I’ve known that I don’t ever want to have children for a very long time. However, it’s only been in recent years that I’ve recognized I can choose whether to have children or not, and that there are unique reasons for why I don’t want to have them. As a little girl growing up, it was assumed that I would have children. Girls, from a young age, are conditioned to be mothers, including the many times we roleplay as moms while playing House.
That narrative never fit how I actually felt.
The few times I received baby dolls as gifts, I experienced a discomfort I couldn’t explain. I didn’t have words for the feeling at the time, but I was uncomfortable with the expectation that I’d care for a baby of my own, even if it was just a toy.
Sometimes, we, as young girls, were even expected to assume a maternal role when dealing with other people in our lives, including family and friends. It’s especially common for women to assume the role of mother when emotionally providing for the men in our lives — whether it’s our brothers, friends, romantic partners, and even fathers — because it is expected of us.
Now that I’m an adult, I reject those assumptions by setting boundaries for whose feelings I’m managing. And that emotional management — constantly having to choose who deserves my emotional labor — helped me realize how much emotional capacity I’d need to care for another human being, from birth to adulthood and beyond. For the rest of my life. How could I manage another human being when I struggle to manage myself?
This lingering thought is what affirms my choice to be childfree. Even though I find the idea of giving birth scary enough, I ultimately don’t want to “pass on” my mental health to another being. It’s very important to note that I’m not talking about genetics here.
Rather, I’m referring to the way parents socially condition their children, like the way my mother conditioned me.
I didn’t know until I was a teenager that she struggled with mental health issues. I’m still angry today that the conversation didn’t happen sooner, because for years, I was forced to internalize my mother’s anxieties without any understanding that they didn’t actually reflect my reality.
I only knew how to believe the harmful things my mom told me: I thought there was something so wrong with me that I deserved all of the emotional pain and intense anxiety I felt; I thought the problem was me. I thought I deserved to be terrified in public spaces, thinking someone would kidnap me when my mom wasn’t looking. I thought I deserved to have my body antagonized because I was overweight. I thought I deserved to be isolated from having friends because no one wanted to be my friend.
And while my mother’s behavior made her complicit in this toxic upbringing, I understand much of it was out of her control.
As a working class family, it was difficult to access quality mental health care. As a woman needing any type of health care, her cries for help were often invalidated, ignored, and dismissed.
While I am still vulnerable to discrimination because of my gender, I am privileged to have access to quality mental health care as well as reproductive health care. I also find hope in my generation, and the generation following mine, because both are de-stigmatizing mental health struggles by #TalkingAboutIt.
As I heal from trauma caused by my difficult childhood, I know my emotional self must come first before anyone else’s.
I cannot speak for everyone who has childhood trauma and mental health issues, but I can say this: Gender expectations do not make me responsible for providing or caring for anyone but myself.
Author’s note: The author identifies as genderfluid, but speaks from their experiences performing as feminine before they had the language to describe their gender identity.