Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | April 2015 | 16 minutes (3,886 words)
One time, when I was in my early twenties, I shared a hospital room with a mother of many. I had a skin infection that wouldn’t respond to oral medication, and the 50-something-year-old woman had severe, inexplicable hives. Our main topic of conversation revolved around neither of our ailments. It was about my not wanting to have children. She was insistent, which seemed ironic considering her hives flared up whenever her family visited her on Sundays. I eventually compromised with the woman. Okay, I said, I will put off my decision until I reach my thirties. “You are starry-eyed,” she huffed. “You young women want it all. But you can’t have it all!” Maybe, I thought, some of us don’t want it all.
In my mid-30s, my sister’s boyfriend sat me down to explain that my preference for a childless life would pass. I thought him presumptuous, particularly since he had only met me once or twice. “At your age,” he explained, “people go through phases. You’ll get over it.” It is true that people change their minds, but that doesn’t make their immediate conviction any less valid. I had not changed my mind since I was a child. I tried to reason with him that it was very unlikely that someone who has never wanted children in almost 20 years would all of a sudden change her mind. To no avail. An argument ensued and I left.
I can’t forget these episodes. They were numerous, in the weeks, months and years of my twenties, my thirties, and my early forties. I would have liked to write about each of them, right when they happened, but I feared that the general response would have echoed my sister’s boyfriend. As a result, a series of silent defense strategies stewed in my mind for years. If I dared speak up, would readers demand proof in advance that I wouldn’t get pregnant in the future? Or would the trolls scream in all caps NO WONDER SHE DOESN’T HAVE CHILDREN, WHO’D WANT TO FUCK HER? I have never had problems finding someone to fuck, my own little voice would respond. Why the little voice still feels pressured to respond at all is, of course, the important question.
I am not sure about the reproductive state of my 42-year-old ovaries, but I feel like I have more leverage now than I did ten years ago and, more importantly, I care less about what other people think of me. Today, when I talk about cooking and a well-meaning acquaintance predicts that I, too, will order takeout once I have kids, I shrug it off. When my husband and I bought a house, I had to continuously discourage contractors who insisted on installing child-safety features “for the future.” No, I told them, I don’t need the kind of wood floors that can withstand tricycle wheels. And no, I don’t want a railing in the attic to prevent toddlers from tumbling down the stairs. I like open spaces and there won’t be any toddlers. “You never know!” The contractor responded. For the most part, I have stopped engaging with strangers who think they know what’s right for me. A few weeks ago, though, I was caught off guard.
It was 8 o’clock in the morning and I had no milk for my coffee. Still half asleep I put on sweatpants and ran across the street to the Turkish deli. The clerk and I had been friendly for years. He often accepted packages on my behalf. Sometimes we cooed over his bodega cat, whose name translated to “Strong Man.” This morning, though, the conversation quickly veered from a friendly inquiry about Strong Man’s wellbeing to whether my husband and I have any children and oh-my-God, why not? “Because we don’t want to,” I said, hoping that my stern response would end the conversation. But the clerk insisted. But one must—… I have two… The third one is on its way… You should really think about it, because once you get old… and so forth. I fled the store and haven’t gone back since. Recently, when we ran out of milk again, my husband asked sweetly whether it was okay for him to get milk there. “Of course,” I said. “Go right ahead. I doubt that the clerk will ever pressure you into a conversation about why you don’t want to have children. Give my best to Strong Man.”
* * *
Spoiler alert: I don’t have a change of heart at the end of this essay. This is a story about not changing my mind and not having regret. To hives lady, the contractors and all the other bodega owners with cats: I am writing my final no-thank-you note.
* * *
The birth rate in the U.S. has dipped to a record low. There are now only 63 births per 1,000 women between 15 and 44, compared to roughly twice that number in the 1960s. In 2008, 18 percent of women aged 40 to 44 didn’t have children. It is often stated that the steady decrease hinges on the country’s economic distress. But this belies the fact that the more educated a woman is—and, as a result, more capable of securing employment—the less likely she is to have children. While numbers have balanced out slightly since the 1990s, with teenage pregnancies decreasing as well, women without high school diplomas are still almost twice as likely to have children as women with master’s degrees. (I have two master’s degrees, so statistically speaking it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m childless.)
