Disclaimer: Being someone who is biologically and circumstantially capable of having children, but who chooses not to, and who consequently finds herself regularly explaining that choice when others pry into her reproductive life, is merely an inconvenience—an endurable nuisance. Being someone who fervently wants a child, but who is unable to have one (for whatever reason), is profoundly painful—an excruciating burden. I am only writing about the former condition, and hopefully doing so without being insensitive to those suffering the latter.
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Especially among Christians, I don’t find many people who expect (or seem to understand) that I am childless because I don’t want children. Now that my husband and I are approaching the fifth anniversary of our marriage, the question that used to only occasionally drip off the tongues of others has become a steady stream of inquisition. The precise wording varies, but most can be sorted into one of two categories—circuitous or brusque: “Have you talked about having kids?” or, “When are you two going to start having babies!?”
I am as allergic to these questions as I am (and have always been) to all the auto-fill inquiries of life: What do you want to be when you grow up? What was your SAT score? Which college do you want to go to? Do you know what you’ll major in? What are you going to do with your degree? Are you seeing anyone? Is it serious? Have you talked about marriage? When are you two getting married?
Of all the formulaic probes, I dislike the relationship and procreation questions the most. Why? First, if I’m uncertain, you’re forcing me to wallow deeper into my uncertainty. You are asking a question I can’t possibly answer, and that can be stress-inducing. Second, if I am certain, but haven’t already volunteered the information, then perhaps the answer is private or a sensitive topic for me. You’ll find out if I’m dating someone when I introduce you to my boyfriend. You’ll know we’re getting married when you see my engagement ring or receive a wedding invitation. And you’ll discern that we’re planning to have children when I tell you I’m carrying my husband’s baby. No one keeps her pregnancy a secret for all nine months of gestation. Time will tell, so why bother asking? Either I don’t know, can’t know, or don’t want to tell you.
These “I demand a preview” questions feel equally intrusive and irrelevant. And they have the potential to be hurtful. What if I’m depressed because I’m single and lonely? What if I’m painfully aware of the fact that I’m the only one of my friends who isn’t happily married? What If I’m struggling with infertility? What if I just miscarried? Asking a childless woman when she’s going to have a baby is like walking through a minefield, but making her take the lead. You have no idea what kind of wounds your questions might inflict—or how sensitive or explosive the topic is. Are you prepared to stick around and take responsibility for the damage if the fallout is extensive? Or is your question flippant—the conversational equivalent of a drive-by shooting—designed to require minimal engagement from you, while (potentially, at least) being highly destructive to your target?
My answer to the question isn’t painful, just tedious to keep reiterating. It doesn’t involve complicated reasoning, but it only seems to make sense to those who share it. I simply don’t want children—I never have, and I expect I never will. Not only do I not want to have a child, but I don’t want to want to—I don’t hope I’ll one day change my mind. It’s something I’ve known about myself since childhood. I had dolls, but I didn’t play mommy.
When I was very young, my disinterest in maternal play got the attention of my nursery school teacher. She had a talk with my mom because I never played house and only ever wanted to erect skyscrapers with the building blocks. She asked my mother to remind me that everyone needs to take turns playing with the various toys in the classroom. (I am making a conscious decision here to avoid exploring that sexist tangent. Because I’m willing to bet that none of the little boys in my class were scolded for hogging the fire trucks.)
I also distinctly remember conversations I had with my friends in middle school in which we vowed children were not in our future—we referred to them as pygmies as a joke. Suffice it to say, there was never a part of my childhood during which I was looking forward to or expecting to be a mom. To the depths that I’ve always known I love to dance and hate artificial sweeteners, I’ve known I wasn’t destined for motherhood.
I don’t dislike children. Most of them are adorable and beguiling. But you can like something without wanting one of your own. Not all dog people consider dog ownership a priority. I don’t doubt my ability to love my offspring or worry that parenting is too hard. And I’m not fearful of repeating negative patterns that were present in my home growing up. I have/had wonderful parents whom I overwhelmingly respect and love. But just as I don’t want to be an astronaut, own a giraffe, or climb Mt. Everest (as much as I respect those who do), I don’t want to have children (though I’m happy for those who do). The desire simply isn’t within me—and any latent seeds of maternal yearning that might have once been buried deep (deep) in my subconscious and blossomed one day, died when my mother did.
I understand that the question is natural, and that the expectation is as well. Such is the norm—especially among Christians. “Be fruitful and multiply” is such a well-known component of the hegemonic Christian discourse. We marry and have children. It’s almost a cause and effect. The only question is how long a span of time will separate the two main events. So knowing that people are simply expecting the expected, I do my best to smile graciously and endure the mundane exchange that almost always follows. Since the person asking is usually not expecting to engender a deep or lengthy conversation about my choice, it doesn’t take long.
To be honest, I’m not really sure what people are expecting in way of a response: We’re trying really hard; we have unprotected sex every single night. Fingers crossed! Maybe next time I should seek out their motivation for asking by asking a question of my own: Why do you ask? Perhaps that would stave off the predictable follow-up, “But you’d make such a good mother/be such great parents!” As if aptitude is reason enough. I’m also really good at being neat, but I don’t want to clean your house.