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My 10-month-old niece is wearing a lily-white sundress that shows off the glorious rolls of baby fat on her chubby legs and arms. One of those adorable baby headbands with a bow encircles her nearly hairless head. She’s smiling at—and drooling on—me from her perch on my hip. I examine her perfect little fingers, her button nose (which looks just like my husband’s—her blood uncle), and her irresistible chipmunk cheeks. I love her. Yet not one maternal pang stings through my body; not even for a moment do I think to myself that I want a child of my own.
It’s hard to remember the first time I said out loud that I might not want to have kids. It was probably in high school, when no one believes anything you say because, well, you’re too young to say it with any authority. The truth is, though, I’ve never been that person, the girl who always knew she would one day be a mother. I simply figured it must not be in my genetic makeup to be a parent. And that’s always been OK with me. I allowed that I might change my mind down the road, but in my 20s—even my late 20s—I never worried that I didn’t hear a biological clock ticking somewhere in the background.
But the years are melting away quickly now. College is a fading memory. I’ve been married for almost eight years. My husband, Matt, and I have good jobs. We own a nice house. And on my next birthday I’ll be 32. Yet there is still no audible ticking clock. I’m not stalked by an unyielding countdown like so many other women my age, women who want children yet who may not be able to conceive or may not have some other part of the equation (the partner, the money, the security) they think they need before bringing a child into the world.
Instead, I’m haunted by the fact that I hear nothing—and the silence is deafening.
I should probably try to leave well enough alone. My gut tells me—has been telling me for years—that I don’t want to be a mom. My gut says the anxiety I experience at the thought of having children is reason enough to bypass parenthood. The fact that the mere suggestion of having kids conjures feelings of claustrophobia makes me think my gut is dead-on. It seems logical to trust those instincts, but my brain apparently does not agree.
My intellectual side has only started piping up over the past year. My brain must know that my body is aging, and that it only has a few years to convince me that I should overcome my doubts about parenthood. I’ll admit that it makes some decent points. Things like Matt would make a great dad and he just so happens to be the last male in his family line; or that we have the means and education to raise a human who could one day benefit the world; or that having family when we’re old would be a good thing; or that my parents deserve grandchildren; or that everyone we know is having kids so we might as well do it too because we’ll have no friends left to play with anyway. My mind is doing its best to override my gut. And that’s the mental purgatory in which I now suffer.
Of course, I do not suffer alone. Matt lives in this foggy in-between space with me. We’ve been together since we were kids ourselves—at 16 and 18 years old, we talked about going to college and finding careers and one day getting married. But from the day we met at a high school football game until today, I have never said anything other than I might not want to have kids. In high school, Matt probably thought that sounded progressive and cool. Or maybe he thought I would change my mind one day. Or maybe he was a teenager and didn’t really give a damn. Now, though, he says if he had fallen in love with and married someone else, someone who wanted kids, he would probably have them. He’s not devastated—or at all surprised—that he may never procreate, but at 32 his brain is talking to him too. I know he does not think he married the wrong woman; however, I do think he wonders why the one person he loves the most doesn’t want to embark on a life-creating, life-affirming journey with him. And I think he, like so many other people in their 30s, is beginning to examine what life is supposed to be about. If it’s not about kids and family, then what exactly should we be doing with our time here on this planet?
Here’s the rub: I’m not sure the decision—mine, Matt’s, ours together—to have kids should be so cerebral. It seems like something that should come from the core, from some primordial place inside that yearns to create and care for another soul. In other words, it seems to me that the desire should come from the gut. And, right now, that’s the one place that’s telling me a definitive no.
Trying to put into words why I’m angst-ridden about having children has been so difficult that I jokingly told a friend that going ahead and getting pregnant might actually be easier. But that’s not the truth at all, because having a child is the biggest, most challenging commitment a person ever makes. It changes your lifestyle. It changes your habits. It changes your relationships. It changes you—and your life—forever.
I tease my friends who are parents that there are endless reasons not to walk down the parenthood path. Reasons No. 1, 2, and 3 not to have a kid? Morning sickness, stretch marks, 10 pounds you’ll never lose. Reason No. 22 not to have a kid? Incessant screaming often begins at 3 a.m. Reason No. 78? Potty training. Reason No. 115? Parent-teacher conferences—on a Friday night. Reason No. 184? They never clean up their own vomit. Reason No. 202? Temper tantrums. Reason No. 265? They turn into teenagers.