While numbers on (female) fertility rates are easy to track down, it is harder to find reliable data on voluntary childlessness. The Pew Research Center states that six percent of women aged 40-44 are childless by choice, but fails to provide numbers for other age groups. It is telling that not a single one of these studies even mention men—as if they had nothing to do with birth rates.
So why are childless women, despite being on the rise, still considered incomplete? And why are men so rarely questioned about their decision to (not) have children, let alone pressured to justify their choice? And not only that–I have never read an article on voluntary childlessness written by a man. The articles that make it into the paper are written by women, listing excuses, doubts and regrets. Places like The New York Times appear to promote the idea that childlessness is, by nature, a sacrifice women have to come to terms with, not an actual choice, supporting the archaic myth that the lives of childless women are lacking more than those of women with offspring. In her article “Childless, With Regret and Advice: Don’t Wait for the Perfect Picture” author Susan Shapiro explains that she aborted her first two pregnancies because they happened at the wrong time. When Shapiro was ready for children, she was too old. “I wished I had done psychotherapy sooner to heal my head, put genetic therapy to fix the fetus on a layaway payment plan, and stored my eggs as the technology vastly improved,” Shapiro writes, regretfully. Novelist Michelle Huneven’s recent article is misleadingly titled “Childless by Choice.” (Its original title is “Amateurs,” and comes from an admirable new collection by Meghan Daum.) Like Shapiro, she lists the things that had gone wrong in her childhood. She writes, “The one chance at motherhood fate allotted me, I chose not to take.” Huneven, too, had an abortion when she was young and wrestles with guilt after friends warn that abortion will damage her “karma.”
We so rarely hear from those who really choose to be childless, and there are few essays from women who don’t regret having had an abortion, who wouldn’t have been “ready” at a later age, who had the money for IVF and childcare but who chose not to go there. The mainstream conversation is colored by if-arguments, eerily reminiscent of the 1950s, when women without children were pitied (and, possibly, pitied themselves). If I had found the right partner… If I had had enough money… If my childhood hadn’t been so bad… Whatever the reasons, they all suggest that something went wrong.
I don’t have any if-arguments (which doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong in my life). I simply never wanted to have children. Not when I was 20, not when I was 30 and not today.
* * *
This is what I remember: My sister and I are playing in the grass in our suburban yard. I am maybe six, so she must be 12.
My mom had just bought me my first pet rabbit and I couldn’t think of anything better or bigger or more exciting. I tell my sister, who didn’t own a pet at the time, that she could be my bunny’s co-owner. “That’s nice of you,” she says, with the warmth and care only an older sister can endow you with. Years before, my mother had given her a guinea pig. When the guinea pig died, my mother told her that it ran away. “It must have run off to get married and have a family,” my sister said then, her words becoming a recurring family gag. Why else would the guinea pig run away from our family? (I can tell you why, but that’s another story.)
In the yard, my sister and I discuss future professions.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” She asks.
“An animal doctor,” I say. (What else?) “What do YOU want to be when you grow up?” I ask her.
“A gynecologist,” she says. “I want to bring babies into the world.”
“Great,” I say. “Then we can open up an office together!”
Giggling, my sister runs to my parents to tell them, creating yet another kids-say-the-darndest-things moment. Then I didn’t understand what was so funny about it. While my sister would bring babies into the world, I would save animals next door. We would have lunch together every day. We would be inseparable for the rest of our lives.
I didn’t grow up to become “an animal doctor,” mainly because I flunked math and science in high school. My thing was languages. And my sister didn’t become a gynecologist; she took over my father’s company. We both still love animals, though. I have several pets, but bristle when I hear acquaintances and veterinarians refer to them as “[my] babies.” I am a grown woman and can very well distinguish between babies and cats. For starters, cats catch mice and use a litter box. And I don’t know about your cat, but mine doesn’t have a college fund.
