger days I was actually once called a “monster” when one of these self-appointed breeding policemen realized that I was really, really serious about not wanting to be a mother. For women, there were only two settings in his mind: mommies, and monsters. I am happy to have remained a monster.
Valenti wraps up her article with a call for more open, honest dialogue about the realities of parenthood. And it’s not just about “systemic issues: poverty, maternity leave, access to resources, and health care,” she writes. It’s also about “preparing parents emotionally and putting forward realistic images of parenthood and motherhood. There also needs to be some sort of acknowledgement that not everyone should parent.”
So long as there is this insistent and rather simplistic view that all women want to be mommies, and that it is unnatural to not want children, there can be no such acknowledgement.