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No Thanks, Not for Me
To Breed or Not to Breed
When people learn that I'm in my late twenties, happily married, and am not planning to have children, they respond in one of two ways. Most of the time, they smile patronizingly and say, "You'll change your mind." Sometimes they do me the favor of taking me seriously, in which case they warn, "You'll regret it."
I've heard this enough that I've started worrying that they might be right. After all, I'm not completely insensitive to the appeal of motherhood. In fact, I have a name chosen for the daughter I don't plan to have, and sometimes I imagine the life I could give her. Spared my mortifying suburban childhood, she'd be one of those sparkling, precocious New York City kids I've always envied. I'd take her around the world, to study languages in Europe, to see the Potala Palace and the Taj Mahal. She'd have all I wish I'd had.
My husband doesn't particularly want to be a father, but he's said that, should I ever feel the ravenous baby hunger said to descend on women in their thirties, he could be coaxed into parenthood. He's a loving and generous man, and I have no doubt he'd dote on our child if we had one. So would his wonderful family, who live within walking distance of us. They're the reason his sister, a bar owner, has more of a social life than any other young mother I've met. I think of his grandmother and late grandfather, who lived in a rambling house in rural Maine. Three generations of their adoring descendants admired them as few people admire the very old anymore, and seeing that has made me thinkthat family can be the key to the best kind of life.
Still, the vague pleasures I sometimes associate with having children are either distant or abstract. Other women say they feel a yearning for motherhood like a physical ache. I don't know what they're talking about. The daily depredations of child-rearing, though, seem so viscerally real that my stomach tightens when I ponder them. A child, after all, can't be treated as a fantasy projection of my imagined self. He or she would be another person, with needs and desires that I would be tethered to for decades. And everything about meeting those needs fills me with horror. Not just the diapers and the shrieking, the penury and career stagnation, but the parts that maternally minded friends of mine actually look forward to: the wearying grammar-school theatrical performances. Hours spent on the playground when I'd rather be reading books or writing them. Parent-teacher conferences. Birthday parties. Ugly primary-colored plastic toys littering my home.
I can sort of see that it might be nice to have children, but there are a thousand things I'd rather spend my time doing than raise them. The daily grind of motherhood seems like a prison sentence to me. Though I have nothing but respect for the work of raising children, I don't like being around them. At least, I don't like being around most of them most of the time. Some people say I'll feel different about my own, but I'm not sure I want to take the risk. I think about Martha Gellhorn, the globe-trotting war correspondent who, when she was middle-aged, adopted a little boy in a moment of loneliness and sentimentality. At first, she was in love, like mothers are. Then she grew bored and frustrated. According to a recent biography of her, she was terrible to him, and he was the great failure of her life.
Two years ago, when I wrote a story about all this for Salon, I got dozens of letters in response. Most were empathetic, but a few, mostly from men, were disgusted, calling me a selfish caricature of feminism. Those letters hurt because I suspected they might be right, that some nurturing part was missing in me. But I doubt the wisdom of bringing someone into the world just to defy that fear.
Especially when motherhood seems so hard even for those who want it more than anything. When I wrote my Salon story, I spoke to Rick Hanson, a California clinical psychologist and coauthor of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. He told me that raising a child is grueling even for those who like childish things. "Most parents, men and women, say they dramatically underestimated how intensely demanding, stressful, and depleting parenthood would be," he told me.
Meanwhile, despite general social disapproval of childless women, their ranks are growing. A quarter of American women will never have children, Hanson said. The numbers are similar in other developed countries. Some of these women can't have kids, but others simply have other priorities. Three-quarters of America's childless women are physically able to be mothers, according to Hanson.
They won't always be. Fertility starts declining in your mid-thirties. Sylvia Ann Hewlett's 2002 book Creating a Life may have been shoddy, irritating, and smug, but it was accurate in its assessment of the dismal odds stacked against women who seek fertility treatments in their forties. After a certain age, having a baby is no longer an option.
This breeds another fear that I'll regret my effrontery in defying the whole history of the human race. Are deliberately childless women setting themselves up for a lifetime of barren desolation?
According to the experts I spoke to, the happy answer is no.
When I started writing my story for Salon, I would have described myself as ambivalent about childbearing. Yet when experts told me I was unlikely to suffer debilitating psychological fallout if I spared myself motherhood, I felt enormous relief, as if I'd been let off the hook. They said that people who choose not to have children (as opposed to those who desperately want to have children but can't) tend to have . . .Maybe Baby. Copyright © by Lori Leibovich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.