Even as a child I preferred animals and adults over children. I never played with dolls. When I wasn’t reading or out in the yard playing hide-and-seek with our 120-lb. Rottweiler—I stuffed my jeans pockets with cold cuts, so he could find me easily—I sat around the table “interviewing” my parents’ friends. My mother was a small-town socialite. If a stranger showed up in the village, he or she would be invited for dinner the next day. I always hoped the stranger wouldn’t bring kids because I had no interest in playing with them. Kids were annoying and difficult. I wanted to be with the adults. I wanted to learn and talk about adult things.
* * *
My husband and I have been together for eleven years and happily married for nine. He doesn’t want to have children either. He never wanted to, and has never gotten a woman pregnant. I don’t remember the exact moment when we talked about not wanting children. It must have been in one of the first love-drunk weeks—or months—that we spent almost entirely in bed. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
“Do you want to have children?”
“I’m hungry. Let’s go cook something tasty.”
My husband and I were adults when we met. We both had had several, unsuccessful relationships behind us. We sort of knew what we didn’t want from life and were in the process of figuring out what it was that we did.
Shortly after we met, the “warranty” of my three-year hormone implant was about to run out. I had been on various types of birth control since I was 16. The pill, IUDs, a diaphragm, condoms—you name it. Quite frankly, I had had enough. When I shared my concerns with my then-boyfriend (and now husband), he immediately suggested getting a vasectomy. We knew we wanted to stay together, and I was grateful and proud of him. The procedure took 30 minutes, his insurance paid for it, and he was back at work the next day. One of the many differences between my husband and me is that he has never been forced to justify why he doesn’t want to have children. I, on the other hand, had to prepare my reasons from an early age.
Over the years I tried out various, indisputable explanations: The world is bursting at the seams and there is little hope for the environment. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth has lost half of its fauna in the last 40 years alone. The atmosphere is heating up due to greenhouse gases, and we are running out of resources at an alarming speed. Considering these facts, you don’t need an excuse not to have children, you need an excuse to have children! When I mention these statistics to people, they just nod. It’s as if their urge to procreate overrides their knowledge. I realized that having children is a decision based on emotion, not fact, so I began taking a closer look at my own feelings towards children.
* * *
A common assumption is that childless women don’t like children. I can only speak for myself. Some children I like, some I don’t. Children begin to reflect their parents’ behavior from a very early age, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many children are, in fact, unlikable. But however likable a child may be, I find the prospect of spending a whole day—or week or month—with a one-, two-, three-… 12-year-old jarring. (Don’t even mention teenagers.) Of course, this is not entirely the child’s fault. Part of this aversion has to do with the fact that having children forces you to navigate the school system, deal with teachers, principals, and, most of all, other children. In general, I prefer conversations with adults about adult things, like books, immigration, religion and race. I can talk about writing for hours on end. And I love to cook elaborate, super spicy dinners! None of these things indicate that I am more or less incomplete than anyone else.
Still, I wouldn’t say that my decision to remain childless is based on aversion. I particularly like babies before they can walk. I like the way their chubby skin feels, their giggles and the illusion of absolute innocence. I don’t like it when they start walking and pull the books off my shelves, but I appreciate that they give their parents more than anyone else will ever be able to give them. But herein lies the paradox.
People with children have told me that it is virtually impossible to put into words what they gain from their children. “I would be at a loss to describe it in any way other than clichés,” a friend told me. “You can’t know what you are missing until you are on the other side.” Well, I don’t know what it feels like to bungee jump either, yet people don’t try to convince me to hurl myself into a canyon. Besides, I might be able to jump once and then decide that it isn’t for me. With having children this obviously isn’t an option.
* * *
One time, at a prestigious artist colony, a twenty-something poet told me at the dinner table that she thinks people without children are narcissists. She piled on examples of people she knew. I wondered out loud whether it is really children’s responsibility to make us less narcissistic and more mature, adding that making a spitting image of yourself is not the most self-effacing thing to do, either. (Careful, Narcissus, don’t fall in the pond!) I forget, but I might have also mentioned that I know a thing or two about narcissistic mothers. I think we should be concerned about improving ourselves and making a valuable contribution to this world. It seems to me that altruism and self-improvement mean more when self-motivated than when they are responses to demands from a little person tugging on your apron. But why argue? Narcissistic or not, we are all imperfect.
