It's nearly 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night and time for my nephew to go to sleep. As I pick him up, he nuzzles his soft, chubby face into the curve of my neck. Although I have the urge to continue snuggling, I lay him in his crib and tiptoe back to the living room. My husband smiles sweetly at my return and teases, “So, now do you want to have a baby?” Like most women, his question fills me with delight; however, unlike most women, I respond with a chortle, “Absolutely not!”
Don’t worry. My husband wasn’t surprised by my reply. This exchange is a part of our sardonic ribbing. You see, when you've made the decision not to reproduce, external endorsement is elusive. Validation tends to come from likeminded people, typically in the form of dark comedy.
Today, one in five American women in their early 40s has not had a child. Yet, in our pro-natalist world, those of us who are childfree remain largely invisible in the popular imagination. Sure, we occasionally make a passing appearance in the works of people who have children, as is the case in the latest book by self-described “feminist evangelist” (and mother) Jessica Valenti, but we are rarely given a platform from which may speak for ourselves. Silencing is one of the pesky downsides of being in the minority.
To paraphrase Thomas McGuane, my husband and I both like children; we just see no reason to start our own brand. We had both come to this conclusion before we met in our early twenties, and after one pregnancy scare, my guy got a vasectomy. Although he was only 24 years old at the time, his clear rationale for why he never wanted kids won over the initially reluctant urologist. An hour and $400 later, we could have all the sex we wanted without worry of an accidental, unwanted pregnancy.
My family was always supportive of my decision, but it took a while for my husband’s family to come to terms with his. As the eldest child and only son of conservative Pentecostals, his decision not to reproduce wasn’t just bucking social tradition; it was a rejection of his family’s values and religious beliefs. Still, having a child because your parents expect it is hardly a legitimate reason.
An awkward moment in my family happened after this question from my sister, “If it turns out I can’t have children, would you be a surrogate for me?” I didn’t need a moment to consider it; I immediately responded, “No.” Her look of shock and disappointment killed me, but I knew I couldn’t do it. Aside from my complete lack of desire to experience pregnancy, I find surrogacy ethically dubious in a world with so many neglected, already-born babies. (Though I suppose if I were entirely consistent with this belief, I’d eschew childfree dogmatism and adopt one of those babies myself.)
Resolving to never have children wasn’t a decision I came to lightly, and it’s easily the most frequently challenged choice I have ever made. It rarely occurs to people that the desire to have a child requires justification, but most feel entitled to an explanation of why one does not. Even total strangers will put me through the ringer.
Are you too selfish? Not mature enough? Or, my favourite, unnatural? I do my best to dissuade censorious interrogators of these and other caustic flaws, but I often find myself condescended to with a curt “you’ll change your mind when you’re older.” I suppose 32 years of absolute certainty just isn’t enough for some people.
I don’t rule out raising children completely; it just won’t happen of my own volition. A few years ago, the same sister to whom I would have denied surrogacy asked me to be guardian of her two sons if ever a tragedy occurs. This time my immediate response was “yes.” My sister entrusting me with this responsibility moved me profoundly. It shows not only her deep understanding of my decision to not reproduce, but also my fierce devotion to her and her children.
I am a stronger advocate for parent’s rights as a result of being childless by choice. When it comes to supporting reproductive choices of all kinds, America country is woefully deficient. Despite its pro-family rhetoric, much conservative political manoeuvering is decidedly anti-family. The same people who hinder access to resources that prevent unwanted pregnancies also advocate denying social supports – like maternity and paternity leave, healthcare coverage, and reduced childcare costs – that benefit parents and children. I find this illogic as offensive as the illogical people find my barren womb.
There’s no doubt the lives of people with children are imbued with joys that only parenthood brings. This experience is well represented in media and popular culture. Lately, the burdens of joyful parenting are gaining traction as well in hits like Louie and Go the F*ck to Sleep. Until we also hear the stories directly from the childfree, the full scope of adult life will remain misleading and elusive.