But it would be too easy, too typical, too superficial to blame those fleeting irritations and stages of life as the reasons I don’t think I want to have kids. No, my hesitancies run deeper.
I fear having to give up my job. I’m afraid of the intellectual black hole I could fall into, trapped in a house with only a two-year-old to converse with for hours at a time. I’m scared that the responsibility of raising the kids will fall mostly to me because, as a doctor, Matt has the higher-paying, more demanding job. I fear that kids will draw attention away from—and suck the romance out of—our relationship. I fear that I will no longer feel young and sexy after experiencing pregnancy, delivery, and breast-feeding. I fear that our dreams of someday living abroad will fizzle when we can’t bring ourselves to strip our kids of a life in the States. Even though we rarely fight, I fear that Matt and I will argue over how to manage an angry teenager or how to best help our kid who struggles in school. I fear that, like my parents, Matt and I might not always agree on how best to parent our kids and that those arguments could create a fissure, a crack in our relationship that we don’t know how to seal. Most of all, though, I fear that I won’t like being a mom, that I’m too lazy to be a mom, that I’m too type A to be a mom, that I’m not sensitive and empathetic enough to be a mom—and that my poor children will suffer from my inadequacies.
I realize that all of these reasons can be construed as selfish. And even Matt has said this to me—that having kids might make me think about something greater than myself, and that that might be a good thing. Maybe it would be. Maybe it’d be a great thing. Maybe that’s what makes a parent a parent: true selflessness.
Maybe that’s why my dad threw a ball up the stairs and let it bounce down and bonk him in the head a thousand times—because it made his baby daughter laugh. Maybe that’s why my mom baked homemade play dough and pushed me on the swings and drove me to painting classes and piano lessons and swim team practices. Maybe that’s why my dad coached my basketball team and my brother’s baseball teams. Maybe that’s why my mom took me to hundreds of eye doctor appointments. Maybe that’s why my dad carried me to the kitchen after I got sick in the middle of the night and sat with me while I drank warm ginger ale. Maybe that’s why my mom hugged me and held me when a boy broke my heart. Maybe that’s why my mom and dad helped my brother and me with homework. Maybe that’s why my parents stuck it out—stuck with each other—when things were tough, which they sometimes were.
The thing is that I’m not sure that it’s totally selfish—at least “selfish” in the way people think of that word—to want to live a life unencumbered by children. If I’m not OK with sacrificing my work, or my time with Matt, or my ability to one day live overseas, then the thinking goes that I shouldn’t have kids. It’s existentialism at its most basic. And, honestly, it all sounds right when I put it down on paper and even when I say it out loud. My gut nods approvingly. Yet, I have to admit, that sometimes something feels very wrong.
I’m not sure what feels amiss, but I think it comes down to love. I have been fortunate in matters of love my entire life. My parents, my grandparents, my brother, my old boyfriends, my friends, my husband, my husband’s family—they have all shown me more love than anyone has the right to expect in one lifetime. And so, sometimes I wonder if not having a child is an outright rejection of love.
A good friend once tried to explain to me what loving a child is like. Knowing how much I care about my brother, Jordan, she said that the love for your child is like the love you have for a sibling—only multiplied by 100. I have no doubt she’s right. Which makes me contemplate the notion that I’d be surrendering the opportunity not only to shower that kind of love upon someone else, but also to experience the singular kind of love a child has for his mother. The sensation that I’m making the incorrect decision at least in part swells from someplace inside me that realizes shunning love in any form feels spiritually, cosmically wrong.
But the idea that I’m spurning love lasts only until I remember that my 10-month-old niece might not get the same kind of love—ample, attentive, over-the-top love—from me as she gets from her mother, a person who knew she wanted kids without a doubt.
And so, we will, for the time being, remain childless. I will go with my gut. I will try to embrace the silence, the lack of ticking. Of course, it’s possible that I’m just not there yet. Maybe selflessness and a deep yearning will come later. And I will simply hope that I am not one of those people who wakes up one morning eight or 10 years from now and wants a baby that I can no longer have.
Lindsey B. Koehler is managing editor of 5280. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.