I stumbled across a passage in a Sam Lipsyte short story whose narrator captured an excellent observation on “maternal types”: “She didn’t believe there was such a temperament, unless one assembled it in the culture factory”. We talk a lot in this country about biological clocks, nurturing instincts, women having it all, and the selfishness (or unenlightened state) of choosing to be childless. When women become mothers, society provides rigid expectations, against inflexible imagery of what motherhood should look like. A sampling: once women get to a certain age, or marry, or find the right partner their thoughts are to turn to a desire for mommyhood. A woman becomes a “real” woman, discovers true love, and feels entirely fulfilled once she has children. Before then, she’s just pretending to understand the world and killing time until her life’s purpose begins. Should a mother not look or feel like what’s expected, well, she’d better suffer in silence. It’s not ok to say or even feel that perhaps having children wasn’t the right choice for her, or a mistake or a colossal task for which she’s not equipped. That’s wrong, and would mean she doesn’t love her kids.
I’d like to go on the record right now that I believe having a child when you don’t want to, or not exploring the choice to remain child-free are damaging to women’s lives—and to the children they have.
My husband practices child abuse litigation for a living, and I worked at Planned Parenthood. Together, we’ve seen the consequences of unwanted children—the misery, neglect and abuse that children born to parents who aren’t ready, or stable, or desirous of parenthood–experience. At Planned Parenthood I felt I was part of the prevention movement, and yes, that included abortion. I’ll out myself as rabidly pro-choice here, so you know where I’m coming from. I’m not going to get into some of the more devastating cases on which my husband has worked, but I do want to discuss stable people having a child when they know they don’t want to. It is an intensely personal decision, and it is not a life requirement, no matter what anyone, including the culture at large may dictate. Parenthood is not for everyone, and not every woman has a maternal instinct. And that is ok, and far more normal than we talk about.
My role at Planned Parenthood was counselor, and in addition to scheduled appointments, I was often pulled in by the medical staff when they ran into challenging (non-medical) patient situations. Primarily I provided options counseling to women facing an unplanned pregnancy, which involved a factual, medically accurate discussion of adoption, abortion and parenting, as well as referrals to community resources for the services we didn’t offer. My mission was to help women make the right decision for themselves, by laying out the information in a straightforward, non-judgmental way. On numerous occasions I sat with women who described themselves as financially stable, educated, employed and “old enough” to have a child, who were pregnant and didn’t want to be. In each case, the woman was struggling with guilt about choosing to terminate the pregnancy, because they were in the “right position” to have a child. My question was always, but do you want to be a parent? And if the answer was no, then I would ask them to visualize how having a child would change their lives, and how they would cope with those changes, not having wanted them in the first place. Inside, I felt disgusted about the messages coming from society telling women that once they reach a certain plane of existence, where life is stable, they have to take on the responsibility of a child, wanted or not. I see this scenario in absolute terms: if you don’t want a child, don’t have one. Period.
Parenthood is not a life choice that will simply work out because it will. And yet a staggering number of people sell themselves on the idea that because we’ve been having babies since the beginning of human history, that means it will all get figured out, one way or another. Chillingly wrong. Choosing to have a biological child means ten months of being pregnant and constantly sharing your body with someone else (more like 2-3 years if you choose to breastfeed). Your body will change, and you will be pressured to lose the baby weight immediately, because the culture factory dictates that pregnancy should leave no permanent marks. You will lose your freedom because you are tethered to a tiny person who is completely dependent on you for everything. Your life will change dramatically, sometimes in ways you didn’t anticipate, or want. Your priorities will change so that you, your partner relationship and your friends will no longer be the focus. Someone else’s needs will come first, and that will cost money, and time. You will not be allowed to resent the changes, and you will be alone with any feelings you may have that differ from total love and acceptance of your new role.
I wish luck to those of you who choose to have children. To me it often looks miserable, punishing and interminable. If it was the right choice for you, mazel tov! If it wasn’t, you truly have my heartfelt sympathy. And if you’re on the fence, pay close attention to all those nagging little doubts. There’s rich content there, that if explored, will lead you to the right decision for you.