During every holiday dinner, my grandfather asks me when I’m going to give him great-grandchildren (it’s always a “when,” not an “if”). I’ve taken to evading with a joke by putting my hands tenderly on my stomach and saying, “Oh, in about three months.”
Everybody laughs and continues on with what they’re doing, and just like that, I’ve successfully dodged the question—but that moment of relief is fleeting. It’s almost immediately replaced with profound discomfort that leaves me squirming in my seat, my secret eating at me from within. For the past several months, I’ve been questioning what I had always thought was a given: whether I’m eventually going to have children.
I’m the “oldest young person” in my tiny family—my brother is a few years younger than me, and I have two cousins in their teens. And I’m expected to start the next generation. At 23, I’m at an early but pretty acceptable age to have kids. I’m getting closer and closer to that quintessential childbearing age, and increasingly unsure of my desire to join the ranks.
I love kids. I think they’re adorable and sweet and filled with wonder. I just don’t know if I want to devote my entire life to raising them when there are so many things I want to experience in the world. Until recently, I didn’t even think about it, because I just assumed it was something I was supposed to do. In the small town I grew up in, it’s essentially an unspoken rule for every young woman. If she doesn’t have children of her own, it’s generally assumed that she is either selfish or physically unable to have children, though no one says it. So throughout my teenage years on to my early 20s, I viewed having children as inevitable. It was the same way my grade-school self viewed college: something that I knew would happen, that would probably be as enriching as everyone says, but that I needn’t think about at the time.
Turns out that I’m not the only one. Writer Meghan Daum recently edited and published an amazing anthology of essays by childless writers entitled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I immediately fell in love with the book not only for its use of the Oxford comma, but for the kinship I felt with these writers. They all made incredibly valid points on the topic, generally coming to the consensus that just because society often cites that motherhood is “natural” doesn’t mean that we should feel compelled to do it. (As one writer, Laura Kipnis, explains, “Sure, we like nature when it’s a beautiful day on the beach; less so when a tidal wave kills your family or a shark bites off your arm.”)
But for me, the point that resonated most was made by Courtney Hodell as an aside; it was just one sentence long. “Is there any other situation in life,” said Hodell, “where people feel so free to tell you what to do, short of checking you in to rehab?”
I haven’t gone much into the reasons why I’m doubting my future parenthood, because I feel that doesn’t matter. Here’s what does: many people say that if you aren’t 100% sure whether you want to have children—if you question this role in society whatsoever—you shouldn’t bother having them, because you’re too selfish to be a parent. But isn’t this an issue we should, you know, give some thought to? Don’t my hypothetical children deserve a mother who has actually given her role some consideration instead of just jumping into it? You’d be upset to hear that your fiancé asked you to marry them because they thought they were just supposed to…so what’s the difference here?
I’d prefer to question my decision before I make it…not when I’m holding my toddler in my arms.
Of course, the issue itself is difficult to grapple with internally on its own—fear of regret, of lack of legacy—but yet we are forced to deal with an added fear of outside judgment. Why is a woman labeled (as the book asserts in its very own title) selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed if she decides that she wants to live her life in a different manner? What’s the problem with wanting to make an impact on the world in a way that doesn’t involve children? Why, as Hodell points out, do so many people feel the need to tell a woman what she should do with her life in such a grandiose way?
This is a major life decision that young women should be able to seriously consider, because wouldn’t self-assured parents who feel like they’re fulfilling their destiny lead to happier families and a better world? Instead, their doubts are immediately cast off as personality flaws, and many are pressured into motherhood, while still others who decide to forgo parenthood are exiled as “innately non-feminine.”
When I imagine my life 10, 20 years from now, I have no idea if it will include kids. Maybe I will decide to partake in parenthood; maybe I’ll one day feel an primal, biological urge to have kids as so many people claim. Maybe I’ll have a few—maybe a dozen—children who I will love very, very much, and I’ll wonder why I even questioned the issue in the first place. (And to any of my future children who may end up reading this, I DO love you very much, and I made the right decision. Now come over here and let me kiss your beautiful faces.)
But maybe I won’t, and I’ll decide that my purpose in life lies elsewhere. Maybe I’ll end up focusing on my novels, my career, traveling, my future husband, my nieces and nephews.
I don’t know what I want. But you know what? That’s OK. It’s my decision, and only mine. And here’s what I’ve decided: I think can live with a little uncertainty for now.
[Image via Shutterstock]