* * *
I was recently walking in Manhattan with my friend Melissa and her little son Henry when we passed a homeless man lying on a bed of cardboard. “What’s this man doing there?” Henry asked, craning his neck to get a better look. “He is sleeping outside, because he is homeless,” Melissa explained. A conversation ensued. This was the first time that Henry, who lives in a small town upstate, had encountered homelessness, and he kept on digging. But why doesn’t the man have a home? Why doesn’t he work? What is mental illness? Where are his parents, his children, his friends? And so it went until Melissa ran out of answers and Henry’s little head was ready to burst. Henry is by far my favorite child; he is only four and has already mastered the art of conversation. (Recently, he asked me if I had ever been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Have you seen their collection of goblets?” He wanted to know.) While I am impressed by Henry’s interest in homelessness and art, two subjects I care about deeply, it is something else that pulls on my heartstrings. It is the intimacy between mother and child, the we-against-the-world that strikes me as unique. When Henry and Melissa talk to each other I feel myself outside of this distinct, cradling bond.
I have always been a sucker for intimacy. As a journalist I often follow my sources for months, sometimes years. I have visited construction sites in scary neighborhoods late at night because I sensed that this would be the place where I would establish a pivotal connection with a subject. Moments like the one between Melissa and Henry—or between me and the man who guarded the construction site—don’t often happen. Even in marriages that are happy and stable these magical “first” moments tend to become less frequent and take a little more effort as time goes by. Sometimes they happen, but more often you have to create them. When you are interacting with your child, however, they seem to happen effortlessly and out of nowhere. Children, it seems, deliver surprises, intimacy and growth on a daily basis without any prompting.
* * *
I sometimes wonder whether the impulse to have children is fueled by our need to create something outside of ourselves. Something that then continues on without prompting, a perpetual motion machine that allows us to always start over and make up for our parents’ and our own shortcomings. But who am I to say why people have children? I can only speak for myself. I can tell you that it is hard to find purpose and surprise just within yourself. As a writer, the question what to do with myself, how to find and keep enthusiasm for a project, particularly in times when everything around me seems to be falling apart, is a struggle. I often wish there were something other than an empty page that would allow me to externalize or, at least, distract me from my fears. On those days, when my attempts to get responses from editors fail and sources refuse to talk, when I am too lazy to conceptualize new ideas and move further into a project, when I am ready to collapse under the burden of the page—on those days, I understand why one might want to push it all aside for the sake of a child. But it seems misguided to devote yourself to someone else instead of dealing with your own struggles.
At this point I might as well admit: I am afraid of dying alone. My husband is older than me, and my big sister lives 4,000 miles away. But what guarantee is there that your child will still be there for you once you get old? Besides, wouldn’t it be the ultimate narcissistic act to have a child to quell your fear of death?
I have always believed that no other human being, no societal rule can fill the gaping hole of existence. “You are free and that is why you are lost,” Franz Kafka wrote. No life decision comes without struggle.
And there is something incredibly gratifying about being able to prompt your own wonders, to know that they are truly yours. I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of reporting and traveling I do if I had to take care of a child. There might be other strong women who can, but my strength lies elsewhere. I cherish the silence that allows me to hear my subjects’ voices when I write, the quiet walks I take where, miraculously, things I have struggled with fall into place. I wouldn’t want a child’s voice to compete with the writerly whisper in my head.
Life’s fulfillment shouldn’t hinge on other human beings—except that it does, of course. But ultimately I want to choose those who surround me and love me and whom I love back. You don’t know what’s right for me, and I don’t know what’s right for you. “Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite,” wrote Simone De Beauvoir, a childless writer I much admire. De Beauvoir, who was born 65 years before me to the day, continued, “And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive.”
* * *
Sabine Heinlein is the author of the IPPY Gold Award-winning narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison and the ebook The Orphan Zoo: Rise and Fall of the Farm at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.